The Fall of the Western Genre
The "Myth of the West" has provided the film industry with plenty of material, and Western films have probably become the genre most characteristic of American films and television. From 1910 through the end of the 50’s, a quarter of all Hollywood films had been Westerns. When thinking of Westerns, names like John Wayne and movies like The Last of the Mohicans or High Noon come to mind. The Western enjoyed its highest popularity throughout the 40’s and 50’s. Then its status in mass media eventually tapered down during the 60’s, and by the mid to late 70’s, it was out of everyone’s sight and mind. The biggest factor contributing to the genre’s demise was the changing sociopolitical environment of the U.S. The Western, a form of entertainment that promoted an idealistic white hero bringing foreign or savage evils to justice at any cost, began to resemble real life when the Vietnam War broke out. The war had a particular effect on the conscience of the American people, causing a shift in attitude towards expansionism and our role as a cowboy in the greater world. This was what ultimately made the Western tank as a genre symbolic of the values of mid-century America. As J. Fred MacDonald put it in his history of the television Western, "no form of mass entertainment has been so dominant and then so insignificant.” (Miller) The setting of the Western is an important feature and typical of the genre. Usually, Westerns take place in ragged mountains or gently sweeping landscapes, mostly far away from what we consider to be civilization. Examples for a typical setting are the "monoliths of Monument valley" or the "treeless expansions of the prairie" (Chemintz), where small farms or isolated ranch houses are located. Other characteristic settings include saloons, jails, and main streets in small frontier towns. The success of the genre is partially due to the comparative simplicity of the plots. The typical scenario is usually a battle of "good vs. bad", "cowboys vs. Indians", and "human vs. nature" (Brittanica), to name a few possibilities. This plain concept of law and order contributed to the myths and legends of the American West and to the success of the genre. What is considered to be the first movie of the Western genre is Edwin S. Porter’s The Great Train Robbery, made in 1903, because it contains all the classic elements of Westerns such as "good guys, bad guys, a robbery or wrong-doing, a chase or pursuit, and a final showdown, all in a natural setting." (tvtropes.org) During the 1930’s, the so-called "singing cowboy films" developed, a non-violent form of the genre, starring actors like Gene Autry or Roy Rogers. It was also then that John Wayne became famous when he starred in Raoul Walsh’s The Big Trail in 1930. Cimarron, a story about the Oklahoma land rush, was awarded the Best Picture Oscar in 1931. At the end of the 1930's, a film called Stagecoach had a profound impact on the genre, raising the stature of Westerns for years to come by “introducing intelligent dialogue and an emphasis on character and mood." (Chemintz) In the 1940s, the classic Western reached its peak, with the release of films marked by greater artistic self-expression and a somewhat more rigorous historical realism. Some examples include Fritz Lang’s Western Union in 1941, John Ford’s My Darling Clementine in 1946, and Howard Hawks’ Red River in 1948. The television western enjoyed its Golden Age during the quarter-century Pax Americana that followed World War II. “Such long-lived series as Gunsmoke, Bonanza, and The Lone Ranger captured large viewing audiences” (Miller) during the 1950’s. The celebration of national expansion inherent to the Western implicitly supported the 1950’s philosophy of limitless growth and personal freedom. The Eisenhower era represented the Western’s high noon; an era in which the U.S. appointed itself global sheriff and the gunslinger replaced the cowboy as the archetypal western hero....
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