Screen History and Research the Western Genre

Topics: Film, Western, John Ford Pages: 8 (2418 words) Published: June 21, 2013
Introduction

The purpose of this essay is to analyse the western genre within a set of selected frameworks, to do so I will be comparing and contrasting two films that come under the western genre category and were released nearly seventy years apart, the 1939 classic Stagecoach, from director John Ford and the 2005 hybrid western Serenity, from director Joss Whedon. The frameworks that will be used to compare and contrast both films within consist of technology, gender and audience.

The Western Genre

‘The western is the only genre whose origins are almost identical with those of the cinema itself and which is as alive as ever after almost half a century of uninterrupted success’ (Bazin 1971, p.140). A classic western will adhere to ideals of the American frontier as drawn from a ‘fertile tradition of Wild West literature that had dominated the mass taste of nineteenth century America (Kitses 1969, p.14). Where civilisation and wilderness must ultimately clash, there is more likely to be breathtakingly beautiful scenery, residing in a vastly treacherous landscape that is fighting against impending civilisation.

‘The western formula emerged as American trends toward the frontier gradually underwent significant change’ (Cawelti 1974, p.57) resulting in the formation of recognisable set of iconic criteria such as the saloon, the jail and brothel and also costumes consisting of wide-brimmed hats, leather chaps, spurs and the Indians feathered head pieces. There is usually a plethora of weapons to be displayed throughout a classic western and the weapon of choice would generally be a gun or shot gun then there are knives, whips and a native’s bow and arrow (Buscombe 1986, pp.13-15).

Why Films Are Westerns

Both films are considered westerns, they depict their own version of the western frontier as ‘the meeting point between savagery and civilisation’ (Turner 2008, p.14), they each follow a similar plot progression, utilising classic genre iconography such as the saloon, the stagecoach and the showdown, though they do so in different ways ‘these things operate as formal elements’ (Buscombe 1986, p.15). Both films adhere to certain character expectations set out by the rules of the western genre, whilst Stagecoach conforms to classic depictions of the outlaw, the savage native and the vast landscape, Serenity takes those expectations and moulds them into an outer space setting that, although not classically western, still fits within the genre.

The main characters in each film have various similarities; Stagecoach’s Ringo Kid (John Wayne) and Serenity’s Malcolm ‘Mal’ Reynolds (Nathan Fillion) both portray the oddly handsome and unlikely anti-hero, an outlaw who has a conscience, he protects those who cannot protect themselves and will ultimately do what is right (Cawelti 1974, p.62). Both characters oppose the law in some way, the Ringo Kid is on the run, trying to avoid the cavalry who wish to arrest him, whilst Mal Reynolds wishes to live a life that is free from alliance of whom, he and his army lost a battle against. Each character’s costumes also follow basic genre conventions; they wear a classic western uniform of trousers, shirt, suspenders, boots and a low slung gun belt (Buscombe 1986, p.14).

Further characters that appear in both of the films also follow costume conventions, the women of Stagecoach wear ‘wide, full skirts and tight bodices’ (Buscombe 1986, p.14) whilst Serenity depicts women as being more tomboyish, often wearing clothing similar to that of their male counterparts. The majority of the main characters in each film carry some form of weapon, the depictions of weaponry in westerns often ensue that ‘violence will play a crucial part in the stories’ (Buscombe 1986, p.16) which is definitely the case in both films.

Stagecoach is a clear representation of most classic western genre conventions, from the apache Indians in full head dresses and the neatly uniformed men of the...
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