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A VIEWER’S GUIDE TO FILM BY RICHARD M. GOLLIN CHAPTER 5: GENRE CONVENTIONS 133-152 Westerns The Western is by now classical, a native U.S. genre based on the country's unique possession of a western frontier until the end of the nineteenth century, when movies were invented and myths of the West could move from dime novels to the screen. Westerns are concerned with justice in an open world, an empty landscape populated by externally unrestrained individuals, and especially with the traits of character and behavior supposedly essential to nation building; in fact, the Western constitutes a language Americans have used for a century to critically examine their identity as Americans. Until the post-Vietnam period, when faith in the U.S. character and mission which is its subject finally dissipated, Westerns were a staple product of all U.S. film studios. The Western was preceded by James Fenimore Cooper's novels following the frontier from upstate New York to the western prairies, by decades of pulp fiction, and finally by Owen Wister's turn-of-the-century novel The Virginian. The first edited narrative film was also the first Western, Porter's The Great Train Robbery (1903), shot near the Edison Studios in East Orange, New Jersey. Screen Westerns are usually set in a barren wild locale, "God's country" but not yet "tamed," needing be dominated. Westerns developed their legends and conventions in filmic terms during the 1920s and were periodically adjusted to address new public concerns until the 1970s. Pacifism was an issue before World War II, as in Destry Rides Again (1939), psychological obsessions during the fifties and sixties, as in The Left Handed Gun (1958), and finally the individual's helplessness before corporate power. Westerns' primary concerns were always with values dating back to medieval chivalric tales, especially with concepts of manhood committed to a code of honor and defended by duelling. What Westerns query can be summed up by the Preamble to the U.S. Constitution restated as a question: can "we the people" in fact form a more perfect union, establish justice, ensure domestic tranquility, provide for the common defense, and promote the welfare of all citizens, securing for future generations the blessings of liberty yet civil order? If so, how? In the Puritans' language, from a new beginning can we build God's city on a hill? Western films like the cheap novels before them proposed answers in terms of deep-set U.S. desires and doubts, not always affirmatively. Iconography Westerns have a distinctive look. There are broad-hatted men on horseback wearing gunbelts, the good guys clean-shaven or full-mustached in token of respect for the social propriety they serve, the bad guys unshaven (or trim-mustached if propertied and vain); both kinds are militantly self-reliant, and their horses and guns are extensions of their individual instincts. The setting is a desert landscape, often identified as "good grazing land" though we see
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This note was uploaded on 06/02/2011 for the course FILM 180 taught by Professor Jennings during the Spring '08 term at South Carolina.

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