From documentary on Great Westerns a History by Rich Hall

  • Iconic: a man or men against a sweeping backdrop on horseback.
  • Man against unforgiving nature or the landscape.
  • The West is an idea – promise – new beginning, the civilising of a continent – a Myth!
  • The cowboy: tough-talking, upstanding, honest – the ideal American.
  • An imagined frontier past.
  • The film era lasted more than twice as long as the real historical period!
  • Old fashioned values – romanticised; where men could be men and women were women!
  • Apparitions of the future.
  • Transitions of the characters from nomadic, rootless to civilised moral men and sometimes back again to preserve the society of the majority.
  • In ‘My Darling Clementine’ the shoot out between Wyatt Earp and the Clantons lasted 4 minutes – nowadays fights need to last longer – they have become the reason for the film – no longer character but action driven.
  • Westerns 7000 since the 1920s – dominant genre in Hollywood in 50s – 20% of Hollywood’s output.
  • Myth meets reality; stock characters. Reinvention of Buffalo Bill etc.
  • Westerns – three stages: incipient: good vs. evil; simple values / classic / the apologist – ‘The Misfits,’ ‘Dances With Wolves.’
  • ‘Shane’ the quintessential Western hero – loner; stands up against the bad guys then having won rides off alone into the sunset.
  • ‘The Searchers’ – John Ford began to kill the genre he’d helped create; an anti-hero, Wayne’s character is in love with his brother’s wife, racist and descends into total obsession turning into that which he hates most.
  • Universal pleasures between Westerns and Film Noir:
    • Good wins over evil    – reaffirms expectations and ideological values
    • Flawed heroes – like real life
    • Nostalgia – the past was a simpler time.
  • Pleasures of Westerns:
    • Scenery
    • Heroes
    • Fighting
    • Flawed heroes
    • Binary oppositions
  • Gunfight is an iconic element in westerns.
  • Individualism and self-reliance lauded values
  • 1959 6 out of the top 7 shows were Westerns
  • 1960 Castro – Cuban communism defied the US
  • 1960 ‘The Magnificent Seven’ painted a rosy picture of US foreign policy regarding their arming of Cuban guerrilla fighters to remove Castro – ultimately though unsuccessful.
  • ‘The Misfits’ directed by John Huston; screen play written by Arthur Miller, paved the way for more highbrow writing.
  • Characters are pure anachronisms.
  • ‘The Misfits’ are all outcasts from society; living on its edge; the men trying to exploit the girl’s vulnerability. No place for noble values; trying to round up horses for dog meat.
  • Characters had been simple – became complex.
  • ‘Hud’ was selfish womanising.
  • John ford’s career spanned 50 years.
  • ‘The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance’ represents the coming of civilisation; shot mostly indoors. John Wayne as Donovan (representing the old way) teaches James Stewart as Ransom (representing the modern way) that guns are the only way to preserve the freedom of the West and he appears to kill Valance but actually Wayne’s character does and so morality is preserved.
  • Sam Peckinpah introduces a whole new level of violence in the 60s and 70s when the external threat to America was from communism in Asia (Korea and Vietnam.) In 1969 ‘The Wild Bunch’ represents his view of an evil world disguised as a Western. Man can be an animal – evil not heroic. Brutality of the conflict; a gunfight is nasty not glorious. He slow motioned the violence in choreographed way to make the audience complicit in its repellent realism.
  • Sergio Leone reinvented Westerns – Spaghetti Westerns – filmed in Spain, created a parody of itself. ‘The Good The Bad and The Ugly’ introduced a new star Clint Eastwood.
  • ‘High Plains Drifter’ starring and directed by Eastwood.
  • In ‘The Man With No Name’ directed by John Ford Tombstone (the town) became dystopian.
  • In ‘McCabe and Mrs Miller’ directed by Robert Altman – grubby exteriors and naturalistic lighting convinced viewers they were watching a real Western. Set in a nascent community struggling to survive McCabe is a pimp and Mrs Miller offers him a partnership to run the local brothel. As time goes on the town becomes more civilised, then the big corporations muscle in. McCabe is sacrificed for the good of the community.
  • 1971 ‘Little Big Man’ portrayed Indians as hippies, free love, spiritual, tolerant human beings. The film was a subtle indictment of the US genocide in Vietnam.
  • 1973 ‘Pat Garrett and Billy The Kid’ directed by Peckinpah encourages the younger generation to watch by casting young counter culture teen icons and getting Bob Dylan to score the film and lined up old Western stars to play one last cameo as if to echo the decline of the Western.
  • 1974 ‘Blazing Saddles’ was the death knell for the genre
  • 1980 ‘Heaven’s Gate’ the final official Western was a financial loss but there was by now a real cowboy in the White House!!
  • 1992 ‘Unforgiven’ Directed by Eastwood.
  • Genre pleasures for Americans:
    • Identity
    • Reassuring
    • Comfort
    • Culture
    • Ethos
    • History    

The Searchers

Directed by John Ford 1956

Film opens with establishing shot of the view from the ranch as a lone cowboy approaches – enter Ethan Edwards to his brother and wife’s ranch.

Inside the ranch he’s shown in mid shots at the supper table to show relationships but his coldness towards Martin is evident in his phrase ‘half-breed’

Idyllic rural location – extended family, close knit.

Family’s openness is set against Ethan’s obviously shady past.

Enter Sam Clayton a preacher and Captain looking for a group to go rout the local Indians the Comanche.

Music – in the ranch during preparations for the men folk to leave – the spinet, a small high pitched piano; but as the party leave and are seen against the backdrop of the mountains and plains the music is deeper, darker, mournful strings, with a rhythmic beat like a fast heartbeat underneath. Later a single piano note repeated and held, strings reduced to one note held.

Low angle of Ethan on horseback when he sees brother’s ranch on fire.

Ethan’s character is set against the more level headed more morally responsible, Clayton and Martin. Ethan is bitter, single-minded, arrogant, vengeful and itching for a fight, which he does verbally with his fellow posse members and with a gun against the Comanche; but when he goes to shoot a last Indian as they retreat from the white men he is prevented by Clayton. Clayton represents the more modern white settler who understands the need to get along. Similarly Ethan’s purpose in chasing the two abducted girls is different to the other men’s; his is revenge theirs is rescue.

Wayne’s character, Ethan, in this film is not heroic but seen as a representative of the old and now outdated way in the West of conquest rather than …

He is often seen in a mid shot to show him restrained by those around him when in a low angle long shot he is seen as isolated and threatening in his own right.

When the Indians are introduced the music is the stereotypical music associated with Indians in films of this era, drums and rhythmic chanting, changes of key but not of refrain.

The Indians as the enemy are typically seen in low angle close up of the chief; mid shots of small groups; and wide shots of large groups: all to show their threat; often accompanied by the traditional Indian war cry or death chant.

Later the Indians are given a justification for their behaviour – it is the white man’s fault for killing their kind; they are only reacting to provocation.

When the Comanche are temporarily routed the posse break up knowing there are not enough of them to rescue the girls. Ethan, Martin and Brad set off in pursuit. Ethan at some point finds Lucy’s body and Brad storms the Indian encampment and is killed. Ethan and Martin spend years searching for Debbie.

During this time Ethan is constructed as growing ever more bitter and vengeful; he alienates Martin by his behaviour and attitudes and the audience grows ever more distant from Ethan’s character.

The women in this film are represented by Martha and Mrs Jorgensen; both homemakers seen either doing a domestic chore or in conjunction with their husbands or men folk. Laurie and Lucy are seen as young girls in chase of a bit of romance; all wear frilly long dresses, though later Laurie is seen in jeans, plaid shirt and with hair in pigtails. It seems the only purpose in being female is to find a husband worried in case as Laurie puts it they end up ‘on the shelf.’ These women are sidelined by the narrative, they are incidental and only form the motivation for the men to perform their acts of bravery.

Binary oppositions:

Civilised behaviour, code of ethics


Uncivilised; Ethan shoots Futterman in the back.

The ranch


The range

Men and power


Women, powerless at the mercy of men

Indians: uncivilised, barbaric morally and behaviourally; childish run away; pick on the weak


The white folk: civilised; moral; religious? Adult. Stand and fight; protect the weak

Planned rescue for the right reasons


Ethan’s desire for bloody revenge.

The old violent, unpredictable West


The tamed America of the future

Martin: measured, moral


Ethan: bitter, driven

Rev Sam Clayton: moral, sensible


Ethan: shady past; brutal




Men: rough, insensitive, protectors


Women: soft, need protecting

Law as represented by the rangers: Slow, rule bound, uniformed


Law: rough, ready and immediate


Music often patriotic, rich and full, representing the ‘right’ of the white man.

c/up of Ethan’s face shadowed by his hat representing his moral ambiguity.

Ethan represents the pared down traits of the original cowboys – the barest essentials for survival.

In the end he redeems himself by rescuing Debbie but elects to walk away, to be outcast from the community for its own good; his kind is out of phase with the rest of society which has moved on. As he brings Debbie home Ethan is shown in long shot there is a rising crescendo of orchestral music then as the others enter the house and Ethan turns away the strings become mournful; the end of an era.

[Facts and stats: named greatest western of all time 2008 / 12th greatest movie of all time 2007]