Perhaps no genre of film is more inherently American, nor more enduringly mythologized, than the Western. One of the original genres, beginning in the silent era, the Western has been revived and reinvented numerous times, including by foreign directors. Perhaps still the most recognized figure of American cinema is "The Duke", John Wayne and to this pantheon of cinematic icons must be added James Stewart, Clint Eastwood, Gary Cooper, Henry Fonda, Rory Calhoun, Randolph Scott, as well as the heroes of less serious, but equally significant, Saturday matinee serial features such as the late Roy Rogers, Gene Autrey, Johnny Mack Brown, Tom Mix and others. The villains were icons too, Robert Armstrong, Lee Van Cleef, Skip Homeier, and none more recognizable and popular than Jack Elam. An almost ubiquitous stalwart who must be mentioned is Walter Brennan. Ward Bond, found to be the individual most often cast in the American Film Institute's Top 100 Films of All Time, was also a familiar face in countless Westerns, on both sides of the law.
We all know the way of the West, or think we do. Hollywood has created a mythos whose seductions, even among knowledgeable filmmakers, are difficult to resist: the tall stranger, the fiery-spirited woman from back East, the grundgy weak-minded villain, the iron-willed cattle baron, the ambush from the rooftop, the shootout in the street, the old frightened sherriff, the saucy saloon girl, the outlaw gang riding through town, the bank holdup, the prairie settler widow, the noble savage, or his counterpart the ruthless murdering "Injun", the steeley-eyed gambler with a draw fast as lightning, the stampede across the settlers farms, the rustlers' hidden box canyon, the cavalry riding to the rescue. These things are but caricatures (often biased or out and out distortions) of the way the West actually was, but they have become more real in the American imagination than the true history. They are the elements of an American mythology in the truest sense.
And that mythology has evolved along with the genre. In the early films, native Americans were depicted as marauding warriors, boardwalk drunks and renegades. Then in the 1950s, there was an acknowledgment by some films that the true history had become subverted, notably in Cheyenne Autumn, which dealt powerfully with US Government treachery in the resettlement of the vanquished plains tribes. But this was at the eve of the era of the Western in American cinema. The form was losing its popularity. Perhaps it was becoming too gritty, the lines dividing the good guys from the bad guys becoming blurred. Certainly some of the best classics emerge from this time. But it was dead by the late sixties, when an Italian filmmaker named Sergio Leone hired a young American TV star from the popular series Rawhide to take the lead in a new kind of Western. These few Italian films by Leone were dubbed "Spaghetti Westerns", but they did more than make Clint Eastwood a permanent saint in Western iconography, they also precipitated a renaissance in the American cinema. Eastwood formed the Malpaso production company and continued to make films, largely carrying the torch for many years. But there were others, such as Sam Peckinpah's Ride the High Country and The Wild Bunch, which reflected the new style of the Western. While still mythologic in character at times, these films were more psychological, morally ambivalent, unflinchingly violent and encrusted with the grit and dust of the frontier - no one was ever clean for long. In the 1980s, Eastwood's perseverance finally paid off and with films such as Pale Rider, the Western was once more recognized as a genre form worthy of artistic effort by serious filmmakers. At the same time a new generation of Americans wanted to see the kind of tall stories that their parents enjoyed, and flocked to such films as Silverado. Now the latest evolution of the mythology reflects the popular contemporary sensibilities about violence and social justice, but it still distorts the realities of the historical era. Cavalry atrocities are depicted now with brutal accuracy, yet native American raids ands torturous cruelties are rarely seen; the whole truth is a composite of both, indeed the sensibilities of our age would have seemed strange to most on the frontier, especially in the years 1840 to 1880.
Some of the films highlighted here are historically accurate, such as Kevin Costner's Wyatt Earp, while most are merely part of that imagined West. Being a fan of fantasy films, I confess that I enjoy both art forms for their merits, even such bizarre fantasies as Sam Raimi's The Quick and the Dead, an homage to traditions of both the Hollywood Western and the "Spaghetti Western". I will further confess that I have not seen a great many of the older films regarded as classics of my parent's generation, though I think I've seen most of the best ones. I am more enamoured of the somewhat grittier variety and am biased toward authentic portrayals of frontier life, having been an avid reader of Louis L'Amour, who melded traditional heroic expectations with authentic detail.