From The Art and Popular Culture Encyclopedia
In film, the genre was most popular from the 1930s and into the 1960s, but the number of Westerns made since that time has declined significantly.
Most of the characteristics of Westerns were part of 19th century popular Western literature and were firmly in place before film became a popular art form. Referred to as "dumbos" in film industry headlinese, Western films commonly feature as their protagonists stock characters such as cowboys, gunslingers, and bounty hunters, often depicted as semi-nomadic wanderers who wear Stetson hats, bandannas, spurs, and buckskins, use revolvers or rifles as everyday tools of survival, and ride between dusty towns and cattle ranches on faithful steeds.
Western films were enormously popular in the silent era although, in common with all films of this period, relatively few of the thousands of silent Westerns made have survived to the present. However, with the advent of sound in 1927-28 the major Hollywood studios rapidly abandoned Westerns, leaving the genre to smaller studios and producers, who churned out countless low-budget features and serials in the 1930s. By the late 1930s the Western film was widely regarded as a 'pulp' genre in Hollywood, but its popularity was dramatically revived in 1939 by the release of John Ford's landmark Western adventure Stagecoach, which became one of the biggest hits of the year and made John Wayne a major screen star.
Western films often depict conflicts with Native Americans. While early Eurocentric Westerns frequently portray the "Injuns" as dishonorable villains, the later and more culturally neutral Westerns (notably those directed by John Ford) gave native Americans a more sympathetic treatment. Other recurring themes of Westerns include Western treks or perilous journeys (e.g. Stagecoach) or groups of bandits terrorising small towns such as in The Magnificent Seven.
Early Westerns were mostly filmed in the studio, just like other early Hollywood films, but when location shooting became more common from the 1930s, producers of Westerns used desolate corners of New Mexico, California, Arizona, Utah, Nevada, Kansas, Texas, Colorado or Wyoming. While many Westerns were filmed in California and Arizona, most of them depicted Texas. Productions were also filmed on location at movie ranches.
Often, the vast landscape becomes more than a vivid backdrop; it becomes a character in the film. After the early 1950s, various wide screen formats such as cinemascope (1953) and VistaVision used the expanded width of the screen to display spectacular Western landscapes. John Ford's use of Monument Valley as an expressive landscape in his films from Stagecoach (1939) to Cheyenne Autumn (1965) present us with visions of the American West.
Western films, until recent times, had many anachronisms, particularly the firearms. Winchester 1892-model rifles were frequently used in films set in the 1870s. Since the late 1960s, however, films have shown more of the wide variety of period-appropriate arms used during the 1870s. For example, Arthur Hunnicutt carries a revolving rifle during part of El Dorado (1967) and Lee Van Cleef is equipped with a veritable arsenal of frontier firearms in For A Few Dollars More (1965).
In the 1960s academic and critical attention to cinema as a legitimate art form emerged. With the increased attention, film theory was developed to attempt to understand the significance of film. From this environment emerged (in conjunction with the literary movement) an enclave of critical studies called genre studies. This was primarily a semantic and structuralist approach to understanding how similar films convey meaning.
Westerns usually have certain codes: For example, a hero wears a white hat, while the villain wears a black hat; when more than one cowboy faces the other with no one in between them, there will be a shootout; ranchers and mountainmen don't talk to people and live alone, while townsfolk are family and community-minded, etc. All Western films can be read as a series of codes and the variations on those codes.
One of the results of genre studies is that some have argued that "Westerns" need not take place in the American West or even in the 19th century, as the codes can be found in other types of films. For example, a very typical Western plot is that an eastern lawman heads west, where he matches wits and trades bullets with a gang of outlaws and thugs, and is aided by a local lawman who is well-meaning but largely ineffective until a critical moment when he redeems himself by saving the hero's life. This description can be used to describe any number of Westerns, as well as the action film Die Hard. Hud, starring Paul Newman, and Akira Kurosawa's Seven Samurai, are other frequently cited examples of films that do not take place in the American West but have many themes and characteristics common to Westerns. Likewise, films set in the old American West may not necessarily be considered "Westerns."
Many Western films after the mid-1950s were influenced by the Japanese samurai films of Akira Kurosawa. For instance The Magnificent Seven was a remake of Kurosawa's Seven Samurai, and both A Fistful of Dollars and Last Man Standing were remakes of Kurosawa's Yojimbo, which itself was inspired by Red Harvest, an American detective novel by Dashiell Hammett. Kurosawa was influenced by American Westerns and was a fan of the genre, most especially John Ford.
Despite the Cold War, the Western was a strong influence on Eastern Bloc cinema, which had its own take on the genre, the so called "Red Western" or "Ostern". Generally these took two forms: either straight Westerns shot in the Eastern Bloc, or action films involving the Russian Revolution and civil war and the Basmachi rebellion in which Turkic peoples play a similar role to Mexicans in traditional Westerns.
An offshoot of the Western genre is the "post-apocalyptic" Western, in which a future society, struggling to rebuild after a major catastrophe, is portrayed in a manner very similar to the 19th century frontier. Examples include The Postman and the Mad Max series, and the computer game series Fallout. Many elements of space travel series and films borrow extensively from the conventions of the Western genre. This is particularly the case in the space Western subgenre of science fiction. Peter Hyams' Outland transferred the plot of High Noon to interstellar space. Gene Roddenberry, the creator of the Star Trek series, once described his vision for the show as "Wagon Train to the stars".
More recently, the space opera series Firefly used an explicitly Western theme for its portrayal of frontier worlds. Anime shows like Cowboy Bebop, Trigun and Outlaw Star have been similar mixes of science fiction and Western elements. The science fiction Western can be seen as a subgenre of either Westerns or science fiction. Elements of Western films can be found also in some films belonging essentially to other genres. For example, Kelly's Heroes is a war film, but action and characters are Western-like. The British film Zulu set during the Anglo-Zulu War has sometimes been compared to a Western, even though it is set in South Africa.
The character played by Humphrey Bogart in film noir films such as Casablanca, To Have and Have Not or The Treasure of the Sierra Madre - an individual bound only by his own private code of honor -has a lot in common with the classic Western hero. In turn, the Western, has also explored noir elements, as with the film Sugar Creek.
In many of Robert A. Heinlein's books, the settlement of other planets is depicted in ways explicitly modeled on American settlement of the West. For example, in his Tunnel in the Sky settlers set out to the planet "New Cannan", via an interstellar teleporter portal across the galaxy, in Conestoga wagons, their captain sporting mustaches and a little goatee and riding a Palomino horse - with Heinlein explaining that the colonists would need to survive on their own for some years, so horses are more practical than machines.
Stephen King's The Dark Tower is a series of seven books that meshes themes of Westerns, high fantasy, science fiction and horror. The protagonist Roland Deschain is a gunslinger whose image and personality are largely inspired by the "Man with No Name" from Sergio Leone's films. In addition, the superhero fantasy genre has been described as having been derived from the cowboy hero, only powered up to omnipotence in a primarily urban setting. The Western genre has been parodied on a number of occasions, famous examples being Support Your Local Sheriff!, Cat Ballou, Mel Brooks's Blazing Saddles, and Rustler's Rhapsody.
George Lucas's Star Wars films use many elements of a Western, and Lucas has said he intended for Star Wars to revitalize cinematic mythology, a part the Western once held. The Jedi, who take their name from Jidaigeki, are modeled after samurai, showing the influence of Kurosawa. The character Han Solo dressed like an archetypal gunslinger, and the Mos Eisley Cantina is much like an Old West saloon.