Long before this age of Sci-fi movies like “Star Wars” or “Empire strikes back”, thrillers like James Bond movies, and sophisticated spy movies, based on the novels of writers like, Frederick Forsyth, Robert Ludlum and Jeffrey Archer, it was a genre known as “Westerns” and movies based on stories that involved swashbuckling skills (Robin Hood, Don Juan, Scaramouche, and Black Swan), that were the main source of entertainment for movie goers. In this article I propose to discuss only movies known as” Westerns” by which I mean Classical Westerns (I have left out a genre known as spaghetti westerns produced in Italy. in the mid-1960s and achieved international box-office success. The term was used by foreign critics because most of these Westerns were produced and directed by Italians. Spaghetti Westerns shunned, criticised and flouted many of the conventions of classical U.S. Westerns. This was partly intentional and partly because they were produced in the context of a different cultural background. Spaghetti Westerns were dominated by one man- Clint Eastwood who arguably ranks alongside the great heroes of Classical Westerns-Gary Cooper, John Wayne, and Burt Lancaster to name three. However, Spaghetti Westerns never reached the heights of Classical Westerns).
According to Film Historian Jim Derks, specific settings for” Classical westerns ” were lonely isolated forts, ranch houses, isolated homesteads, saloons, jails, livery stables, and small-town main streets. Other iconic elements in westerns included the hanging tree, stetsons and spurs, saddles, lassos, Colt .45’s, bandannas, buckskins, canteens, cattle, cattle drives, and prostitutes (or madams).
Derks observes that usually the central plot of the western film was the classic, simple goal of maintaining law and order on the frontier in a fast-paced action story. It was normally rooted in archetypal conflict – good vs. bad, new arrivals vs native Americans, settlers vs Indians, villains vs heroes, lawman or sheriff vs. gunslinger.
Typical elements in westerns involved, gun fights (sometimes on horseback), horses, trains (and train robberies), bank robberies and holdups, shoot-outs, showdowns, outlaws, sheriffs, cattle drives, cattle rustling, stampedes, posses in pursuit, barroom brawls, breathtaking settings and open landscapes.
Very often, the cowboy had a favoured horse (or ‘faithful steed’), for example, Trigger of Roy Rogers, Gene Autry’s Champion, Hopalong Cassidy’s Topper, the Lone Ranger’s Silver and Tonto’s Scout.
It happened in towns that still stir the imagination with names such as Dodge City, or Tombstone, or Deadwood. On a sandy road two men- one wearing a badge the other in a black hat, each with one hand inches from his holstered colt revolver- stood twenty paces apart, ready to draw quick and fire until one of them was stone cold dead. In another town, a man placed a pan in a crisp and clear stream, swished out the water and found a nugget, something small but shiny and carried rich possibilities. Elsewhere horse-driven stagecoaches rattled over the hard desert terrain, while masked men and Winchester rifles and native Americans with their whooping war calls could be heard in the distant mountains, ready to pounce.
True the American west had been the land of dreams , a vast spread of acres of land where for a couple of hundred years , European countries- and the young America itself – sent explorers to claim the open landscape. The Wild West was a dream on steroids.
It began in 1865 out of the dust of the civil war and raced through three raucous decades. It was an age of cowboys and comanches, gunmen and lawmen, with Kit Carson, and Billy the Kid, Jesse James and “Wild Bill” Hickok, carving their names into history, with a sharp, clip-point Bowie knife blade. It forged enduring legends, with everything fuelled by novels written back East that encouraged folks to grab their share of the promise. It came courtesy of cattle drives and gold rushes, frontiers and frontier justice, and visions of transcontinental railroad across the nation.
And then Hollywood came along and cast the dream in celluloid. Hollywood produced first the classical westerns with heroes larger than the silver screen, lean and tall Gary Cooper in High Noon, walking down the Main Street and shooting down a gang of thugs, who had come to terrorise a town, short but tough Alan Ladd as Shane coming to a lonely homestead in the wilderness and protecting its defenceless inmates, from a bunch of baddies, Gary Cooper again in Vera Cruz , shooting down an equally expert Burt Lancaster by pulling the trigger just a second earlier — these are images lovers of classical Westerns will never forget. To a whole generation the Wild West was defined by the suspense of Shane, the violence of Red River, the lightening speed with which Glen Ford drew his revolver from his holster and shot a coin in midair in ‘The fastest gun alive’.
As stated above the Wild West would have remained in the novels of that era, but for the fact that Hollywood, recreated all those images, we associate with Westerns on celluloid.
The gunfight at the O.K. Corral was a 30-second shootout between lawmen and members of a loosely organised group of outlaws called the Cochise County Cowboys that took place at about 3:00 p.m. on Wednesday, October 26, 1881, in Tombstone. It is generally regarded as the most famous shootout in the history of the American Wild West. The gunfight was the result of a long-simmering feud, with the Cochise County Cowboys on one side and frontier lawmen, including the famous lawmen of Wyatt Earp (played by Burt Lancaster in the earlier version of the movie , and Doc Holliday (played by Kirk Douglas) on the other side( frankly I am of the opinion that this old version is superior to the new version in which Kurt Russel plays the role of Wyatt Earp- my sons don’t agree). At the end of the half-minute shootout, three of the Cochise County outlaws were killed, and three ran from the fight. The lawmen, too, sustained injuries with the exception of Wyatt Earp who was unharmed.
The Wild West maintains the rugged myth that we still look at with fascination , because it still feels like the time and place where anything was possible.
Westerns are the major defining genre of the American film industry, a nostalgic eulogy to the early days of the expansive, untamed American frontier. Loyal fans of Westerns, never miss a chance to see their favourite western movie whenever they get the opportunity. I myself have seen Vera Cruz, High Noon, and Shane about ten times !