Western film

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John Ford Point , popular film location for westerns
Rolling steppe runner , a popular motif to mark abandoned cities

The Western ( [wɛstɐn] , [vɛstɐn] ) is a cinema - genre , which focuses on the central American myth of the conquest of the (wild) West of the United States is in the nineteenth century. Corresponding works of literature are usually rated as trivial literature . The main features are the place and time of the action: the western part of the North American continent during its settlement by settlers coming from the east . With box office profits of around 424 million US dollars, Dances with Wolf is the most successful western at the box office.

Definition of the genre

The classic western is strongly defined in its acting characters, narrative elements, locations and stylistic devices. The focus is usually on the good, sometimes naive but defensive cowboy or sheriff and his counterpart, the unscrupulous villain. Between the main actors there is often a woman, around whom a fight is usually fought with revolvers or fists. The fort or the small town, the saloon with whiskey and card game, horses, wagons, the wide landscape that is captured in huge long shots, and the Indian village are typical places of the action. Another important element is often a bank robbery or a stagecoach robbery. The conflict is resolved at the end by a shootout or showdown on the main street. The intelligent and modest appearances of actors such as Glenn Ford , James Stewart , Clint Eastwood and James Garner (Western comedy: Even a sheriff needs help from time to time ) represent attractive, because unusual, contrasts to the widespread monotony of the genre .

Two central motifs determine the genre: On the one hand, the (self-) experience at the border, the "Frontier Land", for example in Dances with Wolves , in which the soldier John Dunbar after a failed and misunderstood attempt at suicide during a battle in the civil war leaves the army "to see the Wild West while it still exists". On the other hand, the renewal of a society through violence, the restoration of a new, more vital and civil order after the old order has been destroyed by violence. The four phases of the story of the conquest of the west - early penetration into the forests of the east during the Anglo-French occupation by means of boy scouts and Indian scouts, conquest of the west by covered wagons - treks and small settlers, transition to a civilized society and finally the end of development through railway construction, Indian wars and civil war - are reflected in the individual films accordingly. What all four phases have in common is the tension between the law of the thumb on the one hand and the principle of state law that replaces it as the basis of a civilized society on the other. This area of ​​tension is taken up by the end-of-the-time western, which is set in a mostly unspecified future after an apocalyptic catastrophe that is usually only hinted at. If the west is not yet civilized in the classic western, it is no longer civilized in the end-of-time western (although an end-of-time western does not necessarily have to be “in the west”). The (re) establishment of a social order is built on both premises, in which the right of the stronger applies first, with which resources are fought for. B. the resources settlement area (land acquisition) and mineral resources (gold rush), in the end-time western it is about water or gasoline, for example. The end-time western differs mainly in terms of the time of the plot and, as a result, the interior, costumes, etc., but the basic narrative structures, themes and motifs remain the same. A vivid example can be found in Mad Max II - The Executor : There a horde of punks on motorbikes attacks a moving tanker truck. If you replace the punks with Indians, the motorbikes with horses and the tanker truck with stagecoaches, covered wagons or trains, the sequence could just as easily fit into a classic Western.

History of the western

Movie poster for The Great Train Robbery , 1903

On December 1, 1903, The Great Train Robbery was the first western to hit the cinema, at a time when the Wild West was almost still in existence. From then on, new, mostly simple productions in the style of Broncho Billy started in the cinemas every week , which concentrated on the action- and violent confrontation between the main characters and dealt little with psychology, complex characters and actions. Up until the 1970s, the western can be described as the most important genre of film production in the USA, with the 1940s and 1950s being considered to be the high point of development.

The iconography of the early Western lived in particular from the painter Frederic Remington (1861–1909), who was familiar with Eadweard Muybridge's photographs . Ford later valued this "popular and unacademic, but definitely artificial aestheticization of the traditional" of his works, as Hawks also owned an extensive collection of prints and painting copies based on works by Remington and Charles M. Russell , among others . Ford took over Remington's frame and treatment of the space in his paintings. The painter Charles Schreyvogel , who learned his craft as a spectator in Buffalo Bill's Wild West Show, anticipated the effects of the film image on monumental canvases. The painters Thomas Moran and Albert Bierstadt were more lyrical and at the same time more honest. 

With just three westerns, John Ford managed to fundamentally change the genre. If his actor John Wayne is at first still a flawless hero or fatherly officer, at the end of The Black Falcon , one of the most complex and multi-layered westerns, there is only a vengeful loner who is just as lost and homeless as the enemies he bitterly hunted down. From now on there could no longer be a simple black and white drawing of the protagonists.

One of these appearance and content clearly distinguishable special role in 1962 with The Treasure of Silver incipient Karl May movies of gambling in the Wild West novels of Karl May , which significantly Indians next to the problems arising from other locations visual aesthetic by a stand out from the American productions and in which the heroic characters Winnetou and Old Shatterhand are exemplary for the possible understanding between Indians and pale faces . The DEFA Indian films, which began in 1966 with The Sons of the Great She-Bear , took the side of the Indians even more clearly .

Due to the immovability of its elements, the western increasingly developed inwards, in depth. This often happens through almost imperceptible shifts. The showdown in Play Me a Song of Death is still at the center of the film, but if you examine the scene closely, you realize that the anachronistic duel between Henry Fonda and Charles Bronson is not taking place on the main street of the city - that's where the one is going Railway built, symbol of the new era - but on a sideline, the backyard of a farm.

Without touching places, characters and storylines, the epic, psychological westerns and finally, at the beginning of the 1960s, seamlessly connecting with the end of the classic westerns, the late westerns and spaghetti westerns , which were much more ruthless, cynical and sometimes more realistic with theirs, emerged Avoid subject . The 1960s were qualitatively and quantitatively the great time of the Western. In the 1970s, so-called “whipping westerns” were also produced, which have a parodic character, such as the films with the duo Bud Spencer and Terence Hill . In the homeland of the western, the USA, production halved in the 1970s compared to the previous decade, and finally the debacle over Michael Cimino's Heaven’s Gate in 1980 gave the genre - at least on the big screen - the deathblow: Its failure led producers to during The 1980s initially left the topic of Westerns. In 1985 the Western with Silverado and Pale Rider - The Nameless Rider - gave a short interlude, followed in 1988 by Young Guns - They fear neither death nor the devil , but only the not only commercial success, but also the success of Der with which can be measured by seven Oscars the wolf dances rehabilitated the western briefly. The genre's revival, hoped for by some, did not materialize, however: In the first half of the 1990s, almost a dozen more or less important westerns were produced (including, for example, Merciless and Dead Man ), but then for almost 10 years after that no more. In the following years, westerns came back to the cinema (like The Missing and True Grit ) and most recently Django Unchained (2012) and The Hateful Eight (2015), but these remained singular successes. There can be no more talk of a "revival" of the genre than of the fact that the Western is "dead", as American critics have repeatedly claimed since the 1980s.


At the center of the western is the settlement of the so-called frontier ( frontier land ). This frontier , however, does not only mean the border of trappers , prospectors, settlers and cattle breeders, which is constantly shifting to the west , it is actually about the confrontation with one's own self - a borderline experience in two senses that is on the one hand on a geographical level and a metaphysical, individual level on the other hand.

The western hero ( cowboy or trapper), whose archetype is Davy Crockett and Daniel Boone , and who is always at the center of the plot, is a deeply romantic figure, derived in his moral values ​​from the medieval knight . Just as the knight derives from rider , and the chevalier from Cheval (English: horse ), the western man is unthinkable without his horse. With this, and with his fringed leather suit, he is closer to nature than to bourgeois society, which spread like an octopus in the time of industrialization and the colonization of the west by whites. Even if he scout for her and her ahead of her wagon - trek leads, they are invariably drags behind him, so he rejects it yet in the heart, and is located at the same rate on the run from her. He does not get the laws that he follows from the statutes of the cities , he apparently derives them directly from God and nature . The term outlaw , someone who places himself outside the law, has a positive tinge not only because of the deeply rooted preference for lawbreakers and gangsters , the positive hero of the western is also always an outlaw in his own way - and thus he must inevitably come into conflict with society. In this way the “good” outlaw becomes the alter ego of the “bad” western hero. In many westerns such as The Black Falcon , The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance and High Noon , this close relationship between the opponents is deliberately made the subject of the film. In The Man from the West , Gary Cooper even meets his former foster father in order to get into existential conflicts with him.

This freedom to triumph beyond the all-regulating civilization in the confrontation with one's own self is the core of the settlement of the West, transfigured into the founding myth of the United States in the Western world. In the Late West, the loss of this freedom is discussed again and again: the last piece of land has been settled, the last wild horse is trapped, automobiles and machine guns are arriving.

With the economic debacle Heaven's Gate (1980), Michael Cimino depicted the Johnson County War of 1892 in Wyoming , where the land was divided and big business showed its teeth to the settlers (he also changed the production conditions of Hollywood decisively in the following years) .

In Sam Peckinpah's The Wild Bunch , the (1969) does not happen to be in Mexico plays around 1914, it's about one of Pike unscrupulous seemingly cited gang outlaws who by his old friend Thornton , a former member of the Wild Bunch are hunted. In every scene, however, you can tell Thornton would rather ride by Pike's side than lead a horde of law-abiding but deeply immoral bounty hunters . Thornton, Pike and his Wild Bunch are dinosaurs (in one scene Pike even falls from his horse) that have been survived by modern times. In the central moment, in a moment of personal freedom, they choose certain death with a short “let's go”.

Fiction and reality

The western heroes and cowboys , as they are typically depicted in western films, are an art creation of popular culture that was not invented afterwards, but at the same moment as their role models in the west were exploring the country. The stenographer of the gunslinger Duke of Death in Merciless is historical reality. The famous Kit Carson was built into a fictional character by such a companion for the dime books on the east coast. There was no real character named Deadwood Dick , but as more and more readers of the Deadwood Dick stories began to make a pilgrimage to Deadwood , the production of postcards with the alleged likeness of the Westerner started there.

With its circus and its Rough Rider Congress , Buffalo Bill plays a major role in the history of the development of American popular culture . It often remained unclear whether the cowboys only practiced their revolver, lasso and horse tricks to appear on Buffalo Bill's show, or whether this was actually part of their daily life in the Wild West . Buffalo Bill's Wild West Show also made a guest appearance in Europe with its program and thus ensured the widespread dissemination of the Wild West myth long before the film and can thus, together with the Dime and Nickel Novels of the East Coast from Beadle & Adams , as Be considered forerunners of western films.

Mythologies of the state becoming

In sociology and cultural studies, the Western genre is also examined from the perspective of national myths and legends. The classic, non-satirical westerns have a basic structure: “They always tell how a continent is 'civilized' through the courage and strength of a man. And in the end there is always the establishment or restoration of state order or statehood. "(Rudolf Walther)

Martin Weidinger describes this fact in his study “National Myths - Male Heroes. Politics and Gender in the American Western ”. The heroes of the Western are "icons of machismo" and fight against all odds for a new order or wanted to win back an old one.

Gender, religion, skin color and sexual orientation are strictly hierarchical in the classic Western. Walther writes about this in a FR review of Weidinger's study: “This stereotypical hierarchy had a decisive influence on the USA until the sixties of the 20th century. The end of the western coincides with the emergence of student, civil rights, women's and anti-war movements. "


Not only the film shaped the western, there were also effects in the opposite direction: In order to be able to show the duelists from the head to a little below the hip, where the Colt hung in the holster, during a showdown , the corresponding camera setting was developed, now known as the American attitude .

Subgenres and Variants

See also


  • Michael Coyne: The Crowded Prairie. American National Identity in the Hollywood Western. IB Tauris, London et al. 1997, ISBN 1-86064-040-0 .
  • Henning Engelke, Simon Kopp: The Western in the East. Genre, temporality and authenticity in DEFA and Hollywood westerns , in: Zeithistorische Forschungen / Studies in Contemporary History 1 (2004), pp. 195–213.
  • Josef Früchtl: The insolent me. A heroic story of modernity (= Suhrkamp-Taschenbuch Wissenschaft 1693). Suhrkamp, ​​Frankfurt am Main 2004, ISBN 3-518-29293-5 .
  • Gregor Hauser: Muzzle flashes: The best 50 B-Westerns of the 50s and their stars . Verlag Reinhard Marheinecke 2015, ISBN 978-3-932053-85-6 .
  • Joe Hembus : The Western Lexicon. 1567 films from 1894 to the present day (= Heyne books 32nd Heyne film library 207). Original edition, expanded new edition. Heyne, Munich 1995, ISBN 3-453-08121-8 .
  • Thomas Jeier : The Western film (= Heyne books 32nd Heyne film library 102). Heyne, Munich 1987, ISBN 3-453-86104-3 .
  • Bernd Kiefer, Norbert Grob , Marcus Stiglegger (eds.): Western (= film genres. = Universal library 18402). Reclam, Stuttgart 2003, ISBN 3-15-018402-9 .
  • Thomas Klein: History - Myth - Identity: On the Global Circulation of the Western Genre. Bertz + Fischer, Berlin 2015, ISBN 978-3-86505-392-3 .
  • Thomas Klein: Outlaws, social bandits and the Western: On the interculturality of a generic figure stereotype using the example of selected cinematic representations of the Mexican Charros , In: MEDIENwissenschaft, H. 3/12, Schüren Verlag, 2012, pp. 274–286, full text
  • Dirk C. Loew: Attempt on John Ford. The Western Films 1939–1964. Books on Demand GmbH, Norderstedt 2005, ISBN 3-8334-2124-X (with a chapter on the genre as a whole).
  • Wolfgang Luley: Once upon a time in the West: Religious motifs in post-westerns. In: Thomas Bohrmann , Werner Veith, Stephan Zöller (Eds.): Handbuch Theologie und Popular Film . Volume 2. Ferdinand Schöningh, Paderborn et al. 2009, ISBN 978-3-506-76733-2 , pp. 15-29.
  • Georg Seeßlen , Western. History and Mythology of Western Films. Revised and updated new edition. Schüren, Marburg 1995, ISBN 3-89472-421-8 .
  • Richard Slotkin: Gunfighter Nation. The Myth of the Frontier in Twentieth-Century America. University of Oklahoma Press, Norman OK 1998, ISBN 0-8061-3031-8 .
  • Martin Weidinger: National Myths - Male Heroes. Politics and gender in the American western (= politics of gender relations. Vol. 31). Campus, Frankfurt am Main et al. 2006, ISBN 3-593-38036-6 .

Web links

Commons : Westerns  - Collection of pictures, videos and audio files
Wiktionary: Western  - explanations of meanings, word origins, synonyms, translations
Portal: Wilder West  - Overview of Wikipedia content on the subject of the Wild West

Individual evidence

  1. ^ A b Daniel Kothenschulte : An Eye for Composition - Frederic Remington and the influence of 19th century painting on the Western . In: Lexicon of International Films , from p. W 26.
  2. Thomas Jeier : Der Western-Film , Heyne, Munich 1987, page 251
  3. ^ Rudolf Walther: War without a name In: Frankfurter Rundschau. March 29, 2006
  4. https://www.filmmachen.de/film-grundlagen/bildgestaltung/einstellungsgroesse
  5. ^ Arnold & Richter Cine Technik GmbH & Co. Betriebs KG (ARRI) in the Historical Lexicon of Bavaria