The genre of Western films, or simply Westerns, generally exploits and develops topics about America's Old West in the second half of the 19th century. The genre is not only confined to films, as there are other forms of art that concentrate on the theme, such as painting and literature.
The setting of the film is usually west of the frontier, the dividing line between civilization and the wilderness. This is where life is presented as hard and demanding, with virtues like honor, endurance and courage all highly valued. In many ways the Western hero resembles the Arthurian knight in medieval times. The genre was also heavily influenced by the Japanese samurai legends and one of the best known Westerns, The Magnificent Seven (1960), was actually a remake of Akira Kurosawa's classic The Seven Samurai (1954).
Western films were popular in the time of the silent films but much of their success was lost when films with sound appeared in the 1920s. For more than a decade, Western films were ridiculed and scorned at, although all this changed in 1939, when director John Ford made Stagecoach, starring John Wayne. Thanks to Wayne, the Western regained much of its appeal to the public.
As a genre, traditional Westerns are extremely stereotypical. The themes and central characters originate from the Western fiction, which was popular in the beginning of the 19th century. The characters are typically very straight-forward and there is an obvious distinction between good and evil. Most of the films make use of Western stock characters like cowboys, bounty hunters, bandits and gunslingers. Often there is a female character who can be defined as a damsel in distress, a term borrowed from melodramatic fiction. The film is usually set in a desolate and hostile landscape. Gambling is often used as a topic, along with recurring themes of brawling and shoot-outs. The protagonist is nearly always led by his own moral code and justice.
Typically, Western films feature Native Americans in conflict with the protagonist. It is interesting to follow the development of the attitude toward Native Americans in the films. At first, in the earliest Western, they were presented as savage, merciless villains. One of the most prominent examples of this type of films is The Searchers, which was filmed in 1956 and starred Wayne.
In the 1960s and 1970s, director Ford and others in the film world started to treat the "Injuns" in a more politically correct way and they were given much more amiable characteristics. There was a tendency to re-define the basic Western themes. The trend was known as revisionistic Western and one of its central features was a changed view on Native Americans. Examples of revisionistic Westerns are Little Big Man (1970) and Dances With Wolves (1990).
Wayne was also a big star in the 1969 film True Grit. This classic Western was directed by Henry Hathaway and told the story of a drunken American marshal who helped a young woman track down her father's killer in Indian territory. The movie was remade in 2010. It was directed by Ethan and Joel Coen, with the starring role played by Jeff Bridges.
One of the most successful subgenres in Western films is the Spaghetti Western. These were Italian films, whose plot develops in a Western-like setting. This included low-budget productions which were filmed in semi-arid locations, like the Spanish region of Almeria. Spaghetti Westerns were characterized with more violence and action than the typical Western. The best-known director in this genre is Sergio Leone. His most popular films include the Dollars Trilogy, filmed from 1964 to 1966, including A Fistful of Dollars, For A Few Dollars More and The Good, The Bad and the Ugly. Other films include Once Upon a Time in the West (1967) and Once Upon a Time in America (1984). Leone's films differed from the stereotypical Westerns with their parody elements. Charles Bronson, Clint Eastwood and Henry Fonda are well known actors who have starred in Spaghetti Westerns, along with the popular acting duo of Terrence Hill and Bud Spencer.
Certain characters have become Western legends and have featured in numerous films, either as main characters, or as references. Buffalo Bill, Billy The Kid, Butch Cassidy and The Sundance Kid and Wyatt Earp are names that might be considered ruthless bandits by some. However, these names would be instantly recognized by millions of people all over the world who have enjoyed watching Western films.