The Oxford History of World Cinema

By Geoffrey Nowell-Smith | Go to book overview

The Western


Between 1910 and 1960 the Western was the major genre of the world's dominant national cinema. Its popularity was a vital factor in establishing Hollywood's control of the global film market. But the development of the Western as a distinctive formula within popular culture, with its own conventions and stereotypes, pre-dates the invention of the cinema by a quarter of a century. Two moments in the history of white expansion across the North American continent had a decisive effect. In the aftermath of the Civil War cattle ranchers on the Texas plains were desperate to find a market for their livestock. As the railways spread through Kansas on their way to California, the herds were driven up the thousand-milelong trail to the new towns of Abilene and Dodge City, strung out along the track. The cowboy, whose accoutrements and life-style derived mainly from the Hispanic culture to the south, quickly sprang to prominence as a mythic figure, a free spirit reliant on nothing but his horse, his gun, and his own manly virtues. Also at this time the smouldering conflict with the Indians burst into a full-scale conflagration, with a series of Indian wars across the plains, culminating in the spectacular and traumatic defeat of General Custer in 1876. As with the cowboy, the Indian, whether in the guise of the noble redman or the screaming savage, was rapidly incorporated into a range of fictional and quasi-documentary discourses, including the novel, the theatre, painting, and other forms of visual and narrative representation.

Though the cowboy and the Indian were to remain the central figures, a motley crew of outlaws, mountain men, soldiers, and lawmen were also pressed into service as Western heroes by the rapidly developing communication and entertainment industries. During the 1880s cheap popular fiction in the form of dime novels featured stories based on real-life personalities such as Jesse James, Billy the Kid, and Wild Bill Hickok, as well as fictional characters like Deadwood Dick. Many of these were also the heroes of stage melodramas. More consciously artistic forms of fiction also began to draw on Western themes. Just after the turn of the century, in 1902, Owen Wister's The Virginian provided the definitive portrait of the cowboy hero, a combination of natural gentleman and resolute man of action. Mass circulation magazines such as Hatper's were also employing the talents of artists such as Frederic Remington to visualize and embroider events out on the plains. Most influential of all, in 1883 Buffalo Bill Cody began touring with his circus-style Wild West entertainment. This included such crypto-narratives as the Battle of Summit Springs, in which Cody rode to the rescue of white women captured by Indians. The huge popularity of Buffalo Bill, in Europe as well as in America, demonstrated conclusively that the West was an ideal source of raw material for commercial entertainment. By 1900 the West was not only America's national myth, it was a valuable commodity.

The sheer variety of situations, locations, and character types that have attached themselves to the Western has resulted in a form which at times appears fluid, eclectic, and lacking any discernible centre. A generic category such as the Western, however, is more usefully understood not as an internally coherent corpus of texts but as a label employed by the film industry to identify and differentiate its products. The cinema Western, therefore, cannot properly be said to have existed until the industry began to separate out the Western from other films involving lawless acts, and until it had put the term into circulation as a useful description of a novel type of film. But the process was remarkably rapid. Aided no doubt by the fact that the film audience had already encountered Western adventure stories in the theatre and in cheap fiction, the emergent cinema soon developed a recognizable kind of narrative which displayed a distinctive combination of features.

First, the films are set on the frontier, the dividing line between white civilization and its opposite, 'savagery'. On the one side are law and order, community, the values of a settled society. On the other, the outlaw and the savage Indian. Following the landmark essay of Frederick Jackson Turner in 1893, American historians have concurred in fixing 1890 as the year in which the frontier finally disappeared and the continent was deemed pacified. This was also the year of the Battle of Wounded Knee, which ended organized resistance by the Indians. The great majority of Westerns, even those with no very exact historical settipg, situate themselves within the period 1865- 90, though this limit can extend earlier and later if frontier conditions are deemed to exist. Similarly, the geographical location is usually west of the Mississippi, north of the Rio Grande, but if the film is set in earlier times the location may be further east, and locations in Mexico may also qualify as the 'frontier'. The basic conflict develops from a struggle between the forces of civilization and savagery, and the narrative features lawless acts by those who, because of the frontier location, are beyond the pale of civilization. These acts require forcible retribution before order can be imposed. This combination of a specific time and place, and a transgressive act which these specifics make possible and which because of the nature


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The Oxford History of World Cinema
Table of contents

Table of contents

  • Title Page iii
  • Acknowledgements vii
  • Contributors ix
  • Contents xi
  • Special Features xv
  • List of Colour Illustrations xvii
  • General Introduction xix
  • 1 - Silent Cinema 1895-1930 1
  • Origins and Survival 6
  • Early Cinema 13
  • Transitional Cinema 23
  • The Hollywood Studio System 43
  • The World-Wide Spread of Cinema 53
  • The First World War and the Crisis in Europe 62
  • Tricks and Animation 71
  • Comedy 78
  • Documentary 86
  • Cinema and the Avant-Garde 95
  • Serials 105
  • French Silent Cinema 112
  • Italy- Spectacle and Melodrama 123
  • British Cinema from Hepworth to Hitchcock 130
  • Germany- The Weimar Years 136
  • The Scandinavian Style 151
  • Pre-Revolutionary Russia 159
  • The Soviet Union and the Russian émigrés 162
  • Yiddish Cinema in Europe 174
  • Japan- Before the Great Kanto Earthquake 177
  • Music and the Silent Film 183
  • The Heyday of the Silents 192
  • 2 - Sound Cinema 1930-1960 205
  • The Introduction of Sound 211
  • Hollywood- The Triumph of the Studio System 220
  • Censorship and Self-Regulation 235
  • The Sound of Music 248
  • Technology and Innovation 259
  • Animation 267
  • Cinema and Genre 276
  • The Western 286
  • The Musical 294
  • Crime Movies 304
  • The Fantastic 312
  • Documentary 322
  • Socialism, Fascism, and Democracy 333
  • The Popular Art of French Cinema 344
  • Italy from Fascism to Neo-Realism 353
  • Britain at the End of Empire 361
  • Germany- Nazism and after 374
  • East Central Europe before the Second World War 383
  • Soviet Film under Stalin 389
  • Indian Cinema- Origins to Independence 398
  • China before 1949 409
  • The Classical Cinema in Japan 413
  • The Emergence of Australian Film 422
  • Cinema in Latin America 427
  • After the War 436
  • Transformation of the Hollywood System 443
  • Independents and Mavericks 451
  • 3 - The Modern Cinema 1960-1995 461
  • Television and the Film Industry 466
  • The New Hollywood 475
  • New Technologies 483
  • Sex and Sensation 490
  • The Black Presence in American Cinema 497
  • Exploitation and the Mainstream 509
  • Dreams and Nightmares in the Hollywood Blockbuster 516
  • Cinéma-Vérité and the New Documentary 527
  • Avant-Garde Film- The Second Wave 537
  • Animation in the Post-Industrial Era 551
  • Modern Film Music 558
  • Art Cinema 567
  • New Directions in French Cinema 576
  • Italy- Auteurs and after 586
  • Spain after Franco 596
  • British Cinema- The Search for Identity 604
  • The New German Cinema 614
  • East Germany- The Defa Story 627
  • Changing States in East Central Europe 632
  • Russia after the Thaw 640
  • Cinema in the Soviet Republics 651
  • Turkish Cinema 656
  • The Arab World 661
  • The Cinemas of Sub-Saharan Africa 667
  • Iranian Cinema 672
  • India- Filming the Nation 678
  • Indonesian Cinema 690
  • China after the Revolution 693
  • Popular Cinema in Hong Kong 704
  • Taiwanese New Cinema 711
  • The Modernization of Japanese Film 714
  • New Australian Cinema 722
  • New Zealand Cinema 731
  • Canadian Cinema/Cinéma Canadien 731
  • New Cinemas in Latin America 740
  • New Concepts of Cinema 750
  • The Resurgence of Cinema 759
  • Index 785
  • List of Picture Sources 823


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