Genre is one of the most misunderstood concepts in filmmaking. Many consider genre a limitation, but it’s not – it’s a liberation. Genre is an invaluable tool to use when crafting your film because it helps quantify your story. It places a set of expectations that can be used in any way you see fit, from subversion to fulfillment. Even if you don’t want to write a film that fits a particular genre, you must understand the rules of genre before you can break them.
One thoroughly American genre is the Western. Every culture has its mythological age. In England, it’s the Arthurian legend. In Japan, the samurai era. The Western represents America’s mythological age. Its trappings are as familiar as an old pair of shoes, yet familiarity doesn’t necessarily mean understanding.
Motifs of The Western
- The hero is skilled with guns and horses.
- The hero is untamed, moral and decent. He is typically a loner who is not quite at home in civilized company. The hero is a character that can move between worlds – town (representing civilization) and the vast wilderness (representing untamed nature).
- The land can be considered a character in the Western. It is both pastoral and untamed – almost sacred.
- The antagonist wants to accumulate wealth and power by any means possible. Typical antagonists are members of the merchant class who are too greedy for their own good.
- Conflict for the hero in the Western comes in the form of untamed nature versus civilization. Although the hero’s heart lies with the primal forces of the natural world, his head lies with civilization. This battle between the two drives the hero’s internal conflict.
- The story contains many ritualized elements including gunfights, showdowns, cattle drives, saloons, etc…. These serve as focal points in the drama to unfold.
Although the Western has changed over the years, these elements represent the classic form of Western that provided the basis for countless movies up until the 1960s. After that, the form began to be subverted to maintain interest in the genre.
While many filmmakers may feel this genre has been done to death (and they are essentially correct), this form is eminently adaptable to many different settings. Star Wars is essentially a western set in space. The cantina sequence represents the saloon. Replace guns and horses with blasters and spaceships, and you’ll find Han Solo fitting into the hero mold. Lucas’ technique was to split the classic western hero into several constituent parts. If you look at Luke as the little boy in the classic western, Shane, you see several similarities between the two farm boys. The antagonist, Darth Vader, wants to accumulate power by any means possible. The showdown, rather than using six guns, features light sabers. Even the desert locale of Tatooine, is reminiscent of the sandy plains of the Old West. The classic Western struggle between nature and civilization is hammered home in Star Wars. Think about Vader’s speech in the Death Star – “Don’t be too proud of this technological terror….” The conflict in Star Wars is technology (civilization) versus the forces of nature (the Force.) The hero role switches to Luke at the end of the film, and he has the internal struggle of going with technology or nature.
Classics of the Western Genre
Several films stand out as fully realized versions of The Western genre. In no particular order they are:
- The Searchers – (1956) Directed by: John Ford
- Stagecoach – (1939) Directed by: John Ford
- Dances with Wolves – (1990) Directed by: Kevin Costner
- Shane – (1953) Directed by: George Stevens
- High Noon – (1952) Directed by: Fred Zinnemann
- Subversions of the Western Genre
As the Western rolled on into the 1950s and ’60s, filmmakers began experimenting with audience expectations and the classic conventions of the genre. The following films are good examples of how to use genre to subvert audience expectations and remake this genre in a different mold.
- The Wild Bunch – (1969) Directed by: Sam Peckinpah
- Winchester ’73 – (1950) Directed by: Anthony Mann
- Unforgiven – (1992) Directed by: Clint Eastwood
- The Outlaw Josey Wales (1976) Directed by: Clint Eastwood
For these films to work, the audience and the filmmaker have to understand the conventions of the genre. This is the power of genre. You can use built-in expectations as devices to propel your stories, and you don’t have to devote screen time to them – they already come within the audience.