The Western

Any story set in the American West during the frontier era — generally from about 1843, the year the Oregon Trail was completed, to 1890, the year the US Census Bureau declared the frontier closed; most often between the end of The American Civil War and 1890.

Perhaps surprisingly, the Western genre is Older Than They Think; in fact, it predates the classic Western era. It has its roots in the early 19th century novels of James Fenimore Cooper (set in the then-frontier, which was well east of the Mississippi at the time) and his imitators, as well as 19th century "dime novels"—meaning that, like the gangster films of The Thirties, the genre was originally pretty much contemporary with its source material. In fact no less a figure than Wild Bill Hickok was already a star in dozens of embellished stories by the time he died in 1876. By the turn of the century a lot of the stock Western tropes had already been established in popular imagination: see Western Characters.

Westerns made a very early leap to film with The Great Train Robbery in 1903. William S. Hart (Hell's Hinges and many other films) became the first big star of movie Westerns. Westerns remained popular throughout the next few decades, though their golden age truly arrived in the 1930s.

What also comes to a surprise to many is that Westerns are almost as old as a literary genre in Europe as in America, due to the success of the aforementioned James F. Cooper spawning imitators starting with works like Tokeah (1829 in English, 1833 in German) by Austrian Charles Sealsfield (real name: Carl Anton Postl). Other pioneering European works were Die Regulatoren von Arkansas (1846) by German Friedrich Gerstäcker, Le Coureur de Bois (1850) by Frenchman Gabriel Ferry, and The Rifle Rangers (1850) by Thomas Mayne Read from Ulster. European film Westerns also date back to before World War I, one being made by Sergio Leone's father Vincenzo, who went by the name Roberto Roberti. This led to the beginnings of the "Kraut" and "Spaghetti Westerns" in the 1960s.

Enormously popular on TV and in the movies in the 1950s and 1960s: Gunsmoke, Bonanza, Wagon Train, Rawhide, Branded, The Wild Wild West, Have Gun — Will Travel, The Rifleman, The Big Valley...

In recent decades the genre has been uncommon on TV, though it's never been entirely gone: The Seventies had The Life And Times Of Grizzly Adams and Little House on the Prairie; The Nineties brought Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman; and Deadwood was a critical success in the Turn of the Millennium.

Common plotlines include a Cattle Drive, a Train Job, and a Bank Robbery.

There's a Wanted Poster on every wall and it's more savage the further south you go.

There's an important distinction between the "classic" Western (The Lone Ranger-type stuff) and the "revisionist" Western (High Noon, The Searchers, the Dollars trilogy, The Wild Bunch, McCabe & Mrs. Miller, Unforgiven). The former is shiny and heroic. The latter is Darker and Edgier, and often embodies a paradox: "Civilization can only be defended from barbarians by men with guns, but once you pick up a gun, you become a barbarian yourself." In the 21st century, the distinction seems fuzzy, as most of the "best" (or at least, most fondly-remembered) Westerns are the revisionist ones — and therefore they are now seen as the core of the genre.

The Western is usually set on the American frontier, but sometimes go farther afield to places like Alaska (North To Alaska, The Far Country), Mexico (The Wild Bunch, Vera Cruz, The Professionals), Canada (North West Mounted Police) and Australia (The Proposition, Quigley Down Under).

In terms of time, the genre's heyday (as stated above) is a 25-year span in the 19th century, but there are examples set earlier (Drums Along the Mohawk takes place during The American Revolution when upstate New York was frontier country) and later into the early 20th century (Sam Peckinpah's The Ballad of Cable Hogue ends with the title character getting hit by a car). For series that use Western tropes but are set in the modern day, see New Old West.

A subtrope of Period Piece. Often overlaps with Settling the Frontier. See also Western Characters and Spaghetti Western. Also a reason why most people believe All Deserts Have Cacti - the majority of Westerns were filmed at Kirk's Rock.

When a series that isn't The Western visits The Wild West or borrows heavily from its imagery for a story, it's a Cowboy Episode.

Mix and Match Western subgenres

Osterns (Easterns) are Westerns made in the Eastern Bloc, the most notable being East Germany's DEFA Westerns. Another example could be Wilcze Echa, Polish Ostern set immediately after WWII (with looters and guerillas instead of bandits) on the Polish-Czechoslovakian border.


Examples

    open/close all folders 

    Comics 
  • The longest running and currently best selling Italian comic book, Tex Willer, is a Western. Published since 1948, and thus actually predating the Spaghetti Western movies, it preceded them in using some of their famous tropes, such as a good attitude towards (some) Indians: the titular character is a Texas Ranger and "the White chief of the Navajos", had a Navajo wife, and walks the Earth righting wrongs with his trusty Indian friend Tiger Jack, his son Kit Willer, and most commonly, his also ranger friend Kit Carson.
  • Next Town Over, a steampunk western published on the web and in print.
  • Lucky Luke, an Affectionate Parody of the western genre from the francophone part of Europe.
  • Another long-running Franco-Belgian series was the more serious and realistic Jerry Spring (1954-1978), originally created by Jijé.
  • Jonah Hex
  • Blueberry
  • Tumbleweeds, a long-running (1965-2007) Newspaper Comic strip by Tom Ryan.
  • Marvel had a number of Western series over the years, including the Rawhide Kid, the Two-Gun Kid (who became an Avenger), Ghost Rider (the one in the white outfit, not the one with the flaming skull.) and Red Wold. There was also a more recent John Ostrander-penned miniseries called Blaze Of Glory that depicted the Last Stand of these characters.
  • After the rights to Karl May's novels fell into the public domain in 1962, his Western stories were adapted into several comic series. The most famous and most well-researched one (1962-1964), which also is in many ways truer to the novels than the films, was written and drawn by Helmut Nickel (whose main job was as a curator in the Metropolitan Museum in New York) for the West German Lehning Verlag.
  • The Belgian series Bessy, created by Willy Vandersteen and his studio, which features the adventures of a Lassie-like Collie and her owner, after a while shifted to serving the West German market. It ran from 1952 to 1980.
    • Another comic series produced in Belgium for the West German market was Silberpfeil — Der junge Häuptling ("Silver Arrow — The Young Chief"), which ran from 1970 to 1988.
  • Some of the chapters of The Life and Times of Scrooge McDuck show young Scrooge's adventures as a cowboy.
  • Hergé had a lifelong fascination with the North American Plains Tribes, so it was no surprise that in Tintin Tintin In America, a story that pits Tintin against Al Capone, the hero somehow ends up on an Indian Reservation. In the 1930s Hergé also did the ephemeral series called Popol et Virginie au Far-West, a funny-animal Western.
  • Before Astérix, René Goscinny and Albert Uderzo collaborated on Oumpah-Pah, a humorous series set in New France (Canada) in the 18th century. The series has been collected into three and five albums.
  • The French series Coeur brûlé ("Burned Heart", 1991-2000, seven albums) and Plume aux Vents ("Feather in the Winds", 1995-2002, four albums) by writer Patrick Cothias and artists Jean-Paul Dethorey and André Juillard are largely set in Québec in the 17th century, in the early days of the French colony there. They are parts of the larger cycle of series Les 7 Vies de l'Épervier.

    Film 

    Literature 

    Live Action TV 

    Pinball 
  • Played for laughs in Cactus Canyon.
  • El Dorado (and its variations Gold Strike and Lucky Strike) take place in the Southwest desert.
  • One of the tables in Psycho Pinball is called "The Wild West".

    Radio Drama 
  • The Cisco Kid
  • Fort Laramie
  • Frontier Gentleman
  • Frontier Town
  • Gunsmoke
  • Have Gun — Will Travel
  • Hopalong Cassidy
  • The Lone Ranger
  • Riders Radio Theater
  • The Six Shooter
  • Tales of the Texas Rangers
  • Winnetou, a ten-part West German radio drama series was first broadcast in 1956. In 2000 an ensemble of German comedians led by Jürgen von der Lippe recorded it again for fun, using the original scripts. The latter version was also produced on CD.

    Tabletop RPG 

    Video Games 

    Web Original 

    Western Animation 

Alternative Title(s):

Western