The Wild West

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And that's just what they could fit on the poster!

"I love the West. I read a lot about the West, and I'm shocked, I'm ashamed that in pictures they have not made the true story of the winning of the West—comprising 90 percent foreigners, 100 percent laborers, nothing to do with guns. Streets, mountains, roads, bridges, streams, forests—that's the winning of the West to me. Hard! Tremendous, tremendous fight. But [instead] we have, as you know, cowboys and Indians and all that."
Samuel Fuller, director of three Westerns.

The American Old West was the land west of the Mississippi River roughly in or around the latter half of the nineteenth century; specifically we might start it at the California Gold Rush of 1848 and end it at the U.S. Census Bureau's official recognition in 1890 of the end of the frontier. This setting is home to The Western, a definitively American genre almost as stylized and standardized as Commedia dell'Arte. The Wild West is basically the Theme Park Version or fictionalization of this setting. It has its own set of specialized subtropes, including a wide assortment of stock character types and its own specialized locations.

The Theme Park Version of the old west is a land of Indians, grizzled prospectors, scenic bluffs, Conestoga wagons, tough, shotgun-toting pioneers and buxom, be-feathered dance-hall girls. Also home to very lucrative sugar glass and balsa-wood chair industries, judging by the number of bar brawls which occur during a single episode of a typical western series. Bad guys and anti-heroes wear black hats, good guys and sheriffs wear white hats, shootouts on Main Street occur with the frequency of at least one an hour—with the sun at high noon each time—and everyone drinks sarsaparilla or whiskey.

The real Old West was nothing like The Theme Park Version (which was originally the creation of 19th-century "dime novels"). There weren't any huge shootouts, quickdraw duels were rare, and gun duels and violent gun-wielding criminals weren't exclusive to desert-like "western" areas. Plus, since many guns were very inaccurate in those days, they sometimes tended to happen in significantly closer quarters than they do in fiction. The average Western town had 1.5 murders per year, and most of those weren't done with guns (due to the West having a relatively small population compared to the East). Carrying guns in these towns was more likely to get you arrested than shot, and you were much more likely to die from diseases like cholera, dysentery, and tuberculosis, or in an accident like being dragged by your own horse, than to be killed in a raging gunfight or get scalped by Indians. Although by means, it was still a lawless and violent era, with three major 19th-century American wars taking place in the frontier (the Mexican-American war, the Civil War and the American Indian Wars) and also other range wars, bandit attacks and feuds. Not to mention that courts were almost non-existent, so settlers substituted with vigilance committees, which were more focused on lynching people than doing any law practices. But overall, the Wild West was not so wild—it was actually more simple and boring, in fact.

See also The Western (the genre of works which largely take place in this setting). A popular subject of The Parody, and surprisingly popular outside America. Frequently overlaps with The Savage South. Dawn of the Wild West is a sub-trope set during the time period just before the Wild West. Twilight of the Old West is about the dying embers of the Wild West flickering out during the early years of the New Old West. May overlap with Settling the Frontier. Largely occurs contemporaneously with The Gilded Age.

Popular tropes from this time period are:

  • Adventure Towns: Many towns were depicted as havens of debauchery.
  • Anti-Hero: ...would draw before the villain.
  • Badass Bandolier: Especially during the Mexican Revolution.
  • Badass Beard
  • Badass Longcoat: One could argue this fashion arose from the long duster coats which were commonly worn in this period, and which mythical cowboys—and cool guys in general—have been wearing ever since.
  • Badass Mustache
  • Bandit Clan: The Dalton gang and Jesse James had family members in them.
  • Bar Brawl
  • Black and Gray Morality: The villains are usually ruthless, greedy and despicable characters. On the other hand the "heroes" are not exactly noble guys either. See Anti-Hero above.
  • Blasting It out of Their Hands: Usually only when an unrealistically pure good guy is shooting.
  • Boom Town: The gold rush created many towns raised in places where people presumably could find gold.
  • Bounty Hunter: With so many outlaws being around some people made it a profession to track them down in order to get the reward for their capture.
  • Card Sharp: Some people were very good with cards, almost too good at times. If you were lucky you were just tarred and feathered for cheating.
  • California Doubling: The geography of the American West is varied, but most movies tend to take place in Monument Valley. Spaghetti Westerns often used the Tabernas Desert in Andalusia, Spain to double for America.
  • Cool Guns: The Colt M1873 and lever action rifle have acquired legendary status to present day.
  • Cool Train: So cool that if you find railroad clipart or caricatures, chances are, it's designed around the kind of trains used in the American West.
  • Country Music: The genre originated here.
  • Cowboy Episode: When The Wild West seeps into a series that isn't The Western.
  • Crapsack World: Rampant lawlessness. Constant war with Indians. Everyone carries guns. Very little opportunities for a bath. Why did anyone ever romanticize this period?
  • The Drifter
  • Feuding Families: The Hatfield–McCoy feud is the most famous example of two families fighting one another to the death. Interestingly enough, their descendants have reconciled and strongly distanced themselves from their violent predecessors. Still, all stories set in the Wild West that depict a rivalry between two families will be based on them.
  • Friendly Local Chinatown: This time period was when Chinese people were starting to immigrate to the US, forming the first ever Chinatowns. Expect to see a Chinese Launderer.
  • Gatling Good: For superior firepower in any gunfight.
  • Ghost Town: Whenever a place was no longer economically profitable it would soon die out.
  • Guns Akimbo: A Justified Trope—with the single-action revolvers of the period, it was quicker to fire one gun, then fire the second while you were cocking the first. It was just as inaccurate as it is today, though.
  • The Gunslinger
  • The Gunfighter Wannabe: Characters will frequently try to be a tough and quick sharp shooter, but be the laughing stock of the actual gun experts.
  • Hanging Judge: Roy Bean is a historical example, though his legend has been exaggerated.
  • Historical-Domain Character: Wyatt Earp, Doc Holliday, Billy The Kid, Calamity Jane, Frank & Jesse James, Wild Bill Hickok, Geronimo, Roy Bean, Buffalo Bill, among many others.
  • Humans Are White: Although historically about a third of all cowboys were black or Hispanic (And the word "cowboy" itself originally referred specifically to black farmhands), it wasn't until the 1960s that any black people started showing up in Westerns, and not until the 1970s that they started being main cast members.
  • Kirk's Rock: Frequently used in Westerns due to its convenience to Hollywood.
  • Knight Errant: The "wandering gunslinger" variation.
  • Mobile Kiosk: Most of the alleged doctors in the Wild West would travel by wagon from town to town selling a 'miracle elixir' said to cure whatever ailment they could come up with. These show up in Westerns from time to time.
  • Outlaw: Many criminals are wanted "dead or alive".
  • Price On Their Head: Someone is willing to pay for this character, dead or alive.
  • Quick Draw: A trope that shows up in the Showdown at High Noon.
  • Race Lift:
    • For every time someone says Crazy Horse's father was white, even though he inherited his name from his father.
    • In general, most depictions of classic cowboys in media show them as disproportionately white. While there obviously were white cowboys, there was also a much higher percentage of black, Asian, Latin, and Native American cowboys than is typically portrayed in the media.
  • The Remnant: A number of outlaw bands are made up of ex-Confederate soldiers who just kept fighting the war even after it ended.
  • Riding into the Sunset: The best way to end your western, so that the hero can go off to new adventures.
  • Run for the Border: A typical tactic by many outlaws wanted in one state.
  • The Savage South: Typically there is more lawlessness and danger in the southern areas than the northern ones. This is especially common in the unrest of the years following the Civil War.
  • Sawed-Off Shotgun: Typical Western guns were always shorter and lighter compared to what a modern rifleman may use, since they were designed to be fired from horseback.
  • Settling the Frontier: Settlers and new settlements play a major role in many Westerns.
  • The Sheriff: Even though sheriffs have existed since the Middle Ages, most people automatically think of a sheriff as depicted in the cowboy era, with a big moustache and a star badge on his chest.
  • Showdown at High Noon: Cowboys will settle matters at high noon in a duel.
  • Smoking Barrel Blowout: Gunbarrels are more likely to smoke in the first place than in later eras with higher quality gunpowder.
  • Snake Oil Salesman: There were a lot of cunning tricksters around in those days.
  • Tar and Feathers: A common humiliating punishment for people who didn't obey the laws.
  • Throwaway Guns: Revolvers are slow to reload, so a good gunfighter will have several to draw from as the previous go empty.
  • Torches and Pitchforks: The lynch mob, ready and willing to dispense the death penalty without trial. Sometimes a desperate enforcement of justice in a land far from the law; sometimes a murder attempt that the Sheriff must protect a prisoner from. The more settled a region is, the worse the mob will be viewed. (Since you could bring in the law.)
  • Wanted Poster: Expect to see them all over town, especially if the bad man featured on it is the Big Bad, one of his henchmen, or at least relevant to the plot. In some cases even the good guy might end up on one if he's been wrongly accused and needs to prove his innocence.
  • The Western: The genre that takes place here.
  • Western Characters: The full collection of stock characters of Westerns are listed on this page.

Works that are set in this time period include:

Comic Books
  • Blueberry: Renowned comic book series about a badass cowboy. Drawn in a realistic style.
  • Les Tuniques Bleues: Tragicomedic comic strip series about two soldiers during the American Civil War.
  • Jonah Hex
    • Although, interestingly, not in the movie. It's apparently set in the Wild South, unless Jonah's horse is extraordinarily fast—he travels from the Old-West-style town he's in to the villain's lair in about a day. The villain's lair is an old Confederate fort, on the Atlantic coast.
  • Lucky Luke: One of the most popular cowboy comics in the world and a clever Satire of all the tropes of The Western.
  • Tex Willer
  • Marvel Comics had a number of Western heroes, including the Rawhide Kid, the Two-Gun Kid (who got unstuck in time and briefly became an Avenger) and the original Ghost Rider (who dressed up as a ghost, not the guy with the flaming skull). In the modern age, a miniseries called Blaze of Glory revived those characters to show their final days.
  • Zorro
  • Suske en Wiske: The stories "Bibbergoud", "De Texas Rakkers", "De Gouden Locomotief", "De Bevende Baobab",... all take place in the Wild West.
  • Nero: "De Bende Van De Zwarte Kous", "Het Ei van October", "Het Groene Vuur",... all take place in the Wild West.

Films — Animation

Films — Live-Action

Literature

Live-Action TV

Music
  • The Beatles did a Wild West tale of failed revenge with "Rocky Raccoon", a song from The White Album written by Paul McCartney.
  • The Bonzo Dog Band's "Bad Blood", from Let's Make Up and Be Friendly, is another Western revenge tale and an Affectionate Parody of Johnny Cash.
  • Beck's "Farewell Ride" from ''Guero has lyrics built on Western imagery. Sample:
    I don't see the face of
    Kindness I don't hear the
    Mission bells I don't smell
    The morning roses all I see
    Is all I see is
    Two white horses in a line
    Carrying me to my burying ground
    .

Pinballs

Radio

Tabletop Games

Theater
  • The Girl of the Golden West, play by David Belasco and opera by Giacomo Puccini.
  • Buffalo Bill 's Wild West shows popularized cowboy stories near the end of the 19th and early 20th century.

Theme Parks

Video Games

Web Comics

Web Original

Western Animation

Alternative Title(s): The Olllld West, Wild West

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