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The Western

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"Washington [DC] is not a place to live in. The rents are high, the food is bad, the dust is disgusting and the morals are deplorable. Go West, young man, go West and grow up with the country!"
Horace Greeley

Any story set in the American West during the frontier era: A period of history generally marked from about 1865 (the end of The American Civil War) to 1890 (the year the US Census Bureau declared the frontier closed).

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 '30s, 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 (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. In fact, there were about fifty American western TV series running at about the same time over when there were at most 3–4 TV networks, not including First-Run Syndication. The major series included: 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 become increasingly rare on TV, though it has never entirely vanished from public view: The '70s had Kung Fu (1972), The Life and Times of Grizzly Adams and Little House on the Prairie; The '90s brought Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman; Deadwood was a critical success in the Turn of the Millennium; and The New '10s have seen such efforts as Godless, Hell on Wheels, and HBO's Westworld.

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. The settings are the vast plains, cattle ranches, small, dusty frontier towns (either just-formed and lawless, or established), saloons, railways (often newly built), isolated wilderness, and remote military forts.

Much has been made of the distinction between the "classic" Western and the "revisionist" Western, the former being shiny and heroic, the latter Darker and Edgier and often embodying 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." However, this distinction — which essentially arose in the 1970s, when a more serious and more political critique of mass entertainment arose — is only defined in the fuzziest of terms, and many of the conventions analyzed and criticized were not imposed by the genre itself but by the general self-censorship of the media, and thus the "classic Western" never remained static, while "revisionist" points of view and deconstructions of tropes would become mainstream soon enough.

For instance, you can't get much more "classic" in a Western movie than Stagecoach (1939), but that already was an attempt by John Ford to turn as many of the then-existing conventions on their ear as possible and to go as far as he would be allowed to under the constraints of The Hays Code. It did not help to make the distinction any clearer that every decade some new Western will be promoted as "finally a realistic portrayal" of life in the Old West or among Native Americans, usually by implicitly or explicitly badmouthing all previous movies as "unrealistic" and "romanticized". For instance, one of the most famous modern examples of the Deconstruction of the genre is Little Big Man about a man adopted by a Native American tribe who are apparently the only "civilized" people depicted in the West, with the European colonizer population a bunch of violent idiots, with General George Custer being the worst of the murderous bunch. In fact, one of the major blows to the genre being taken seriously was the blockbuster success of Mel Brooks's celebrated comedy Blazing Saddles: not only did it mercilessly poke fun at the genre's conventions, but also spotlighted the historical elements of the period that most westerns chose to ignore like minority groups, systemic racial oppression and its brutalities. After that kind of hilarious ribbing allowing the exposure of historical truths to make its point easily, any attempt to produce a western without any mention of the latter risked coming off as ridiculous and blinkered.

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), South America (Blackthorn, TheSettlers), 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, and his The Wild Bunch ends with a gunfight dominated by a World War I-era machine gun. Likewise, Red Dead Redemption features early automobiles, machine guns, oil rigs, and a World War I-era US Army). An increasingly common period for the genre is the 1850s or thereabouts, because it allows for stories dealing with the evils of slavery (Django Unchained). Of course, any work dealing with the Texas Revolution will be set in the 1830s. 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, The Seven Western Plots, 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 a Western visits The Wild West or borrows heavily from its imagery for a story, it is a Cowboy Episode.

Hybrid Genres based around Westerns

Western works indexes

For a list of tropes associated with Westerns, see Wild West Tropes.

Osterns (Easterns) are Westerns made in the Eastern Bloc, whether they are strictly set in the Old West or closer to home. Examples include the Soviet White Sun of the Desert (set in Central Asia during the Russian Civil War), East Germany's DEFA Westerns, and Polish Wilcze Echa (set immediately after World War II with looters and guerillas instead of bandits).


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  • 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.
  • The Ghost Rider (1967) is a Western with a few fantastic elements. The titular Ghost Rider doesn't have supernatural powers, but he's a masked Terror Hero who uses trickery and illusion to convince his foes that they're fighting something more than human.
  • Another long-running Franco-Belgian series was the more serious and realistic Jerry Spring (1954-1978), originally created by Jijé.
  • Kid Colt (2009) is a straightforward Western tale, despite its connections to the Marvel Universe, and has none of the fantastic elements or brightly costumed villains that appear in some of Kid Colt's earlier tales.
  • Some of the chapters of The Life and Times of Scrooge McDuck show young Scrooge's adventures as a cowboy.
  • Lucky Luke by Morris and (largely) René Goscinny, an Affectionate Parody of the western genre from the francophone part of Europe.
  • Marshal Bass, a heavily romanticized telling of Bass Reeves' life, particularly his family life.
  • The Masked Marvel
  • 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.
  • Before Asterix, 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.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • Sargento Kirk, from Argentina (but still set in the US) predates the "revisionist" western by a pair of decades.

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  • See also Western Literature.
  • The Virginian, the father of 20th-century Western literature.
  • Almost every novel written by Louis L'Amour.
  • Lonesome Dove. And most of the other novels by Larry Mc Murtry, to varying degrees.
  • Blood Meridian, albeit Bloodier and Gorier and Darker and Edgier than most westerns to the point of near-unrecognisability
  • The Dark Tower novels by Stephen King, most notably The Gunslinger, Wolves of the Calla and Roland's backstory in Wizard and Glass, borrow extensively from this genre. The latter story even lampshades this when the other members of his ka-tet ask if the tale he's going to tell is a Western. A puzzled Roland replies that it does, indeed, take place in the Western Baronies...
  • Decomposing Angel set in the 21. century and not a horse in sight.
  • Flashman and the Redskins by George MacDonald Fraser
  • Zane Grey novels.
  • Winnetou and other novels by German author Karl May.
  • The Tecumseh novels by German author Fritz Steuben (Egon Wittke).
  • Die Söhne der großen Bärin ("The Sons of the Great She-Bear") and its sequels by German author Lieselotte Welskopf-Henrich. The film adaptation of the first was the first of the DEFA Westerns.
  • Many of Bret Harte's Gold Rush stories qualify, and are one of the earlier examples, since he wrote in the mid-to-late 1800s. Harte invented several Western character types including the Forty-Niner (naturally), Chinese Laborer and Chinese Launderer, the Schoolmarm, and the Professional Gambler. Harte's stories prefigure the kind of Western like Maverick or Support Your Local Gunfighter, which have a somewhat humorous tone but are set in a Wretched Hive.
  • Stephen Crane's story The Bride Comes to Yellow Sky is a humorous western, telling of a seedy town's marshal returning with a Mail-Order Bride, who while neither young nor that pretty is seen by him as cultured and sophisticated. He habitually has conflicts with a drunken Retired Outlaw, and the latter's plans to duel him to the death in the street falls apart because he's so discomfited learning that his rival has gotten married.
  • Johnston McCully's Zorro stories probably qualify, although they're set back when California still belonged to Spain.
  • The Lone Ranger stories by Fran Stryker.
  • The Western Mysteries
  • The novels of J.T. Edson.
  • The novels of Jack Schaefer, most notably Shane, the source material for the famous film.
  • The Ben Snow mysteries by Edward D. Hoch.
  • Almost everything by Walt Coburn.
  • The Worst Shots in the West is obviously one, and a Tall Tale too.
  • R.D Blackmore's Lorna Doone, originally published in 1869 when the "dime novel" westerns were beginning to become popular, plays with the trope. It's the story of a strong-but-silent type in an isolated farming community in the lawless western wilds of a country recently torn apart by civil war and which could easily go that way again. He must stand against a ruthless outlaw gang who terrorise the farmers with near-impunity, thanks to their distance from the established government back east and the weakness and corruption of local authorities, in order to rescue the woman he loves, right a historic wrong done to his family and bring justice to the region. The catch? It's set in 17th century England, not 19th century America.

    Live-Action TV 

  • 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".

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    Web Animation 
  • CliffSide is a web animation pilot blending horror comedy themes set in a western setting. It features the adventures of the deadpan Jo, "Two-Bit Jerry" Waylon and Cordie the Spider Girl.


    Western Animation 

Alternative Title(s): Western