What Makes a Western Movie a Western Movie?

Western Movie elementsLast year around this time MovieFanFare ran a poll, asking readers which is the best ‘ 40s western. That got me to thinking about what exactly constitutes a “western film.”

Let me preface…or maybe I’m digressing. Probably a little of both. When I was five years old, in 1949, we got a TV set: a General Electric console 12-inch screen, a piece of furniture that prominently graced our Dorchester living room. At that time TV was only for a couple of hours in the morning, a couple in the afternoon, and after 5:00 pm until the Pledge of Allegiance, and the Lord’s Prayer, around 11:30 (thank God there was no political correctness in those days). In the afternoons, and specifically on Saturday afternoons, they would show movies. On those Saturdays the films of choice would be westerns, and in the Boston area at that time we got the “B” westerns. I didn’t know about Roy Rogers, Gene Autry,or John Wayne ’til much later, around the late ’50s. In it’s infancy, in the Boston area we got Johnny Mack Brown and William “Hopalong Cassidy” Boyd.

This was definitely a digression. Now back to my original topic, what constitutes a western? Those movies I saw were certainly westerns: the cowpoke got the girl, nabbed the bad guy, and the Cavalry showed up in the nick of time.  

But now, let’s take a look at a John Wayne movie from 1943, A Lady Takes a Chance, with Jean Arthur and Charles Winninger. Here Wayne was a rodeo star and had a horse. There were saloons, rodeo events, sleeping under the stars, and it took place out West. However, a lot of it was set in a bus, and it was timed in the contemporary 1930’s/’40s era. Would this then be a western, or not? Does the time frame in which it takes place constitute whether a picture can be called a western? Does it have to take place in the 1800s or early 1900s to be considered a western? Wouldn’t a movie set in Virginia be considered an “Eastern,” or do the horses make it a western?

Great Western Movies of the '40sHow about a Mountie movie set in the Quebec or Yukon area, like say 1937’s Renfrew of the Royal Mounted; Would that be considered a western, or a Canadian? More than likely I’m overthinking this, but I still wonder, what constitutes a western? Maybe they should be called “Horse movies.” But wait…what about Francis the Talking Mule? Wow, this gets confusing. How about movies set in the 1700s, like Drums Along the Mohawk (1939) where pioneer Henry Fonda battles Indians; Are those westerns, or would they be considered historical, or revolutionary?

Why did they pick the term “western,” anyway? A lot of movies are set in Texas, I don’t consider Texas as west; maybe those should be called Southerns. How about all those movies set in Arizona, or New Mexico; couldn’t they be called South Westerns? At least those Sergio Leone-Clint Eastward movies were specifically listed as “spaghetti westerns,” so that clarifies them. What would the great Marlon Brando movie Viva Zapata be classified as, or Glenn Ford’s Brazil-set The Americano; are they “Mexterns” or “Latin Americans”?

You know what? I was right earlier, I’m way over thinking this. I think I won’t worry what to call them, I’ll forget the semantics, and just enjoy them.

Bill Dunphy enjoys photography, cooking, reading, and, of course, movies–of which he has about 350 in his library.

What do you think qualifies a movie to be called a “western” or not? Let us know in the comments!

More Western Movie Reviews:

Short Grass (1950): Western Movie Review