Plot, setting and character are all elements to consider when distinguishing the Western film genre. Plot: by way of reoccurring (re)solutions, journeys and circumstances performs a formulaic function. This form of generic repertoire acts as signposting for a popular audience, as do the settings and character personas. A typical western setting would be the small dusty town on the edge of the desert, still in progressive stages both structurally and culturally. Likewise, conventional Western characters such as the spineless sheriff and the crooked town financier would be present to breed the films evil component, whilst the nameless gunman riding into town armed with a single heavy iron and unwavering morals represents salvation and delivers utopia-as-promised. Integrally these latter functions subscribe to the Western genre’s prevailing element, iconography.
Characters appearing in Western films directly communicate genre themes to the audience. During the genre’s classical stage (being the period when studio Westerns adhered visually and thematically to an established genre convention) the cowboy dressed in black with two guns holstered to each thigh is clearly discernable as ‘The Bad Guy’. In similar fashion (though only in the figurative sense) the cowboy wearing the large white hat and saddled upon a clean, lightly burnished steed embodies the hero and savior of the community. The eventual showdown between these two conflicting triggermen would customarily be staged on the main street in the town centre thus illustrating the iconographical characteristics of setting. The space surrounding the films final shootout often displays familiar objects to signify a troublesome situation. Shuttered windows, empty porches and rolling tumbleweeds collectively announce an exclusive contest where the hero will no doubt rid the town of all things uncultured and uncivilized. The landscape surrounding a Western’s township also plays a strong iconographic role. John Ford’s Westerns for example landmark Monument Valley as an iconic Western setting, not simply to ‘function as a mere pictorialism but rather possess thematic meaning’ (Winkler, M 2001: 134,135). Ford’s recurrent use of distinct landscapes and star profiles constitute a relationship of cognizance between audience and cinema and this affinity is a certain basis for defining genre.
Along with his cinematic treatment of landscape, Ford also employed and propelled one of Western cinema’s most recognizable personalities into stardom. The image of John Wayne mounted on a well-groomed horse and clothed in leather chaps, leather waistcoat, starched shirt and a large cavalry field hat epitomizes the classic Western hero. In the film The Searchers (Ford 1956) Wayne’s character Ethan Edwards embodies the lone horseman and demonstrates the ambiguous identity of the Western protagonist. Caked in dust from longs days and nights in the desert and pained by war, Wayne’s character had become an unbalanced vigilante and a seasoned loner, unattached and free from familial responsibility and therefore incorruptible.
When the Western genre migrated from Hollywood to Europe, not only character costume and setting were regenerated, but the European Western also refashioned a new breed of masculinity. Spurred by Hollywood’s depictions of the good, the bad and the binary, Sergio Leonie gave a new flavour to the genre American studios had somewhat recycled over the decades. Take for example the iconic images of the Hollywood shoot-out. In celebrated Hollywood Westerns such as High Noon (Zinneman 1952) and Gunfight at the Ok Corral (Sturgess 1957) the climatic shoot-out was just that, a function of culmination. Whereas Leone’s Westerns featured frequent gun battles and many scenes of violent encounters and as a result recapitulated a classic visual iconography and influenced an audience’s recognition toward a specific genre. Leone’s Westerns were less concerned with commenting on social criticism and more focused on fusing the classic Western elements of good and bad and reinventing a plot where, rather than visual appearance informing an audience, each character’s consecutive actions professed their moral substance.
Leone’s character’s costumes attest to an altered perception of the western protagonist. Clint Eastwood’s appearance in The Man With No Name series clad in dirty cattle coats and ponchos cloaks any conceptions of discernible nobility or contempt. Indeed Leone’s heroes, dressed comparably with his villains were placed within seemingly Mexican settings and engaged in generous bloodletting which demonstrating a departure from a classic Western code and instead examined the role of violence generated by evil and corruption. Where Hollywood’s classic Western hero existed to establish order and bring civilization in white hat and silver six shooter, Leone’s Western delivered a protagonist often bent on revenge or personal gain, dressed in dirty rags and delivering death with a modified colt .36 revolver. Leone’s cinematic process of the Western, though it may vary from the polished Hollywood version, attests to the iconographic resilience of the Western genre because his films are recognized by contemporary audiences as Westerns, not Europeans.
Even though European Westerns such as Leone’s Fist Full of Dollars (Leone 1964) and For A few Dollars More (Leone 1965) illustrate foreign characteristics when compared to classic studio Westerns of the 1930s and 1940s, changes in the genre are difficult to define because many of the developed themes still seem to have their roots in classic Westerns. Where advertising is concerned, the enduring themes of the western genre make it a model agent to promote masculine appeal. The Marlboro man could be either Wayne or Eastwood because the figure in the cigarette advertisements varies by way of costume, facial hair and expression. His image does however, remain consistent with that of the Western hero in the sense that he is at one with the wilderness, a lone conqueror of the frontier and a man that smokes Marlboro because HE chooses to. Marlboro’s advertisements reflect how advertisers have attempted ‘to prise apart sedimented moments of identity and produce coherent narratives of self in order to stabilise their target markets’ (Cronin, A 2001:97). Like the western film itself, a Marlboro advertisement uses visual iconography to ensure recognition between the market audience and an established genre that has formerly promoted its identity substantially to public. The sepia tint draws textual comparisons to early photography of ‘frontier’ America and the Marlboro man himself, dressed in chaps, leathers, sweat stained cowboy hat and mounted atop a working horse leaves no question as to his identity. Although the Western genre has enjoyed a range of varied cultural and textural reflections in European cinema and the advertising market, its visual ‘Iconography potentially established a porous frontier where the generic/textual and the social interacted with one another’ (Langford, B 2005: 14) and in this respect should stand alone as a defining genre.
Iconography is the fundamental element defining the Western genre and ranges in definition from regular and irregular objects on screen, to archetypal characters and even actors themselves. As observed in it’s developing forms, from an American influence on a division of European cinema and by way of product advertising, the western genre with all its visually iconic characteristics will always remain clearly identifiable.
Winkler, M 2001 Classical Myth and Culture in the Cinema, pp. 134, 135, Oxford University Press, New York,.
Cronin, A 2001, Advertising and Consumer Citizenship: Gender Images and Rights, p. 97, Routledge, London.
Langford, B 2005, Film Genre: Hollywood and Beyond, p.14, Edinburgh University press.
Ford, J 1956, The Searchers, Warner Bros.
Zinnemann, F 1952, High Noon, United Artists
Sturgess, J 1957, Gunfight at the O.K Corral, Paramount Pictures.
Leone, S 1964, Fist Full of Dollars, Unidis
Leone, S 1965, For a Few Dollars More, United Artists