Westerns refer to the genre of films that take as their setting the American West (also known as the Wild West). Historically, this took place between 1865-1895, the period when towns were being settled westward across North American, where population of the towns had begun in varying degrees but the area was still a lawless frontier. A great deal of mythology that became the Western had begun during the actual period of the West with many of the real-life gunfighters and outlaws from the era becoming regarded as folk heroes.
Beginning with The Great Train Robbery (1903), cinema of the early half of the 20th Century turned the six-gun toting cowboy into a hero. By the 1920s and 30s, the Western had become a major genre and continued that way for the next three decades, branching out into television in the 1960s. During this time, a number of actors – John Wayne, Roy Rogers, Clint Eastwood, Gene Autry, Tom Mix and others – built their fame on this.
Westerns featured black-and-white heroes (it was often literally the case that the hero wore a white hat and the villain a black hat) in simple horse adventures on the frontier, saving the damsel, tracking down the outlaws, fighting off incursions of the Indians. The stories favoured tough, hard won individualism and a sense of individual morality and justice.
The popularity of these films was enormous – it could be said they were roughly the 1930s-50s equivalent of today’s action films. The genre created numerous tropes from the town dominated by its raucous saloon filled with dancing girls and gambling games, the quickdraw shootout on the main street at high noon, the stagecoach journey and so on.
The 1960s saw a lessening of the popularity of the Western with works such as The Wild Bunch (1969) – a violent work that showed the heroes as outlaw killers. Works throughout the 1970s moved in a similar direction deconstructing the mythology. Mel Brooks’ Blazing Saddles (1974) roundly spoofed the genre and it took the overinflated flop of Heaven’s Gate (1980) to finally kill the Western at the box-office.
There have been various attempts to revive the Western since, usually with historically revisionist works like Dances with Wolves (1990), Unforgiven (1992) and tv’s Deadwood (2004-6), although none of these have succeeded in taking the genre back to the popularity it enjoyed in its heyday.
The Western is an inherently non-fantastical genre (unless one considers its rewriting of history). However, there is another entire sub-genre of films that conduct genre crosshatches and mix the Western with fantastical elements such as vampires, zombies, aliens etc. This has been nicknamed the Weird Western.
The Western has made some odd crosshatches with the science-fiction genre over the years. Hammer Films had one of their few flops with the much ridiculed but not entirely uninteresting Moon Zero Two (1969), which relocates the elements of a Western on The Moon. In a similar vein, there was also Outland (1981), which transposed the basic plot of High Noon (1952) into space with Sean Connery as an embattled sheriff on Jupiter’s moon Io, and Battle Beyond the Stars (1980), which rewrote The Magnificent Seven (1960) as a space opera.
Oblivion (1994) and sequel replicates elements of the Western as a planetary adventure – aliens instead of Indians, a cyborg sheriff etc. The tv series’ The Adventures of the Galaxy Rangers (1986-9) and Firefly (2002) transpose a Western look into outer space. There was also the entirely surreal The American Astronaut (2001).
We have had Western/time travel efforts in Timerider: The Legend of Lyle Swann (1982) in which a motocross rider is thrown back in time to the West, Back to the Future Part III (1990) and the early sections of The Time Machine (1978), plus the Doctor Who episodes The Gunfighters (1966) (where The Doctor and companions turn up at the Gunfight at the OK Corral) and A Town Called Mercy (2012) and the Star Trek: The Next Generation double-episode Time’s Arrow (1992).
There have been several films dealing with the arrival of aliens in the West with High Plains Invaders (2009), Cowboys & Aliens (2011) and Alien Showdown: The Day the Old West Stood Still (2013). The Aurora Encounter (1985) purports to tell the true story of a UFO landing out West. There was also the Star Trek episode Spectre of the Gun (1968) where aliens force the Enterprise crew to replay the Gunfight at the OK Corral.
Western plots have been transposed into post-holocaust settings in the likes of Steel Dawn (1987), a replay of Shane (1953), and Omega Doom (1996), a replay of A Fistful of Dollars (1964). The Phantom Empire (1935) featured cowboy star Gene Autry discovering a lost underground civilisation beneath his ranch.
The original Westworld (1973) was a remarkable deconstruction of the genre, featuring a futuristic amusement park that recreates The West with androids, which proceed to go amok and start killing the guests. The tv series remake Westworld (2016- ) built this out into a sophisticated meditation on artificial intelligence. Influenced by Westworld was Welcome to Blood City (1977), in which people wake up in a Western town with no memory, before the revelation that this is a scenario set in Virtual Reality.
There have also been mixes that throw in advanced technology and/or Steampunk elements as in the tv series The Wild, Wild West (1965-9), which featured a bunch of spy capers and wild inventions in a Western setting, and its overly comic film remake Wild Wild West (1999). A similar mix appears in the tv series’ The Adventures of Brisco County, Jr. (1993-4), a tongue-in-cheek take on the genre featuring advanced Steampunk gadgetry and outrightly science-fictional devices like alien artefacts and time travel, and Legend (1995), which featured a similar tongue-in-cheek tone and a series of advanced inventions.
The Western has been blended with horror tropes on a number of occasions. Curse of the Undead (1959) was the first to do so and featured a vampire gunslinger. There have been other Westerns incorporating vampires since such as Billy the Kid Versus Dracula (1966), Sundown: The Vampire in Retreat (1989), From Dusk Till Dawn 3: The Hangman’s Daughter (2000) and Bloodrayne: Deliverance (2007), while Dead West/Cowboys vs Vampires (2010) is set in a present-day Western recreation town.
The Clint Eastwood film High Plains Drifter (1973) is remarkable for turning his tight-lipped Man With No Name persona on its head in an ending that reveals he is a supernatural figure come to exact justice on a town for their crimes. Supernatural retribution also appears in Shadow of Chikara (1977) concerning a haunted Indian mountain.
Ghostriders (1987) and Seven Mummies (2006) featured revenants from the West raised in the present, while House II: The Second Story (1987) features a cowboy resurrected in the present day to comical ends. Jonah Hex (2010) is an adaptation of a DC Comic featuring a Western superhero who has been resurrected from the dead.
Ghost Town (1988), Phantom Town (1998) and Purgatory (1999) feature Western towns that exists in an afterlife netherworld. Black Noon (1971) features a preacher who wanders into a town where nobody can leave due to a bargain with the Devil.
There have been several films that mix zombies with the Western with Fistful of Brains (2006), The Quick and the Undead (2006), Undead or Alive (2007), The Dead and the Damned (2010) and sequels, Voodoo Cowboys (2010), Gallowwalkers (2012) and Dead 7 (2016).
Mad at the Moon (1992) is a Western werewolf film. The Wind (2018) is a Western ghost story that sits in a fascinating place of psychological ambiguity. Prey for Death (2015) locates a Most Dangerous Game human hunting scenario in the West. Cowboys take on troglodytes in The Burrowers (2008) and Bone Tomahawk (2015). Tremors 4: The Legend Begins (2004) is a prequel with the characters fighting the Graboid monsters in a Western town setting.
The Beast of Hollow Mountain (1956) and The Valley of Gwangi (1969) pit cowboys against dinosaurs, although Cowboys vs Dinosaurs (2015) is set in the present-day. The Last Sharknado: It’s About Time (2018) places a killer shark in the West engaged in a shootout.
The Missing (2003) features a woman’s quest to rescue her daughters who have been abducted by an American Indian sorcerer. The White Buffalo (1977) is a retelling of Moby Dick (1851) that pits Charles Bronson’s Wild Bill Hickok against a mythic white buffalo.
There have also been two horror Western anthologies with Grim Prairie Tales (1990) and Into the Badlands (1991). There was also the tv series Dead Man’s Gun (1997-9) where each episode depicted a mysteriously empowered gun and the way it affected the possessor’s life.
Somewhere in there, one cannot go without mentioning Jesse James Meets Frankenstein’s Daughter (1966) in which the outlaw becomes a hero fighting Frankenstein’s grand-daughter and her creation.
An American Tale: Fievel Goes West (1991), Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron (2002), Home on the Range (2004) and Rango (2011) are animated talking animals films that play out in Western settings. Heaven Only Knows (1947) features an angel visiting the West.
The Warrior’s Way (2010) places Wu Xia in a Western setting. The Dark Tower (2017) was a miserably failed adaptation of Stephen King’s book series depicting a fantasy world where gunslingers have mystical ability.
Tall Tale (1995) is an adventure peopled by mythical characters from the West such as Pecos Bill, Paul Bunyan and John Henry. The gonzo Spaghetti Western Whiskey and Ghosts (1976) features a snake oil salesman protected by the ghosts of Davey Crockett, Pecos Bill and Johnny Appleseed. The larger-than-life character of Pecos Bill gets a far more lively animated treatment in an episode of Disney’s Melody Time (1945).
In The Twilight Zone episode The Showdown of Rance McGraw (1962), a self-important cowboy actor gets a wake-up call when he finds himself transported back to the real West.
There was also the genre of the Acid Western that briefly popped up in the 1970s, which imported many ideas from the counter-culture movement of the day to depict surrealistic, tripped out Westerns. The most prominent genre example was Alejandro Jodorowsky’s first film, the violent, surrealist Zen Western El Topo (1970). Also included here would be Zachariah (1971), a surreal Western mixing spiritual enlightenment and electric guitars, and Greaser’s Palace (1972) about a stranger who has miraculous powers. At a stretch one could include here Dudes (1987), a modern punk film with the characters on a Western quest joined by ghost cowboys. Day of the Stranger (2019) was a modern homage to the Acid Western.
- The Valley of Gwangi (1969)
- El Topo (1970)
- High Plains Drifter (1973)
- Westworld (1973)
- Shadow of Chikara (1977)
- The White Buffalo (1977)
- Back to the Future Part III (1990)
- Grim Prairie Tales (1990)
- The Adventures of Brisco County, Jr. (tv series, 1993-4)
- Rango (2011)
- Bone Tomahawk (2015)
- Westworld (tv series, 2016- )
A full list of Weird Western titles can be found here Westerns Archives