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What Are the Characteristics of the Western Genre?

By H. Lo
Updated May 23, 2024
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Westerns take place in the American West, and are usually set between the 1850s and 1900. There are many different characteristics of the Western genre, as the genre itself is very distinct. In general, these characteristics might be grouped into two main themes: the untamed frontier and law and order. As such, works created in this style are typically known for action and adventure. Some of the most well-known elements that make up Westerns include cowboys, the conflict between settlers and Indians, and lawmen in a small, new town on the frontier.

An important characteristic of the Western genre is the setting. Westerns take place in the untamed frontier, an open landscape of mountain ranges, rugged lands and vast plains. Settlers build isolated homesteads or live in small towns, which often boast a main street; main businesses of these small towns include a jail, a livery stable and saloons. Settlers are just as distinct as the setting, the men wearing boots, spurs and Stetsons. Other prevalent imagery of the West includes wearing bandannas, denim and Colt 45s.

One icon associated with the genre is the cowboy. This person is a hired hand whose work revolves around cattle. Essentially, owners of ranches hired cowboys for cattle drives, which is the process of moving cattle from one area to another. Since much of the area between towns was still unsettled, cattle drives were a dangerous undertaking. This is because, even though settlers were new to the West, Native American Indians lived in this area during the time period, and tensions between settlers and Indians were high.

The untamed frontier is filled with hostile environments, with the conflict between settlers and Indians as well as the ongoing fight between lawmen and outlaws. Lawmen protect the towns from outlaws who might commit crimes, such as bank holdups, stagecoach robberies or train robberies. While upholding the law, guns often come into play, with shoot-outs and showdowns being a common occurrence in the fight between the good guys and the bad guys.

The importance of law and order in an untamed frontier brings out the concept of heroes. In addition the local lawmen, heroes are often cowboys, marshals or skilled gunfighters. They are usually courageous, masculine and tough, as well as being honorable, having integrity and holding onto a moral code. In addition, heroes are often adept at a variety of skills, which includes handling horses, shooting a gun, and using a lasso. Some have a trusty sidekick and might even have a favorite horse.

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Discussion Comments

By wavy58 — On Jan 06, 2012

You can be certain that one thing will happen in any western genre film: someone will always wind up dead.

Unlike the movies of today, where characters go about their lives with merely social tragedies and relationship related distress, these films always killed off at least one important character.

This was probably close to what really did happen in the West on a daily basis. People were rough and hard, and they had to fight to the death to protect their families.

Whether they were fighting Indians, mountain lions, or bad guys, something always kills someone essential to the plot. Wives lose husbands and girlfriends lose fiancees, and we cry along with them.

By shell4life — On Jan 06, 2012

The one thing that always comes to my mind when I think of western movies is duels. So many of these are included in western films that even cartoons have come to mimic westerns by showing duels between characters.

There is a lot of anticipation in the air surrounding a duel. The two men know that only one of them will come out alive, and so does the crowd standing around them. Wives and girlfriends cry out in distress and plead for them to walk away, but the honor of the men is at stake, so they cannot choose life over a duel.

I never understood this way of thinking. I don't care what people would say about me, because I would put down the gun and run the other way in a heartbeat, but people's way of thinking was so different back then.

By OeKc05 — On Jan 06, 2012

@seag47 – I agree with you that the western film genre seemed to be rather racist in its portrayal of Native Americans. However, this was just one small part of the genre, and since that was the general mindset of the American people at the time, I think we have to look past that.

Some western films did have really interesting plots. True, you always knew that you would be seeing cowboys and saloons at some point or another, but the exact plot varied.

I wouldn't lump all western films into one heap and write them off as terrible. I really do get interested in their stories at times.

By seag47 — On Jan 05, 2012

My dad liked to watch western movies, and I often ended up having to view them, as well. I always hated them, because the scenes and content were so predictable.

I got so tired of seeing Native Americans portrayed as animal-like people who ran around making whooping noises using their mouths and hands. They were also portrayed as dumb and vicious.

To me, this was just the white man's way of making himself and his audience feel better about taking over the land of the native people. Make them seem like silly madmen, and no one will feel sorry for them.

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