'The Great Train Robbery' and 9 Other Westerns That Defined the Genre
From "Shane" to "The Searchers," these are the must-have Westerns that defined the genre and its evolution over the decades...
Westerns are largely defined by their setting: the American frontier, especially in the mid to late 1800s. But while it has traditionally been associated with simple shooters for a long time, the genre has evolved and changed over time. The films that defined the genre have become increasingly complex, with the stylistic elements, visual tropes, and archetypal characters associated with Westerns transcending mere time and place settings. The classic canon is now one of the rich and varied offerings.
Exploring films that have become synonymous with the genre over the years, the evolution of the Western becomes clear. While the films that defined the genre have progressed, they maintain a lineage with their predecessors.
'The Great Train Robbery' (1903)
The Great Train Robbery is a silent-era western that defined the genre's narrative direction. It wasn't the first Western, but serves as an important early example of story elements emerging in the genre.
The film depicts a typical simile between a group of "bad guys" robbing a train and a righteous enforcer. It depicts gunfights, horse pursuits and See the end of revenge. These elements would continue to appear in Westerns for years to come. Containing the first-ever close-up, the image of the shattered fourth wall of the bandit shooting directly at the audience is an iconic moment in the history of westerns and films.
As public demand for westerns waned, Stagecoach revived the genre with tales of stagecoach travel, where people travel together despite different backgrounds. Yakima Canutt provided incredible stunts and inventive solutions that set the tone for the high-octane action in the Westerns to come.
Stagecoach portrays a moral outcast - at heart, Ringo Kid is a "good guy", but his methods put him in the position of a social pariah; an early version of an anti-hero. It would be remiss to talk about Stagecoach without acknowledging the devastating portrayal of Native Americans. Unfortunately, this reprehensible feature of the film was present in many early Westerns and had a pernicious effect that was felt for generations.
'High Noon' (1952)
High Noon is a Western revisionist work full of political themes. Marshall Will Kane Is About to Surrender His Badge and Begin a Happily Married Life After the news spread, the gangster Frank Miller, who was hanged by Kane, was released from prison and was returning by the noon train. Kane prepares to defend himself and his town as he pleads with the townspeople for help.
What is most notable about High Noon is the way the story progresses in real time. There is a clock in most scenes, and the audience gets as impatient as Kane as noon approaches. With four Academy Awards and a significant presence on the National Film Registry, there's no doubting High Noon's defining influence on the genre.
Caught between a group of homesteaders and ruthless herdsmen, Shaun the Wanderer begins to insist on doing the right thing, even if it means doing the wrong thing. With a self-sacrificing hero and a romanticized take on the "simple life" of the Old West, Shane is a poetic story that transcends the genre's thrilling action to reveal its emotional core.
Many scenes are likely known to young Joey as well. Seeing the scene through the eyes of a child adds to the fantasy element of the film. Stunning landscapes contrast with snarling faces and brutal beatings. Shane's influence is well known, and its recognition on AFI's many "100 Years...100 Movies" lists, as well as a spot on the US National Film Registry, is well deserved.
'The Searchers' (1956)
John Wayne as Ethan Edwards, an obnoxious racist looking for the Comanche who kidnapped his niece in "The Searchers". The racist protagonist ends up being completely excluded, belonging to an era that had no place in the community. In many ways, The Searchers heralds a new era: a change in genre and the values that frame it.
The Searchers portrays complex, flawed characters and a narrative that stretches the traditional binary of old westerns. As a strong influence on later films like the work of Steven Spielberg and Martin Scorsese, The Searchers was widely acclaimed upon release and remains a staple of the genre.
'The Magnificent Seven' (1960)
A remake of Akira Kurosawa's Seven Samurai, Seven Samurai is a unique western whose ensemble cast is implored by the natives of a Mexican village to defend their town from bandits. In stark contrast to the lone cowboy trope, the seven-member cast gives us a chance to learn about different backstories and motivations For different versions of the prototype gunner.
With a powerful theme song and an Oscar-nominated score, this Hollywood Western was a smash hit with European audiences. Despite a mixed critical reception, the film has since garnered a strong following and was included in AFI's lists of the 100 Most Inspiring Films of American Cinema and the Top 25 American Film Soundtracks.
'The Good, The Bad and the Ugly' (1966)
As Westerns lost momentum and appeal to American audiences, the "Spaghetti Western" revived the genre. The most enduring is "The Good, the Bad and the Ugly," the third book in Sergio Leone's "Dollar Trilogy." The film reintroduces the anti-hero "The Nobody," who forms tenuous allies with Tuco in search of buried riches. A third contender for fortune enters the ring when the Angel Eyes find out where they've gone.
One of the most iconic shootouts in cinema history is intense, amplified by the thrilling score, clean action and dynamic interplay of long shots and close-ups. With a score by Ennio Morricone and an opera directed by Leone, the film has been a fan favorite since its release and cemented its status as the quintessential Western.
'Once Upon A Time in the West' (1968)
once Once Upon a Time in the West tells the story of two gunmen, Harmonica and Frank, who face off in the Wild West. Stories of land grabs, railroad tycoons, and damsels in distress intertwine to flesh out the nearly three-hour epic.
The film is thoughtfully designed to eliminate the need for excessive dialogue and place the onus of storytelling on the stunning cinematography. Packing recognizable Western tropes, it feels both familiar and unique, with the stripped-back soundscape architecture stirring and driving the intensity of the climactic moments. Voted one of the greatest films of all time in polls by Sight & Sound, Time, Total Film and Empire, the film is a tribute to Quentin Tarantino and George Lucas ) and other prolific filmmakers had a major impact.
'No Country For Old Men' (2007)
The Coen Brothers' new western, No Country for Old Men, depicts a cat-and-mouse game with rich narrative despite terse text. Stumbling through a drug-related shootout, Llewelyn takes money he finds at the grisly scene for himself, setting killer Anton on a murderous hunt for Llewelyn and the cash. With Sheriff Bell on his heels, everyone must go one step ahead to survive.
Known for its elongated suspenseful intensity and observational With the same reverence for landscape as the traditional Western, Westerns of yesteryear have a clear kinship to this Coen Brothers masterpiece. The film won three Baftas, four Academy Awards and two Golden Globes, among countless other accolades, cementing its place in the canon.
'Django Unchained' (2012)
Django Unchained is a frat movie, a western, a drama, and a romance, all rolled into a keg full of dynamite and set ablaze. Django and Dr. Schultz play the traditional Western theme of the enforcer delivering justice through the violence he intends to conquer, pursuing righteous ends through ruthless means.
Quentin Tarantino borrows perfectly from early Western influences - but, far from constructing a soulless parody, each element melds into a perfect film, referencing its roots, But relevant to contemporary audiences. With 26 awards and 100 nominations in multiple categories from different institutions, the film is a true cinematic masterpiece.