What Is a Western?
(film comment by Evelyn C. Leeper)

[There will be some spoilers.]

A few years ago we went to the Autry Museum of Western Heritage. Not surprisingly, we spent a lot of time in the hall devoted to film and popular culture. One exhibit towards the end asked the very intriguing question: "What is a Western?"

For example, they gave the description: "Two misunderstood and alienated outlaw buddies cross the American West trying to elude a posse and escape the border. The chase ends abruptly, and the leading characters choose violent but honorable death over capture." Is this a Western?

If you say yes, and I tell you that the movie is Thelma and Louise, does that change your mind? If I tell you that, no, it is really Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, what does that do?

Just as it is impossible to define science fiction, it may be impossible to define the western. Just as there is a list of books that one puts forward to test definitions of science fiction (and to test the "line" between fantasy and science fiction), so is there a list of films that test the boundaries of a definition of the Western, and I would propose the following:

Let's go through the list one by one.

Bronco Billy takes place in the West, and involves a Wild West show, but the setting is modern, and the story is more about the interface between what Bronco Billy sees as the code of the Old West, and that (if any) of the modern world. (Grey Owl is a similar movie.)

Now, I would think that Dances with Wolves is clearly a Western, but I have heard people claim it is not. I suppose the idea is that it has too modern a sensibility, or too many Indians, or something--don't ask me.

The Grapes of Wrath (and Of Mice and Men) also take place in the West. The latter even has two buddies traveling together. But both are set well into the 20th century. Also, the people in both are traveling ranch help, but they are working with crops rather than cattle.

Kings of the Sun deals with settlers encountering hostile Indians, but the settlers are Mayans, they have traveled to the western coast of Mexico, and the hostile Indians are Toltecs.

The book The Last of the Mohicans was displayed in one of the other exhibits at the Museum. It has a lot of the basic elements we expect in a Western: the frontier, settlers, a fort, hostile Indians, and so on. The only problem is that it takes place in upstate New York. I suppose one can argue that at the time of the story, that *was* the West.

Mark of Zorro (and all the other Zorro movies) take place in the West (Los Angeles is about as far west as one can get in the continental United States), but the whole dynamic seems wrong for a Western. (Later sequels had a more Western feel.)

Quigley Down Under would appear be the quintessential Western. It has all the tropes, except that it is a little too far west-- Australia to be precise.

Red Sun takes place in the West--our West, the Old West. The fact that one of the two main characters is a samurai makes it a bit iffy, though.

The Seven Faces of Dr. Lao has a Chinese main character, but that is not the problem (there were lots of Chinese in the West). The problem is that there seems to be too much emphasis on the fantasy elements and not much Western flavor.

White Fang is a representative of a particular sub-branch of Western, the Northwestern. Yes, there really is such a concept, and apparently audiobooks marketed to truckers find this a very popular category.

(I have not seen Kings of the Sun, so cannot comment further on it.)

So where does this leave us? Location is obviously not sufficient, since a "save-the-ranch" film set in Nebraska in 1870 would almost definitely qualify, while the same film set in 1970 would not. But it is necessary either, because Quigley Down Under and The Last of the Mohicans would seem to qualify.

Time period is not sufficient--Mark of Zorro seems a bit iffy even though the era is right. (Or is it? Maybe it is too early to be a Western?) The older time period may not even be necessary--what about Thelma and Louise and Bronco Billy?

It is tempting to say that it is a combination--there needs to be a "frontier" and that is a combination of both time and place. The Last of the Mohicans takes place on a frontier, as does Quigley Down Under, as does Dances with Wolves. Red Sun, in spite of its unusual main character, qualifies on this basis. And White Fang is certainly on a frontier. One can even argue that some of the movies take place on frontiers between cultures (for example, Bronco Billy). But Mark of Zorro does not take place on a frontier--Los Angeles is settled, has a stable government, and displays none of the characteristics of a frontier. The same is true of The Grapes of Wrath, Of Mice and Men, and The Seven Faces of Dr. Lao. For all their similarities with the Western, I would say that they lack the basic trope of the frontier.

Now I am sure that other people can pick holes in this--they may be willing to extend the genre to cover some of what I have excluded, or exclude some of what I have covered. Even I am not entirely satisfied--The New World and Pocahontas just do not seem to be Westerns, frontier or no. It could be that this is an exercise in futility, and that Westerns, like science fiction, are what we point to when we say it.

[This article appeared in the 07/28/06 issue of the MT VOID.]

					Evelyn C. Leeper
					Copyright 2006 Evelyn C. Leeper