CLASSIC WESTERN FORMULAS
- The Great Train Robbery (1903), along with early popular novels such as Owen Wister’s The Virginian (1902), quickly established the basic formulas for classic Westerns. Since the beginning, cinema Westerns, like popular Western novels, have depended heavily on standard formulas to convey the directors’and screenwriters’intended effects. The minute the audience realizes that the film is a Western, it will, because of the standard classic Western formulas, have certain assumptions and expectations about the film. The audience can assume, for example, certain kinds of settings, stock characters, action, plots, and heroes and heroines. Typical formula plots consisted of revenge plots, Chase-andpursuit plots, and conflicts between groups (pioneers versus Indians and ranchers versus farmers, for example).The basic elements of the classic Western formula generally consist of the following:1. Characterization: In the classic Western formulas, the protagonist, or cowboy hero, partakes of both the civilized life and the unrestrained life of nature. He is always placed in conflict with antagonists who represent lawlessness, savagery, and evil, and he is always male. Any female interest is always secondary, even when romance is part of the plot. In fact, entertaining romance is usually seen as a weakness in the hero. All important characters on the hero’s side are either white or acceptably close to being white. Minorities (Native American and Hispanic primarily) are on the antagonist’s, or villain’s, side. Benign minorities (African Americansand Asian Americans) serve in submissive roles.2. Plot: The classic Western formula plot always begins with action pitting the cowboy hero against a major dilemma that defines his character; it tests his manhood, his moral character, and his commitment (with mixed emotions) toward civilization. Inevitably, there is a chase-and-pursuit scene and a showdown. The plot always concludes with a happy ending or at least one in which all conflicts are resolved satisfactorily.3. Setting: There are not many choices for formula settings. The films are primarily set on the uncivilized frontier, prairie, mountains, or desert. Westerns may also be set in small townsor on ranches, but they are never set primarily in the large city, on farms, in pastures (herding sheep), or at the seashore.Some Westerns fulfill all formula expectations while others, even some classic Westerns, deliberately counter audience expectations, at least to a degree. The formulas also allow one film to resonate with echoes from previous Westerns or previous kinds of Westerns. An appropriate understanding of Sergio Leone Westerns or, later, Sam Peckinpah Westerns requires a knowledge of classic John Ford Westerns. Antimyth and alternative Westerns have worked actively to overturn traditional plot formulas of classic Westerns, arguably because the formulas of the past had become such clichesthat the Western was in danger of stagnating.
Historical Dictionary of Westerns in Cinema. Paul Varner. 2012.
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