Part of what makes a Western a Western is the magnificent landscape that serves as an independent element of the film, almost like another character, and the relationship of the characters to it is basic to the premise. The clear message of all landscape shots is that the land is permanent while the inhabitants of the film and all their actions, ambitions, and failures are transitory. Large-budget Westerns such as How the West Was Won (1962) use the landscape to give significance and meaning to the film. B Westerns often use landscape merely as a backdrop. The camera naturally displays the splendor of the landscape. It is there all the time, ready to fill the screen with its vastness, and much of its splendor lies in its power to overwhelm us, to reveal humanity’s insignificance. Many directors such as Anthony Mann isolate the emptiness, the solitude, the loneliness of life upon the Western landscape. For men, this life can be adventurous and rewarding. But for women, the landscape often means loneliness and ultimately ignoble death. The savage, naturalistic landscape in films such as The Ballad of Little Jo (1993) and The Missing (2003) serve merely as an impersonal agent of death or personal destruction for the female protagonists.
   Behind all panoramic shots lies an unstated assumption that all the beautiful terrain across the horizon exists to be exploited, to make people rich. The rolling plains mean vast areas for raising cattle or for transporting cattle to market. Such cattle raising does not despoil the land so long as the range remains open. Mountain ranges hide gold and precious metals needing to be mined. Miners work hard and deserve their share of nature’s worth. Miners and cowboys celebrate the earth. But land barons who fence off the range and push off legitimate homesteaders are the villains in Westerns, as well as mine owners who exploit labor for their own selfish ends. At the end of the movie, the protagonists and those they protect may grow rich, but they do so by using the land, not by exploiting it. The critical issues regarding landscape usually revolve around its regenerative power on human character. Early writers and filmmakers of the silent era tended to see the West as an area of the country that was pure and that formed proper character and purged weakness. Filmmakers of the classic era emphasized the savagery (whether human savages or natural obstacles) of landscape that needed to be subdued. Alternative Westerns such as Dances With Wolves (1990) often condemn what humanity has done to the land.

Historical Dictionary of Westerns in Cinema. . 2012.


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