- An avid watcher of Westerns can easily spot the same back lot studio set Western town being used in film after film because towns in Westerns stereotypically do not vary greatly. While certain historic towns such as Abilene and Dodge City, Kansas, develop a significance in themselves in cinema Westerns, towns in general serve a purpose and often are the thematic focus. Towns are the link to civilization. In towns are stagecoach lines and train depots, the means for traveling to civilized cities back East, or to civilized Western cities such as San Francisco. In towns are telegraph offices and post offices for communicating with civilization. The law, both sheriffs’ offices and judges’ courts, is situated in Western towns if anywhere at all. Merchants in towns may have the fashionable clothing from back East.But towns are also the link to the frontier, the last stopping place on the train line before the untamed wilderness. Bill Blake (Johnny Depp) in Dead Man(1995) can go no further on the train. He gets off and the adventure begins. Lawlessness often prevails in the absence of a sheriff or a strong justice system. Saloons usually symbolize the essential link between civilization and frontier anarchy. In films like Will Penny (1968), towns often sprout out of nowhere on the western plains, isolated and often serving no obvious use beyond providing a saloon and trouble for a drifting cowboy. More often than not, a town in Westerns is dying, having lost its mine or its reason for economic existence.If towns in Westerns look the same from one film to another— with their main street through town, false fronts on stores and other buildings, hitching posts, a few ornamental ethnic characters squatting next to buildings or meandering along idle streets—that is because appearance is more important than reality. Townspeople desperately want their towns to imitate eastern towns, and so we might see churches and schools, but by the side of these respectable institutions, we invariably see the large saloons and lavish bawdy houses. This surface paradox often manifests itself in the character of the townspeople, who, likely as not, are hypocritical and weak. Churchwomen might run women of ill repute out of town as in Stagecoach (1939). Townspeople might be too weak to overcome lawless forces as in High Noon (1952) or High Plains Drifter (1973).The cowboy hero’s relationship with the town is usually problematic. While he may be able to carry himself respectably among townsfolk, it is always clear that he is not one of them. He comes to town from the wilderness, and thus he must reconcile himself with the town—most often through violence, either by saving the town or by purifying it. The classic quick-draw contest between the cowboy hero and the film’s villain, almost always occurs in town, not outside.See also FRONTIER AS ESCAPE FROM THE CITY.
Historical Dictionary of Westerns in Cinema. Paul Varner. 2012.
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