Elements of a Great Western

For nearly a century American cinema has provided our great nation with top-notch entertainment.  Among the many genres of cinema is the Western where pistol wielding cowboys battle a variety of enemies in harsh, desolate landscapes.  Since Burns embodies everything cowboy and with the recent release of Antoine Fuqua’s The Magnificent Seven, a modern re-make of the original 1960 film, we have been contemplating; what makes for a great Western?  Below is our list of requirements.

  1. Setting

It goes without saying that a western film is set in the American west, almost always during the period of western expansion and settlement (around 1840 to 1890).  However, more recent Westerns reflect the post-modern era in which they were made.

  1. Theme

There are a wide range of western themes, many of which expand to universal human themes such as the search for family in an unfriendly world.  They include clashes of races (usually whites and Native Americans), clashes between social and commercial objectives (law vs. anarchy and unrestrained self-interest, or ranchers vs. farmers), and man against nature, self-reliance and the place of violence in society.  They are too many to make a comprehensive list but one thing is certain, there is always a conflict that must be overcome.

  1. Story

All great Westerns have a strong, compelling story.  In the words of Clint Eastwood, iconic Western cinema actor, “I think that the story is the king and that everything else is interpretive art around actors and directors and all the other things that go into it.  So what makes a good western is just a really good story and how well you tell it…” Classics like High Noon, Stagecoach, Unforgiven, and the original The Magnificent Seven all boast this kind of story.

  1. Casting

The best stories can’t become great Westerns without casting the right actors/actresses for the film.  Eastwood said, “I’m also a big proponent of casting a film properly regardless of genre.  If you cast it really well, people fit the parts and capture the imagination; I think you are half way there or more than half way there.”

  1. Visual Cues

Good use of the American west’s big skies, open plains, towering mountains, spectacular red rock spirals and valleys, and general natural splendor is a hallmark of great Westerns.  They offer a unique scope for the physical background to become another character.

  1. Repeat-ability

Is the film something you welcome the opportunity to see again, even though you’ve already seen it three times before?  A great story with a remarkable cast will become a go to you will want to watch over and over.

  1. Cinematography

There are many elements of a movie that speak of the time they were made; movie-making technology, social attitudes, fashion, approach to the actual story.  The director’s ability to execute an entertaining film with the resources available has much weight on whether or not the film will become great.

  1. Timeless

Finally, does it stand the test of time?  Is it still an enjoyable film notwithstanding its age or the time at which it was made?  Is there something that keeps pulling you back to it?  If so, then it makes the list of greats!

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