How Did The Storytelling Of The Western Films Evolve With Time In Hollywood?

Previously, we have discussed the director’s struggle in Hollywood as described by Martin Scorsese in his “A Personal Journey With Martin Scorsese Through American Movies.” We also talked about how the storytelling process of the directors evolved with time. In the beginning, they started to make movies based on the genres; it was Raoul Walsh who broke the barriers of the genre. From then on, directors became more focused on delivering the story rather than relying on the genre. Today, we are going to discuss the earliest genres of American cinema. This will help us understand how American movies changed the storytelling process with the help of some genius filmmakers.


The American movie industry boldly represented “The Western” genre as it was initially invented there. This genre surpassed every other movie in popularity as the audience at that time started to get the hang of big-budget action movies. The Western introduced an essence of bold masculinity, which the American people loved a lot. The other genre that defined Hollywood was gangster films. Gangster films started to draw more audiences as they talked about the streets.  They depicted the life on streets which was never seen on screen before. The rawness of those stories aroused a certain interest among the audience. They were able to relate to these characters because they had witnessed that life before and many of them had lived it. Later came the musical. These all practically demonstrated the change in American culture and psyche.

The Change Of The Storytelling Process In The Western

By picking three westerns, directed by John Ford, Martin Scorsese beautifully described the evolution of the film culture in Hollywood. All three films had the same actor named John Wayne. He talked about how the hero’s character becomes more intense and complex with each decade. In the first film, “Stagecoach” (1939), John Wayne played the lead character, a young gunner. The lead character in the next film, “She Wore A Yellow Ribbon” (1949), developed into a friendly father figure. There we see a man proud to serve his men and relive the old times at that moment. But in “The Searchers” (1956), John Wayne transformed the lead character into a raging bull. This time, he returns after years and discovers that the Indians killed his loved ones. He seeks revenge so brutally that when an Indian is dead, he wants his eyes to be ripped out so that his soul can not enter the spirit land (a belief among the Comanche). His main goal was to kill him spiritually, so you can see how dark the character turned out with time.


So What Changed In Between These Decades?

In “The Searchers,” John Ford introduced some of the most effective yet complex methods in storytelling. The black-and-white simplicity was gone, the friendly father figure’s vulnerabilities were utterly ignored, and the character was introduced with darker intentions. In the exact location, Monument Valley witnesses the same man with a different character and a whole different conflict. The character is hunting for his niece, raised by the Indians, the same Indians who murdered Ethan Edwards’ (John Wayne’s character) family. The way Ethan Edwards is portrayed throughout the film, the audience doesn’t know whether he will kill his niece or not. This tension is the offering from the director to the audience and tells how significant the storytelling style is. Ethan Edwards finally lifts his niece in his arms and says, “Let’s go home, Debbie.” At that moment, the audience feels relieved as they were in a dilemma with the character until now. Now, in the climax, the viewers feel sorry for Ethan Edwards, as the man left with no family.

The Parallel Storytelling Methods In The Western

Another example was brought to light by Martin Scorsese as he spoke of Anthony Mann. His style of filmmaking dwelled more on the psychological nature of men. In his films, one can easily find the essence of psychological and even Freudian dramas. According to Martin Scorsese, while John Ford only brought the dark side to his characters, Anthony Mann made his characters live in it. He picked an example from Anthony Mann’s 1950 drama “The Furies” and pointed out the scene where the patriarchal cattle baron wanted his rebellious daughter to beg for her lover’s life. Her lover, the proud Mexican, chooses to die rather than allow his woman to be humiliated. There was a time when women either died alongside their men or suffered the pain of losing someone they loved. Anthony Mann lets his female characters grow hate inside, a much darker approach than ever. The climax almost remains the same, with broader landscapes minimizing the human character; only this time, the character is left with vengeance rather than melancholy.


Developing A Lot Simpler, Yet Significant Characters In The Western

Martin Scorsese also talked about Budd Boetticher’s filmmaking style; he explored the bare essentials of the western. In “The Tall T” (1957), he introduced his character with absolute simplicity. He removed all the characteristics from the archetypes of the genre, leaving them with only the essential ones. According to Martin Scorsese, he always gave precedence to character over action. In an intense scene by Boetticher, he introduces his character as a player in a poker game; the moves they take are always more complex than what awaits at the end of the game. The hero and the villain complement each other while talking; they share the same dreams yet are alone on their journey. They show interest in each other, knowing and understanding the place they come from.

In his “The Left-handed Gun” (1958), Arthur Penn questioned the myths that originated from Hollywood. He established Billy, the kid, as a juvenile lawless man in search of a father figure. He broke the understanding that the protagonist needs to be all heroic. The character Billy is vulnerable, and he is a rebel without a cause. When he understands the difficulties of the path he had taken unwillingly, he wants to be saved. In the movie, Penn introduced a character of a journalist who follows Billy in his career of crime. This film talks more about the difficulties of growing up in the 1950s than the realities of the Old West. Penn’s approach made western more lifelike than it ever was before.


Clint Eastwood And The End Of The Western Films

If we are talking about Westerns, it is inevitable to talk about the contributions made by Clint Eastwood. He is a legendary filmmaker and actor who developed a new format in westerns. As he says, just when everyone thinks that Western has nothing new to offer, it comes with a new “slant on things.” In “Unforgiven” (1992), Clint Eastwood plays the role of a professional killer who tries to reform and become a farmer. Although he starts to live a decent life, the scars from his past don’t let him have peace. As his best friend was killed, he picked up the gun again. This man is known to kill women and children randomly, and while he has redeemed himself, his friend’s death makes him kill another unarmed man. It’s not about ethics anymore. It’s about punishing someone for their mistake without giving them an opportunity. The unarmed man is the honor of the salon where Eastwood’s friend was kept in an open coffin. His mistake is punished with instant death.


In conclusion, we must refer to what Martin Scorsese said. Clint Eastwood talked about how Americans laid their claim on the western films. He puts one interview clip of John Ford up to show how most American directors of that time never claimed to be artists. They kept their unpleasant nature, or “blase,” to quote Martin Scorsese, as they had seen it all before and had no interest in discussing it. It was more like a survival strategy, not debating their methods or the ideas behind the films they had made. Martin Scorsese wondered how an old master like John Ford had to wear a mask.


This is all we have in today’s chapter. Unfortunately, there is a lot more to say about westerns. There is a world full of westerns out there, and it is impossible to talk about them all. You can drop your ideas for the westerns in the comment section. Next time we will discuss the other two genres, i.e., gangster and musicals. Since the early days of “Duel in the Sun,” westerns have developed a whole new process, and in “The Ballad of Buster Scruggs,” the Coen brothers explored a completely different approach. A western musical. We will talk about it more in our subsequent articles.

See More: Martin Scorsese Explains The Era Of Gangster And Musical Films In Hollywood

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Shovan Roy
Shovan Roy
Shovan Roy is a creative content writer. Formerly he used to write film reviews on an international film festival website named Beyond the Curve International Film Festival. He also interviewed global directors. He also interviewed one of the characters from the show 'Trailer Park Boys', Mr. Bernard Robichaud, platformed in Netflix. Shovan tends to write through the third person narrative and he loves to do psychoanalysis. He can't say that he has mastered it but that is some sort of hobby of his. Film is a platform where he loves to spend most of his time learning.

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