The Wild, the Wonderful, and the Western

What made Westerns so popular?

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The Wild, the Wonderful, and the Western

Thomas Edwards, Staff Writer

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The Wild West was not glamorous. You get on your saddle, you travel off, and you’re perpetually just a ways off from being shot, contracting a disease, or getting bit by something you shouldn’t be next to. There was also no reason to be nice to each other back then, because you never knew how your neighbors got their fortune. All of this only got worse when you consider that the police force governing the West was practically nonexistent. It was up to bounty hunters and vigilantes to clean up the streets, to the point where nearly all arrests were a citizen’s arrest. People ran the town, and the biggest problem is that people make mistakes. The Wild West was anything but glamorous.

You would never get this point of view from watching a Western, and European audiences certainly got the wrong idea while writing and watching their Spaghetti Westerns. Instead of looking at the West’s interpretation of itself, I feel it’s more interesting to talk about the East’s interpretation of the West, and it certainly is.

The first thing you should know is why it’s called a “spaghetti” western, and it’s deviously simple—they’re westerns made in Italy. ‘Nuff said. Italy made these movies by the boatload, and at their peak, a majority of their entire movie industry was dedicated to these productions. They were domestic and international blockbusters, and the world was infatuated with this strange, exaggerated place in history that seldom represented modern America and highlighted the prime of individual freedom.

The scene was dominated by the actors and directors of its time: Clint Eastwood, Sergio Leone, Franco Nero, Sergio Corbucci, Lee Van Cleef. The list goes on, but those are certainly the most popular faces of the era. They went on to make classic films that hold up independent of their genre, with the title known as The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly coming out to be the staple Western, and the Django series still alive and kicking today.

These movies made danger look fun. They managed to take one of the most desolate places in the continent and make it lively and bustling. All the hardship associated with simply living in the West was taken up like a mark of valor, and nearly every character, no matter what role they had, were considered heroes alongside their savior, who might as well conjure enough respect and reverence to be considered a religious figure. Extras weren’t just people—they were folk that would leave a hole in the town if they were to pass. Westerns capitalized on the “less is more” mentality by creating stakes that are just small enough to relate to, and just big enough to be awestruck by. People want to believe there’s a purpose in defending their community, and these films do their best to reassure them that it’s worthwhile.

The only thing people really had in the Wild West was their fellow man. Without them, travelers would pass out of fatigue on the trail and be left for dead. They needed their local saloon to refresh, and the inn nearby to slumber. They couldn’t even travel without a horse to carry them. When you’re alone in the Wild West, you’re dead. Survival instincts can’t prevent that. That’s why the healthiest man back then was the one with friends. People had to work together to fulfill their jobs. They had to make connections to survive, and it made camaraderies that would last a lifetime. That’s something people couldn’t relate to in their industrial, impersonal lives back in the 60s. It astonished them then, as it still does now.

Westerns presented the ultimate reward as the friends the hero made along the way, as cheesy as it sounds. That didn’t defer how epic they seemed to audiences around the globe. These movies masterfully hid these morals between the crossfire of gunpowder, dynamite, and scarves flapping in the wind. Odd approach, yes, but perfect in execution. If you don’t mind parting with two hours today, a great Western I would recommend is The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, which hit theaters just a few months back in November. It’s available now on Netflix and stands as a great example of the timelessness of the genre.