You seldom hear somebody say about a film that it is "really" a musical (unless that person is insightfully talking about Powell & Pressburger's The Elusive Pimpernel (1950, aka The Fighting Pimpernel)), or that something is "really" an action film. But it is often said that a particular film is "really" a western. What they mean when they say that is that a film which is not set in the American Old West still exhibits thematic genre traits found in the western films. And a popular definition of westerns is the one found on the American Film Institute's website, that it is "a genre of films set in the American West that embodies the spirit, the struggle and the demise of the new frontier".
But this won't do. Many American films considered westerns are not set in the West (commonly defined as west of the Mississippi). There are for example the "Pennsylvania westerns", which are set in, well, Pennsylvania. There are westerns that take place in Indiana, like Rage at Dawn (1955) and in Canada even, like Saskatchewan (1954).
So maybe it isn't a question about the West per se, but a time and a landscape that is like the West. (Frederick Jackson Turner suggested that "The West, at bottom, is a form of society, rather than an area." in the 1896 essay The Problem of the West.) What connects these films are storylines and the time in which they are set (usually the mid 19th century to the beginning of the 20th). But that wouldn't explain why a lot of films set in the present day or in space are said to be really westerns. That means that we must disregard the temporal setting as well, it is only the storyline that matters. The first implication if the term "western" is just shorthand for a set of specific storylines is that films that does actually take place in the Old West aren't necessarily westerns. It would be ontologically bewildering if all films set in the American Old West, even comedies, melodramas and thrillers, were considered westerns only because of the shared setting, if films not set in the Old West are also westerns, only because they share certain themes. But if somebody said that The Stars in My Crown (1950) or Rawhide (1950) or The Shepherd of the Hills (1940) aren't westerns I would go along with that. Or that Fort Apache (1948) is a war movie, not a western. And instead of saying about a film set in the present that it is "really" a western, we could just as well say that a film set in the Old American West with the same story is actually not a western. To be more specific, instead of saying that, say, Attack on Precinct 13 (1976) is really a western we could say that Rio Bravo (1959) is really not a western.
But this is still unsatisfying. Let's say that we have established that what constitutes a western isn't the time and place where the story takes place, but the actually story that is told. What would those stories be? Usually there would be stories about settlers, trekkers, Native Americans, lone gunmen, the cavalry, the frontier and such well-known western motifs. But why should we regard them as typically "westerns"? What is for example the difference, besides ethnicity, between a story about some British troops battling Indians on the North-West Frontier and a story about an American cavalry outfit battling the Sioux or the Cheyenne? Should we call the British India story a western? There doesn't seem to be much logic in that, and if anything it might suggest that we have some kind of America-centric bias in our view of both culture and history. If when we look at Australian history, with its expansionist policies, bushrangers, gold-diggers and wars with the Aboriginals, the stories told are not so different from the American ones, but it would be in a way condescending to call the Australian stories "westerns". Because they're Australian stories (and could perhaps be called "outbacks"). New Zeeland, Argentina and Brazil are other countries with a history in many ways similar to the one about the US. As an example the American cowboy has an Argentine equivalent in the gaucho. And even if Japan isn't a former colony, are there not strong similarities between a lone rõnin in Japan and a lone gunslinger in the US, even though a rõnin is usually somebody who has lost his master, whereas the lone gunman was usually always alone?
Maybe it is the case that by calling stories that aren't set in America "westerns" we are ahistorical and also insensitive to national stories and legends and by making the claim that those stories the pass as western stories are specifically American we make the US out to be more unique than it really is, unless we specify that western stories are western stories exactly because they take place in the American Old West. Just because that West has such a strong hold on the imagination of not only Americans but people in most countries we are easily blinded to other stories and traditions, some that are older than the American versions. (As a side-note, when I went to school in Sweden we learned a lot more about Native Americans than we did about the Sámi people, the indigenous people in the north of Scandinavia, Finland and Russia.)
Westerns are said to be about the frontier, which is also why films set in space lend themselves so easily to be called westerns, as space is seen as "the final frontier" (ipso facto, the Bond film Moonraker (1979) could be classified as a western, with its space colony and everything, but to what purpose?). But it should be noted that the frontier, in its proper historical form as defined by the U.S. Census Bureau, plays a rather secondary role in western films, because most films take place far from it. I was about to say far east of it, but the frontier wasn't a straight line from north to south, it was all over the place. Already in 1820 there were settlers at the Pacific coast, in Oregon, and they were in a way surrounded by the frontier, not just west of it. Then in 1890 the Census Bureau stopped talking about the frontier, it didn't make any sense any more since so much of the continent was inhabited by non-natives. If however we consider the frontier as a metaphorical place, as being everywhere between the wilderness and civilisation, then yes, the frontier is an important part of westerns, but not only of westerns. Besides, a considerable number of established westerns, including several of the most well-known, take place in towns with no frontier issues involved, metaphorical or otherwise.
Equally important to note is that the western genre is very elastic, contrary to popular perceptions of it, and we cannot point at a western and say that it by default has a particular set of beliefs, codes or morals. For example a western can be pro-settlers or pro-herders, it might be indifferent to the mass killings of Native Americans or condemning the same killings, it might be for or against capital punishment. A western might be comic or tragic, it might be an epic or a chamber play. Sometimes they're celebrating a lonely individualistic lifestyle, but more frequently they are about the community, and the sacrifices needed to keep the community together. These are not changes that happen due to any natural evolution. Rather all of the above themes and ideas can be found in any decade, and in different films made the same year.
Then there's the thin line between many war films and many westerns, in some ways this exemplifies the deeper problems with genres (a problem I will be coming back to later). I did suggest above that Fort Apache was a war film rather than a western, despite its historic setting. But maybe we can call it a war film in a western setting, or a western with the themes and motifs of a war film.
So where does this leave us? What exactly is a western, at least academically speaking? It seems to me we can define westerns according to three different parameters:
a) all films and only those films that are set in the American Old West (broadly defined)
b) all films that share certain kinds of themes and motifs, regardless of the setting
c) films that share both a specific setting and a set of specific themes and motifs
I'm personally arguing for "c" in this post. With regard to the setting, I would suggest first that we limit ourselves to films that are actually set in North America, but not necessarily in the West, and I would also suggest that we limit ourselves to films that take place some time after Lewis and Clark's expedition (i.e. after 1806) but before the First World War. About themes and motifs I would suggest that we limit ourselves to stories that have some kind of expansionist elements, or involves new settlers, or conflicts that spring from the actual move west. That is, stories that take place precisely because they are set in that time and place. If a story could as well have been set in the present day, or further in the past, or in the future, then maybe it shouldn't be called a western story. This is why I said that The Shepherd of the Hills, The Stars in My Crown and Rawhide are not necessarily westerns, despite their settings, but rather that The Shepherd... is a rural melodrama, The Stars... is a small-town drama (similar to How Green Was My Valley 1941) and Rawhide is a thriller (it is actually a remake of a gangster film). The nationality of the film is not relevant however, it can be made in Russia, Spain or France or wherever, and westerns, according to my definition, have been made in many countries from an early age. Incidentally, that I don't think these films mentioned above are westerns is a neutral statement. Whether they should be called westerns or not is immaterial when evaluating them.
When standing in the video store or when checking out Lovefilm's website, the finer points about westerns needn't trouble us, but when they are discussed by scholars and critics precision and clarity is needed. You needn't agree with my definitions, but anybody discussing westerns in an academic situation should decide upon a definition beforehand, otherwise the term "western" risks becoming meaningless.
2011-09-13 Just to clarify, what I'm looking for is not a final definition of the western, because such a thing is not possible. Definitions are subjective, and changing all the time. That is part of the nature of genres, such as they are.
I have used the words "story" and "stories" instead of "film" and "films" because these stories began before the birth of cinema, in novels, short stories, articles, paintings and music.
A related blog post to this is my earlier Max Weber goes to the movies.
For those wanting to read some classic studies of the western and judge for yourself whether they succeed or not in defining it, some famous examples are:
Sixguns and Society by Will Wright
Horizons West by Jim Kitses (which is more an auteur study of a couple of filmmakers who happened to make westerns)
The Six-Gun Mystique by John Cawelti
Rick Altman has also written on the subject, as has Edward Buscombe, Robert Warshow, Andre Bazin, John Saunders, Philip French and many others. A good starting point for those wanting to read more is the anthology The Western Reader, edited by Kitses and Gregg Rickman.