The Western film genre is directly based upon a geographical region within North America – the landscape of and settings within that region are the key frameworks for Westerns. While some argue that the Western genre could abstractly encompass any location at the edge of a frontier, the majority of Westerns have represented North American locations west of the Mississippi River and extending in limited fashion both north into Canada and south into Mexico.
The topography – or landscape – of such an area is understandably varied, ranging as it does from the Great Plains to the Rocky Mountains to the desert areas of modern-day Arizona, Utah and Nevada and beyond to the Pacific Coast. Western films are given an opportunity for diverse settings, ranging from the many Westerns specifically set in desert locations, particularly those of director John Ford, to the prairies and hill country used by director Anthony Mann. Underlying the Western – regardless of interior shots or films based within towns – is a regional geographic location and the pervasiveness of landscape. The land is always there – it both metaphorically and literally frames the characters in any Western film.
A common element within many examples of the genre is that regardless of the landscape encountered the lead character(s) will be challenged by the conditions of the land. While Western characters may attack one another, seek to control cattle or break horses, they are eventually forced to acknowledge the underlying power of the land – the natural environment will keep their ego in check. They move within its construct.
The popular Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969) gives an example of how Western geography dictates the movements of characters – Western figures must move with the land to meet the challenges and recognize the opportunities it presents. In one major scene, the outlaws Butch Cassidy (Paul Newman) and The Sundance Kid (Robert Redford) try to use the landscape to evade capture from a posse. They choose routes to make it difficult to be tracked – over rock and thru water – but they are soon trapped by a feature of landscape….until they realize how to use that feature to their advantage. The conclusion of this scene has become iconic for both Westerns and popular culture.
(Copyright – Chad Beharriell)