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What Is a Revisionist Western?

Westerns have been an enduring and beloved part of movies and literature for a long time now. There seems to be a romanticism linked to this genre that never gets old. However, there can sometimes be confusion as to what actually constitutes a Western. This problem usually arises because of a subgenre of Westerns known as revisionist Westerns.

Among Western purists, revisionist Westerns are not always appreciated as they tend to subvert traditional norms associated with more classical Westerns.However, there are some who also argue that traditional Westerns are actually outdated and have no real place in today’s world as it stands. If you’re unsure where you might stand on this, here’s a more in-depth look at what a revisionist Western is to help you decide.

Before understanding what truly makes a revisionist Western what it is, it might be useful to first look at what a traditional Western entails. In its most basic sense, the Western genre refers to a story that takes place during a specific time period and within a general geographical area. That usually means that a traditional Western wouldn’t just be a film or book that takes place in a Western region, but also one that takes place there at some time between 1850 and the end of the nineteenth century.

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As for the location, this refers to the American Frontier, also known as the Wild West. This large geographical area generally constituted states such as Arizona, Kansas, California, Texas, and Wyoming, to name a few. However, that weren’t the only characteristics of a traditional Western. The main themes of traditional Western stories also generally included a strong male character (usually a gun slinging cowboy or Sheriff) and a distinct bad guy (usually an outlaw, robber, or bandit of some sort).

Traditional Westerns typically revolved around a macho main character who has to fight against the odds to save a particular person or town, and also included plenty of damsels in distress, hostile enemies to overcome, drinking and gambling, plenty of gunfights, and harsh environments. Since the time period and locations they take place in were often associated with danger, plenty of violence, and general lawlessness, these elements also usually feature in Westerns too.

In contrast to traditional Westerns, revisionist Westerns may include many of the usual characteristics but also seek to subvert them in some way. In this manner, revisionist Westerns may depart from the truth of actual life during the Wild West period and imbue it with deeper or wider storylines. Since the 1960s, revisionist Western films have become a lot more popular and widespread, and may have actually supplanted traditional Westerns in so me ways.

However, if traditional Westerns still form the basis of the subgenre, a valid question arises as to why there is a need for revisionist Westerns at all? The short answer is that traditional Westerns are too narrow, dark, and formulaic. By breaking free of the usual constraints of one-dimensional characters and plots, a greater allowance for stories with more depth and creativity emerges. However, there is also a more controversial reason why the popularity of revisionist Westerns has soared so much over the years.

Since the plots and storylines of traditional Westerns are constrained to supposedly allow for more historical accuracy, a problem that arises is whose viewpoint that history is viewed from. There is no doubt that the Western genre’s time period was a more misogynistic and racist part of history than others. However, the spoils of that history also allowed for a heavy slanting of how the period was traditionally portrayed thereafter too.

In traditional Westerns, the heroes were usually always depicted as white male cowboys often fighting against indigenous tribes and peoples that were portrayed as savage villains. The women in these Westerns were also usually portrayed as weak-minded, helpless, and often completely subservient to men. However, in reality, scores of indigenous tribes and persons of color who existed in that period suffered greatly at the hands of the same cowboys that are typically depicted as the brave, selfless, and innocent ones.

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The part not often depicted in traditional Westerns is that these people were often discriminated against, driven from their lands, and slaughtered in numbers. On the other hand, there were also many famous women from that period who were just as brave, accomplished, and strong as the men were. Some notable examples were women like Calamity Jane, Mary Fields, and Annie Oakley.

By traditional Westerns typically only sticking to one, narrow interpretation of Western history that only glorified one archetype, the genre would have likely been doomed to fade into obscurity and become outmoded if it hadn’t evolved to include revisionist stories.

Revisionist Westerns are, by their nature, more open-ended and can include a far greater scope for creativity. While purists will argue that they seek to reinvent and subvert history, others feel that they are more inclusive and allow for a more balanced viewpoint. It is certainly arguable that revisionist Westerns sometimes go too far. For example, if one compares outlandish comedies such as A Million Ways to Die in the West it’s clear that such a movie is only using themes of traditional Westerns as a means of spoofing it.

What can’t be denied is that revisionist Westerns are popular, and the more creative they become, the wider their reach grows. If the goal of Westerns is to always hark back in some way to these time periods, locations, or values, then it seems logical that they should have a place among traditional Westerns too.

With influential directors such as Quentin Tarantino showing a greater affinity for Westerns (albeit heavily revisionist ones), and modern Western stories such as Yellowstone becoming more popular too, it seems the broader genre will also continue to grow and evolve as much as revisionist Westerns has. Perhaps, this isn’t a bad thing either.



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