WASHINGTON, Nov. 27 (UPI) -- This year marks the 100th anniversary of what is considered to be the first Western movie: "The Great Train Robbery," released Dec. 1, 1903. From silent films to singing cowboys to spaghetti Westerns, this hardy genre has seen a lot of changes in the last century but has managed to endure. But are films like the current Kevin Costner feature "Open Range" the last gasps of what was once a staple of American cinema?
Several successful Westerns have been released since the genre's heyday: Western comedies like "City Slickers," and "Blazing Saddles" to classics like "Silverado" and "Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid."
"Westerns are allegedly the only true American art form," said radio personality "Mr. Movie," Steve Friedman. Friedman, who gave a lecture on the genre's anniversary at the Smithsonian on earlier this month, said although one-quarter of all movies made in America have been Westerns, only three have won Oscars for Best Picture.
Westerns are "definitely the most popular genre in terms of classic movies," according to Charles Tabesh, senior vice president for Turner Classic Movies. TCM is in discussions with a movie house chain to once again show classic movies, including Westerns, on the silver screen, Tabesh revealed. TCM is also active in film preservation, a serious issue for Westerns as many already have been lost.
Some debate whether "Train Robbery" was the "first" Western. "The Pioneers" and "Kit Carson" were earlier releases, but neither was as "dynamic" as "The Great Train Robbery," said Scott Simmon, author of "The Invention of the Western Film" and a professor of English and co-director of the Film Studies Program at the University of California.
While most films were shown on nickelodeon machines, "Train Robbery" was projected and shown at carnivals and fairs to large audiences, says Michael Zam, creative writing professor at New York University and Western movie enthusiast. He described how "people actually screamed" as the movie started and ended with a gunman appearing to fire directly into the camera, and therefore right at the audience. But the film was an instant hit: "Westerns became a very popular genre right away," he said.
Westerns were also successful because many people in the genre's early years had grandparents who settled the West or were familiar with the phenomenon, Friedman said. And movies communicate in the "universal language" -- pictures -- so immigrants could understand them.
Westerns also have themes and characters that "resonate" with a variety of audiences, Friedman said. Besides the hero and the villain, there is the troubled stranger trying to forget his past; the protagonist who's "gotta do what I gotta do;" teamwork; self-sacrifice; and the "anti-hero," a protagonist who isn't wholly good but is relatively better than other characters.
While some women such as Barbara Stanwyck got good roles, in general, "The Western has always had a terrible time with women," Simmon said. He indicated that the best female roles were in the noir Westerns after World War II, when women did more than "cling to the hero and offer up the futile possibility of a pacifist solution," such as Joan Crawford in the Western cult classic "Johnny Guitar."
Mexicans, African-Americans, Native Americans and other non-whites were also often portrayed to their detriment -- if at all -- in Westerns. Simmon describes how Native Americans in many early films represented "native decline and 'civilization's' advance," he said.
Many Westerns are remakes of older films or stories, Friedman said; for instance, "The Magnificent Seven" is a remake of Akira Kurosawa's "Seven Samurai."
One of the best ways to understand Westerns is seeing a Western satire, Friedman said. " Rustler's Rhapsody," his favorite Western satire, incorporates all the clichés into a really good movie, he says.
But what defines a Western? A poll by True West magazine showed that readers "expect a Western movie to be set in the West in the 19th or early 20th centuries, and to have the good vs. evil theme that has been a staple of Western novels and movies since the 1902 publication of Owen Wister's 'The Virginian'," wrote the magazine's managing editor, R.G. Robertson.
Others think Western motifs make the Western, said Richard Slatta, the "Cowboy Professor." Slatta, author of several books on Western culture including "The Cowboy Encyclopedia" and "The Mythical West," and professor of history at North Carolina State University, calls "Star Wars" a "space Western."
Westerns had a powerful effect overseas as well, leading stars like Anthony Hopkins and Sean Connery, who grew up in Wales and Scotland, to want to be cowboys, Friedman said.
America isn't the only country with cowboys, nor the only one that has idolized them in movies. "Latin American filmmakers, especially in Argentina, have mythologized their gauchos and frontier experience in much the same way that we have ours," Slatta said.
TCM is showing several Westerns on Saturdays this November, and lists some of the greatest Western movie stars on its Web site, such as John Wayne, Clint Eastwood, Charles Bronson, William Holden, Burt Lancaster, Gary Cooper, and Robert Mitchum, as well as important Western directors and their contributions, including John Ford, Cecil B. De Mille, and Sam Peckinpah.
From roughly the '30s to the late '50s, studios produced "A" and "B" Westerns. Though B movies had smaller budgets and shorter production times and A Westerns portrayed "ponderous history," B Westerns spoke of Depression-era issues that audiences could relate to, such as poverty and land rights, Simmon said. B Western heroes are also the best remembered, said R. Philip Loy, author of "Westerns in American Culture, 1930 to 1955" and professor of political science at Taylor University in Indiana.
In fact, "dust bowl conditions, gangsters of the 1930s, World War II and the Cold War were all used in plot lines for Westerns," Loy said.
In the 1960s, Italian director Sergio Leone's "A Fistful of Dollars," considered the first "spaghetti Western," launched Clint Eastwood's movie career and created the "anti-hero," whose mixed motives reflected the social changes of the '60s, Jeff Stafford said in an article on the TCM Web site.
The West as depicted in movies was based more on fiction, legend and stereotype than fact, more of a "West of the imagination," Loy said. The real West is generally understood as the area west of the Mississippi River, from about 1865 to World War II, Loy said. But, every state once had its own Western frontier, Simmon said. The West was not so much a place as a "time/space continuum," Simmon said.
For example, Roy Rogers' Westerns featured automobiles, airplanes and rockets at the same time he rode his horse Trigger dressed like a cowboy and carrying two guns, Loy said.
Another big difference is that most towns had gun confiscation laws, whereas in most Westerns "everyone is armed to the teeth," Slatta pointed out. And, "women did not spend all their time swooning and waiting around to be rescued by a heroic male," but rather participated in a "full, vital" range of activities on the frontier, he said.
But if Westerns were made to be entertaining, then why worry about accuracy at all?
"For those of us who like history, we find the errors to be annoying -- a great many people, especially younger people are introduced to the history of the Old West through movies," Robertson said. True West magazine recently published a list of the 50 most historically accurate Western movies.
By the late 1960s, changed attitudes toward race and gender resulted in the death of the "classic" Western, Simmon said.
Heroes became "more complex and less heroic," Loy said, "probably the most noteworthy change in Westerns over the last thirty years of the 20th century."
Over time, the genre also lost ground due to the expense of making Westerns, the advent of television and the trouble that younger audiences have relating to Westerns, Friedman said.
In the end, does the Western have a future? Opinions differ.
"I think Westerns are dead," Loy said. Slatta sees Western heroes as being replaced by "action" heroes.
Simmon said despite "honorable" attempts such as "Open Range," the most interesting recent Westerns "use the contemporary landscape of the West to comment on the traditional genre and then to strike out in new ways," in films such as Terrence Malick's "Badlands" in 1973 and Sherman Alexie's "The Business of Fancydancing" in 2002, Simmon said.
"The landscape of the West still has great stories to tell on film, but probably not through traditional genre films," he said.
But for Western traditionalists, the essence of a Western is still "John Wayne on a horse," Robertson writes. And, Western or not, "I think a good story is always going to find a market," he said.