From Classic to Antihero in the Western Film Genre

From Classic to Antihero in the Western Film Genre

The New Hero Paradigm

The western film is a defining and enduring genre of the American cinema despite limited setting and plot based on early exploration and taming of the United States frontiers. While many bad, derivative stories haunt film, the genre is one of the oldest, constantly changing views of the hero archetype. As one of the oldest genres of film, the western presents a clear view of the connection between hero and culture. Across the history of the western one can see that the hero has been in a state of change moving from classic hero to anti-hero, following cultural paradigms.

The hero archetype is best understood in its classical sense which was first patterned by Otto Rank in the “The Myth of the Birth of the Hero” (1914). Rank describes the hero in developmental context in which he transitions from birth to ultimate victory.

1. Prophecy of the birth of the hero.
2. The birth of the hero to divine, noble or royal parentage.
3. He is abandoned, given away or set adrift in the water.
4. Rescue and adoption by surrogate parents.
5. Return to the land of his father, where the hero proves his worthiness.
6. The hero claims his royal birthright and is awarded with honors (Rank, 1914).

This description of the hero is patterned from many classic and ancient hero archetypes including: Jesus, Moses, Gilgamesh, Cyrus, Perseus, Hercules, Telephus, Oedipus, Romulus, Paris, Siegfried, Lohengrin, Tristan, Sargon, Karna, Achilles, and many others (Rank, 1914). These heroes embodied ideas of cultures that were based on royalty, nondemocratic ideals, and divinity. The heroes are all of noble birth and in many ways their fate is predetermined. The classic Greek heroes of mythology come to mind as the best examples of this pattern of hero. This cultural paradigm of the hero stood for centuries until the advent of film specifically western film. In many ways, the change in cultural paradigm was the result of film and the birth of America.

The earliest films dating from 1894 were westernized films of Annie Oakley and Buffalo Bill. These films were not so much westernized but rather American in nature. These films often depicted rifle shooting as would be seen in Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show. Despite the fact that the period of the “old west” was rapidly coming to an end by 1912, the advent of film would, at the same time, begin immortalizing this period and begin the cultural paradigm shift of the classic hero (Biography, 2014).

For the first time in history, heroes were no longer the figment of words as the medium of film brought these characters to life. By chance, the first of these heroes to be brought to life would be the western archetype. Imagine what people in other countries as well as America were seeing for the first time as images depicted people wearing western clothing and firing guns. There were also sharp contrasts to the classic hero image as people like Annie Oakley performed rifle tricks and Sioux Indians performed dances on film. Rather than seeing the noble hero that fights for the weak, viewers saw a new form of hero emerge in the early western films. This hero was the rise of the common man through concepts such as manifest destiny, freedom, and taming the frontier.

In some ways, such protagonists may be considered the literary descendants of the knight errant which stood at the center of earlier extensive genres such as the Arthurian Romances. Like the cowboy or gunfighter of the Western, the knight errant of the earlier European tales and poetry was wandering from place to place on his horse, fighting villains of various kinds and bound to no fixed social structures but only to his own innate code of honor. And like knights errant, the heroes of Westerns frequently rescue damsels in distress. Similarly, the wandering protagonists of Westerns share many of the characteristics equated with the image of the ronin in modern Japanese culture (Brandy & Stoehr, 2012).

But despite this similarity with the classic hero, this new hero must have also stood in stark contrast to the classic hero due to the lack of classic elements such as divinity or determined fate. As well, these heroes had great appeal as America was already considered a land of opportunity and they were directly connected with this image and belief.

Quickly this new hero would emerge. This is a hero that was not born of noble stature and had no divine orientation. He is a simple hero that fights for what is right. This hero faces new challenges that most people would never have seen prior to the creation of film. Some of these new challenges would be gun fights, showdowns, fist fights in saloons, stage coach, and train robberies. All of this would be back-dropped by horse riding on frontiers and western towns filled with saloon girls, gamblers, town folk, and many other staples of the old west. The first actual western movie The Great Train Robbery (1903) would encompass all of these new elements which would propel a new paradigm for the hero (Filmsite , 2014). The Great Train Robbery brought to life the genre of the western complete with good guys vs bad guys and all the nuances of the old west. Most importantly, this film illustrates a new hero which most people can identify with because he is similar to them. The possibility of being this hero is more realistic and practical than the classic hero of the past.

One might argue that the The Great Train Robbery was merely illustrating what the changing archetype of the hero was already in dime books and magazines. This argument might be true but film ushered in the new hero faster and began a metamorphosis of the hero that continues today. To understand this one must realize that literacy in 1820 was only 20% of the population (National Assessment of Adult Literacy, 2014). This means that books and stories were still being translated by word of mouth. Literacy is perhaps the largest factor in what allowed the classic hero to remain mostly unchanged for over a thousand years. Film would remove this factor and allow culture to expand and embrace new hero archetypes.

Beyond the The Great Train Robbery one would begin to see new variations in the hero emerge. The virtuous cowboy hero would begin changing as the western genre became intrinsically linked with American culture. One can see this in the early western films that depicted Indians as savage villains. Between the years of 1931 and 1972 there was a rapid transformation of the hero in western film (Shively, 1992). Most notably, this can be seen in John Wayne movies. The films of John Wayne’s career are a series of cowboy vs Indian films. These films are only several of dozens of these types of films.

Stagecoach (1939)
Fort Apache (1948)
She Wore a Yellow Ribbon (1949)
Rio Grande (1950)

Throughout these films, the hero remains the cowboy who is virtuous and lives by a code. However, during the 1950’s attitudes towards Indians would begin changing and by the time the movie the The Searchers (1956) is released one can see a new antihero emerging. The classic cowboy vs. Indian western began falling out of favor and The Searchers highlights this change dramatically. The Edwards character (John Wayne) is not distinguished as a white hat good guy but is instead cast as dark hero who is not bent on saving his niece but is instead driven to kill her because he believes that she is “the leavin’s of a Comanche buck.” (Ford, 1956) This dark hatred that consumes the character is harsh to the sensibilities and highlights the changing nature of the hero. The Edwards character is a vile antihero which is designed to spotlight the social issues concerning racism and how it impacts individuals. We see how the dark character of Edwards is fueled by cynicism and hate. This character is meant to breakdown stereotypes or to show racism in a negative light.

This antihero continued to emerge in other ways in film. As cultural views concerning Indians and race continued to change, so too did the western hero. One of the most dramatic changes in the western hero would be the movement from the virtuous cowboy to the outlaw dark hero. Although not the first to show the change in the hero, but perhaps the best example of this change can be seen in Clint Eastwood movies. Most notable is the “Dollars Trilogy”. A Fistful of Dollars (1964), For a Few Dollars More (1965) and The Good, the Bad and the Ugly (1966) comprised this series.

These films exemplify the evolving antihero because they concentrate more on the flaws of characters rather than their attributes. None of the characters in these movies are decent people and the movies surround plots such as a quest for money and fulfillment of greed rather than a noble mission. In the Good the Bad and the Ugly characters backstab and attempt to steal from each other. There is no code, no good guy, just dark characters toiling over money.

The anti-hero began to emerge in the 1960s but by the 1980s and 90s this new archetype was fully evolved with a variety of different forms. This antihero fully emerges in the Young Guns (1988). The lines between good and evil are thin as the plot of centers on the exploits of Billy the Kid during the Lincoln County War. The primary character, Billy the Kid (Emilio Estevez) is paranoid and psychotic (Cain, 1988). The entire film centers on Billy the Kid taking justice into his own hands. The “good guys” are no better because they are greedy cattlemen who control the law. The antihero archetype, by this time, has evolved into a flawed character who is sometimes murderous and other times placid. In the Unforgiven (1992), Clint Eastwood plays an ex-gunslinger who goes looking for one more large score (Eastwood, 1992). Eastwood brings to life the anti-hero William ‘Bill’ Munny. Munny is a solitary man trying to raise children after departing a life of crime. Again, the lines of good and evil are blurred as the ex-gunslinger finds himself gunning down the Sherriff and his deputies in the final scene of the movie.

Who are these antiheroes? If film is a reflection of the culture and values that society maintains, then it is safe to say that these antiheroes are facets of that culture. As film evolved, so too did the hero into many different facets of antiheroes. One can see this in the altering of western genres moving away from racially and ethnically charged themes which stereotyped Indians and other groups. In the 1970s, westerns became less about cowboys’ vs Indians and more about cowboys’ vs cowboys. Even in the 1980’s and early 90s the reflection of society becomes evident as a new more realistic hero emerged as characters become more entrenched in materialism and greed. While some might argue that the antihero is a shallower version of the classic hero, in reality the antihero adds a new dimension of complexity to the western film. The antihero forces audiences to question their own morality and whether they have a code. Interestingly enough, the western heroes also become more diverse with actors such as Morgan Freedman (The Unforgiven) and Lou Diamond Philips (Young Guns). It would be unfair to look at the rise of the antihero in a negative manner or to blame society for a lack of ethics. The truth of the antihero is that he provides a new dimension to the western that reflects many different aspects of society. Although the antihero is popular now, the classic western hero is still alive. Remakes of the Lone Ranger (2013) show this fact to be true.

Despite the setting-locked nature of the western, the genre has shown remarkable flexibility in its plots and heroes. The evolution of the hero in the western has (and continues) to supply audiences with a wide array of classic heroes and dark heroes. As one examines the history of western film, it is easy to see how the American culture has impacted these movies with changes in heroes. Although the current genre of western is more likely to have an antihero, it is highly likely that this hero will evolve in new ways as the culture of American society continues its evolution.


Biography. (2014). Buffalo Bill . Retrieved from Biography:

Brandy, M. L., & Stoehr, K. (2012). Ride, Boldly Ride: The Evolution of the American Western. Berkeley/Los Angeles/London: University of California Press.

Cain, C. (Director). (1988). Young Guns [Motion Picture].

Eastwood, C. (Director). (1992). Unforgiven [Motion Picture].

Filmsite . (2014). The Great Train Robbery (1903). Retrieved from Filmsite :

Ford, J. (Director). (1956). The Searchers [Motion Picture].

National Assessment of Adult Literacy. (2014). 120 Years of Literacy. Retrieved from National Center for Education Statistics:

Rank, O. (1914). The myth of the birth of the hero : a psychological interpretation of mythology (1914). Retrieved August 6, 2014

Shively, J. (1992, December). Cowboys and Indians: Perceptions of Western Films Among American Indians and Anglos. Retrieved from American Sociological Association:

Photo by Matthew Pablico on Unsplash


Triola Vincent. Mon, Feb 08, 2021. From Classic to Antihero in the Western Film Genre Retrieved from

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