History of the Western

The ‘classic’ western, be it book or film, tends to be set in the American Old West in the latter half of the 19th century and usually follows a pattern of crime, pursuit and retribution. The first movie that followed the above pattern was the 1903 silent film, Great Train Robbery, though the term ‘western’ does not seem to have come into use until 1912, when it appeared in an article in Motion Picture World magazine.

The first book in the classic western genre is considered to be The Virginian, by Owen Wister, published in 1902. Four films were made based on this book between 1914 and 1946 and it made the transition to TV in the highly popular 1960s series starring James Drury and Doug McClure. The earliest exemplar of genre, meanwhile, was Zane Grey who may or may not have been pleased that the title of his most famous book, Riders of the Purple Sage, with the addition of “New”, gave a name to an American country rock band in the 1970s! Hal Jons considered Grey to be one of the greatest writers in the genre and acknowledged him as both influence and peer in a letter to Clint Eastwood in 1981.

According to Frank Gruber (in The Pulp Jungle, Sherbourne Press, 1967) there are seven plots associated with the classic western. Harry Jones’ number five son has added an eighth plot and modified the other seven slightly based on his recent immersion in the genre. The plots are:

  1. Revenge, generally involving pursuit and, sometimes, mistaken identity
  2. Eviction by unlawful means; e.g. landowner or rustlers trying to oust ranch owners
  3. Retribution meted out by the forces of law and order, where sheriff or marshal (sometimes in disguise) cleanses the town of outlaws and/or crooked lawmen
  4. Migration to a new home or movement across a wilderness, e.g. wagon trains or the building of a railroad/telegraph
  5. Taming the wild frontier, including Cavalry and Indian stories (and more wagon trains)
  6. Rags to riches, e.g. building up a ranch or oil empire from nothing (often the starting point for 2 above)
  7. Outlaw gang focused stories, which generally include elements of the above six basic plots
  8. Additional: the buddy story, where the hero operates with a faithful sidekick or partner and which, again includes elements of any of the above plots

General themes within the above plots include homeless wandering whilst on a quest, strict codes of honour bonding the good guys, lone, beautiful women left at the mercy of unprincipled men, the lone wolf prevailing against overarching odds, the framing and/or lynching of the innocent, crooked lawmen and so on. In fact, classic westerns tend to be escapism at its very best – moralistic tales where good always prevails over evil and the hero always either, a) gets his best gal or, b) rides off, victorious, into the sunset.

It wouldn’t take much work to recast many classic westerns as mediaeval tales, the cowboy as the parfit gentil knight, galloping to the rescue of the damsel in distress or of the oppressed villagers (though possibly to kill a rampaging worm rather than Mexican bandits). Oddly, moving in the opposite direction, it wouldn’t take much to recast classic westerns as sci-fi novels – indeed, early books by Asimov, Heinlein and Ray Bradbury could easily be recast themselves as wild frontier-style westerns.

The heyday of the western novel was probably the late 1950s through to the late 1960s following on from the popularity of a new generation of western films in the late 1940s and early to mid-1950s. The popularity of the genre in film provoked American TV companies to create quality western series, such as the aforementioned The Virginian, plus Bonanza, Rawhide, The High Chaparral, Maverick, Wagon Train and Gunsmoke.

Certainly, during this period, most UK publishers tended to have imprints for western stories, for example, Frederick Muller’s ‘Sombrero Western’ imprint, on which Hal Jons’ books were published and Collins’ ‘Wild West Club’. Even Mills and Boon, best remembered now for generic romantic fiction, had a western imprint, ‘Diamond W Westerns’.

In film, the 1960s saw the rise and rise of the ‘Spaghetti Western’ but whilst box office records may have been broken the latter half of the 1960s was a lean time for publishers of western fiction. Most of the imprints mentioned above had been discontinued by 1970. Publishers in the UK continued to publish westerns, but in much smaller numbers than previously and by the early 1980s even authors with a string of successful publications to their name, such as Hal Jons, could only expect print runs of around 1,500 copies of each new book, which was a far cry from the late 1950s and early 1960s when ten times that amount could easily sell out within weeks of publication.

There is still a market for westerns, but this tends to be split between a younger, niche audience, which tends to look more to sex and violence than plot, and an ageing audience – in fact those very same people, now well into retirement, that bought the novels as youngsters back in the 1950s and 1960s.

The republication of Jones’ westerns – and his other work – opens a window on a more innocent age. There is violence, yes, because this was the stock in trade of the western – it was all about fighting for survival against the odds, be the enemy the desert or an outlaw gang – or both. There is sex, too – or at least, the threat of such from the aforementioned unprincipled baddies against the heroine. But it is not overplayed. It is just there as it was in real life. What you get are well thought-out plots, loveable or hateable characters, depending on who is wearing the white hat and who is wearing the black, metaphorically speaking, that is. You get books written at a time when writing properly was both important and expected. Best of all, you get taken out of yourself for a bit – that and a bloody good read.