The Western genre holds a uniquely privileged place in cinematic history. Although existing long before the birth of cinema as a genre of popular fiction, its presence during the earliest years of cinema has proven fundamental in shaping the course of film history. The Great Train Robbery, purported to be the first narrative film, was a Western, and all throughout the silent era Western films were consistently popular. Moving forward to the mid 20th century, the genre only grew in popularity and commercial success, earning a place of great significance in the film industry, laying its roots in culture through its widespread appeal, and setting standards for production practices. An entirely American genre, the Western appeared in its heyday to be a reflection of American history, represented for American audiences, in a way that America wanted to see itself. Both Cinema and American culture have changed immensely since the mid 20th century, and both entities have influenced and evolved alongside each other. As a selfreflexive genre, to what extent can it be critically used as a window into notions of American ideologies? How far can an analysis of American mythology presented through Western narratives lead to an understanding of the ways in which American culture and cinematic contexts have changed entering the 21st century? To answer these questions it is first necessary to answer: ‘What is a Western?’, ‘How can it be seen to link to notions of mythology and heroism?’, and ‘How can it be linked to ideas of American culture and ideology?’
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