When a scowling bandit aimed a bullet straight at the audience in the final frames of the 1903 blockbuster The Great Train Robbery, it signaled the fade-out of a groundbreaking silent film and the beginning of our fascination with the movies’ most enduring genre, the Western.
From the earliest silent shorts to the classics of Hollywood’s golden era to today’s psychologically and morally complex variations on the Western, moviegoers have found excitement, action, and escape in this classic film form. Beyond entertainment, the themes, characters, archetypes, and imagery of the Western film continue to influence everything from America’s public policy to how we see ourselves as a nation.
Jack Marshall, artistic director of Arlington’s American Century Theater and a lifelong fan of Westerns, provides an entertaining and insightful look at the landscape of the Hollywood Western. He traces its progression from early sagebrush melodramas to a mature medium that explores complex stories, historical controversies, and core American values. He also looks at actors who rode tall as Western stars, including John Wayne, Gene Autry, Randolph Scott, James Stewart, and Clint Eastwood.
Through film clips drawn from a wide range of styles and decades, Marshall offers a fresh perspective on landmark movies and underappreciated films and discusses the larger themes that the Western brings into focus about ourselves and our country.
9:30 to 10:30 a.m. "Head 'Em Off at the Pass!"—Innocence and Inspiration: The Western Grows Up
Trace the path from early two-reelers, serials, singing cowboys, and the rip-roarin’ fun Westerns of Roy Rogers and Gene Autry to 1939’s Stagecoach, the pivotal film that showed the genre could be a platform for serious drama and ideas.
10:30 a.m. to 12 noon "Come Back, Shane!"—Plots, Personalities, and Symbols That Built a Genre
Survey the vivid archetypes and themes from which Westerns draw their storytelling power: the lone gunman (the Western knight), the rivals, the cattle drive, the clash of homesteaders and ranchers, the battle against chaos, and the rescue.
12 noon to 1 p.m. Lunch (Dig into a Western-style meal from Hill Country Barbeque.)
1 to 2:30 p.m. “I'm Not Trying To Be a Hero"—Iconic Moments, Memories, and Messages
Explore how the best of the best Westerns contributed to American culture.
2:30 to 4 p.m. “Print the Legend”—The Western's Legacy in Film and Culture
Examine the significance of the decline of the old West as a concept and a reality; the late Westerns; the homages, parodies, and comedies; and what’s still vital and influential about Westerns today.
Take a look at the movie that started it all. In 1903, The Great Train Robbery was revolutionary for its length of nearly 10 minutes, on-location shooting (in the wilds of New Jersey), and for the introduction of techniques such as cross-cutting to heighten tension. One of its unbilled actors, Broncho Billy Anderson, would become an influential early Western star.
In 1952, High Noon was another innovator, as it added a psychological depth to the classic lone hero-vs-bad guys theme. In this clip, the gunmen sworn to kill sheriff Gary Cooper arrive in town—and he must face them alone.