Serious criticism of the western film began in the 1950s with appreciative essays by Robert Warshow and André Bazin, both of whom identified the genre as, in Bazin's phrase, "the American film par excellence . " Although inattentive to cinema, Henry Nash Smith's groundbreaking study Virgin Land: The American West as Symbol and Myth (1950) suggested that the emerging field of American studies and critical attention to the popular western were intertwined projects. By the next decade, studies in France by Jean-Louis Rieupeyrout and Henri Agel established what would become an ongoing exploration of the genre by the developing discipline of film studies. As more theoretical approaches to film developed, the western was often the principal example for critics attempting to refine the analysis of Hollywood genres and the auteur , with the early attention devoted to John Ford by critics such as Lindsay Anderson and Andrew Sarris evidence of what could be accomplished by an artist in an otherwise popular, commercial form. Drawing upon both Henry Nash Smith and French structuralism, Jim Kitses's influential Horizons West (1969) revealed the western to be organized by a series of "antinomies" that broadly contrasted the wilderness and civilization. Constructing an even more rigorous structural model, Will Wright's Sixguns and Society (1975) analyzed the most successful westerns in light of their social and political contexts. Although later critics would abandon structuralist methodology, the western's ideological significance in specific historical contexts would remain a focus for studies such as Richard Slotkin's ambitious series of books on the West and American culture (1973–1992).
Other studies of the western have sought to refine the analysis of Hollywood genres, as in the work of John Cawelti and Edward Buscombe, among others. Genre critics such as Steve Neale and Rick Altman have thus found the western a useful model for exploring the larger role of genres in film history. Ironically, the decline of the western has been offset by a steady rise in critical attention to the genre, which has included ongoing attention to the representation of Native Americans throughout the western's history, as well as innovative approaches to the roles of women in the genre. Influenced by feminist film theory as well as queer theory, recent critics have also turned their attention to one of the genre's more obvious but unexplored concerns, the representation of masculinity: thus scholars such as Jane Tompkins, Paul Willemen, and Lee Clark Mitchell have interrogated what for decades seemed to be a secure and unproblematic presentation of conventional gender norms. Such studies suggest, among other things, that the western's often exclusively male world allows for a veiled homoeroticism, and that the genre's essential violence betrays strains of masochism in both its characters and its fans.
More recently, criticism of the western has only begun to consider the impact of what has been called the "New Western History," represented by innovative historical reconsiderations such as Patricia Nelson Limerick's The Legacy of Conquest (1987), which argues that real-estate deals rather than thrilling shoot-outs may be at the heart of the winning of the West. Related work has greatly enriched historical understanding of the role women played in western expansion, as well as the complex psychological justification for the near extermination of Native Americans. The western has generally been successful at keeping the facts of history at bay, but "revisionist" westerns have often attempted to more closely align fantasies of the West with available facts. It remains to be seen whether or not the history of the West that is currently being revised by historians will provide a new source for stories for the near-dormant genre. In any case, the body of critical work on the western alone indicates the genre's significance in American culture and cinema; however, it is telling that for audiences in the twenty-first century the western is less likely to be encountered at the local movie theater, where it was once a staple, than in a college classroom, as a relic and a representation of American cultural history.
Bazin, André. "The Western, or the American Film Par Excellence" and "The Evolution of the Western." In What is Cinema? , translated by Hugh Gray, vol. 2, 140–157. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1971.
Buscombe, Edward, ed. The BFI Companion to the Western . New York: Atheneum, 1988.
Buscombe, Edward, and Roberta E. Pearson, eds. Back in the Saddle Again: New Essays on the Western . London: British Film Insititute, 1998.
Coyne, Michael. The Crowded Prairie: American National Identity in the Hollywood Western . New York and London: I.B. Tauris, 1997.
Kitses, Jim. Horizons West: Directing the Western from John Ford to Clint Eastwood . New Edition. London: British Film Institute, 2004.
Kitses, Jim, and Gregg Rickman, eds. The Western Reader. New York: Lunebright, 1998.
Mitchell, Lee Clark. Westerns: Making the Man in Fiction and Film . Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1996.
Saunders, John. The Western Genre: From Lordsburg to Big Whiskey . London: Wallflower Press, 2001.
Simmon, Scott. The Invention of the Western Film: A Cultural History of the Genre's First Half-Century . Cambridge, UK and New York: Cambridge University Press, 2003.
Slotkin, Richard. Gunfighter Nation: The Myth of the Frontier in Twentieth-Century America . New York: Atheneum, 1992.
Stanfield, Peter. Hollywood, Westerns, and the 1930s: The Lost Trail . Exeter, UK: University of Exeter Press, 2001.
Tompkins, Jane. West of Everything: The Inner Life of Westerns . New York: Oxford University Press, 1992.
Walker, Janet, ed. Westerns: Films through History . New York: Routledge/American Film Institute, 2001.
Warshow, Robert. "Movie Chronicle: The Westerner." In The Immediate Experience , revised ed., 105–124. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2001.
Wright, Will. Sixguns and Society: A Structural Study of the Western . Berkeley: University of California Press, 1975.
Corey K. Creekmur