The western is unique among film genres in that it is set in a specific location and within a limited historical period: the western frontier of North America between roughly 1865 and 1890, from the end of the Civil War (1861–1865) to the closing of the frontier just before the twentieth century. Ostensibly grounded in the facts of history, genuine locations, and the biographies of actual individuals, the western seems a distinctly American form, but the genre's international appeal suggests its symbolic meanings and perhaps mythic functions. From the vantage point of the early twenty-first century, the film western now appears to have been an artifact of the past century, since the genre evidently no longer maintains either the popularity or the social significance it enjoyed for decades. At its worst, the western's established conventions have become worn clichés, and its once implicit gender and racial politics now appear explicitly offensive. Yet, premature announcements of the "death of the western" have been made before, and if its once vast popularity has clearly declined, the western's central importance to the history of the cinema and to American popular culture remains undeniable.

Although viewed as one of Hollywood's most stable genres, the western has regularly allowed for hybrids, including western comedies ( Paleface , 1948; Blazing Saddles , 1974), western musicals ( Annie Get Your Gun , 1950; Oklahoma! , 1955), a few horror westerns ( Billy the Kid versus Dracula , 1966), and even, eventually, pornographic westerns ( Wild Gals of the Naked West , 1962; The Ramrodder , 1969). Moreover, if extended beyond its exclusively narrative modes, the western has clearly informed popular music (most obviously the type identified as "country and western"), clothing, tourist attractions (including dude ranches), toys, and furniture. Along with its more familiar presence in films, television, comic books, and literature, the western in disparate media occupied a central role in the popular imagination of American audiences and consumers for most of the twentieth century.

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