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Classic Western vs Revisionist Western Fiction (Anti-Western) - Historical Westerns - Modern Westerns - Neo Western Fiction - Romantic Westerns

Differences within Western Fiction genres

Whilst this discussion starts from the standpoint of LITERARY fiction, it is impossible to ignore the influence of film in cinema and TV.

In its broadest categorisation, when the Hays Code - the voluntary guidelines governing production and restricting the use of profanity and explicit violence - ceased in 1968, there followed a clearer division of the main 'types' of western; namely The Classic Western versus the emerging Revisionist Western, where the previously censored content became the norm.

The key differences all boiled down to the treatment of the original story in film, or (say) the degree of revisionist ingredients (e.g. profanity and explicit violence) introduced into what might otherwise be regarded a Classic Western story.

In other words, a film-maker could easily take a Classic Western Novel - e.g. The Virginian - and apply high degrees of profanity and violence and so turn it into a Revisionist Western Film.

Generalising Traditional Classic Westerns v Revisionist Westerns

Classic Western heroes were clean-cut. Their female counterparts were resplendent in the latest Paris fashion - even though they might be portraying a character as varied as a school-ma'am or a not-so-prim saloon keeper.

Houses were well furnished - clean, tidy, and boasting shiny new furniture and expensive items such as a grandfather clock.

Classic western villains might be clean-shaven, washed, reasonably well-dressed and in terms of behaviour not necessarily 'all bad'.

Law and order prevailed, with the wrong-doer always brought to justice.

If anyone was gunned down there would be a noticeable absence of blood; right would always conquer wrong; and a happy ending was virtually guaranteed. (For the 'good', at least.)

Revisionist Westerns however - in film at least - might be best described by key elements of Sam Peckinpah's game-changing 1969 release of The Wild Bunch. (Note the timing. Immediately the Hays Code was relaxed.)

In these anti-western settings - arid desert surroundings and equally dusty towns - life was cheap, and seen to be cheap. The 'kill or be killed' principle ran throughout the film, culminating in a 10-minute a blood-soaked ending (itself revolutionary at the time), the detail of which was often in slow-motion to emphasise the bloodiness.

The heroes in The Wild Bunch were also outlaws and, therefore, technically, bad. Their adversaries (in this case Mexican), however, were worse and a bad end awaited both sides.

Ironically, Mexicans seemed to have taken over from the Native American Indian as 'the bad guys'. Moreover, later revisionist stories very often went on to champion or at least sympathise with the position of the displaced Native American, vilifying the behaviour of the 'white government' of the day in the process.

Compared with the well-scrubbed leading man and leading lady of the classic western, everyone and everything in these 'anti-westerns', as far as appearances were concerned, had seen better days.

Some say that the revisionist western was more honest in highlighting that there was no effective law and order (whereas classic westerns were in denial). Each and everyone made, and lived by, their own code.

Simply put: whilst the traditional classic western offers a clear boundary between good and evil, the post-1969 revisionist anti-western doesn't.

The location and era of most Western fiction


Invariably stories traced events as they occurred in the exposed, far reaches of the pioneering American frontier - detached geographically and culturally from normal 'civilisation' in eastern cities such as Boston.

This was commonly known as Cowboy Country.

Set at a time of change, disorder caused by the burden of mass immigration from Europe during the late eighteenth to the late nineteenth century resulted in the over-stretched government unable to provide a simple law and order framework

Western life was harsh, dangerous, with settlers isolated, and often scraping a subsistence living against a dry, sparse, desolate landscape. 

Today's modern-day cities are seen as they were then - no more than small towns, with a supply store, a blacksmith, an undertaker, a church, a hotel with a saloon, and little else.


The motor car was yet to be invented; the expansion of the railway slow, run and financed by corruption, and itself causing conflict with those landowners displaced by its ruthless siting across their valuable grazing.

Western fiction was originally popularised in dime novels written by freelance authors 'in real-time', often commissioned for publication by printing companies to keep their presses busy. Later, conventional publishing began to feature full-length novels by authors such as Zane Grey from the early 20th century and, later still, by Louis L'Amour and his contemporaries from the mid-20th century.

Westerns often involve conflict, a struggle between good and evil, law versus lawlessness, with the protagonist confronting any amount and variety of adversaries - harsh conditions as well as human.

Moral lessons within Traditional Classic Westerns


You could say that the story-lines of traditional westerns emerging during the post-war era carried a code that supported the morality promoted or prevalent and 1950's and into the early 60's (until 1968), even though the settings took place a hundred years earlier.

Classic westerns were in denial of the brutality and reality of the mid-1800's in terms of social behaviour and conditions - because that was what the viewing and reading audience wanted.

For instance, when 'Shane' hears the hero-worshipping son of the family where he is staying - homesteaders or so-called 'dirt-farmers' - refer to his father as a coward because he won't carry a hand-gun like the gun-totin' Shane, he puts the boy right by saying that the the boy's father is far more courageous than him (Shane) by bringing up a family whilst battling against hardships and against all odds.

Even though Shane then goes on to kill his protagonists in what was then 'the gunfight by which all gunfights were measured' (until The Wild Bunch), he does it with honour and with 'moral right', if not the law, on his side. For that reason Shane, as a film, avoids the revisionist label.

This was in sharp contrast to the revisionist style of spaghetti westerns from film director Sergio Leone (Fistful of Dollars, The Good, The Bad & The Ugly; Once Upon A Time in The West), who introduced into the genre an artful, brooding, often comedic dark overtone. (And bad teeth!)

Other features of Anti-Western or Revisionist Anti-westerns

In Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid and The Wild Bunch —  set in the late 1800's/early 1900's and the final years of the American Frontier, the lead characters are just getting used to new technologies such as the bicycle and even the motor car. This is quickly followed by the airplane and steamships.

Common themes within the Western novel

Story-lines typically follow the adventures of cowboys, immigrant pioneers and frontiersmen - on the good side - fighting against outlaws, cattle barons, and Native Americans, on the bad.

Within these shared commonalities, it is then the treatment of characters and situations where the differences between traditional classic westerns, pre-1968, and later revisionist versions are clear. 

Revisionists even resort to new stereotypes. In classic westerns the US cavalry were invariably good and one expression, and the agents, of effective law and order - against the indigenous Native American.

Those stereotypes were often switched in the revisionist genre. The plight of the Native American, as unfairly and genocidally displaced BY the US cavalry, put the latter unambiguously - and literally (!) - in the bad camp.

Classic western 'women' are stereotyped as refined - regardless of profession, whereas their portrayal under the revisionist badge would openly display the coarseness, lewdness and visual crudity expected of - say - ladies of easy virtue or profession.

The Virginian - the first western novel?

Written by Owen Wister in 1902 it is considered to be the first western novel. Through the eyes of the Virginian events show the lawlessness that prevails in the wild west and highlights failure of government to provide sufficient infrastructure for a civilised, law-abiding - and law enforcing - society to develop.

Was it therefore our first revisionist western?

More sub-genres of 'The Western'

Historical western novel

These are centred around true events in the developing wild west towards the end of the 19th Century. These may involve social customs or ideas prevalent at the time as well as advances in technology. Or perhaps events and people within politics of the day, wars and internal conflicts - e.g. Custer's Last Stand, new industrialisation - and especially new inventions and the influences and impact of such things as the advance of the railways and the emerging dependence on oil resources.


Modern Western Fiction

The Modern, or Contemporary, Western includes 'today's' settings and uses Old West themes, archetypes, and stereotypes such as a rebellious antihero, open plains and desert landscapes, or gunfights. But from a pick-up truck or Ford Mustang rather than an Appaloosa!

Neo Western Fiction

The popularity of neo-Western novels may be typified by TV series such as Longmire. A Neo Western is a subgenre of the Western that is usually set in the present day, in which case it introduces issues that relate to today's audiences in real-time.

Whilst I'm unsure as to how one would declare upfront that they were going to write a neo-Western and then proceed to do so with all recognisable and predictable 'neo-Western' trappings (whatever they may be ***), perhaps if I said Brokeback Mountain, then we might be getting close to understanding what it really is.

But then we might turn to the neo-western adaptation of historical events, such as The Revenant. It is far from 'modern' in its setting, but  inspired by the life of 1823 American frontiersman, Hugh Glass.

Perhaps Yellowstone is a good example of a neo-Western


Set in Wyoming and Montana, in the American West there is clearly a conflict going on to preserve the Old West mentality and to ensure its survival into the 20th Century, and then into the 21st.


Does John Dutton typify an Old West survivor struggling with being out of step in a civilized world that no longer accepts or tolerates his outdated brand of justice? (As well as the branding - literally - of his employees.)

*** If we take neo- to mean new, modern, revived or modified, perhaps that's the only justification needed to label one as such.

Where does WILD HEARTS ROAM FREE fit into this?

Together with WILD HEARTS COME HOME, it focuses much of the background and context within Native American culture - Lakota Sioux myth and legend to be precise.

These features are woven into each story-line, one in which white Europeans - including new settlers in the mid-20th Century - integrate with the indigenous Americans.

They are pure fiction embracing the wholesome softness of a typical traditional 1950's classic western story but, at the same time whilst never explicitly violent, take on some revisionist traits in the sympathetic approach to Native American values.

You be the judge.

IN CONCLUSION, suffice it to say there have been many more western fiction genres listed elsewhere - notably on Wikipedia.

I would challenge many of the entries and sub-categories 'invented' for the sake of academic over-thinking of the subject of 'the western'. Revisionist and neo-Westerns make the list - that's fair enough - but to break down the genre into so many sub categories (e.g. westerns set in China, Florida or as 'Comedy' or 'Horror') - do we really need to go there?

(All the more surprising for Wikipedia when they have a strict no commercial content policy banning self-interest and self-promotion, when some references clearly generate sales for those featured.

Mmmm...interesting contradiction me-thinks.)

Whilst I might add 'Romantic Western Fiction' to my list since WILD HEARTS would fall into that genre, I feel distinguishing between the  Traditional Classic  Western and Revisionist Anti-Western is enough.

Wild Hearts Roam Free - romantic western set in Wyoming in the 1960's
Wild Hearts Come Home is the follow-up to 'Roam Free'
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