Genres often help a viewer to identify with a film, deciding whether or not they are interested in seeing the feature. Films grouped in the same genre share many of the same narrative aspects. Two very famous films that belong to the Western genre are The Great Train Robbery and Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. Each of these films are defined as Western films because of their visual and narrative conventions. So that films grouped into the same genre do not become cliché or repetitive, film genres are always in a state of continuous change. By comparing The Great Train Robbery and Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, we can clearly see how a film made during the birth of the Western genre and a film made nearing the end of the Western genre have changed over a time period. We can also point out the similarities that help to identify the films into being part of the same genre. Critics often argue that in order for a genre to have successful films, the genre must evolve over time; The Great Train Robbery and Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid are perfect examples of two films both part of the Western genre that have exhibited evolution.
Western films came into relevance in the very beginning of the twentieth century, specifically in 1903 when The Great Train Robbery was released. The impact of The Great Train Robbery is clearly seen through Peter Flynn’s interpretation of Silent Western’s:
But it was not until The Great Train Robbery that anything approximating the classical form of the genre emerged…the film is today regarded as a landmark in early film narrative. Running just over twelve minutes (approximately 750-800 feet, or one reel), it detailed the train-robbery, escape, and subsequent comeuppance of a gang of outlaws. A familiar motif that reoccurs with stunning frequency throughout the genre was here fresh and groundbreaking. (Flynn, The Silent Western as Mythmaker)
After The Great Train Robbery, many films followed in its path by possessing a lot of the same details. As Western films began to evolve, in the 1920s, Western films focused heavily on action and less on plot, with the main goal of entertainment. So that the audience did not get bored with these films, filmmakers had to make alterations to their stories. In the 1930s, the Western became a way of telling stories with compelling messages, many dealing with ideologies. The Old West took a turn in the 1950s when the plots of the films focused more on conformity and the main characters were inspired by their own morals to fight against wrong while everyone else sat back in fear. It was not until the 60s that the antihero became the main character of the films. Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid is an accurate example of the time period when the antihero became the main focus. It was nearly seventy years after The Great Train Robbery was released, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid came out (1969). These two films represent the beginning and ending of the core of the Western film genre. The end of the Western era clearly came about because the genre stopped evolving:
By the time that Wayne made his last film (The Shootist, 1976), the epic western was clearly suffering from exhaustion, as cinematic attempts to debunk the mythologies of the Old West had merely resulted in the destruction of the genre’s credibility and relevance altogether. These efforts did, however, produce some notably lighthearted westerns, including Cat Ballou (1965) and Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969). (Encyclopedia Britannica, Western)
Western films predominately utilize its visual conventions such as an American frontier setting (usually as an Old West town and wide-open deserts), props such as guns and horses, and costumes including cowboy hats, spurs, and dusty work-wear. Westerns also share a common plot with the incentive of keeping justice on the frontier using a rapidly moving action story. These action stories often include gunfights, show downs, train robberies, bank robberies, holdups, and chases on horse back. These stories are commonly based off of classic conflicts such as good vs. evil, settlers vs. Indians, sheriff vs. gunslinger, etc.
Each of the two movies, The Great Train Robbery and Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid reach the criteria of being grouped in the genre of Western films. Although The Great Train Robbery is a short film, being less than eleven minutes, it set the stage for the Western genre being that it was the first Old West movie ever made. It focused on many of the visual conventions of the genre (being that it is a silent film). Westerns focus on spacious, American frontier settings showing the environment of the Old West, which The Great Train Robbery does. The setting of the train station and where the bandits force the passengers off of the train are very vast, desolate areas. The main plot of this short film is a direct reflection of the title of it itself, being a ‘great train robbery.’ The theme of The Great Train Robbery is good vs. evil, later known as white hats vs. black hats. The ‘bad guys’ are the ones seen running around like bandits, tying people up, shooting innocent passengers, and stealing money and various goods from the train. The opposing team, the ‘good guys’ come into relevance when they hear about the robbery, they chase down the robbers on horseback shooting at them. Different elements of Western films that are seen in this scene are the props and costumes such as guns, horses, cowboy hats, and bandanas (See Figure 1,2,3). This scene also portrays a climactic chase, which is often a huge part of the action in a Western.
Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid possesses much of the same characteristics. Although The Great Train Robbery was made almost seventy years prior, the films share much of the same criteria for being a Western. Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid revolves around two Wild West outlaws who rob banks and trains, being a very typical plot piece and story attribute of Westerns. Butch and Kid share many of the stereotypical outlaw images such as dressing with hats and boots (See Figure 4), always having a gun on them, and riding around on horses. The director, George Roy Hill, not only utilizes the props needed for a Western but the setting and plot meet the criteria almost perfectly. The film takes place in predominately three places: an Old West town; a limitless desert; and Bolivia, which shares many of the same characteristics of the West. The town serves the purpose of showing the viewers where these people came from and what kind of background they have. When the setting changes to the open deserts (See Figure 7), Butch and Kid are being chased down for their robbery; many of the shots show the chase by utilizing the scenery. By using widescreen shots and aerial views, it is very evident to the audience what kind of environment they are dealing with, giving off a very Western feel. Although the setting then moves from the Old West to Bolivia, the town seems much the same, people dress differently but Butch and Kid continue with their robberies resulting in being chased down ending with a shootout, which is common among Westerns.
With putting these movies side by side, one can see that they share many of the same qualities but have different alterations within them. They each take place in very similar settings being that of the Old West sharing many similarities. The characters in the films, including both the outlaws (robbers) and the passengers of the trains have mirroring appearances (costumes). Even some of the scenes almost perfectly exemplify a scene from the other film. An example of this is during the train robberies (See Figures 5 and 6), each of the robbers in both movies are holding the passengers at gunpoint in the same way. After the robberies, each sets of outlaws flee on horses being followed by the opposing enemy, ultimately resulting in a shootout. Each of these facets bring a Western feel to the audience while watching both The Great Train Robbery and Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.
Even though these two films are very similar in their props, settings, and plot, they have many differences bringing the evolution of the Western genre to light. The Great Train Robbery is a silent film where it is tough for the viewer to identify with characters, on the other hand, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid goes against the conceptual character persona and has the outlaws as very easygoing, average guys who often times crack jokes and are very likeable by the audience. Another major difference between the films is that Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid exhibits somewhat of a romance; Etta Place has a relationship with both Butch and Kid throughout the film. The Great Train Robbery has no trace of a romance within the story. The different twists and dissimilarities that George Roy Hill use are explained in the following quote, supporting why genres must evolve and progress over time:
Released at a time when the Western was considered a dead (or at least financially unsuccessful) art form he turns the genre upside down; what results is an easygoing film full of reversals, twists, and revisions of classic western clichés. (Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969))
Because of the timing that Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid was released, Hill was forced to make his film more drastically different than many of the other films that are part of the Western genre in order for it to be successful. In The Great Train Robbery, the bandits get caught pretty quickly, differing from the adventure of Butch and Kid in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. Butch and Kid not only need to flee from the scene of the robbing but they continue to need to escape for the remainder of the movie bringing them to another country where they are still being hunted down. Without these slight differences between the two films, viewers would get bored with the same old story about a train getting robbed by outlaws and then them being chased down by the enemy.
If films of the same genre did not diverge between one another, genres would not evolve over time; without these contrasting aspects, a genre would not be formed, films would just seem to be remakes of one another. The Great Train Robbery, being one of the first movies ever made, set ideal qualities that a Western film should possess. Since The Great Train Robbery came out, various films sharing the same storylines have been created but each of these films had their own twist to them allowing for the film to be of interest to the audience. By the end of the core Western era, films began to incorporate qualities of other genres such as romance, seen in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.
Figure 1 & 2: Climactic chase in The Great Train Robbery
Figure 3: Western costumes in The Great Train Robbery
Figure 4: Western costumes in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid
Figure 5: Train passengers held at gunpoint in The Great Train Robbery
Figure 6: Train passengers held at gunpoint in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid
Figure 7: Western scenery in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid
Flynn, P. (n.d.). The Silent Western as Mythmaker. Retrieved December 12, 2013,
from Images Journal:
N/A. (n.d.). Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969). Retrieved December 12,
2013, from Twyman-Whitney: http://www.twyman-whitney.com/film/lecture/butch.html
N/A. (n.d.). Western. Retrieved December 12, 2013, from Encyclopedia Britannica: