A Look at the Western Genre: ‘The Salvation’ and ‘Unforgiven’

by Susan Kouguell

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Film industry executives have expectations. The most obvious expectation is to discover a brilliantly written screenplay that can be made into a film that will garner lots of attention and yes, lots of money at the box office. Executives also expect, if not demand, an engaging, plausible screenplay that follows the rules of the writing genres. Understanding genre conventions (characters, settings, events) and applying this knowledge to your script, will help you to sharpen your plot and characters, and deliver on the readers’ expectations.

Let’s take a look at one of the classic genre — the Western.

From my book Savvy Characters Sell Screenplays:

Western Ride ‘em, cowboy…or cowgirl! Whether your protagonist is faced with violence, robberies, shootouts or stampedes, typical Western heroes are courageous, tough, self-sufficient, honorable, independent, and/or moral with an expertise in physical skills and abilities that will enable him or her to survive. Generally, the settings for westerns are the American frontier with sweeping landscapes, rugged terrain, and ranches or the small town streets containing the local bank, general store, barbershop, and saloon. Themes include revenge, lost love, greed,man versus man, good versus evil, man versus nature, law enforcers versus criminals, and new settlers versus homesteaders. Research the iconic symbols of the time period in which you set your story. From lassos, to cattle drives, to sheriffs and their sidekicks, you must be historically accurate.

western genre

A Look at Two Westerns

In the 2014 film The Salvation, written by Anders Thomas Jensen and Kristian Levring, director Kristian Levring pays tribute to the classic western. Inspired by Nordic sagas, The Salvation, is set in the American west of the 1870s. John, an ex-soldier and Danish settler, kills his family’s murderer, unleashing the fury of notorious gang leader Delarue. Betrayed by his corrupt and cowardly community, the peaceful pioneer turns vengeful hunter. John slays the outlaws, as he attempts to cleanse the town’s black heart.

Director Clint Eastwood’s 1992 Unforgiven (screenplay by David Peoples) is also set in the American west of the 1880s. In this film, a local prostitute in the small town of Big Whiskey is brutally attacked by two cowboys. When antagonist Sheriff Little Bill Daggett lets them off with the condition they give some ponies to the saloonkeeper, the outraged prostitutes pool their money and offer a $1,000 bounty to murder the cowboys. A young man, known as the Schofield Kid, goes to the home of William Munny, an aging former outlaw, to convince him to team up with him to win the reward. Having sworn off his violent past, Munny first turns down the offer but changes his mind.

Both The Salvation and Unforgiven share not only the settings of the American west of the 1880s and themes of greed and revenge, the protagonists are vengeful heroes and the antagonists are ruthless. Protagonists must make key decisions that will propel the narrative forward and shape your plot. The steps leading up to Unforgiven’s Munny making the significant decision to join The Schofield Kid, by going back on his pledge to his late wife that he will never again pick up a gun, advances the narrative, and continues to build as he must face antagonist Sheriff Dagget . In The Salvation, the steps leading John to change from peaceful pioneer to a man seeking justice for his family’s murder are underscored by his unwavering stance against Delarue. Antagonists Dagget and Delarue are the villains whose objective is to prevent the protagonists from achieving their goal.

Following the conventions of a genre is imperative when writing a savvy screenplay. Watching films and reading scripts in the genre in which you are working will help to guide you to deliver on film executives’ expectations.

Susan Kouguell, award-winning screenwriter and filmmaker, teaches screenwriting at SUNY College at Purchase, is a regular contributor for IndieWire/SydneysBuzz, and other publications. She is the author of THE SAVVY SCREENWRITER and SAVVY CHARACTERS SELL SCREENPLAYS!: A comprehensive guide to crafting winning characters with film analyses and screenwriting exercises. As chairperson of Su-City Pictures East, LLC, a motion picture consulting company founded in 1990, Kouguell works with over 1,000 writers, filmmakers, executives and studios worldwide. Her short films are in the Museum of Modern Art’s permanent collection and archives, and were included in the Whitney Museum’s Biennial. Kouguell worked as a story analyst and story editor for many studios, acquisitions consultant for Warner Bros., wrote voice-over narrations for (Harvey Weinstein) Miramax and over a dozen feature assignments for independent companies.

Don’t miss Susan’s classes via Screenwriters University and her Screenwriting Tutorials:

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