American Film Institute defines western films as those "set in the
American West that embody the spirit, the struggle and the demise of the
new frontier." Most of the characteristics of Western films were part of
19th century popular Western literature and were firmly in place before
film became a popular art form.
Western films commonly feature as their protagonists stock
characters such as cowboys, gunslingers, and bounty hunters, often
depicted as semi-nomadic wanderers who wear Stetson hats,
bandannas, spurs, and buckskins, use revolvers or rifles as
everyday tools of survival, and ride between dusty towns and
cattle ranches on faithful steeds.
Western films were enormously popular in the silent era although, in
common with all films of this period, relatively few of the
thousands of silent Westerns made have survived to the present.
However, with the advent of sound in 1927-28 the major Hollywood
studios rapidly abandoned Westerns, leaving the genre to smaller
studios and producers, who churned out countless low-budget
features and serials in the 1930s.
By the late 1930s the Western film was widely regarded as a 'pulp'
genre in Hollywood, but its popularity was dramatically revived in
1939 by the release of John Ford's landmark Western adventure
Stagecoach, which became one of the biggest hits of the year and
made John Wayne a major screen star.