Will Wright, Sixguns & Society: A Structural Study of the Western (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1975)

"[T]he Western, like any myth, stands between individual human consciousness and society. If a myth is popular, it must somehow appeal to or reinforce the individuals who view it by communicating a symbolic meaning to them. This meaning must, in turn, reflect the particular social institutions and attitudes that have created and continue to nourish the myth. Thus, a myth must tell its viewers about themselves and their society." (2).

"A lone rider, sitting easily in the saddle of his dusty horse, travels across the plains toward a small, new town with muddy streets and lively saloons. He wears a tattered, wide-brimmed hat, a loose-hanging vest, a bandanna around his neck, and one gun rests naturally at his side in a smooth, well-worn holster. Behind him, the empty plains roll gently until they end abruptly in the rocks and forests that punctuate the sudden rise of towering mountain peaks." (4).

Wright argues that this scene "tells a story." (4).

Wright, examining explanations for the Western myth, concludes: "All assume that an emotionally felt cultural conflict is expressed and thereby displaced or resolved in individuals. The suggested conflicts are many—progress versus freedom, law versus morality, violence versus Puritan control . . . . " but this still does not account for the popularity of the myth. (7).

The Classical Plot: "It is the story of the lone stranger who rides into a troubled town and cleans it up, winning the respect of the townsfolk and the love of the schoolmarm." (32). In the classical plot, "the important differentiating factor proved to be the more abstract relationship between the hero and society." (33).

"Each film is the story of a hero who is somehow estranged from his society but on whose ability rests the fate of that society. The villains threatened the society until the hero acts to protect and save it. Thus, for analysis, we can reduce each story to three sets of characters: the hero, the society, and the villains." (40).

Functions in the classical plot as presented by Wright (41-48):

(1) The hero enters a social group.

(2) The hero is unknown to the society.

(3) The hero is revealed to have an exceptional ability.

(4) The society recognizes a difference between themselves and the hero; the hero is given a special status.

(5) The society does not completely accept the hero.

(6) There is a conflict of interests between the villains and the society.

(7) The villains are stronger than the society; the society is weak.

(8) There is a strong friendship or respect between the hero and a villain.

(9) The villains threaten the society.

(10) The hero avoids involvement in the conflict.

(11) The villains endanger a friend of the hero.

(12) The hero fights the villains.

(13) The hero defeats the villains.

(14) The society is safe.

(15) The society accepts the hero.

(16) The hero loses or gives up his special status.

Oppositions in the myth: "Perhaps the most important opposition is that separating the hero from the society, the opposition between those who are outside society and those who are inside society. This inside/outside contrast is fairly rigorous in its typing of the hero and the society, but it is rather relaxed in its treatment of the villains, who are. . .sometimes inside and sometimes outside. A second opposition is that between good and bad, a dichotomy that separates the society and the hero from the villains. Third, there is the clear distinction between the strong and the weak, which distinguishes the hero and the villains from the society. The fourth opposition primarily contrasts the hero with everybody else and is perhaps the typically American aspect of the Western—the opposition between wilderness and civilization; the opposition is similar to the inside/outside contrast but not identical. The villains may be outside of society but are always seen as part of civilization." (49).

"These four oppositions—inside society/outside society, good/bad, strong/weak, and wilderness/civilization—comprise the basic classifications of people in the Western myth." (59).

The Vengeance variation of the Classical plot: "Unlike the classical hero who joins the society because of his strength and their weakness, the vengeance hero leaves the society because of his strength and their weakness. Moreover, the classical hero enters his fight because of the values of society, whereas the vengeance hero abandons his fight because of these same values." (59).

Wright (at 64-69) lays out the functions of the classical Western hero plot in the form of structural propositions:

(1) The hero is or was a member of society.

(2) The villains do harm to the hero and to the society.

(3) The society is unable to punish the villains.

(4) The hero seeks vengeance.

(5) The hero goes outside of society.

(6) The hero is revealed to have a special ability.

(7) The society recognizes a difference between themselves and the hero: the hero is given a special status.

(8) A representative of society asks the hero to give up his revenge.

(9) The hero gives up his revenge

(10) The hero fights the villains.

(11) The hero defeats the villains.

(12) The hero gives up his special status.

(13) The hero enters society.

"[I]n both plots [classical and vengeance] there is movement of an estranged hero into society. Also in both, society is portrayed as weak and inadequate compared to the strength and competence of the heroes and villains. But in the vengeance plot, society is no longer dependent upon the hero for survival and he is no longer directly involved with it. Rather, he is directly involved with the villains through his desire for revenge. Thus, in the classical plot, the hero tries to avoid the villains, while in the vengeance story he tries to avoid the society. In neither case does he succeed, but the image of society has changed somewhat. No longer is it primarily concerned with churches, schools, and progress; now the image stresses the ideas of forgiveness, marriage, and a peaceful, respectable future." (69).