Friday, July 15, 2011


John Wayne in ‘Stagecoach’ (1939)
Here is a recently rediscovered Internet article that I wrote back in 2001 for a website no longer on-line, an article that I thought was lost forever.  I wrote it not long after reading several books about western movies, among them The B.F.I. Companion to the Western and Sixguns and Society.  I also included some thoughts derived from Robert B. Ray in A Certain Tendency in the Hollywood Cinema, 1930-1980.  I wasn’t as thorough with my ideas as I hoped to be (I have added some observations in brackets), but at least I got my comments back from Internet oblivion:

Movies deal with myths. And myths are a way for peoples and cultures to set up and play out the problems of life, survival, and sheer existence. For the full panorama on the importance of myth and its role in making sense of who we are as humans, I refer you to the books of the late, great Joseph Campbell. 

The genre of the western arose, I believe,  because Americans of European ancestry needed to make sense of their (our) existence in a “New World.” In particular, Euro-Americans were living in a land in which they were not the original inhabitants. So, Euro-American culture needed a mythology to shape and make sense of the conflicts of European survival in the New World. And in doing so, the ideology of such a mythology functioned, in part, to confirm the rightness of Euro-Americans to inhabit the North American continent over that of the indigenous people, the Native Americans. 

Why did Americans of European ancestry need a mythology? Because, I imagine, when North America started to be settled by white immigrants, they were not certain of their identity or the possibility of their survival on the continent. These uncertainties are best illustrated by Wener Herzog’s German film Aguirre, the Wrath of God (1972), the story of an ill-fated mission by Spanish conquistadors in the Amazon jungle. Although the context is Latin American, Aguirre’s concerns are just as applicable to those in a North American context. Herzog’s film portrays a world where European culture seems inherently incompatable with the American continent. In the end, the American wilderness crushes the party of European adventurers, who are portrayed as petty and corrupt, unworthy of survival. Aguirre is the ultimate anti-western. If it was to survive, the European presence in America needed stories that affirmed the goodness and justness of white American culture and its worthiness to flourish. This is what the mythology of the western provided. 

As it arose and developed in both literature and film, the western taught its audience that the important problems of existence occupied a rural context, and that these problems needed to be solved through physical action, intelligently employed. Consequently, westerns are marked by their rural settings and their action-filled climaxes. Therefore, an action story set in an urban setting would have difficulty claiming to be a “western” as the gere is commonly understood (e.g., Coogan’s Bluff, Death Wish). And a story with a Wild West setting that is not resolved through a violent climax would likewise have trouble being seen as a western (e.g., The Ballad of Cable Hogue, The Good Old Boys).   

[In other words, the western is an action genre.  If the movie’s central problem isn’t solved by a shootout, a fist fight, or some other form of physical struggle, it’s not an action film — and hence not a western film.  I roll my eyes every time I hear Ang Lee’s Brokeback Mountain (2005) described as a “gay western.”  Since the film doesn’t end with an action scene — in fact, there’s hardly any violence in it at all — the label “western” doesn’t do justice to this drama.  Now, if the film had been about Jesse James getting it on with Billy the Kid...]

[Although there are exceptions, the typical western is set in some place (specific or non-specific) on the North American continent west of the Mississippi River sometime between the end of the Civil War and the turn of the 20th century.  Why this time period?  Like other film critics, I believe that the overwhelming majority of westerns are set after the Civil War because the United States needed to overcome its founding flaw of slavery and the national disunity that schismatic issue provoked.  Only afterwards could the mythology of a truly unified country develop.  In many westerns, lingering resentments over the “War for the Southern Confederacy” emerge, only to be resolved by the end of the story.  And the 1890s marked the end of the Indian wars.  Afterwards, the continental United States was officially settled.]

Gary Cooper in ‘High Noon’ (1952)

Another intriguing aspect of the genre is that the classical western hero, usually a cowboy or gunfighter, exists at the intersection of civilization and the wilderness. He (the western hero is almost always male, of course) is seen to embody the best of both worlds: the intelligence and expansionism of civilization, and the instinctiveness and brute strength of the wilderness. He can’t be completely one or the other. This is why the sixgun is so important to the wilderness-dwelling western hero: it marks his primary connection to and reliance upon Western civilization, of which he is a harbinger on the frontier. 

It’s very interesting, for example, that the mythology of the western did not develop to privilege “going native” narratives, where Europeans or their descendents completely cast off Western culture and adopt Native American culture (even James Fenimore Cooper’s Hawkeye in The Last of the Mohicans remained resolutely tied to his white identity). To do so, of course, would have suggested that Western culture was somehow inherently suspect, and the purpose of the western genre was to convey exactly the opposite. The classical western hero needed to be bound to his European roots. So, even though there have been a few successful “going native” westerns — particularly Little Big Man (1970), A Man Called Horse (1970), and Dances with Wolves (1990) — this is not the mainstream of the 
western movie.

In fact, Little Big Man and A Man Called Horse were made during the Vietnam era, when many Americans were questioning the very validity of Euro-American culture, and these films are a reflection of that crisis of identity. Apparently, the “going native” mythology was so threatening to the legitimacy of Euro-American culture that America’s most successful and enduring rendition of the “going native” myth — Tarzan — had to be set on another continent. 

Although the western, at its core, affirms that white people are more deserving to live in America than the Indians are, this isn’t necessarily to say that all westerns are overwhelmingly racist — no more so than other mythologies that seek to affirm the European presence in the non-European world. Because he exits at the crossroads of Western culture and the wilderness (to which that culture stands in contradistinction), the western hero may be seen as an implicit critique of Western civilization, as well as its harbinger on the frontier. The western hero may stand as an ideal symbol of rural Euro-American culture before it became “corrupted” by the more impersonal forces of urban civilization. Therefore, not only can the western hero be the uncritical champion of Euro-American civilization, but he may also function as a figure of resistance to it. 

Because of this, it’s not all that surprising that when American culture reached its greatest identity crisis of the second half of the 20th century — the quagmire of the Vietnam War and the counterculture that crisis spawned — the outfits and hairstyles of the counterculture drew largely from the western: blue jeans, denim jackets, cowboy hats, long hair, droopy moustaches, etc. For example, the two main characters of that exemplary “counterculture” movie Easy Rider (1969) were both named after western icons: Wyatt (as in “Earp”) and Billy (as in “the Kid”). So, the Vietnam-era “counterculture” was at least as beholden to the western mythos as it was critical of its expansionist ideology, of which the Vietnam War was seen as an extension. At the same time, the Vietnam Era (the 1960s and ’70s), marked an upsurge in revisionist westerns: Lonely Are the Brave (1962), The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962), The Wild Bunch (1969), Soldier Blue (1970), McCabe and Mrs. Miller (1971), The Culpepper Cattle Company (1972), The Great Northfield Minnesota Raid (1972), etc. — films which criticize the western myth, but also may be seen to affirm it in other ways

‘The Wild Bunch’ (1969)

I think the primary reason why big-screen westerns aren’t being made as often as they used to is because American ideology now views contemporary problems primarily in an
urban and technological context. Also, the crisis of the Vietnam War may have tarnished the rugged “purity” of the frontier setting: in light of the war, the American frontier of the 19th century came to look increasingly like just another European military expansion into the Third World, rather than the mythic landscape for the triumph of white American culture. In other words, the western lost its innocence.

In any event, Euro-American culture no longer seems to be uncertain of its legitimacy to inhabit North America, so that crisis of identity may now have been played out and resolved — at least in a rural, pre-computer-age context. This would explain why the urban/gangster thriller and the science-fiction adventure have now displaced the western as Hollywood’s primary action genres.  However, the mythic images of the western — the idea of a rugged loner drawing upon his best resources and physical strength to resolve a great crisis in an “unspoiled” landscape — remain too powerful to die out completely, even in the imaginations of those who aren't white, aren't American, or aren't male. Westerns are still being made, though primarily for television. And the occasional big-screen western still makes its appearance, such as this year’s [2001] 
American Outlaws. Because it is so basic to the shaping of the American identity, the western — in some way, in some form — will always be with us. 

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