A. Trace the historical and artistic development of the Western as film.For a sixty minute look at the chronology of the western, see "American Cinema #4: The Western." I summarize the film here, and include links to additional required readings.
B. Grasp the concept of myth as it pertains to the Western.
C. Define genre and describe the major generic conventions of the Western.
D. Discuss the connection between the closing of the frontier and the rising popularity of Western fiction.
E. Define Manifest Destiny and describe how the idea is reflected in Westerns.
F. Describe the key conflicts of the Western: culture vs. nature, East vs. West, old vs. new, order vs. anarchic freedom.
G. Understand the role of landscape in the Western.Read Jane Tompkins Language and Landscape.
H. Understand how changes in the Western both reflect and influence changes in society.Regardless of some students propensity to remain of the surface of each story (speakeasy), a multidimensional interpretation of the cowboy story can provide an understanding of the variables that influence world views of audiences from different decades. Recognize that films are products marketed to the American public and that film-making may include a predisposition that many, if not most, Americans will respond in roughly parallel or identical ways to the material. Films are market derived art. As our national character changes, the western (as a film genre) must also change, reinvent itself or perish. (For a more complete discussion of this idea see: The Cowboy Hero and Its Audienceby Alf H. Walle, published in 2000.) . For example: although not a western (with the exception of the final shootout) one film in particular immortalizes prewar versions of love, masculinity, and individualism--the mythic, sacrificial, solo, and heroic quest of Rick Blaine in "Casablanca" (1942) procures nationalism a sacred place above the notion of family and love. This is logical propaganda given the demands of the world war. The basic question, however, is ancient for we have looked at this same tension between nation or city-state and family in Sophocles' Antigone. Yet as Aristotle suggests, reversal plays a key role in dramatic success and Bogart takes on the challenge. The Postwar criticism of the antisocial comes later, apparent in Bogart's gone-mad individualism in what I regard as a western, "The Treasure of Sierra Madre" (1948). Bogart is our cultural centaur that helps us observe shifting cultural values in a prewar and postwar era of American film-making; his character is a roughed and rebellious savior during WW II and then, after the war is over, he becomes something different, a psycho-misfit for soldiers to suspect (when they come marching home) as a flawed man. Post WW II films portray characters adjusting themselves to domestic circumstances if they are to prosper or even survive. The film "The Treasure of Sierra Madre" asserts that the family is all. Domestic images recast males in a peaceful reentry into a post war society of marriage and fatherhood. The hero is measured by his capacity to live a domestic life. The criminal is measured by his inability to love anyone besides himself. The kind of women the hero meets in his life has everything to do with this story. Of course we see the exact same drama in the two texts written by Homer in 750 B. C.
In the 1960s, Americans were ready for fatal and antihero cowboy stories. These heroes may be noble but they are ill-equipped to survive in the modern world. "Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid" (1969) epitomizes the cowboy's failed metamorphosis, his failure to adjust to changing times. In "Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid" (1973), Billy (played by Kris Kristofferson) says to his former friend Pat Garrett: "Times have changed, but not me." This fatalistic hero, as a marketable product, would perhaps have been unacceptable from the 1920s through the 1950s. Yet in the era of Vietnam, such antiheroes reflect the cynicism of the times and become viable products.
When women arrive on the scene, this mythic drama between individuals and authority plays out again in a film that I also consider to be a western, "Thelma and Louise" (1991).This film is basically a remake of "Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid," but now we have two women attempting to navigate the landscape of "organized men" who are out to destroy them. While the death of Thelma and Louise is depicted as the inevitable result of their rebellion against masculine rule, they defy conscription and exalt freedom, even in death. Such a story (with female protagonists) obviously is a product of the '90s. The film suggests to men that women are fed up with the scripts of the past. Once again such a story would have been unacceptable during earlier and different times of American film marketing.
These above examples represent obvious ways that the genre of the western can be seen to reflect and influence changes in our society. I suggest we also consider the not-so obvious ways as well. For another insightful description and analysis of culture and the western read Gunsmoke and Mirrors by Richard Slotkin, 1993.