Gunsmoke and Mirrors

Life; Chicago; Apr 5, 1993; Slotkin, Richard;

Volume: 16

Issue: 5

Start Page: 60

ISSN: 00243019

Subject Terms: Motion pictures History

Geographic Names: Western states


The western movie genre is an essential part of American mythology. The history of westerns, since the first movie was made is 1903, is presented.

Full Text:

Copyright Time Incorporated Apr 5, 1993

You get the picture: John Wayne is leading a cavalry charge to rescue helpless victims from the Apaches. The strong, silent marshall--Gary Cooper, Henry Fonda, James Stewart--steps into the empty street to face the menace at the far end and makes Dodge City, or Tombstone, or "this whole valley" safe for women and children.

The western is an essential part of American mythology--the body of traditional tales, historical fables and heroic fantasies through which we remember our past. Movie images taught generations of children how to play cowboys and Indians. And those children, grown up, have used western movie symbols as General Powell did--as a way of simplifying the problems we confront and making terribly clear just what it is that "a man's gotta do" about them. Young men who had never been west of Hoboken knew what the sergeant meant when he said that Vietnam was"Indian country."

The myth is rooted in history: two centuries of westward expansion, during which white settlers cleared the wilderness and fought Indians and Mexicans for possession of the continent. Because the nation grew prosperous through the continual conquest of new lands, richly endowed with exploitable natural resources, we came to equate democracy with freewheeling individualism, mobility, perpetual growth, ever rising expectations. Because the winning of the West required the subjugation of nonwhites, Americans learned to divide humankind into "savage" and"civilized" races. We are a violent society, in part because the frontier experience linked the idea of human dignity with gunplay. "God may have made men," the saying goes. "Samuel Colt made them equal." But only a handful of Americans actually experienced the reality of the West. Most Americans, past and present, have known the frontier only through its myths.

Motion pictures were invented just as the real frontier was passing away, and they became our most important medium for translating fact into myth and extracting lessons from our past. The history of modern movies begins with the first western, Edwin S. Porter's The Great Train Robbery (1903), which pioneered cinematic storytelling.

The western had special advantages. Story composition was easy: Filmmakers could draw on a vast literature of novels, dime novels, stage melodramas and Wild West shows, full of ready-made plots and characters. They could also draw on surviving remnants of "the real thing." In the first decades of the new century most of the western landscape was unaffected by modernization, and many frontier heroes and villains--Buffalo Bill, Wyatt Earp, the outlaws Henry Starr and Emmett Dalton--were still available to appear on camera. When Thomas Ince filmed Custer's Last Fight in 1912, many of the participants served as actors and technical advisers.

Most silent westerns were formula films, featuring well-established stars like Bronco Billy Anderson, W. S. Hart and Tom Mix in predictable, melodramatic plots. The "realism" of these films was mostly illusion. The constant repetition of movie images taught audiences what the West was supposed to look like, who westerners were, how they were likely to act. The setting was almost always the typical board-front desert town inhabited by the usual suspects: an outlaw with noble moral instincts, a school-marm who loves and redeems him, a villainous gambler or Mexican bandit, ably assisted by a dance-hall slut. The viewer could rely on the haberdashery--white hats, black hats--to distinguish good guys from bad guys. Whatever the story, the audience could count on at least one thrilling horseback chase and a climactic shoot-out to settle the black hats once and for all. But as the industry prospered and horse operas gained in popularity, a larger, more ambitious sort of western was developed: the historical epic, which celebrated the winning of the West as the triumph of civilization over savagery, of whites over Indians, of the locomotive over the buffalo. A wave of epics followed the successes of James Cruze's The Covered Wagon in 1923 and John Ford and Thomas Ince's The Iron Horse in 1924, and westerns reached a new height of popularity in 1926-27, just as the economic boom of the Roaring Twenties was approaching its zenith.

The Great Depression that followed the stock market crash of 1929 nearly wiped out the western. The epic western celebrated the progress and prosperity of the American past: Perhaps there was too painful a contrast between such images on screen and the breadlines in the street. The grim ironies of the gangster film seemed more appropriate, and the musical comedy or the swashbuckling romance offered an escape from both the pain and the irony.

Then in 1939 all the studios decided simultaneously that the time had come to bring back the western. They were responding to the mood of the moment: The New Deal had restored confidence in our power to cope with the Depression. Now, with war looming in Asia and Europe, the time seemed right for films that offered a more hopeful and patriotic reading of the American past--a task for which the western had been the traditional vehicle.

This "renaissance of the western" began a 30-year period in which westerns were the most popular form of action picture in theaters and later on television. The renaissance westerns made several permanent contributions. They were modeled on the historical epics of the silent era, and they firmly established the principle that westerns are movies about American history. Studio research departments went to great lengths to develop stories with some genuine historical basis and to provide authentic costumes and hardware, from six-guns to stagecoaches and period locomotives. Most of these films begin with rolling titles, so solemn as high school textbooks, which carefully set the historical scene: "Nebraska, 1869. The Civil War was over and now the transcontinental railroad..." Virtually all these films drew on a mere 40 years of western history--from the gold-rush wagon trains of 1849, through the Civil War, to the Plains Indian wars, the transcontinental railroads and the heyday of the range cattle business (1870-90). Yet their power was such that this narrow slice of time has come to symbolize the whole history of expansion that preceded it.

In the movie version of western history, 40 years of cowboys and Indians, six-guns and Stetsons outweigh two centuries of long rifles, buckskins and colonial rangers battling the French and Indians.

Since this wave of productions also sent writers rummaging through history, the kinds of stories a western could tell became more various. And since the history in these films was being looked at for patriotic purposes, the renaissance westerns also established the practice of looking to the frontier past for imaginative solutions to current problems--industrial conflict, social justice, war and peace. Films like Dodge City and Union Pacific (1939) and Western Union (1941) associated the western with the heroic phase of America's industrial growth. Dodge City set the pattern. The film opens on a race between a stagecoach and a locomotive of the new railroad: "That's the symbol of America's future. Progress!

Iron men and iron horses, you can't beat 'em." Warner Bros. emphasized the patriotic purpose of the film by premiering it in Dodge City itself, amid a historical pageant described by studio flacks as "one of the biggest things that has ever been put on in the history of show business."

But westerns also took up the thornier issues of war and social justice. Santa Fe Trail (1940) starred Errol Flynn as J.E.B. Stuart and a young Ronald Reagan as George Custer, leading the cavalry in an effort to keep political fanatics (John Brown's abolitionists) from organizing an army to take over the state of Kansas.

One of the most popular of the new westerns was Jesse James (1939), directed by Henry King: a sympathetic portrait of the outlaw as a folk hero, a Robin Hood who battles greedy railroad men. King's folk epic took the gangster film's dark and critical view of American capitalism, gave it populist appeal by shifting the action from the modern city to the agrarian past and managed to blend a critique of economic exploitation into a story that still ends by celebrating American progress. The cult of the outlaw (as one film historian has called it) has proved one of the most durable subjects on the western, from The Return of Frank James and When the Daltons Rode (1940) to Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969) and The Outlaw Josey Wales (1976).

The outbreak of World War II briefly arrested the further development of the western. From 1942 to 1945 the war film became the dominant form of action movie. But after victory and demobilization, as soldiers came home to Brooklyn and Texas, Hollywood came home to the western, picking up pretty much where the renaissance left off.

From an artistic as well as a commercial point of view, the years 1946 to 1960 may have been the western's gold age. By the time of the Korean war the western had developed a symbolic language both rich in meaning and widely understood.

The town-tamer western--films ranging from John Ford's classic interpretation of Wyatt Earp in My Darling Clementine (1946) to Fred Zinneman's bleak and disillusioned High Noon (1952)--dealt with crime as an obstacle to progress and starkly posed questions about law and justice, individual responsibility and social solidarity. Increasingly, the heroes of these films appeared as loners who have to uphold the code of heroic values--you can't run away from a fight--in the face of public misunderstanding and social cowardice. The cult of the outlaw metamorphosed into the gunfighter movie--The Gunfighter (1950), Shane (1953), No Name on the Bullet (1959), Last of the Fast Guns (1960)--a highly stylized action film that transformed the western shoot-out into a ritual. Here was a new kind of hero, neither a populist outlaw nor an elected sheriff, but a professional killer.

Gunfighter heroes were telling symbols for cold war America: alienated men, watchful as any paranoid, faster on the draw but menaced by every kid with a gun--at once the most powerful and the most vulnerable of men.

The formalization of the western allowed filmmakers to explore all sorts of forbidden or difficult subjects. In the era of McCarthyism and the black-list, when political expression of any kind was dangerous for a filmmaker, westerns provided safe vehicles for disguised commentary on the toughest issues of the day, including civil rights and the cold war. In 1950 Broken Arrow and Devil's Doorway shoed Indians as sympathetic figures, victims of mistreatment and prejudice who were willing to make peace with whites.

But westerns also mirrored the harder face of cold war politics. Beginning with Ford's famous "cavalry trilogy" of 1948-50 (Fort Apache, She Wore a Yellow Ribbon, Rio Grande), the western provided a way to treat the concerns of the war film--choice of enemy, preparedness, whether to attack first or defend--in the language of the western. Ford's Rio Grande was released on November 15, 1950, at a critical point of the Korean war, when the issue was whether or not General Douglas Mac Arthur should cross the Yalu River and risk World War III by attacking Red China. On the same screen that showed John Wayne as Colonel Kirby Yorke, glaring across the Rio Grande at Apache sanctuaries that fussy diplomats forbade him to attack, newsreels were showing McArthur staring through his binoculars across the Yalu into China. In Rio Grande the myth of the western hero tells Yorke (and the audience) what is the right and necessary thing to do: He must disobey his government, cross the river and "get it done." The idea occurs that perhaps a similar imperative guides--or ought to guide--the newsreel general as well.

Westerns continued to serve as vehicles for political mythmaking, particularly after 1960 when John J. Kennedy identified his forward-looking, activist administration as the New Frontier. The slogan characterized the young President's personal and political style: a mixture of idealism and militaristic tough-mindedness that made Kennedy (in the words of political columnist Joe Klein) "the ultimate existential gunslinger." Filmmakers played out two of the most important initiatives of the New Frontier: support for the civil rights movement at home and counterinsurgency in the third world--especially Vietnam. The late '50s and early '60s saw a spate of civil rights westerns dealing with themes of integration and racial tolerance. Trooper Hook and The Tin Star (1957) dealt with interracial (white-Indian) relationships. In Walk Like a Dragon (1960) a Chinese immigrant Americanizes himself by learning the arts of the gunfighter.

The counterinsurgency theme became dominant in western movies during the New Frontier. In Vera Cruz (1954) and most notably in The Magnificent Seven (1960), Hollywood anticipated the direction of American policy by sending a group of American gunfighters south of the border to aid democratic Mexican peasants fighting oppressive foreign dictators and native warlords. These films set the pattern for what might be called the Green Beret western, in which American gunfighters in Mexico symbolically act out the program of counterinsurgency that Kennedy and his advisers had designed for the third world.

The development of these westerns paralleled the course of our engagement in the Vietnam war. As the public began to question the way the war was being fought, westerns also began to raise questions about the logic of our policy. In Sam Peckinpah's masterpiece, The Wild Bunch (1969), several American outlaws confront a Mexican military dictator who has imprisoned and tortured their comrade, a Mexican campesino with revolutionary sympathies. But the classic rescue scene, and the traditional final shoot-out between democratic good and evil tyranny, soon degenerates into a general massacre of rescuers and rescued, dictators and civilians--the perfect visualization of the phrase, spoken by anAmerican captain in 1968, that came to embody the ultimate absurdity of the war: "We had to destroy the city in order to save it."

When the Vietnam war ended, so did the western's 30-year boom. Other genres have taken over some of the western's themes. The town-tamer and gunfighter westerns gave way to fables of gunslinger cops and urban vigilantes in the Death Wish and Dirty harry series. Star Wars and Star Trek replaced the cavalry and counterinsurgency westerns, substituting the "final frontier" of outer space for the wild frontier of the Old West.

The western that have appeared since 1980--films like Heaven's Gate, Silverado, the two Young Guns movies and Dances with Wolves--reflect the disruption of a Hollywood tradition that began with The Great Train Robbery. Directors like John Ford learned their craft by working on westerns within the studio system. The new directors have studied westerns, which is not the same thing. Their westerns seem self-conscious and more than a little nostalgic, as if they are aware that they are dealing with a classic form that really belongs to an older Hollywood.

But in the right hands, this approach can still produce interesting and powerful films. The Outlaw Josey Wales shows Clint Eastwood's understanding of the cult of the outlaw. The film combines historical reconstruction with a response to a contemporary issue, the bitter aftermath of Vietnam. There is no mistaking the meaning of the film's final line, in which Josey forgives his last enemy: "We all died a little in that damned war."

Eastwood's most recent western, Unforgiven (1992), has the spareness, intensity and depth of a genuine classic. It starts out as a straightforward variation of the Shane formula--the great gunfighter, who has been morally redeemed by the love of a good woman, arrives to help the helpless.

But the movie develops into a subtle study in human character and the character of myth: The unfolding action and the well-designed interactions between Eastwood and his supporting players gradually reveal that something essential in the soul of gunfighter Bill Munny has remained unredeemed by the life and sainted memory of his dead wife. His power comes from neither the justice of his cause (which is dubious) nor the purity of his soul but from the fact that he still has a killer's heart and mind and is able to take a life without hesitation or afterthought.

Dances with Wolves and Unforgiven call our attention to the dark side of the western, the dark side of American cultural myth--the side that sees violence as essential to progress and to the vindication of one's moral character, that sees a massive (but miraculously precise and selective) shoot-out as a viable solution to almost any given problem; the side that divides the world along lines of race and culture and dehumanizes those on the other side of the border by identifying them as savages and outlaws. But as these films suggest, the western can be more than a device for reinforcing a mythology of violence and division. Because it is so closely identified with American history, the western provides superbopportunities for artists to reexamine our past and reimagine our myths.

As we contemplate our common history from the perspective of 1993, even the Indian wars can be seen as civil wars. If that is so, perhaps the best westerns of all are waiting to be made.

Richard Slotkin is the author of Gunfighter Nation: The Myth of the Frontier in Twentieth-Century America.