Americans tend to romanticize the West--the cowboy survives as a symbol of an optimistic and religious belief in the triumph of good over evil, the persistence if you will of Calvin's theology. John Calvin (1509-1564), a French theologian and reformer, established Protestantism throughout Europe and encouraged churches elsewhere to promote Protestant doctrines. Calvinism, in a broad view, continues to have a profound influence on thought in America and presents human experience as an ongoing contest between Good and Evil. Humans may indeed be corrupt, yet through the grace of God we can achieve a state of salvation. Choice is illusion because all experience dramatizes the contest where Good will prevail and Evil will inevitably be destroyed--all experience is allegorical; all narratives symbolize this predetermined outcome (divine mythos). According to Calvinism, then, our stories are (in the end) religious and optimistic. As mythic formula in the West, the doctrine constantly assures us that Evil is doomed to destruction.
Films such as The Electric Horseman (1979), Lonely Are the Brave(1962) and The Natural (1984) implicitly dramatize a central cultural mythology about the contradictory values represented in the American dream. The Frontier setting has always functioned as a symbolic territory expressing our aspirations and our deepest fears, as well as our ironic sense of tragedy brought on by progress. In the mythic West, the cowboy in the open landscape (and the baseball player in the open field) encounters the dehumanizing and corrupt systems associated with industrialized and technological development. The outcome of the contest between good and evil within the 60s and the 80s tells us something about the attitudes of different eras of American history.
Details about the Cowboy West are eloquent symbols because they, like the cowboy himself, represent the final stage of conquest of the New World. The western landscape itself is haunted with meaning, a stark setting suited, because of its vast contrasts and overwhelming presence, to dramatize the essential American story, the ironic, the ambivalent drama of the frontier hero's encounter with the new world.
The drama has three basic elements:
1. Setting: opposition between the Old World (civilization, the East) and the new world (Nature and/or wilderness), which also includes a transition area (frontier). In modern scenarios, Aristotle's notion of reversal applies: the Old World represents a glorious and vast frontier past associated with freedom and naturalness--the American Western Frontier. The New World represents the closing of the frontier and technological development of the West--oil exploration in the interior of Alaska, strip mining in Wyoming, clear-cutting in the Cascades, urban sprawl outside any western metropolis, suburban encroachment on the open desert outside Phoenix, environmental devastation throughout the West. This is the setting for The Electric Horseman.
2. Hero: a frontier figure (or figures, often with wilderness and or civilized companions) who moves between both worlds.
3. Narrative: as "progress" advances, the hero's destiny resolves or dramatizes conflicts between the Old World and the New World--triumphantly, ironically, tragically, or comically--usually through some version of failed or achieved metamorphosis.
Central to the Western myth, the cowboy (as metaphor) acts as a kind of social ritual that reaffirms certain basic cultural values, resolving tensions, and establishing a sense of continuity between past and present.
Ironically and perhaps dangerously, some mythological stories, again and again, tenaciously ignore reality and history, as William Kittredge suggests in "The Politics of Storytelling" and "Death of the Western."