Paragraphs taken from a March 30, 1959, article in Timemagazine.
American Odyssey. Why has the television western far surpassed the popularity of its previous incarnations in the dime novel, the tent show, the wide screen? Why has it overtalken the space cowboys, the precinct operas, and the llama dramas? Says ABC Program Director Thomas Moore: 'The Western is just the neatest and quickest type of escape entertainment, that's all." But few are willing to let it go at that. Parents and professional worriers are concerned about the violence and sadism in the horse opera. Psychoanalysts are looking for sex symbols (all those guns, of course, are Oedipal patterns; to kill the wicked sheriff really means to kill Pop), indirect aggressions, "Women are apt to think of their husbands in the villain's role," says one Payne Whitney.
A much more convincing case is made by theorizers, both professional and amateur, who think the western helps people to get away from the complexities of modern life and back to the 'restful absolutes" of the past. Western Man in Zane Grey's definition of the term is in fact an almost exact opposite of Western Man in Toynbee's sense. In the cowboy's world, justice is the result of direct action. not of elaborate legality. A man's fate depends on his own choices and capacities, not on the vast impersonal forces of society or science. His motives are clearly this or that, unsullied by psychologizing (except, of course, in the Freudian frontier yarns).
Moreover a man cannot be hag-ridden, if he wants to get away from women, there is all outdoors to hide in. And he is not talk-ridden, for silence is strength. Says Sociologist Philip Rieff: "How long since you used your fists? How long since you called the boss an s.o.b.? The western men do, and they are happy men. Says Motivational Researcher Ernest Dichter: "America grew too fast, and we have lost something in the process. The western story offers us a way to return to the soil, a chance to redefine our roots."
Whatever truth there may be in such explanations, the fantasies of the television tube are perhaps most truly understood as shadows of a larger drama. The western is really the American morality play, in which Good and Evil. Spirit and Nature, Christian and Pagan fight to the finish on the vast stage of the unbroken prairie. The hero is a Galahad with a sixgun, a Perseus ot the purple sage. In his saddlebags he carries a new mythology, an American Odyssey that is waiting for its Homer. And the theme of the epic, hidden beneath the circus glitter of the perennial Wild West show, is the immortal theme of every hero myth: man s endless search for the meaning of his life.
Myth into Man. Change it does. Now as always, the legend is primarily concerned with Good and Evil and with man's relation to the powers of light and night. But in recent years a difference can be discerned. In earlier times ( Buffalo Bill, William S. Hart). the hero was completely identified with Good, the villain with Evil. In the upshot Good destroyerd Evil. But the victory often proved an illusion. Usually, the prize for which the hero fought was a woman, but in the end he often did not claim her at all, or if he did, what he got was a sexless ninny. Yet in many of the recent westerns thc woman is far less passive. She is continually attempting to bring the hero down to earth to make him face reality. She is behaving like a real woman, and the hero as a result, begins to lose his superhuman disinterestedness and sexlessness, begins to behave like a real man.
At the same time something of a more deeply problematic nature is happening to the western legend. Good and Evil, it seems are beginning to understand each other, to be reconciled to each other's existence. Often in the modern western a sudden sympathy clashes between hero and villain as though somehow they feel themselves to be secret sharers in a larger identity. Often the hero cannot bring himself to kill the villain until fate forces his hand, and then he performs the act almost like a religious sacrifice (Shane).
And now and then there is a western story--more often seen in print, but sometimes on film as well--in which there is neither a hero nor a villain in the tradi tional sense, but only a man, containing both Good and Evil, taking up the burden of his life and his times. In such stories the myth seems to discover what it may have been seeking all along: a way of rising above itself. The myth is transcended in the individual, the free man. In the freedom of the great plains the story of the West had its beginnings, in the freedom of the heart it seems to seek its end. In its finest expressiorrs, it is an allegory of freedom, a memory and a vision of the deepest meaning of America. .