Westerns And Social Commentary Essay, Research Paper
Throughout history Americans have had a fascination with unexplored, uncharted, and
untamed territory. Never has this been so pronounced as with the American west.
Stories of bravery, new peoples, cultures, and strange new lands have enchanted
Americans for nearly two centuries. This attraction is strikingly prominent in the film
history of the west. Yet, despite it s early and lasting popularity, the Western has not
until recent years attracted the attention of interpretive critics. Many critics viewed
Westerns as an escapist, immature medium. Discussions of Westerns characterized the
genre as endlessly repetitive, utterly simple in form, and naive in its attitudes (Cook 64) .
However, since the late 1960 s Westerns have been recognized, similar to other forms of
popular culture, as a useful barometer of shifting currents in American society and
culture (Etulain 3). The development of the western film genre in American film culture
has progressed in manner, style, and ideology, and can be tracked in association with the
political, societal, and cultural trends of the last 90 years.
The first westerns were the same as many other first films, merely scientific
recordings of actual events such as wild west shows and rodeos. The first Western with
any content was The Great Train Robbery (1903). While still very primitive it gave much of
the stock form to westerns that exists today.
It established the essential formula of crime, pursuit, showdown, and justice,
and within its ten minute running span it included, in addition to the train
robbery itself, elements of fisticuffs, horseback pursuit and gunplay, along with
suggestions of small child appeal, and probably the first introduction of that clich
to be, the saloon bullies forcing a dude into a dance (Everson 15).
As train robberies and similar crimes were not uncommon in the early nineteen hundreds
The Great Train Robbery was immensely popular and even introduced a social
consciousness to film (Etulain 8) . Many of the Westerns that followed were similar in
that they represented the progress of film technology, art, and entertainment. Two early
pioneers of Westerns were D.W. Griffith and Thomas H. Ince. Admittedly, Griffith s
great masterpieces came much later, but they would not have been possible without the
language of film that he evolved in those earlier years (Everson 24). Despite the
technical and developmental elements of their films, both Ince and Griffith were making
films that had something of cultural and social importance (24). The basic value of a
popular western is the triumph of progress and its attendant middle class milieu over
alternative lifestyles that threaten society (Etulain 18). Common themes, as in Griffith s
Fighting Blood (1911), included a likable pioneer family with many helpful children, that
were struggling with life on the frontier. As the films progressed, the family would fight
off the threatening Indians, solve their family disputes, and prosper in their simple but
rewarding life. An evaluation of the historical environment reveals a link between this
typical plot and social and economical climates of the time period. During the early
nineteen hundreds much of America was poor and struggling, yet, the industrial
revolution was changing the lives of most Americans. Transportation, production, and
communication were becoming easier, faster and more efficient. Thus there was a hope
that the culture as a whole could achieve more and with less struggle. This is echoed in
the stock family s early struggle and eventual triumph. Secondly, the Indians in the films
represented resistance to difference. African Americans were receiving more recognition
and, as a result, more discrimination. This is especially true in Griffith s films, which
displayed a highly prejudicial motif. The Indians in early films were depicted as
uncivilized, marauding, peoples with no consciousness of their actions. They symbolize a
collective vision of the white man s prejudice against race and diversified cultures. Films
about Indians were really about a white nobleman proving his superiority in the wilds.
And almost every detail of Indian life is incorrect (Tuska 238). Many of these early
western themes carried and progressed into the 1920 s. With the rise of materialism
associated with the roaring 20 s, films about expansionism and imperialism as a means of
gathering wealth became increasingly popular. Themes of the California gold rush and
get rich quick in the West were notably common.
During 1929 through 1931 much of America was suffering from the Depression.
Yet, the advent of sound changed the role of Western films. However, sound pictures in
an outdoor setting were difficult to produce. Two films, The Virginian and In Old Arizona,
demonstrated that western films were possible, and that sound added colorful nuances
to the story, and that crowds would pay to see them (Etulain 25). Nevertheless,
Westerns took the role of being the B film in many double features, thus having lower
budgets and less of a following. The few A Westerns made during the first half of the
1930 s suggest a fickle public and a film industry unsure of what kind of messages to
preach to the public (26). The most successful Western of that era was Cimmaron, the
story of the Oklahoma land rush.
A big commercial success, Cimmaron prompted a number of outright
imitations using the same Cavalcade formula of a young couple coming West,
raising a family, participating in the opening up of new territories, and bringing
them through financial crises and political turmoil to the early thirties, when the
spoiled, easy-living activities of their children cried out for a return to the pioneer
spirit to lift America from the doldrums of the Depression (Everson 115).
The major motif tended towards the hope of overcoming hardships, particularly in the
economic forum. A return the American work ethic provided a main sense of value on
which to build on.
Recent studies of the films of the 1930 s argue that American movies
appearing after the inauguration of Franklin Delano Roosevelt in 1933 reflect a
renewed faith in the viability of traditional American values within a modern
world of economic uncertainties and technological complexity. Although FDR
changed the role of the federal government by having it assume responsibility for
the economic state of the nation, the president s most immediate image, fostered
on film and on the radio was a savior of traditional, small town, middle-class,
populist values of self-reliance, good neighborliness, and common sense
As a result, American films embraced this sense of renewed faith and encorporated these
popular values that were supposed to guide the country out of the Depression. Westerns
became the prime arena for portraying such values and inspirational stories. Nowhere
else were there so many actual stories of achievement and prosperity. Farmers on the
open plains of the Midwest, ranchers in the mountains of the west, and miners in the far
west presented varying but equally motivated portrayals. Thus Westerns presented
traditional values and history in a modern environment in which such beliefs about
American life continued to be triumphant (28).
As World War II brought the nation out of the Depression movie studios began
to shift their thematic focus to that of the great Western Hero. The Western Hero is one
of the most common stock images of both literature and film, but a corollary of the
geographic problem is the difficulty of sketching with any degree of accuracy the
composite image of the Man of the West. Corresponding to his habitat and moment of
history he may be a mountain man, a soldier or scout, an outlaw or lawman, or a
gunfighter (Parks 5). Still, for popular entertainment, audiences required the
fulfillment of a cod almost as rigid as that of the legendary West: the hero must be
romantic, yet familiar; he must provide a reflection of the audience s own taste in life
style, morality, and attitudes toward situations encountered; and he must be able to
furnish escape entertainment without too much challenge to the intellect or imagination
The many factors at work in the creation of a hero point toward conclusions
about heroic image that are applicable to the Westerner and integral to his
interpretation. First, the Western hero has been made more often than he has
been born. Second, he has been made to respond to simple, fundamental, and
popular needs and desires. The result is the development of an American folk
tradition and style through the artistry of the creator, a lasting impact upon the
American audience, and a niche in the pantheon American immortals for the
hero himself (77).
These ideas were especially important in respect to the war. American s had a renewed
sense of patriotism and were yearning for hero s that would symbolize their loved ones
who were fighting for their own freedom and the freedom and well being of the entire
world. These motifs helped the Western to flourish and regain much of the popularity
that they had lost in the early stages of the Depression.
The end of World War II and the introduction of higher quality technology and
innovation produced what many American s know as the classic Western. Most stars of
the late forties and fifties appeared in Westerns as the became increasingly popular.
Films such as The Magnificent Seven (1960) and High Noon (1952) are widely regarded among
the best films of all time. Additionally, Westerns were becoming more varied and less
conformist to the ideals of society. Many films
set precedents for the inclusion of sex and neurosis in what had heretofore
been considered a family oriented genre. Soon the term adult Western was
applied to the growing number of films that incorporated psychological or social
themes. However varied Westerns were becoming in the postwar years,
assessments of particular films were seldom divorced from what one thought of
the genre itself. Thus, a very wide audience can follow a Western, appreciate its
fine points and vicariously participate in its pattern of suspense and resolution.
While some critics in the forties and fifties dismissed Westerns as more of the
same romantic escapism that Hollywood had always offered its nondiscriminating
audiences, others calculated that Westerns evoked an attractive vision of
individualism and progress that seemed regrettably out of reach in the modern
world (Etulain 35).
In a sense, instead of portraying and symbolizing the needs and wants of society
Westerns were offering a criticism of the rigidness and ignorance of the nuclear family.
Yet, Hollywood studios were subtle in their commentary, were not offensive, and their
films were immensely popular.
As the sixties brought monumental change to society in the human and rights
arenas, so did the ideological standards of Westerns. Indians no longer symbolized the
white man s abrasion to difference but instead their tendency towards cruelty and hatred
that stemmed from ignorance. Filmmakers of Westerns made pictures portraying Indians
as victims of white oppression rather than ferocious, uncivilized wretches. Films such as
John Ford s Sergeant Rutledge (1960), and The Great Sioux Massacre (1962) gave form and
appreciation to the civil rights movements. Ford, for example, seems to be trying to
make up for previous cavalry Westerns in which Indians serve only as targets (44).
Thus, themes in Westerns now include one of the broadest arrays of subject matter of
any genre. By the seventies, critics and scholars would argue that the Western was a
flexible film structure that could accommodate any number of themes and perspectives
As Westerns evolved into the eighties and nineties many critics have suggested
that the genre is dying. Yet, a recent rash of Western s have been produced by
Hollywood filmmakers. Many of these films are depiction s of white man versus white
man confrontations in movies such as Young Guns and Tombstone. The social commentary
that these films represent will make an interesting evaluation on 1990 s society.
Furthermore the hope is that these films will be a new generation of Westerns that will
promote the lofty expectations of genre critics and continue the fascination with the