Will Wright Essay, Research Paper
Will Wright’s work Six Guns & Society is a proposal of a sociology of the economically most successful Western movies in the four decades between 1930 and 1972. Mr. Wright selects as the basis for his study, the sixty-four Western films that figure into the Motion Picture Herald’s top – grossing charts, that is films that made over four million dollars. Wright calls his book a “structural study of the Western,” and all of his research is strongly tied to the work of Claude Levi-Strauss, Kenneth Burke, and Vladimir Propp. It is not a study of film as art but rather of film as entertainment popular
First Mr. Wright discusses the nature of myth. This discussion is sometimes hard to follow because of the author’s excessive use of industry terminology but it is regardless a helpful analysis. Then he analyzes the plots of the films and divides them into four different groups: (1) the classical plot with an individual hero, roughly the 1930’s through the 1950’s; (2) the vengeance variation, the 1950’s and 1960’s; (3) the transition theme, the 1950’s; (4) the professional plot with a group of heroes, from the 1960’s and 1970’s. Wright compares and contrasts his four plot types and then further analyzes the films via four “binary oppositions” he sees in most westerns: inside/outside, good/bad, strong/weak, and wilderness/society. He provides close readings of the texture of seventeen different films and also refers to several others in attempting to show how these films illustrate America’s changing views about society and experiences evolving from these ideas. In chapter five Wright argues that the shift in plot patterns of Western films reflects a shift in the American economy from a competitive market that emphasized private and individual business, to corporate planning. This shift is said to have taken place after World War II in the 1950’s.
Wright never really defines what he means by “myth,” and subsequently the reader is left to search for a practical meaning. On page seventeen he writes:
“My interest, however, is not to reveal a mental structure but to show how the myths of a society, through their structure, communicate a conceptual order to the members of that society; that is , I want to establish that a myth orders the everyday experiences of its hearers (or viewers), and communicates this order through a formal structure that is understood like language.”
Essentially he is saying that these “myths” have such a strong influence on people that they govern their everyday experiences. Whether or not one chooses to believe that is irrelevant for the purposes of this paper. Wright wants to demonstrate the structure of a myth in order to discover its social meaning. On page 150 he writes that, “in a scientific, skeptical society, myths cannot depend upon magic and supernatural events and must have a more realistic base for the narrative action.” But who is it that is scientific and skeptical? Is it the mass audience for Western movies? Where is the basis for these claims? Questions like these are seldom answered in Wright’s book, one of its only flaws.
Nearly half of the movies Wright ha selected fall into his Classical Plot category, which he breaks down into sixteen narrative capacities. This form is exemplified by Shane and Dodge City. It is the traditional Western in which a lone hero preserves a society from its villains.
The second category is one which Wright calls the Vengeance Variation which first pops up in Stage Coach and runs at the same time with the Classical Plot in such films as Red River and One-Eyed Jacks up into the 1960’s. In this form, the hero temporarily abandons society to pursue a personal vendetta against villains whom his fellow citizens are incapable of dealing with.
The third category is the Transitional Theme, which the author says emerges and disappears in the 1950’s after only three appearances in High Noon, Broken Arrow and Johnny guitar. Here the hero moves further away from society and comes to identify the community with the corruption he opposes.
Wright’s final category is the Professional Plot, towards which the Vengeance Variation and Transitional Theme have been taking the Classical Western. This plot has twelve narrative functions, but basically the films embodied under it are about groups of professionals rather than a single hero, standing outside of society and, honestly or dishonestly, working for money. The Professional Plot is exemplified in such films as Rio Bravo, the Wild Bunch and Butch Cassidy.
People never seem to tire of studies about the cowboy or of novels and films dealing with him. Perhaps their remaining interest reflects American’s ongoing love affair with the mythic cowboy. Whatever the reasons, Will Wright does a good job of tapping that interest and providing the reader with fresh perspectives and intriguing ideas.