Western Movies, the historical reconstruction, the historical romance, and the formulary western

The western is the richest and most complex of all American genres, cinematic or otherwise, and the most enduring of all the stories that our society continually tells itself. As an American foundation myth it has been endlessly updated, transformed, and reworked through an array of discursive forms, from wood carvings and folk ballads to pulp novels and cigarette ads. Its lineage can be traced back through centuries of American lore to Indian captivity tales and colonial folk music, to the writings of James Fenimore Cooper and other less renowned fiction writers, and particularly to the popular accounts of the "taming" of the American West in the latter half of the nineteenth century. But the western story has been told most frequently, most powerfully, and most accessibly on film. Not until the emergence of the cinema in the early twentieth century as a genuine mass medium, in fact, did the western gain the widespread circulation and thus the "cultural currency" to be considered as something of a national legend.

This is a complex and perhaps a contradictory cultural issue, for to consider the circulation of western stories via the cinema is also to consider the formal and commercial imperatives of the burgeoning mass medium. From as early as 1903 with the huge success of Edwin S. Porter The Great Train Robbery, western stories were perceived as marketable commodities, and they were repeated and varied until certain basic structural features--many of them specific to the film medium--were clearly understood by both filmmakers and audiences alike. These economic imperatives demanded the repetition of the western story and the steady refinement of its narrative and thematic conventions, but it was the very existence of the movie industry and the social climate it represented that ensured the western's "larger" cultural and ideological status.

The rise of Hollywood signaled the arrival of America's urban-industrial age, a period when traditional values and established notions of family and community, of the social and political order, and of individual freedom and initiative were radically transformed. Hollywood movies were among the first and were certainly the most widespread and accessible manifestations of an emergent "mass culture" which brought with it new forms of cultural expression. The western genre was among the more prevalent of those forms, and in a very real sense it was "about" the very same conflicts that the new industrial age (and thus the movies themselves) had come to represent--conflicts between rural and urban lifestyles, between agrarian traditions and the conditions of modern city life, between the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, between the old world and the new.

The half-century "life span" of the genre, then, might be seen as the period necessary for our society to collectively work through those conflicts, to resolve the ideological contradictions that infused the western genre with its basic dramatic structure and its thematic nexus. And thus the socalled death of the western in the late 1960s and early 1970s as a mass media staple may indicate an ideological as well as a historical distance from the virtual world that the genre repeatedly displayed.

In essence, of course, the western is both historically and geographically specific; it traces the settling of the American West (defined generally as the land west of the Mississippi) from the end of the Civil War until the early twentieth century. In this sense the western is tied more directly to social and historical "reality" than virtually any other film genre, with the possible exceptions of the gangster films and bio-pics of the 1930s and the combat films made during and after World War II. But as Robert Warshow so aptly pointed out in his study of the gangster film, every genre gradually generates its own distinct reality. "It is only in the ultimate sense that the type appeals to the audience's experience of reality," Warshow argued. "Much more immediately, it appeals to the previous experience of the type itself; it creates its own field of reference."

This was particularly true of the western, since the historical reality it portrayed already had been "processed" for popular consumption not only by writers and painters but by self-styled purveyors of their own mythology, especially such outright hucksters of the symbol as Bill Cody and Wyatt Earp. But given the cinema's commercial, ideological, and formal-narrative imperatives, it was inevitable that historical reality yield to a romanticized and formulaic treatment. Jon Tuska, who has done extensive research into the filming of the West, suggests that movie westerns might be categorized as formula, as historical romance, and as historical reconstruction. Predictably enough, Tuska finds that formulary westerns and historical romances far outnumber authentic reconstructions.

The narrative structure of the formulary and romantic western is essentially the same. As Tuska puts it: "There is conflict within the community. The hero eventually decides to take part in the conflict and his involvement precipitates the death-struggle between himself and one or more villains." The conflict invariably is resolved in the most fundamental of all western plot conventions, the climactic gunfight. In the formulary western the outcome of the struggle is altogether predictable: the hero prevails, simply because the formula demands it. Here the historical romance differs. "What happens in the romantic historical reconstruction," observes Tuska, "happens for an ideological reason." A historical romance does not simply play out the familiar formula, as a B-grade western might do, thus repressing the sociopolitical and cultural stakes involved in American history (which did, after all, involve the near extermination of an entire race and the appropriation of their land in the name of progress and Manifest Destiny). Instead it steadily discloses its own "internal"--i.e., textually specific--value system, its own particular skew on the issues and conflicts inherent within the western "story."

This necessarily varies from one western to another, even if the films in question depict the same historical figures and events--the Earps and Clantons fighting for control of Tombstone, say, or Custer and Crazy Horse at the Battle of the Little Big Horn. We have little trouble with the idea that different film versions of these events tell the story differently, because each telling creates its own narrative context and, beyond that, each is specific to the political and ideological stakes of its era. It is no surprise, for instance, that Custer's legendary Last Stand against the Sioux and Cheyenne in 1876 would be depicted as a glorious and heroic military venture in They Died With Their Boots On, since it was produced by a Hollywood studio in 1942 when nationalism, xenophobia, and a call to arms were the order of the day. Nor was it surprising when some thirty years later in Little Big Man, the same event was portrayed as a self-destructive imperialist venture of absurd proportions, since it was directed by the iconoclastic Arthur Penn at the height of the American antiwar movement, when antiestablishment sentiments were running rampant among the "youth culture" for which the film was targeted.

All three types--the historical reconstruction, the historical romance, and the formulary western--have been prevalent throughout the genre's development, and in fact all three are at work in any one western film. The conventions of feature filmmaking, and especially the demand that conflict be resolved by an individual, goal-oriented protagonist, require that even the most accurate depiction of historical events be romanticized to some degree. And at the same time, even the most banal and predictable formulation requires a minimum of historical authenticity simply to be recognized as a western.

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