The Sagebrush Trail: Western Movies and Twentieth-Century America by Richard Aquila (review)
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The Sagebrush Trail: Western Movies and Twentieth-Century America. By Richard Aquila. (Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 2015. Pp. 360. $65.00 cloth, $35.00 paper; $35.00 ebook)

Owing to the combination of directors such as John Ford, Howard Hughes, and Sergio Leone, with stars like John Wayne, Clint Eastwood, Gary Cooper, and Roy Rogers, the western has arguably been America’s most enduring—and most self-congratulatory—genre of film. But beneath the veneer of ten-gallon hats, tin stars, and smoking six-guns, western movies have always tapped something deeper in the American psyche. According to Richard Aquila, a noted historian of the American West, The Sagebrush Trail provides “a much-needed chronological overview of western movies” but also seeks to illuminate “how westerns have reflected—and sometimes helped shape—American history and culture since 1900” (p. 10).

The book’s opening chapters cover the genesis of the western film genre and the industry that supported it; with near-encyclopedic command, Aquila employs the backstories of features such as The Great [End Page 493] Train Robbery (1903) and onscreen pioneers such as Bronco Billy and Tom Mix to impart how the successive transitions from Wild West Shows to silent films to talking pictures unfolded. More important still, Aquila illustrates for readers how western films—with their rugged, self-reliant heroes and vast, frontier scenery—functioned as a collective venting mechanism for disillusioned Americans at times when widespread immigration, industrialization, and urbanization began changing the look of the nation in more ways than one. That said, Aquila’s prodigious knowledge does not come without aesthetic cost: in these early chapters, his narrative frequently descends to levels of detail so minute that it runs a real risk of distracting from his conclusions and alienating more casual readers.

Most diehard western fans consider the 1950s and 1960s the “golden age” of production. John Wayne starred in The Searchers (1956); Gary Cooper courted acclaim and controversy in High Noon (1952); Alan Ladd reset the mold of the western hero in Shane (1953); and Clint Eastwood subsequently shattered that mold as the death-dealing “man with no name” in Sergio Leone’s Fistful of Dollars (1964), For a Few Dollars More (1965), and The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly (1966). Not surprisingly, then, Aquila is at his very best when covering this time period. In these chapters (five, six, seven, and eight), the book’s encyclopedic details give way to a more analytical historical narrative. Readers learn how westerns not only reflected the values of “Ike’s America” but also how a new brand of revisionism began to question long-held American ideals of self and exceptionalism. Eventually, Aquila communicates how this reflective power morphed into a more proactive conduit for countercultural upheaval in the 1960s.

Aquila’s decision to work with a malleable notion of “the mythic West” rather than attempting to define “the West” once and for all—either as a place, a space, a process, a mentality, or as some concoction of the aforementioned—was a wise decision. Much ink has been spilled by scholars in disagreement on this issue and wading into the fray would have added little but unnecessary distraction to Aquila’s [End Page 494] cause. While generally vivid and well written, the narrative of The Sagebrush Trail does seem to develop in a topical bubble, frequently isolated from other social and political trends in filmmaking. It may strike some readers as odd—or even unfair—to say that a book about western movies should include non-western topics, but Aquila’s case, especially beginning after World War II, would have been strengthened by more of these outside comparisons. These linkages might also have given the book a more significant opportunity to discuss how and why the genre seems to have lost its traditional grip on the American imagination in the twenty-first century.

It will be very clear to all who read The Sagebrush Trail that this was a labor of love for Richard Aquila. This book will likely become required reading for scholars of American film and for historians of American western culture. However, its overall length...