Cowboys as Cold Warriors: The Western and U.S. History (review)
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Reviewed by
Stanley Corkin, Cowboys as Cold Warriors: The Western and U.S. History. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2004. 273 pp. $69.50 (cloth), $23.95 (paper).

Cowboys as Cold Warriors is a perceptive account of the connections between Westerns and foreign policy issues in the United States in the half-century following World War II. Stanley Corkin, a professor of English at the University of Cincinnati, provides useful historical background about the Cold War as he describes how a number of popular films reflected the mood of the day. He draws on the work of a number of first-rate historians—Thomas McCormick, Paul Boyer, Elaine Tyler May, and Walter LaFeber, among others—to provide context for his compelling discussion of such great movies as Red River, High Noon, Shane, and Gunfight at the OK Corral.

Corkin sets out to show how Westerns "are not only sensitive to the currents of historical change but also expressive of shifts in national mood and circumstance" [End Page 103] (p. 2). He persuasively argues that as the United States found itself locked in a bitter struggle with the Soviet Union, the films he analyzes were influenced by the changing relationship between the United States and the rest of the world. His thoughtful introductory chapter, "Westerns, U.S. History, and the Cold War," deals with the way a number of key films in the genre helped to construct national identity at a time of "intense chauvinism and broad acceptance of a kind of economic and cultural hegemony" (p. 5). Corkin notes how the films simultaneously look backward and forward, combining nostalgia with an expression of America's growing centrality in the world. In short, he argues that the Westerns need to be seen "as products of a distinct time and place" (p. 12).

Corkin uses history deftly. As he takes up the films Red River and My Darling Clementine, he draws on Immanuel Wallerstein's world-systems theory, which deals with issues of capital and expansion as world trade helped define the relationship between states. Both films, he notes, describe economic outcomes that should emerge from the elements of American national identity. A cattle drive toward Abilene is a key part of Red River, and the effort to bring order out of chaos and establish a stable economy is an equally important element of My Darling Clementine. In both films, strong men seek to force conditions to bend to their will in the interests of freedom and individualism. These films, Corkin writes, "ask audiences to engage affectively in a view of the United States that allows for acts of empire or hegemony to be seen as the expression of a rational and moral imperative that will ensure progress and promote the development of civilization" (p. 29).

Turning to three other films—Duel in the Sun, Pursued, and Fort Apache—Corkin describes how they "emphasize the proper place of women" (p. 80, emphasis in original). He draws on Elaine Tyler May's work in arguing that the prevailing culture of the early Cold War years demanded that women embrace domesticity in serving the nation, even when it meant economic marginalization. Corkin shows how the three films, all dealing with women's domestic relations and emotional lives, reflected issues that were salient in the larger culture.

Corkin then takes up the issue of violence. He considers how films like Broken Arrow and The Gunfighter explore the question of whether violence was acceptable. Both films appeared as the United States was deciding how to respond to the Communist takeover in mainland China in 1949, and the concerns reflected in the films became even more compelling with the outbreak of the Korean War in 1950. The three films, he contends, underscore the "general perception that the world was an extraordinarily dangerous place" (p. 97). Violence is ugly, to be sure, but sometimes it may be needed.

In analyzing the so-called golden age of Westerns—the years from 1952 to 1956—Corkin vividly shows why films such as High Noon and Shane were so popular. Both movies tied liberal Cold War values to nationalistic symbols and featured a strong man standing up to bullies...


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