Historical Discourse and American Identity in Westerns since the Reagan Administration
- Film & History: An Interdisciplinary Journal of Film and Television Studies
- Center for the Study of Film and History
- Volume 33, Number 1, 2003
- pp. 47-54
- View Citation
- Additional Information
Alexandra Keller | Special In-Depth Section Historical Discourse and American Identity in Westerns since the Reagan Administration by Alexandra Keller Smith College "Certain, very small liberties:" —History and Authenticity I shall start with a rumor and a disclaimer. The rumor: that there was a shrine to John Wayne at the Alamo. My mother, a museumcurator,justhadto know, and emailed a counterpartwhom she had never met at The Alamo. Dr. Bruce Winders responded: To my knowledge there never was a "shrine" to John Wayne at the Alamo, with or without candles. . .There once were several items from the film on display here—his director's guild award, his coonskin cap, and a promotional painting for the movie—but these have been in storage for some time...The decision was made about eightyears ago to play down the John Wayne connection. There was a shift toward having an accurate historical interpretation. I came here nearly five years ago and have at time[s] had to tackle the clash ofpopular culture and history. It is an interesting challenge. There is a whole generation that has the Wayne movie (or Disney film) firmly fixed in their minds. (5 March 2001) The disclaimer, from the copyright page of Dave Eggers's A Heartbreaking Work ofStaggering Genius: "All events described herein actually happened, though on occasion the authorhas taken certain, very small, liberties with chronology, because that is his right as an American." The refutation of the rumor reminds us that films "clash" with history as much as they clarify it. The disclaimer reminds us that the "taking of liberties" is almost unavoidable even in historically responsible films, and in Westerns might be a culturally specific "right." The Western is a genre whose cultural meanings, both held and contested, coalesce as something oscillating between myth and history.1 Before 1980, a Western could be "affirmative" like My Darling Clementine (1946), RedRiver (1947) or Shane (1952), lauding "regeneration through violence,"2 the centrality of the individual, the inevitability of progress, the virtues of capitalism, the necessity of force and law, or the primacy of a community of men. Or it could be "critical" like High Noon (1952), Cheyenne Autumn (1954) or Little Big Man (1970), condemning violence and the genocide ofNative Americans, and trading the simplistic hero for more complex figures. Either way, there was little questioning of the necessity for the Western itself. The Western's near-disappearance after the critical and financial catastrophe ofHeaven 's Gate in 1980 (to recall how big a catastrophe that was, just close your eyes and imagine Titanic in the red), and its resurgence with the Oscar winning Dances with Wolves in 1990 and Unforgiven in 1992, coincide with the seismic shifts in American culture that were the Reagan-Bush years. There are specific reasons why, some touching thepolitical rhetoric of Ronald Reagan himself, some touching the "natural" generic cycles ofWesterns.3 When Reagan left office, Westerns began to return. "As a matter of fact," wrote pop culture observers Jane and Michael Stern in 1993, "the new popularity of Westerns can be quite easily explained by the fact that Reagan is no longer president. As long as that one-time sagebrush star was in the White House, Americans didn't need westerns so much because we had a cowboy hero leading the country."4 The Sterns delivered this assessment tongue in cheek, to be sure, but after Reagan, we can legitimately wonder whether—and why, and how— America once again "needs" Westerns. The Western re-emerged under a controversial sign: fullblown Postmodernism, the conditions of which have profound implications forhistorical discourse. As HaydenWhite (who does not use the P-word) has it, the story embedded in history is a narrative act profoundly marked by context, and neither neutral nor objective. "[F]ar from being merely a form of discourse that can be filled with different contents, real or imaginary," writes White, historical narrative "already possesses a content prior to any given actualization ofitin speech orwriting."5 History, then, is not separate from or, in its alleged objectivity, opposed to cultural production; it is cultural production. Neither authentic details of Native American dress, nor, say, the appearance ofWyatt Earp in any...