- Revisiting the "Revisionist" Western
- Film & History: An Interdisciplinary Journal of Film and Television Studies
- Center for the Study of Film and History
- Volume 33, Number 2, 2003
- pp. 26-35
- View Citation
- Additional Information
Langford | Revisiting the "Revisionist" Western Revisiting the "Revisionist77 Western Barry Langford Royal Holloway, University of London The cowboy film was typically the vehicleAmerica used to explain itself to itself. Who makes the law? What is the order? Where is the frontier? Which ones are the good guys? Why is it that a man's gotta do what he's gotta do—and how does he do it? EachHollywoodWestern, no matterhow trite, was anational ritual, a passion play, a veritable presidential election dramatising and re-dramatising the triumph of civilisation, usually personified as the victory of the socially responsible individual over "savage" Indians or outlaws. "They tell me everything isn't black and white," John Wayne growled in 1969. "Well, I say why the hell not?"1 Writing in 1992 for a general rather than a scholarly readership , Village Voice critic Jim Hoberman could permit himselfin his portrait of the Western a degree of hyperbole barred to more academic discussions ofthe genre. Yet the very unguardedness of this passage renders it especially revealing, and its working assumptions are furthermore entirely representative of the dominant tendency in cultural criticism of the genre over the last three decades. The traditionaljustification for discussing Westerns seriously is precisely that the Western's imaginative reinscription ofhistory has played an important part in helping constitute what is sometimes called theAmerican "social imaginary;" or, in a different disciplinary vocabulary, thatWesterns have providedAmerican audiences with, in Jürgen Habermas' phrase, "interpretive systems that guarantee social identity".2 Hoberman's adoption of this approach is moreover perfectly representative in the way it virtually abstracts the genre from any recognizable material context of film production or audience reception, rather situating it immediately as a numinous cultural experience. Thus, even as Hoberman subsequently notes in passing that priorto Dances With Wolves in 1990 the highest-grossing Western was in fact a parody Western, Mel Brooks' Blazing Saddles, this is not allowed to qualify the claim that "each Hollywood Western, no matter how trite" constitutes an utterance in an ongoing national conversation ofthe utmost urgency. In fact, ifbox-office returns were taken as the sole index of cultural significance, the Western's alleged cultural centrality would be hard to sustain: individually and collectively , Westerns comprise a fairly small and consistently shrinking share of Hollywood's take since at least the mid-1950s. Hoberman takes as his non-negotiable starting-point the idea that Western films are ritual and myth before they are films. Just how these myths are constituted—what indeed is the operative concept of popular media as 'myth' here, a sense that seems to hover somewhere between Carl Jung and Roland Barthes—remains somewhat mysterious. He does at least acknowledge that by 1992, the Western was already long past its zenith. The precipitate decline in Westerns output since the late 1970s (a short-lived mid-1990s revival would attend the popular and critical success of Clint Eastwood's Unforgiven3 ) seemed to have vacated the center-stage position in the American social imaginary allegedly occupied until then by the Western in favor of newer generic models—not only more popular but perhaps less fraught and conflicted articulations of American identity than the Western in its sunset years had become . Much commentary attended Ronald Reagan's infamous characterization ofthe Soviet Union in 198 1 as an "Evil Empire;" not least, the observation that by his adoption of a trope from the newly dominant genre of science fiction, Reagan was signaling an interstellar shift in the imaginative location of American political discourse. The phrase pilfered from Habermas above occurs in the context of a discussion of crises of social legitimation in a book written in 1973, when social and political systems throughout the developed world did indeed appear to be in systemic crisis. To quote the passage in full, "a rupture in tradition, through which the interpretive systems that guarantee identity lose their social integrative power, serves as an indicator of the collapse of social systems."4 Habermas was not of course concerned primarily (or for that matter concerned at all) with such ephemeral social epiphenomena as popular media texts (which are indeed for Habermas probably part of the problem rather than of the...