Good Guys, Bad Guys: The Movie Western and the Popular Mind
- Film & History: An Interdisciplinary Journal of Film and Television Studies
- Center for the Study of Film and History
- Volume 5, Number 4, December 1975
- pp. 1-12
- Additional Information
GOOD GUYS, BAD GUYS: THE MOVIE WESTERN AND THE POPULAR MIND ELLIOTT WEST While recently visiting the United States, Soviet party chief Leonid Brezhnev saved his warmest bearhug for Chuck Connors, former star of the television series, The Rifleman. Most students of American life, however, have been far more reluctant to embrace the western hero. From the time of one of America's first motion pictures, the Edison Company's Cripple Creek Barroom (1898), the western has been an inescapable part of the film industry. In darkened theaters from Tokyo to Moscow, moreover , the horse opera has proved this country's greatest contribution to the popular entertainment of the planet. Yet many critics and scholars, when they acknowledge the western at all, dismiss it as infantile escapism unworthy of serious study. Despite this common point of view, the University of Texas at Arlington recently offered an experimental course, entitled "The Image of the West," that used western films, novels and other sources to examine national feelings and how they have changed. The semester began with a simple but ambitious assumption: westerns can serve as windows through which we can glimpse the attitudes of the audiences that paid to see them. The classic western was defined as a clash of two opposing forces, one representing civilization, the other the wilderness. The third and central element is the hero. Although he usually has the prowess and freedom associated with the wilderness, he uses these traits to protect and advance the positive values of civilization. Such a form and the ways it has changed over time can provide insights into many of Americans' most profoundly held beliefs. In particular, the western hero and his relationship with established society can reveal much about our complex feelings about individuality, freedom, authority and the desirability of "progress." Amidst the swelling bicentennial hoopla, it can be both entertaining Elliott West teaches history at the University of Texas at Arlington. 1 and enlightening to consider our most distinctive gift to the world of film and what this contribution tells us about ourselves. The class was shown six films: William S. Hart's HeI T s Hinges (1916), John Ford's My Darling Clementine (1946), George Steven's Shane (1953), Sam Peckinpah's Ride the High Country (1962), David Miller's Lonely Are the Brave (1962), and George Roy Hill's Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969). In addition, participants studied a variety of western novels, one drama (Arthur Kopit's Indians) , prominent western artists of the 19th and 20th centuries, travel accounts and even such diverse cultural phenomena as advertising, western music, Utopian colonies and dude ranches. When the course was conceived, it was hoped twenty-five or thirty students would respond; eventually, 120 enrolled. Such a crowd demonstrated the appeal of the topic, but it naturally inhibited class discussion. Films were chosen to focus on the hero and his changing relationship with society. Hell ' s Hinges and Clementine fit snugly within the classic pattern of the western. The first presents Hart (Blaze Tracey) as a barroom tough and gunfighter who is converted by the pristine sister of an ¿astern preacher into a defender of the upright folk of a rough frontier community. The story ends with the town destroyed by the clash of its good and evil elements, but Tracey and the heroine survive, presumably to lead the God-fearing in founding a cleansed society farther west. In Clementine, Ford retells the story of the gunfight at the OK corral with Henry Fonda's Wyatt Earp ridding Tombstone of the villainous, cattle rustling Clantons. Both movies mirror the American experience of their times. Hart's grim, almost Old Testament determination in doing battle for the Lord must have struck a responsive chord in an age saturated with the moral ism of Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson. Ford transforms an Arizona frontier feud into a rather explicit replay of America's role in the world war just completed; the Earps remain aloof from the conflict in Tombstone until they are converted into ardent belligerents by the Clanton's murder of brother James during a surprise attack, a la Pearl Harbor, on their cattle camp. More basically, each...