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SUSAN KOLLIN Dead Man, Dead West On Saturday morning television, the cowboy has fifty bullets in his sixshooter ; he never needs to reload. It's just one more miracle for this country 's hetoes. Sherman Alexie, "My Heroes Have Never Been Cowboys" ... to understand the West as somehow a joke comes a little closer to getting it straight. Leslie Fiedler, Return of the Vanishing American N 1976, Thames Television produced a 30-minute documentary Death in the West which examined the most famous and successful cigarette advertising campaign ever made, Philip Morris's Marlboro Man. Featuring interviews with American cowboys, the film showcased a breed of "hard-working, hard-living, hard-smoking" men now suffering the ravages of emphysema and lung cancer after their decades-long smoking addictions. Watching one cowboy at his ranch, an air tank roped to his horse and nose tubes strapped in place as he makes his morning round-up, viewers are reminded of the reasons Philip Morris employed what has become perhaps the most enduring icon of American national identity. As "missionaries" for Marlboro, cowboys symbolized the company's confidence and certainty, while cigarettes themselves aided in the production of cowboy mythology, particularly in notions of manly toughness and vigor. The documentary indicates, however, the ways denial and repression go a long way in shoring up the image of the tobacco company and the real "Marlboro men" featured in the film. One Philip Morris executive, for instance, in refuting the dangers of smoking, explains "anything can be harmful . . . applesauce can be harmful if you eat enough of it." Later in the film, a 55-year-old cowArizona Quarterly Volume 56, Number 3, Autumn 2000 Copyright © 2000 by Arizona Board of Regents issN 0004-1610 126Susan Kollin boy from Arizona expresses a similar lack of awareness; after having been diagnosed with terminal lung cancer, he confesses that his doctor "couldn't have surprised me more had he told me 1 was pregnant." In many ways, Philip Morris chose a perfect symbol for its product. Regularly featuring a backdrop of rugged natural landscapes against which American cowboys work and smoke, the Marlboro campaign traded on fantasies of freedom and escape long associated with the West, especially on myths about the curative qualities and regenerative possibilities of the region. "Come to where the flavor is," the ads beckon viewers, "come to Marlboro country." Much has changed, however , in the more than twenty years since Death in the West first appeared on British television, most notably in the ways the tobacco industry has been held accountable for its product.1 At the same time, as evidenced by a slew of recent films, much has changed in the reception ofWestern myths, as the kind ofcriticism launched against Philip Morris concerning its deadly use offrontier icons is now being transposed to the movie industry itself. As a genre that has typically served the interests of a colonial national fantasy and as a cultural form that has been marked by a series of evasions concerning gender identity, racial conflict, land theft, and genocide, the classic Hollywood Western has become something of an embarrassment in an era of feminism, multiculturalism, and ecology.2 With its continual obsession about white masculinity, its emphasis on violence as means of securing white encroachment across the continent , and its recurring theme of civilization's triumph over frontier savagery , the classic Western has been aptly described as "the principal war myth of the American nation-state" (Burgoyne 49). Yet even as it has earned a reputation for its disavowals and repressions, one of the most fascinating features of the genre is its profound disdain for what Jenni Calder describes as "the sordid and the corrupt" (4). The classic Western , it seems, hates all fotms of hypocrisy except maybe its own. In recent years, however, western iconography has become subjected to a more critical interpretive gaze, for if the West traditionally has been depicted as a place ofpromise and possibility, as a site offering cultural escape and personal renewal, a growing number of cultural texts are highlighting the ways the West as discursive construction masks all sorts of unpleasant and deadly elements. Recent Western films are a particularly fruitful...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1558-9595
Print ISSN
0004-1610
Pages
pp. 125-154
Launched on MUSE
2014-04-02
Open Access
No
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