A Man Named Sioux: Nostalgia and the Career of William S. Hart
- Film & History: An Interdisciplinary Journal of Film and Television Studies
- Center for the Study of Film and History
- Volume 7, Number 4, December 1977
- pp. 55-59
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The greatest symbolic statement of that journey may in fact be in the final shot of John Ford's The Searchers where the camera looks out from inside the house and the door slowly closes, blackening the screen. That shot is perhaps one of the greatest and most meaningful in American cinema. For me that closing door signifies the closing of an age, the crossing ofthat barrier that separates the modem world in all its complexity from that which came before. It is Peckinpah above all others who understands what the closing ofthat door has meant for us. In that last-minute crack before the door closes—when the shaft of light slices across our eyes—we can see crystallized the vision of what we have given up to become what we are. Through that crack is the vision of John Ford and all the mythic beliefs of our past. Peckinpah fractured that vision with a beam of light, the way a spotlight in your eyes produces fuzzy circles and multiple images and you squint or shut your eyes to try to counter its effects. Peckinpah realized the problems of the Ford vision. He saw values, traditions, all the elements of the Ford catechism as words that carried the seeds of destruction. Peckinpah fractured that Fordian eye but he did not pick up the pieces. He created no new catechism. We are left only with many images and try as we do to squint or close our eyes we can find nothing. If Ford too often slips into sentimentalism, flip patriotism and shallow morality, Peckinpah slips into sensationalism and nihilism. The problem with Ford and Peckinpah is that the one all too often fails to acknowledge the existence of the other. In essence Ford and Peckinpah are the fundamental poles of the Western, the dark and light sides of the American character. One looks ultimately towards the group, towards community—the spirit of "the regiment"—the other looks askance at these forces and sees in man brutality and in civilization, the modem world, the closing of any options. It is, as a friend ofmine put it, "the over and the under of it." We have not yet sorted out this dilemma in the Western or in our culture. A Man Named Sioux: Nostalgia and the Career of William S. Hart By Bruce Firestone Bruce Firestone teaches English at Clemson University. He e editor ofSouth Carolina review. One of the most popular and productive approaches to American literature in this century has focused on the interplay between wilderness and civilization in the American experience. That confrontation between the old and the new. the known and unknown, is recorded in the earliest writings of American settlers, and it remains an important element even now in that vast conglomerate we call American culture. Frederick Jackson Turner spelled out the significance of the frontier in his famous address to the American Historical Association in 1 893, and the thesis which he proposed-that our national 55 imagination was formed by "the existence of an area of free land, its continuous recession, and the advance of American settlement Westward"—has become a landmark in American studies. More recently, the Turner thesis has been adopted by film historians searching for a clue to the early and rapid surge in popularity of the Amencan Western film. Most film historians agree that the closing of the frontier in the 1 890s set the stage for the successful introduction of the Western film, and that the genre grew quickly in popularity because, along with the Western novel, it perpetuated an important cultural myth. Our need for a fictional frontier grew in proportion to the recession of the real one, and when that imaginary line finally went awash in the Pacific, dumping the last vestiges of Manifest Destiny somewhere on the beaches of Santa Catalina, we chose to relive the process—and thereby perpetuate it—in our fiction. The advent ofthe motion picture, which coincided roughly with the closing of the frontier, was fortuitous. It provided a popular medium even more accessible than the dime novel, one which seemed especially well suited to Western themes Edwin S. Porter's advances...