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J A M E S K. F O L S O M Yale University “ Western” Themes and Western Films Certainly one of the most notorious—if not exactly the most respected—American cultural effusions is the Western film. More­ over, Westerns, or “horse operas” as they are more familiarly known, are to be met with in nearly every part of the world. Indeed, a thriving market in reproducing Westerns now exists in both France and West Germany and, perhaps more surprisingly, in Japan. Yet a confessed addict soon learns that a taste for Western films is tolerated rather than rewarded. A rationale for enjoying Westerns might almost be said to be one of our more pressing minor social needs. Possibly a simple change in terminology is all that is re­ quired: Where drunks were once viewed with contempt, alcoholics are now regarded with sympathy, and the same motion picture palaces which were shunned for showing what used to be known as dirty movies are now patronized by respectable citizens who enjoy the same wares under the more socially acceptable rubric of art films. At present the sensitive Western viewer must hide his perverse taste behind the mask of scholarly research, and none but the most shameless can approach a box office to buy a ticket to a Western without experiencing a moment of irrational fear that some friend or employer may catch him, red-handed as it were, in the gratification of this illicit passion. The difficulty, of course, is that, considered realistically, West­ ern movies are silly, and most of the objections raised to them may well have more validity than the rather weak and sentimental argu­ 196 Western American Literature ments I can bring to their support. Westerns are an anachronism in the modern world and, though they may pretend to be sober history, they demonstrably are nothing of the kind; they tend to classify the complexities of human behavior into two mutually exclusive types of characters, good guys and bad guys; they are filled with improbabilities such as horses that never get tired and revolvers which never need reloading; and their language is stilted enough to have given rise to at least one recognizable American dialect which someone has aptly, if unkindly, named Hollywooden Indian. But every criminal, no matter how culpable, is entitled to a defense, even if learned counsel is, as in this case, almost certain that the jury will find against him. Probably the basic objection to Western films—usually put in terms of their being an “escape” from something or other which is doubtless more worth while—is that they are untrue to the facts of American western history. With the exception of an occa­ sional bandit biography of doubtful authenticity and a few rela­ tively rare cinematic treatments of particular historic events (such as They Died with Their Boots On, a romanticized version of the defeat of General Custer by Sitting Bull, or the various anachronistic “true” accounts of the notorious gun battle at the O. K. corral in Tombstone, Arizona), Western history is notable in Westerns pri­ marily because of its absence. Moreover, what meager historic content there may be in Westerns tends to be generalized as, for example, in The Sea of Grass, which is about the conflict between cattlemen and homesteaders in general rather than in some partic­ ular range war, or as in High Noon, where the sheriff and his outlaw opponents fight to the death in a world carefully isolated from any particular place. This objection may perhaps seem less compelling if one re­ members that the world of the Western film is true to a certain historic feeling, if not to particular historic facts. The Western mirrors a persistent nagging doubt in American life about whether the choice which America made to become a great, capitalist, in­ dustrial power was indeed a wise one. Not surprisingly, objections to modern American life have often taken the form of myths about alternative American destinies, destinies which at least for artistic purposes Americans like to think they positively chose against. “Western” Themes and Western Films 197 The Western, therefore, is not so much true to the facts of Amer...


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