Neil Campbell. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2013. 432 pages, $65.00.
The question “What is the post-Western?” is the catalyst for Neil Campbell’s Post-Westerns: Cinema, Region, West. Those who study the post-Western understand that the genre’s elasticity lends itself to varied theoretical applications. However, this same elasticity raises questions and debates regarding how “Western” the post-Western remains through the ever changing cycles of cinema. Campbell maintains that post-Western films critically recycle and respond to the conventions of the Western. Post-Westerns is comprised of ten chapters. Apart from an introduction, conclusion, notes, and a functional index, these include a chapter on the films of Dennis Hopper that touches on Easy Rider (1969) and The Last Movie (1971) as well as a chapter-length critical discussion of the urban post-West. In many ways, this study serves as a suitable conclusion of Campbell’s trilogy on the West, following his previous two book length studies, The Cultures of the American West (2000) and The Rhizomatic West (2008).
Focusing on films released after the year 1945, the author uses the end of World War II as a point of departure from which to map shifting attitudes about the American West. Campbell’s readings often position classic Westerns as reference points for the critical frameworks he claims post-Westerns reuse and recast. Campbell contends that the classical Western is defined though its tropes, which validate the “establishing of roots in the New World,” condone the “taming” of land removed from its native inhabitants, “domesticate the feminine,” and articulate “a renewing masculinity as the source and engine” [End Page 48] for the settlement of the West (11). Accordingly, Campbell defines the mythic Western hero as a man who stands for moral good as reflected by one or more of these major tropes (11). Films such as My Darling Clementine (1946) and Red River (1948) serve as archetypes of the classic Western. Campbell defines the post-Western, on the other hand, as a genre that views the West “no longer as an ideal” and instead examines the complex histories and identities of the region (15). “[R]ather than [John] Ford’s landscape having ‘vanished,’” elucidates Campbell, “it lives on directly or indirectly in new and often very different, perhaps even contrary works” (16). The post-Westerns surveyed include: The Lusty Men (1952), Bad Day at Black Rock (1954), The Misfits (1961), The Exiles (1961), Fat City (1972), Silver City (2004), Don’t Come Knocking (2005), and Down in the Valley (2005).
Campbell argues that post-Westerns are actually “ghost Westerns” (2). This name fits, as the paradigm of the supposedly “dead” genre—the Western—initiates his discussion of the post-Western. In the epigraph to Campbell’s introduction, Renée L. Bergland compares the American West to a “defiled grave” (1). The quote, while unsettling, demonstrates the severity of Campbell’s multicultural and muti-West approaches to cinema as well as history, particularly as he challenges the narrative of a national identity embedded in the Western. Campbell claims that Westerns look to the past in order to understand and rationalize the contemporary West. He describes a cinematic history in which the “origin story of the United States was solidified in the Western, materialized in the actions of its heroes and villains, and naturalized through its specific geomystical symbolic locations” (11, emphasis in the original). This justifies his critical argument for the ghost Westerns he analyzes, as his book is a reflection on these films and the mechanisms they use to comment on, contest, and encapsulate the American West. In response to the view that the Western has buckled under the weight of revisionism, Campbell argues that the frame of the Western did not “collapse,” but rather came to question “the ideological frameworks that conjured it…” (3). In this way, Campbell asserts that the post-Western has the ability to work within narrative and genre conventions of the Western while at the same time stretching the limits of convention in order to comment critically on itself.
In his first chapter, “Dead Westerns: The Posthumous and the Post-Western...