The American West is as problematic a concept as the American Dream; while there was, and is, an American West, it is presented to us in cinema as an intangible and elusive ideal. All Westerns, even revisionist Westerns seeking to portray the ‘true’ West such as Little Big Man and McCabe and Mrs. Miller, are to some degree effected by the fact that “[t]he history of the West has been consistently revised in accord with the dream” (Hine 1). As a result, I intend to approach these films by firstly analysing the concepts of ‘history’ and ‘mythology’, and to proceed from these concepts to their impact on the individual in the films in question.
It may seem ludicrous to suggest that history is a concept in need of explanation- the linear progress that is the western conception of history means that history is the clearly defined, rational understanding we have of past events, and the present we have today is built upon history’s foundations. However, even if we are able – as we never are in the instance of the American West- to strip history bare of the mythology that embellishes it, history is never ideologically pure, as best described by an ancient Tibetan saying “until the lions have their historians, tales of hunting will always glorify the hunter”. The most obvious example of this is the Manifest Destiny outlook to exterminating the Native American population until well into the twentieth century. Until very recently, history told us little of the diverse cultural groups that peopled America before the white Anglo-Saxon Protestant dominance of the nations history began to annihilate their culture. Perhaps it is true that, as Kevin Brownlow would have it “[n]o-one goes to the Western for a history lesson”, yet as the Western is often the dominant means for the public to appropriate the history of the West, surely it has a responsibility towards accuracy (Brownlow quoted in Maltby 34).
As Wright points out, the Western obsession with the settlement of the American West locates Westerns in a historically specific, chronologically limited time frame of the thirty years between 1860 and 1890. In 1861 the Indian wars began as the Cheyenne found the Colorado goldminers invading their lands; 1862 saw the passing of the Homestead Act. By 1890 all Native Americans had either been exterminated or placed on reservations, as the previous year saw the last ‘unoccupied’ area in America (the Oklahoma territory) opened to homesteaders in a massive land rush (5). A thirty year period would not be difficult to portray in a historically correct manner if the filmmaker so wished, yet the mythmakers of the West appear to be relatively unconcerned about accuracy of any kind- John Ford, for instance, notoriously demanding his crews research the people/place they were to film and then telling them to “Ignore all that and make a movie!”. The myths and legends created about the West are more popular, and hence more powerful, than the history of the West – “The legend is inescapable. The history exists because the legend exists. The history of the West is in a sense a subgenre of the Western, and revisionist history a subgenre of that” (Maltby 39).
Will Wright’s study of the Western focuses on the various distinctions between history and myth, and he defends the prevalence of the utterly racist and gender-biased myth of the frontier as a necessary form of continuing mythic thought in an overly scientific age as a method of understanding not only the past but also the future. He believes that “[t]hrough history the past is postulated as the locus of an understanding of the present, but history alone cannot provide an understanding of the past as a ground for present action and involvement”. While history fails to furnish us with a model for current social action, he suggests that historical myths will, as they establish an analogy between past and present in the same way that primitive myths do between nature and culture in a way that the coldly distancing gaze of historical thought cannot do (Wright 207-212, quote 208). The most obvious problem discernible in Wright’s assertion that present social actions will be enlightened by the past through historical myths is that the mythical past as presented to us in the Western did not exist, and hence that past did not become this present: surely causing any bridges built between them to be very shaky indeed.
For Slotkin, “[a] myth is a narrative which concentrates in a single dramatised experience the whole history of a people in their land”, hence a mythology is a complex of narratives that dramatise the world vision and “…historical sense of a people or culture, reducing centuries of experience into a constellation of compelling metaphors” (269, 8). Despite critics such as Wright’s defence of historical mythic thought it is hard not to see the dangers inherent to allowing centuries of American experience to become a series of compelling metaphors, especially centuries that involved a near genocide. It seems disturbing to allow a free creative re-working of actual events in order to compress history into an entertaining package, to allow the Western to plead a mythic version of the First Amendment and gain the right to rewrite history in the name of a free mythopoeia (Maltby 36). Metz inadvertently raises the question of whether any historical events should be recreated for film, as history is fundamentally about already ‘completed’ events, while “[film] is of the order of discourse, not history, resting upon the play of crossed identifications, on a continuous voluntary exchange of ‘I’ and ‘you'” (Metz 226-228, quote 228). The play of identifications we are bound to feel with the events being recreated for us on the screen surely should be with the events as they occurred, rather than a mythic and misleading counterfeit. The myth of the frontier that the Western so loves is not Slotkin’s hopeful “…whole people on their land…” but rather honed specifically towards one segment of society, mythologizing an American frontier that is quintessentially white Anglo-Saxon Protestant male, incorporating motifs and situations geared towards white experiences and interests (Buscombe 68).
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