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Thursday, December 31, 2009

What happened to the Western Genre?

In the 1950s and 1960s, leading characters seen in hundreds of shoot-em-up westerns helped define American strengths; independence, freedom, individualism, patriarchy, motherhood, and business enterprise(cattle ranching, merchandising, farming, and banking.) From John Wayne in Stagecoach, Red River, The Man who Shot Liberty Valance or the Shootist to Jimmy Steward in Shenandoah, American values have been inculcated into a generation of young Americans who grew up admiring heroes who personified what it meant to be an American. But that was then, and this is now. In the last couple of decades, the western genre and the American values that it represented lost popularity with the American people. The question is why?

To be fair, folks in Hollywood are still producing western movies. Ron Howard’s movie, The Missing, a story that takes place in nineteenth-century New Mexico, is about a father who abandoned his family to go live with the Apaches. In his later years, he is reunited with his family and tries to reconcile with his daughter. Real bonding takes place when daughter and father chase after a band of renegades Indians who captured the granddaughter. Although the movie is similar to the John Wayne classic, The Searchers, Howard reveals that the studios didn’t want to classify his movie as a “western” because that would not be good from a marketing standpoint. Howard, in defense of producing a story that takes place in the nineteenth century America, that just happens to be west of the Mississippi River, justifies his actions by stating that he likes that period of American history. To further justify the movie that smacks of western lore, Howard states that “I always said that I’m going to shoot this, not as a homage to classic westerns, but from a psychological standpoint.”

In contrast to Howard’s The Missing, Kevin Costner understands that his new movie, Open Range, staring Costner and Robert Duvall, is a western. In fact, Costner criticizes the westerns of late for its lack of reality and too much emphasis on “floppy hats, a couple days growth of beard, and a gun.” In Costner’s view, that is not a western. Costner is right. The few westerns that have been produced in the last decade detract from their lack of story line with emphasis on bizarre outfits and unsolicited violence. There seems to be few heroes and most western characters little resemble the heroic characters seen in the western stories of the 50s and 60s.

Robert Duvall, who not only starred in Open Range but in the popular television movie Lonesome Dove, also understands what makes a good western movie. To him, it is the American cowboy. Duvall believes that the Cowboy is an icon known throughout the world—-an icon that represents “Freedom, the West.”

Duvall’s penchant for the west of the American cowboy is echoed by thousands or perhaps millions of Americans who have visited the West in the last two centuries. How could they not help but to marvel at the beauty of the mountains, the deserts, the plains, and perhaps show reverence for its creation? What a wonderful backdrop for telling stories that encompassed the American ideal.

And, it is because the western genre optimized American values and virtues that many would consider “conservative,” and therefore not politically correct, that the western had to go. If you don’t believe me, then read what Maya Seligman from Swarthmore College wrote. In her article, "The Searchers: A look at the Western Genre,” she starts out with, “Just How un-politically correct can a film be? The Searchers (John Ford 1956) certainly stretches the limits with its degeneration of Native Americans, its stereotyped Hispanics, its unequal portrayal of gender roles and its cruelty to animals.” Ms. Seligman goes on to admit that the movie “pressed all my buttons.”

Well, Ms. Seligman presses all my buttons. In order to adhere to her politically correct agenda, much of western history would have to be rewritten and in many cases fabricated. Whether we like the truth or not, Native Americans raided white homesteads, killed or captured settlers and set the place a fire. And, whether we like it or not, men played a dominate role in society, but womens' role was anything but submissive. The Searchers is fiction, but it captures much of the western experience.

A really good read that corrects one misrepresentation of western history is Vernon Maddux’s In Dull Knife’s Wake: The True Story of the Northern Cheyenne Exodus of 1878, a remake of Mari Sandoz’s Cheyenne Autumn. Sandoz’s book was made into a movie in 1964. Her book and the subsequent movie sentimentalizes the story of the Northern Cheyenne’s attempt to leave Darlington Reservation in Indian Territory(Oklahoma)and travel home to their homeland in Montana. Sandoz highlights the terrible conditions of the Northern Cheyenne on the reservation, their lack of food and general lack of care. But, she does not portray an accurate account of their murderous trek through Kansas and Nebraska. Her account is one sided and meant to garner sympathy for the American Indian. Vernon Maddux’s account tells the story of all who were involved, the Northern Cheyenne, the settlers, the cowboys and the army who captured Dull Knife and his band of Northern Cheyenne. In Dull Knife’s Wake is meticulously researched and endorsed by Dr. Richard Littlebear, President of Dull Knife College in Lame Deer, Montana. Dr. Littlebear graciously wrote:

For this reviewer, reading In Dull Knife's Wake has been an eye opening experience. I grew up hearing about our trek northward to home and I still hear about it today because of the immediacy of those events for all of the Cheyenne people. The descendants of Chief Dull Knife and Chief Little Wolf are yet among us. It was eye-opening because the stories that I have heard are couched in sad, mythic, and heroic terms. To this day, an aura of sorrow emanating from the events recounted in In Dull Knife's Wake still surrounds my generation and will do so with succeeding generation. I almost prefer these stories to the hard factual data researched by the author.

Politically Correct history also leaves little room for creativity. The recent publication of the Donner Party Cookbook is well received in most of the country except folks in California. The story of the ill-fated snowbound Donner Party wagon train and their ordeal in the Sierra Nevada Mountains in 1846 has been told and retold over the last one hundred and fifty years. Terry Del Bene, Ph.D. tells the story again in the Donner Party Cookbook, but adds a new dimension of interest. Dr. Del Bene is an anthropologist and a member of the Oregon California Trails Association. He is also an historical enactor and as such demonstrates his knowledge of nineteenth century food when he cooks many of the recipes and foods at various historical camps in the West. The recipes were used by members of wagon trains as they headed west in the mid-nineteenth century. The book is not politically correct because it dares to combine Donner Party history with cooking. You see, members of the Donner Party who survived the snowbound winter did so by resorting to cannibalism. But, Dr. Del Bene does not offer recipes for cooking a well done leg or arm.

Looking at the American West under a politically correct lens leaves little room for stories that extol such virtues as rugged individualism, freedom, independence, right to not only bare arms but to use them to defend oneself, and yes, patriotism. These are ideals that the politically correct minded people would like to diminish and perhaps eliminate from the American mind because these ideals run counter to the global framework that many liberals see for the future of the American people. The characters in western stories do not march in lock step to the demands of any one authority, especially one outside the United States. Western characters live in a land where “A man’s got to do what a man‘s got to do type man lives.” Men and women in western stories fight for their rights, where most conflicts are resolved when good triumphs over evil.

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