I have a confession to make–I have never really liked movie westerns. The reason why is that as a kid, I had to suffer through my father’s obsession with Gene Autry every weekend with Matinee at the Bijou, as well as be confronted with westerns, westerns and nothing but westerns flipping through local TV stations on a rainy Saturday afternoon.
In high school, things went from bad to worse when my English teacher, who normally was calm, cool, and rational, seemed to have gone clinically insane overnight because of the book, Shane. Insisting that it was the most awesome, wonderful and brilliant story ever told in the history of literature, she forced us to read it, discuss it to death and eventually watch the movie in class. Her obsession was such that she became irate when a classmate giggled during one scene in the movie. (“What’s so funny?”)
All of this is why I could never stand the movie western. To me, the genre was the equivalent of being forced to go to church and listen to a droning sermon on a beautiful spring day while hearing kids play tag outside. But there’s another reason why I never really liked westerns. The genre has always been inauthentic as historical fiction, whether we’re talking about homegrown westerns pushed out by the likes of John Ford or the more recent pretentious arthouse coming from New Zealand director, Jane Campion, who had the audacity to defend her movie by arguing that the American West was a mythic space with plenty of room for everyone.
Given how condescending and completely off base her comments were, in this article I’m going to explain why her movie was just another long line of inauthentic movies about the American West, by giving a brief overview of what the movie western is and how and why it’s always been complete hogwash.
Hollywood’s Simple-minded Mythmaking of the American West
Let’s be perfectly frank: the American West, as fascinating as it was, contained one of the most shameful chapters in US history next to the slave trade. There’s no getting around the systematic disenfranchisement and government-sanctioned war against Native Americans, which included Custer’s Last Stand, The Trail of Tears and The Wounded Knee Massacre.
Yet, as shameful as the American West was, there was much about it that was colorful and romantic, however tainted by human tragedy. There was, for instance, The Pony Express; The California Gold Rush, Chinese and Irish immigrants building The Transcontinental Railroad; Buffalo Soldiers; American buffalo peacefully roaming the countryside, sweeping vistas of plateaus, deserts and the Grand Canyon; larger-than-life characters like Wild Bill Hickock; and notorious events like The Donner Party.
In light of all this fascinating history, you’d think that Hollywood westerns would’ve captured the West in all its glory. Unfortunately, the opposite has always been the case. Since the very beginning, the American West–with all its folklore, interesting people, conflicts and tragedies needing to be told–has been hijacked for mythmaking of the most simplistic kind, and in the following ways:
1. Movie Western as Manifest Destiny Apologia (1920s-1950s)
Let us start with the most obvious way that the American West has been mythologized by Hollywood. For most of its history, a large part of the movie western has been about how Americans “won the West” or–more importantly–how the United States, in the name of Manifest Destiny, defeated Native Americans and Mexicans to create a country that spanned “from sea to shining sea”.
As you can imagine, much of this mythmaking involved serving up stereotypical, demeaning images of Native Americans and Mexicans as stupid, barbaric and childlike to further underscore that it was okay if the US government marginalized or stole territory from them, because they were too undeserving of keeping all of this majestic land for themselves. Of course, these portrayals couldn’t have been furthest from the truth, but in trying to justify their treatment at the hands of the United States, filmmakers naturally weren’t going to want to paint them in the best light.
The Manifest Destiny western ran strong for several decades until it peaked in 1962 with the all-star extravaganza, How the West Was Won (1962). Released at the start of the Civil Rights movement, the movie was laughable even by 1960s standards and immediately written off by a younger generation as a relic of Old Hollywood and The Establishment. By the 1970s, films like it became a thing of the past, particularly in the wake of the seminal book, They Buried My Heart at Wounded Knee. Nevertheless, the damage was done, and to this day, many Americans still nostalgically embrace the Manifest Destiny western–not because they necessarily believe in its mythology but because having been shot during the so-called Golden Age of Hollywood, it has become an indelible part of Americana.