The Life and Death of the Classic American Western

Aidan Turek ’20

Opinion Editor

I love Westerns. The combination of majestic mesas, of gun-toting cowboys, the drama and tragedy of the Amerindian experience, the problematic duality of ‘civilization’ and the violence inherent in that term, all of it appeals to me. That genre, up until the 1970s, comprised close to a third of annual movies and defined an era in the American conscious. But the era of the Western is long over; indeed, the romantic flame of the American West has been almost totally extinguished. The American Western died on the cross of the frontier myth. The quintessential notion of ‘Americanness,’ defined by the frontier myth as the rugged individual who balances personal morality with the weight of ‘civilizing’ progress, was born in the repressed tyrannies of the European Enlightenment; in New England, that ideal of life began to prosper, but it was in the West that that wholly American ideal realized its full potential. It was there that the cowboy became the symbol for the American imagination, where Annie Oakley’s famed antics, or Sitting Bull’s renowned riding skills, all came together in the extravagant shows of ‘Buffalo Bill.’ 

American Exceptionalism, too, was tied to the dogged belief in the potential for progress and improvement. In other words, we became ‘American’ in the West because of the West; as the famous line reads, “go West, young man, and grow up with the nation.”

The mythos of the West is defined by dualities. There is the battle of civilization against nature, of progress against barbarism, of industry and centralization against nature and local autonomy. Just beneath the surface lies the paradoxical combination of ‘civility’ with the heinous massacres at Wounded Knee and elsewhere. The Western, as a genre, represented, this duality. That quality was unique; upon the death of Westerns, the same hero narratives so popular in the earlier Westerns easily transposed the plot but not the meaning. The sci-fi thriller overtook, and then completely eclipsed, the Western, despite hitting upon many of the same characteristics. Star Wars in 1977 bore the same cinematic DNA as the countless heroistic Western that came before. But sci-fi by its nature abstracts reality. The debates over morality, history, and the American identity were made obsolete in worlds of dark emperors and magical orphans; in the fantasy realm of sci-fi, any ethical debate is rendered solely theoretical, and thus immaterial. 

But what explains this shift from Western to sci-fi? After a material and moral victory in the wake of 1945, the Western, and the attendant belief in American Exceptionalism, ceased to be an ideal and became, in the minds of many Americans, a law. It was self-evident that America was the moral right, and that Communism was the great evil in the world. Ethcal quandaries became unnecessary given the evident weight of our victories. The substance of American Exceptionalism became utterly superfluous. We had armed forces across the globe because the law of history mandated our bringing of freedom and justice. This created a certain ideological brittleness as the belief in exceptionalism moved from a self-consciousness that our ideas must be improved upon, that progress came only from self-reflection, and morphed into a blind faith that America could do no wrong. In Vietnam, the illusions of the American law came home; not only could Americans not solve the problems of occupied nations, but the very promises—democracy, freedom, equality—were thrown back at Rangers in Phu Bai and Marines at Khe Sanh. 

The crisis in Vietnam and the Culture Wars of the 1960s ended merely in a wholesale rejection of the frontier myth and in American Exceptionalism; the law of American democracy, taken as a given, had been incorrect in one place and thus had to be thrown out in its entirety. Along went the Western. People turned away from the Western because they had expected moral certainty, when what that genre did best was link real problems with a historical tapestry, making abstract geopolitical dramas understandable miniatures in our great Shakespearean backdrop of the West. The death of the Western meant that ‘Americanness’ no longer existed in any one place.  

The loss of the Western has reflected a crisis in American identity. The founding myth of the West is exactly that—a myth. And yet that myth is deceptively capable of reshaping and reforming our shared identity, able to reflect modern concerns across an unmistakably familiar backdrop. The Americanness of the West—the hope and blood and cowboy and Indian—are symbolically and literally our history. There is no other genre that carries these signifiers; there is no one to take up the mantle of what it means to be American. The loss of the West has precluded our ability to comment on, for instance, the genocide of Native Americans, the maltreatment of the Latinx population in the Southwest, the corruption of our natural resources, the thieving hands of business tycoons and railroad monopolies. All are historical threads of the American West’s tapestry, and all are modern problems. In this current era of cultural pessimism and rampant cynicism, it is imperative to reconsider the mythical heritage of the American ethos.

“Myth is not only something given but something made,” wrote historian of the Western Richard Slotkin. “By our way of remembering, retelling, and reimagining ‘America,’ we too engage myths with history and thus initiate the process by which our culture is steadily revised and transformed.” I believe it is there in the drama of the untamed American West that we can rediscover an American identity worth fighting for, a place where the eternal ideas espoused in the Declaration—democracy, freedom, and equality—might be resurrected, and Americans might have something to fight for again.

bclark

Brendan W. Clark '21 is the current Editor-in-Chief of the Trinity Tripod, Trinity College's student newspaper.

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