How Movies Portrayed The American West

Sorry that it has taken so long to for this entry to appear.  I had computer issues and now that they are resolved, I can get back to blogging.  Technology is great—a great pain that is.

Well, this entry will be about a place that existed before computers, television, radio, motion pictures, but it was around when photography was established.  What is this place?  The American West.

To those living outside of the U.S., the American West, (a.k.a. The Frontier, Old West) is the part of the United States that is between the Mississippi River and the Pacific Ocean.  Much of this land was taken from Mexico after the Mexican American War of 1846-48. The land itself is a mix of grasslands/prairie/steppe, mountains and desert. The area attracted a mix of farmers, ranchers, miners (due to discoveries of gold and silver in various places), Civil War veterans (both Union and Confederate), plus assorted characters (i.e. petty criminals, prostitutes, drifters, etc).  Settlements were far from each other and law enforcement was spotty, at best, so the area had to deal with a lot of lawlessness.

Since there was so much going on, it is no surprise that Hollywood mined the American West for ideas for movies. Anyway, let’s get started.

John Wayne
Of course, John Wayne will be first on the list.  After all, his name is practically a synonym for cowboy. While it could be argued that Wayne played the same character, “The Strong, Silent Type” over and over, he was good enough at it to have a career in film spanning over 50 years. Starting with his first film The Big Trail to his last film The Shootist, one can see how he developed and grew into that character.  As the engineers say, “If it isn’t broken, don’t fix it.”

Western Serials
Another iconic vision of the American West are the Western serials.  To those of the generations known as X and Y, serials are films less than an hour long that were shown during Saturday matinees from the 1930’s to the 1950’s.  These films told a story over several installments, hence the name serial.  In many ways, they are the forerunners of episodic television shows.  In addition to all of that, the serials, especially the western are filled with stereotypes and wooden acting. Western serials such as Roy Rogers and Gene Autry, helped to solidify the Western as a film genre. They also made lots of kids happy and kept them occupied on a Saturday afternoon.

Spaghetti Westerns
Just as Westerns as a film genre was waning in Hollywood in the 1960’s, Italian directors such as Sergio Leone, revitalized it with films, such as The Good, The Bad and The Ugly and For A Few Dollars More and introduced the world to a previously unknown actor, Clint Eastwood. These Westerns were grittier than their Hollywood counterparts. The towns were lonely outposts of civilization in a harsh land and the “Good Guys” were “as unshaven as the villains.” ( The Civil War and American annexations of Mexican territory are part of the backstory in these films and some of them feature a socio-political outlook on life. Sometimes it takes an outsider to come up with a new twist on an old story and Leone and his counterparts did a pretty good job.

Brokeback Mountain
An examination of Westerns would not be complete without mentioning the 2005 film, Brokeback Mountain.  For over 70 years, Westerns have been populated with numerous Man’s Men, who do their duty, then stoically ride off into the sunset. Well, this movie takes the stereotypes found in Westerns and turns them upside down. A love story between two men who are cowboys?  Never mind the fact that it was basis of a short story by Annie Proulx, who’s going to make a movie about that subject?  Well, it was made, by a foreign director Ang Lee, (the outsiders strike again) it was a critical and commercial success and garnered an Academy Award nomination for Heath Ledger. Not bad for a Western movie

American West, The Frontier, Old West, cowboy, John Wayne, The Strong, Silent Type, The Big Trail, The Shootist, Western Serials, Saturday matinees, Roy Rogers, Gene Autry, Spaghetti Westerns, Sergio Leone, The Good, The Bad and The Ugly, For A Few Dollars More, Clint Eastwood, Brokeback Mountain, Annie Proulx, Ang Lee, Heath Ledger, Academy Award nomination



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