What is a Western? (movie)


Movies: I am slowly going through a watching “Westerns” movies streak. I grew up watching Tom Mix silent Westerns at the George Eastman Museum’s Dryden Theater. The Dryden recently had a Maureen O’Hara retrospective, and showed some classics like She Wore a Yellow Ribbon, and now I’m sorry I did not make a point of seeing them in 35 mm in a real movie theater. I’m not overly fond of John Wayne, but I can appreciate his craftsmanship as an actor and especially John Ford’s artistry.

Which movies still hold their own in 2016? Which are still overall good movies and enjoyable even with or despite the the stereotypical depictions of Indians as always bad and white people as always good. The overtired trope of “danger to a white woman and/or white child” as excuses for violence and war.

I cannot say that Tom Mix movies were good or not. What I really dislike seeing the westerns prior to 1965 is not just the poor representation of Indians and their lives, their 1/2 of the story, but the the awful treatment of horses.  Horses are forced to “fall” in order to get cool scenes. How many horses were harmed and killed for this? What a waste.

What makes a Western a Western? To be fair, how far should we blame “Hollywood” for its poor depictions of actual history and facts? Early films were based on the popular books and magazine of the day, much like the big blockbusters for the action heroes of today: Spiderman, Thor, etc. There were the “penny dreadfuls” that were cheap books sold to thousands that had stories of the “wild”west — dangerous and exciting to read if you lived in some safe city back east and did not face such problems.

Hollywood simply took the tropes, themes, plots from these penny dreadfuls and turned them into movies. Also they took the very popular Wild West shows put on by William Cody and other producers like the  Miller brothers and simply filmed those “scenes” that were created such as a stagecoach getting robbed by mercenaries or attacked by Indians. What was exciting to middle class audiences who had no notion of the “real” West? Excitement! Escaping attack by bears! Indians! To make the show exciting and interesting, sell out the seats, the danger and adventure were ramped up.

The best Westerns feature the plot of Man vs. His Conscience. In the mythos of the US overall, the vast unknown “wild” Western area past the Mississippi River from the 1830s on were the last place a man could run to escape whatever he was running from: the law, family, a wife, overcrowding, society, systemization etc. Out there you were on your own.


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