‘Westward Ho!’ – ‘Go West’: How ‘the West’ was Imagined.
PART 1: In the Beginning…..
Go West, life is peaceful there. / Go West, lots of open air. / Go West to begin life new.
The above is from the song Go West by Henri Belolo, Jacques Morall, and Victor Edward Willis, which was first sung by the iconic ‘gay’ group The Village People in 1979. It was not as popular as other songs by The Village People but eventually gained international success when the Pet Shop Boys released a revised version in 1993.
What the above lyrics encapsulate is an image of ‘the West’, a romantic utopian ideal that is ‘peaceful’ with ‘lots of open air’ and a place where one can ‘begin life new’. It is inspired by the statement Go West, young man, and grow up with your country that is generally attributed to American journalist and politician Horace Greeley (1811-1872), who amongst other things was a co-founder of the US Republican Party. Greeley’s statement was part of a US idealistic movement in the mid-nineteenth century known as ‘Manifest Destiny’ that envisaged a kind of divine ‘collective destiny’ of the American people to expand and conquer all of North America. It was not popular with all Americans, notably President Lincoln; nonetheless, it played a significant role in the evolution of the United States of America in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries
YOU WANT ‘DIVERSITY’?
What does ‘the West’ mean? It can be allegorical as well as actual. It can be wild and dangerous as well as peaceful. Most will associate ‘the West’ with the American ‘West’ and particularly the ‘Western’ film genre. Yet, even here there is a vast diversity of imagined worlds. The ‘Western’ is the oldest film genre, exemplified by the very first films, such as Edwin S. Porter’s The Great Train Robbery (1903), as well as Charles Tait’s The Story of the Kelly Gang (1906), which is the first motion picture feature in World Cinema.
The ‘Western’, however, has more sub-genres than any other film genre. Indeed it is possible to argue that the ‘Western’ IS film in all is magnificent grandeur. You want ‘diversity’ – then look no further than the ‘Western’ in World Cinema. Virtually every major actor, director, producer, writer, cinematographer, designer, composer, editor, et. al, have done at least one or more ‘Westerns’.
Currently, the most common cry in the contemporary performing arts is ‘Diversity’ – usually made by people considerably younger than myself and peers. It is declaimed in such a way as if it had never been called for before they embarked on their evangelical like mission. Talk about patronizing arrogance and re-inventing the wheel? They do, however, have some valuable points to make in terms of certain aspects of ‘identity politics’ – but not in others; plus their punitive measures against any who oppose or question their God-given democratic right to judge and condemn (based on social media) is rather intimidating.
This recently came to a head for me over a New Year dinner party when I mentioned I was looking into ‘Westerns’.
‘Oh, I HATE ‘Westerns’, said ’20-something’ Cheryl contemptuously and supported by 30-something Shane (not their real names, of course, but will suffice).
‘Do you’, I replied, ‘And why?’
‘Oh, all that antiquated macho bullshit – it’s disgusting’.
‘How many ‘Westerns’ have you seen?’
They rattled off a few of the older ‘classics’, which was rather impressive as I was expecting ‘zero’, plus Clint Eastwood’s Unforgiven, which they did like nor approve of. Yep – they didn’t ‘approve’.
‘It’s soooo American’ – was the other erudite criticism. Whilst the conversation veered towards other topical sensations associated with disgraced actors and ‘identity politics’, rather than engage I retreated into my own escapist world of the movies, and hence this rather extended essay was born.
Classic ‘Westerns’ include John Ford’s Stagecoach (1939) and The Searchers (1956), Fred Zimmermann’s High Noon (1952), George Stevens’ Shane (1953), John Sturges’ The Magnificent Seven (1960), Sam Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch (1969), and Clint Eastwood’s Unforgiven (1992). However, there is a lot more than these brilliant works – a hell of a lot more.
There are ‘Western’ musicals, notably Rodgers and Hammerstein’s highly influential Oklahoma (1943) and Irving Berlin’s Annie Get Your Gun (1948), but also Stanley Donen’s Seven Brides for Seven Brothers (1954), David Butler’s Calamity Jane (1953), Joshua Logan’s Paint Your Wagon (1969), Michael Apted’s The Coal Miner’s Daughter (1980), and Robert Altman’s Nashville (1975) and A Prairie Home Companion (2006). There are even ‘Western’ Operas, exemplified by Puccini’s The Girl of the Golden West (1910), which is based on the 1905 play by David Belasco.
‘Western’ comedies include Buster Keaton’s Go West (1925), Mae West’s Go West, Young Man (1936), George Marshal’s Destry Rides Again (1939), The Marx Brothers’ Go West (1940), Mel Brook’s Blazing Saddles (1974), John Landis’ The Three Amigos (1986). and Ron Underwood’s City Slickers (1991).
The American ‘Western’ really started to change in the late 20th Century. This was partly due to ‘Revisionist’ history, exemplified by Dee Brown’s enormously influential Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee (1970). This subsequently ushered in a new wave of ‘Revisionist Westerns’ in which Native American started to be given an authentic voice. Examples in include – Ralph Nelson’s Soldier Blue (1970), Elliot Silverstein’s A Man Called Horse (1970), and Arthur Penn’s Little Big Man (1970).
The extreme violence in these three films is reflective of the need to smash through complacency and ignorance of the nightmare of ‘white’ invasion and ‘manifest destiny’ on the Native American population. This is still a highly volatile and contentious issue, not least being the issue of ‘white’ actors playing Native American roles. This includes even such illustrious actors as Dame Judith Anderson who is virtually unrecognizable in A Man Called Horse. Her Academy Award-nominated performance as the Sioux matriarch Buffalo Cow Head is truly terrific. In today’s world, however, Dame Judith Anderson’s performance would be regarded as inappropriate ‘cultural appropriation’. Changing times, changing tastes, nonetheless, it is still a great piece of ‘transformational’ acting from one of the 20th Century’s greatest actors.
The changes in political and cultural tastes and ethics in the USA in the 1960s and 1970s, especially in regard to Native Americans, can be seen in the relative success of a small independent film that nearly didn’t get made at all – Tom Laughlin’s Billy Jack (1971). Tom Laughlin had first introduced the character of Billy Jack in the ‘outlaw biker’ film The Born Losers (1967). ‘Biker’ films of the 1950s and 1960s, such as Laszlo Benedek’s The Wild One (1953) with Marlon Brando, and Peter Fonda’s and Dennis Hopper’s seminal Easy Rider (1969) share many things in common with the traditional ‘Western’ format – outsiders facing hostility in rural and country settings, with motorbikes replacing horses. These films offered Tom Laughlin a way in, an ‘entry point’ to the American film market. Billy Jack is a ‘half-breed’ Navajo Indian, who is also a Green Beret Vietnam War veteran and a ‘Hapkido’ Korean martial arts Master. You could say that Tom Laughlin deliberately had all bases covered. It didn’t make much difference as it took him 3 years to get Billy Jack made, from 1969 to 1971. Three production companies, American International Pictures, 20th Century-Fox, and Warner Brothers, came and went in regard to the making and distribution of Billy Jack. Finally, in 1971, Tom Laughlin distributed the film himself. It was a massive hit! Looking at the film now it is an odd mixture of styles and genres – part action film, part civil rights film, part martial arts film (in an era before Bruce Lee’s kung-fu films). There really isn’t anything else like it – it is quite simply unique. What makes it uncomfortable is its defense of violence against racism. Justifiable violence? That is what makes the film still extremely important. It is up to the individual viewer to make up their own mind.
Other ‘Revisionist Westerns’ include – Clint Eastwood’s The Outlaw Josey Wales (1976), Kevin Costner’s Dances With Wolves (1990), and Jim Jarmusch’s Dead Man (1996), featuring Johnny Depp. I really don’t know where or how to place Gore Verbinski’s The Lone Ranger (2013) in which Johnny Depp played the Native American role of Tonto. This caused quite a controversy with accusations of ‘white-washing’ and inappropriate ‘cultural appropriation’ – the film was universally condemned. I didn’t dislike it – in fact, I found it rather fascinating; certainly strange and unconventional, which I’ve come to expect from anything with Johnny Depp who has also played a Carribean pirate, a psychopathic 19th Century London barber, Lewis Carroll’s Mad Hatter, and a creature called Edward Scissorhands. Again, like Dame Judith Anderson in A Man Called Horse, the contemporary ‘white-washing’ and ‘cultural appropriation’ arguments draws attention to a modern tension in regard to acting and casting. It would seem, following modern tastes and sensibilities that Actors are no longer encouraged or even allowed to ‘transform’ into characters other than themselves. Contemporary tastes seem to be pulling away from this ancient tradition; only ‘gay’ actors should play ‘gay’ roles, only Native American actors should play Native American roles, only transgender actors should play transgender roles. It is an on-going ‘drama’ that is a part of the ultimately limited vision of contemporary ‘identity politics’. Strangely enough, for some reason, everyone meets in ‘the West’.
Other examples of how the ‘Western’ was evolving in the late-20th Century, complementing changes in socio-political tastes, concerns, and sentiments (e.g. civil rights, racism, feminism, gay rights, et al.) can be seen in the sub-genres of ‘Crime Westerns’ and ‘Western Dramas’, embracing both the ‘epic’ and smaller ‘naturalistic’ social dramas. Examples include – John Sturges’ Bad Day at Black Rock (1955), Ridley Scott’s Thelma and Louise (1991) , The Coen Brothers’ Fargo (1995), No Country for Old Men (207), and Martin McDonagh’s Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri (2017); George Stevens’ Giant (1956), Peter Bogdanovich’s The Last Picture Show (1971) and Wim Wenders’ Paris, Texas (1984), Ang Lee’s Brokeback Mountain (2005), and Paul Thomas Anderson’s There Will Be Blood (2007).
Possibly partly due to the influences of ‘revisionist Westerns’ other sub-genres began to emerge in the late-20th Century. It was almost as if ‘revisionism’ allowed for greater imaginative and creative freedom. ‘Science Fiction Westerns’ and ‘Horror Westerns’ began to appear, exemplified by the influential Westworld (1973), written and directed by Michael Crichton. Other ‘Science Fiction Westerns’ include Robert Zemeckis’ Back to the Future III (1990), Jon Favreau’s Cowboys and Aliens (2011) and Joss Whedon’s Firefly (2002) TV Series and follow-up film Serenity (2005).
‘Horror Westerns’, like ‘Science Fiction Westerns’ are a curious hybrid that has evolved in the latter half of the 20th Century and are now an important part of contemporary World Cinema. Very often ‘Horror Westerns’ will embrace other film genres such as musicals, comedy, and satire (‘spoofs’). This includes Edward Dien’s Curse of the Undead (1959), Norman Taurog’s and Elvis Presley’s Tickle Me (1965), William Beaudine’s Billy the Kid versus Dracula (1966) and Jesse James Meets Frankenstein’s Daughter (1966).
Considering the enormous universal popularity of ‘Horror’ film throughout the world, it is hardly surprising that there has been an increase in the number of ‘Horror Westerns’. This includes Kathryn Bigelow’s Near Dark (1987), Robert Rodriguez’s and Quentin Tarantino’s From Dusk to Dawn (1996), John Carpenter’s Vampires (1998), Antonia Bird’s Ravenous (1999), J. T. Petty’s The Burrowers (2008), Timur Bekmambetov’s Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Slayer (2012), S. Craig Zeher’s Bone Tomahawk (2015), Martin Koolhoven’s Brimstone (2016), and The Spierig Brothers’ Winchester (2018).
Outside the USA there are a number of ‘Western’ sub-genres that are country-specific and are often identified by food from a particular country. For example, ‘Curry Westerns’ are those from India and South East Asia, such as R. Thyagarjan’s Thai Meethu Sathyiyam (1978) and K. Murali Mohana Rao’s Kodama Simham (1990).
Connected to this but completely independent are the respective ‘Martial Arts Westerns’ that can be found in numerous countries. This includes ‘Samurai Westerns’ of which Akira Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai (1954) is the most influential, being the base for the 1954 and 2016 American versions of The Magnificent Seven. The Japanese ‘star’ actor of Seven Samurai was Toshiro Mifune (1920-1997), who is one of the greatest actors of the 20th Century. He made very few English-speaking films compared to the massive amount of work he did in Japan and Asia. Nonetheless, there are a couple, which includes Terence Young’s unique American ‘samurai Western’ called Red Sun (1971) that also features Charles Bronson, Alain Delon, and Ursula Andress.
Perhaps the most famous and universal recognized are the influential Italian and Spanish ‘Spaghetti Westerns’. These are best exemplified by the films of Sergio Leone and Sergio Corbucci. Sergio Leone’s ‘Dollars’ Trilogy featuring Clint Eastwood as ‘the Man with No Name’ – A Fistful of Dollars (1964), For A Few Dollars More (1965), The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly (1966), as well as Leone’s Once Upon a Time in the West (1968) has had a significant and acknowledged influence on US ‘Western’ as well as ‘Crime’ film directors, notably by Don Siegel, Clint Eastward, and Francis Ford Coppola. The influence of Sergio Corbucci’s Django (1966) and Django Strikes Again (1986) with Franco Nero as Django is evident in the work of Quentin Tarantino who gave Franco Nero a tribute cameo role in Django Unchained (2012).
Australian ‘Westerns’ are sometimes called ‘Meat-Pie Westerns’ or ‘Kangaroo Westerns’, although I prefer the more accurate term ‘Outback Westerns’. Warwick Thornton’s Sweet Country (2017) is the most recent addition to the heritage of ‘Outback Westerns’ that began with The Story of the Kelly Gang. Others include Ivan Sen’s Mystery Road (2013), John Hillcoat’s The Proposition (2005), Rolf de Heer’s The Tracker (2002), Ken Hannam’s Sunday Too Far Away (1975), Nicholas Roeg’s Walkabout (1971), George T. Miller’s The Man from Snowy River (1982), Ted Kotcheff’s Wake in Fright (1971), Charles Chauvel’s Jedda (1955) and Sons of Mathew (1949), and Ken G. Hall’s The Squatter’s Daughter (1933) and On Our Selection (1932). Even the Stephan Elliott’s ever-popular Priscilla, Queen of the Desert (1994) falls into a kind of ‘Outback ‘Western’ Musical. George Miller’s Mad Max films are also a type of ‘Science Fiction Westerns’.
It is, however, George Millers Mad Max films – Mad Max (1979), Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior (1981), MadMax 3: Beyond Thunderdome (1985), and Mad Max: Fury Road (2015) – with all their dystopian frenzy that are the most well-known Australian ‘Science Fiction Westerns’.
There are many other sub-genres to ‘Westerns’, not least being animation. However, rather than this essay turn too much into a tome, I will stop here. All the above is merely designed to prove that that ‘Western’ is the most diverse and fascinating of all film genres. It embraces everything, including virtually every country in the world that makes movies. The ‘Western’ IS World Cinema.
But where did this all begin?
The ‘Western’ – In the beginning…
Whilst today ‘the West’ it may primarily conjure up images largely associated with the American ‘Western’ film genre, its historical precedent is considerably older. The notion, idea, and practice of traveling ‘westward’ can be seen in the early sixteenth century, exemplified by Amerigo Vespucci’s Mundus Novus (1503), and other works associated with the ‘New World’ of the Americas.
The cry Westward Ho!, and its opposite Eastward Ho!, date from 16th Century London. Ferrymen on the River Thames used these cries when declaring their respective direction up and down the Thames. Westward Ho! was reflective of the growth of London to the west outside the city walls (the ‘West End’), as was satirized by John Webster and Thomas Dekker in their Jacobean City Comedy Westward Ho! (1605). In turn, Ben Jonson, John Marston, and George Chapman satirized this play with their own Eastward Ho! (1605), which resulted in them being imprisoned for angering King James I. Whilst neither play is set in the ‘New World’, at least some of the characters in Eastward Ho! board a ship bound for the new colony of Jamestown in Virginia. The fact that they never get there, but are shipwrecked before they even leave the Thames estuary, does not diminish the notion that to the characters involved traveling ‘Westward’ to the ‘New World’ offered hope of a new life and bountiful riches.
This dream, this journey to the ‘West’ in the ‘age of discovery’ also offered the hope of religious freedom. In 1603 the English Puritan lawyer, John Winthrop (1587-1649) published a pamphlet citing the image of a ‘city upon a hill’, a phrase found in Jesus Christ’s ‘Sermon on the Mount’ in Mathew 5:14 in The Bible that states, You are the light of the world. A city that is set on a hill cannot be hidden. This, plus the desire to escape religious persecution led to the ‘Pilgrim Fathers’ crossing the Atlantic on the Mayflower and landing on Plymouth Rock in the ‘New World’ in 1620. The ritual of Thanksgiving has been a part of American culture ever since. Escaping religious persecution was also behind the journey of English Catholics in 1634 and the establishment of colonies in Maryland.
Dreams of wealth, a new life, religious freedom are all part of what makes up the image of ‘the West’. There is, however, a lot more – it was also an epic romantic adventure, full of the exotic and the erotic. This is exemplified by numerous novels and films from the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. The popular 1952 Hollywood film epic Plymouth Adventure, directed by Clarence Brown, with Spencer Tracy, Gene Tierney, and Van Johnson, deals with the ‘Pilgrim Fathers’ braving the Atlantic crossing and landing on Plymouth Rock in what is now Provincetown. The producer, Dore Schary said at the time, “I don’t think that historical era has been done properly on screen before because the people were too soft. The pilgrims had to be tough and lusty to accomplish what they did. So that’s the kind we cast in the film.” (Hedda Hopper, Man with a Mission! Chicago Daily Tribune, 27 July 1952). Hmmm? Maybe – but this does draw attention to how history has been re-interpreted in drama dependent upon popular tastes and sentiments of a particular time; in this case 1950s Cold War America. Nonetheless, Dore Schary is correct in that it takes a particular person to actually venture into ‘the West’. Today, despite all the coiffured machismo you would be hard pressed to find much that is similar about these pilgrims and about this landing amongst the ‘gayland’ of modern Provincetown. But let’s go back even further.
Charles Kingsley’s Westward Ho! (1855), involving Sir Francis Drake and Sir Walter Raleigh in the ‘New World’ and their battles against the Spanish was so popular that a town in Devon was named after it – the only town in the UK that has an exclamation mark attached to it. Kingsley’s novel also involves the first English settlement of the ‘New World’ at Jamestown, Virginia. However, in popular culture, the main focus of this story has subsequently been the relationship between ‘founding father’ Captain John Smith and the American native Indian Pocahontas. Whether or not any of it is true is now irrelevant. To the modern imagination it is true, and has even been made into a Disney film (with a sequel) Pocahontas (1995) – so, of course, it must be true. Terence Malik’s The New World (2005), as well as Roland Joffe’s The Mission (1986) and Peter Schaffer’s The Royal Hunt of the Sun (1964) are perhaps more accurate dramatizations of the European invasion of the Americas.
But let’s go back even further. John Dryden’s and Sir Robert Howard’s The Indian Queen (1664), Aphra Behn’s Oroonokoo (1688) and Thomas Southerne’s 1689 play adaptation are examples of how the ‘western’ imagination realized ‘first contact’ with the indigenous population and the creation of the character of ‘the noble savage’. Whether or not Aphra Behn actually visited Surinam in South America is questionable, nonetheless, her Oroonokoo was the ideal ‘noble savage’ for the ‘western’ imagination until Daniel Defoe’s Man Friday in Robinson Crusoe (1719). Add in for good measure Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels, notably the Yahoos in Gulliver’s final voyage to the Land of the Houyhnhnms, and the overall portrayal of ‘indigenous’ people are seen as rather romanticized and patronizing and far from the truth.
The idea of a ‘New World’ in ‘the West’ becomes intrinsically linked to the idea of the United States of America itself. This is exemplified by Thomas Paine who wrote in his pamphlet Common Sense in 1776, ‘We have it in our power to begin the world over again. A situation, similar to the present, hath not happened since the days of Noah until now. The birthday of a new world is at hand.’
Things begin to truly accelerate after Thomas Jefferson secures what is known as the ‘Louisiana Purchase in 1803. This opened up vast amounts of land across North American. The ‘Manifest Destiny’ of the American people evolved throughout the 19th Century into ‘Continentalism’ – never mind the Native Americans, Mexicans, Spanish, and any other opponents. The Monroe Doctrine of 1823 made it very clear to Great Britain and any other European power that they were not welcome to participate in this ruthless land-grabbing juggernaut expansion across North America. In certain places, namely the Oregon border disputes with Canada and Great Britain things were not resolved until 1844. The American-Mexican War 1846-48 saw the Westward Ho! movement take over modern-day California and Texas. The American Civil War in the 1860s did not stop further expansion and consolidation of ‘the West’.
The 1872 painting American Progress by John Gast in a way represents this ‘Manifest Destiny’ and ‘tellucracy’. It is a bit of a creepy painting with ‘Columbia’ all in ‘white’ advancing ‘westward’, making the Native American cower as she heralds advances in American industry such as the railway and the telegraph. This isn’t a benign ‘patriotic’ love of country, as defined by George Orwell, but rampant and rapacious ‘nationalism’; the ‘white’ American way is the only way – and look what comes with it – ‘Strike me lucky!’
American expansionism, ‘Manifest Destiny’ and ‘Continentalism’ influences the image of the American ‘West’, as found in many of the respective novels by American writers in the 19th and early 20th centuries. This, in turn, influenced the popular image of ‘the West’ and how it eventually was dramatized in American film. This includes the works of Washington Irving (1783-1859) and James Fenimore Cooper (1789-1851). What is quite apparent, and makes these works a little difficult to stomach is the attitude of ‘white privilege’, particularly towards the Native American Indians, who seem to have descended from ‘noble savages’ to just ‘savages’, as well as the Mexicans. Somewhat perversely the current cry of President Donald Trump to build a wall along the US-Mexican border is a continuation of this essentially racist attitude. God is no longer an Englishman, he is a ‘white’ American.
James Fenimore Cooper’s five ‘Leatherstocking’ novels involving the trapper Natty Bumppo – The Pioneers (1823), The Last of the Mohicans (1826), The Prairie (1827), The Pathfinder (1840), The Deerslayer (1841), mark the beginning of what we now imagine as the American ‘West’. They are not necessarily comfortable reads as invariably Native Americans are cast as the enemy (along with the French), and Natty Bumppo invariably is there to assist the ‘white’ settlers conqueror their opponents as well as the land.
James Fenimore Cooper’s novels are romantic historical adventures with Natty Bumppo as a kind of modern-day knight. It is interesting to note that for the most part his name is never mentioned; which in a curious way pre-figure Clint Eastward’s ‘Man with No Name’ in the Sergio Leone ‘spaghetti westerns’, such as The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly (1967).
The romanticism increases with Henry Wadsworth Longfellow (1807-1882), particularly with Evangeline: A Tale of Acadie (1847), The Song of Hiawatha (1855), and The Courtship of Myles Standish (1858). Whilst The Song of Hiawatha may be the most potent and influential work for its time, nonetheless, as evident by the numerous subsequent parodies many contemporaries found it too mawkish to be credible, particularly with its ultimate Christian message of conversion and salvation for the noble Native American savage.
A more interesting story is that of Evangeline: A Tale of Acadie, which is supposedly based on a true story. Unlike Fenimore Copper’s French characters Longfellow’s Evangeline and her Acadian compatriots, French colonists who the British expelled from Canada in ‘The Great Upheaval’ 1755-1764, has a tragic romantic epic sweep that captures the bewilderment of strangers in a strange land; very much a part of the story of ‘the West’. Unlike other narratives, the motivations behind the actions of Evangeline and her lover Gabriel (yes – the Christian allegories are rampant here) are those of love rather than conquest. Subsequently, it has things in common with John Maclean’s film Slow West (2015), one of the most unique ‘Westerns’ of modern times.
I’m going to add to this little group Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter: A Romance (1850). As its title suggests the notion of dealing with the ‘New World’ has a strong romantic side. Like Martin Koolhoven’s Brimstone (2016) the primary focus of the female protagonists, Hester and Liz respectively, is the protection of a female child. This too is part of ‘the West’.
The final part of this initial exploration of what constitutes ‘the West’ involves three American writers from the late nineteenth century and early twentieth century – Bret Harte (1836-1902), Jack London (1876-1916), and Zane Grey (1872-1939). Collectively, these American writers successfully create what we today imagine to be the American ‘West’ way before Hollywood arrives with the ‘Western’ film genre. They are, however, very different.
Bret Harte was primarily a short story writer concentrating on the Californian Gold Rush – the ‘49ers’. Two of his short stories, in particular, The Luck of Roaring Camp (1870) and The Outcasts of Poker Flat (1869), captured the imagination of the general public and are still regularly reprinted, and have been adapted in dramatic form numerous times and numerous ways. These are works of ‘naturalism’, tragic tales that have a poignant spiritual essence; all the more remarkable because they are relatively short. There is a profound dignity and integrity in Harte’s portrayal of seeming social outcasts who have gone ‘West’ in order to find a better life but pay a considerable price – usually death. It draws attention to another meaning associated with ‘Go West’, which is a euphemism for Death.
Jack London’s The Call of the Wild (1903) and White Fang (1906) take as their respective setting the Klondike in Canada – a different ‘West’ but no less foreign, wild, and adventurous than others. Charles Chaplin’s The Gold Rush (1925) and Mae West’s Klondike Annie (1936) are the best films that also deal with this imagining of ‘the West’. Furthermore, the heroes of the London’s respective novels are dogs – Buck and White Fang; perhaps the best stories about ‘man’s best friend’ that have ever been written.
It is, however, Zane Grey who is the American writer that Hollywood primarily turned to in the realization and dramatization of the American ‘West’ as popularized in American ‘Western’ film. His canon of work is massive, yet virtually all his novels have been turned into films and/or television series. To single out one as representative of all the safest bet is Riders of the Purple Sage (1912). What is fascinating about Riders of the Purple Sage is not necessarily the numerous times it has been dramatically realized but its actual content. The novels chief protagonist and heroine is Jane Withersteen. The novel focuses on her battle with Mormon polygamy. Similar to Nathaniel Hawthorne’s Hester and Martin Koolhoven’s Liz, the motivating factor is the protection of a female child.
As I have hopefully drawn attention to the protection of children and adolescents is a major feature of the American ‘West’. It is evident in the above as well as George Steven’s Shane (1953), John Sturges’ The Magnificent Seven (1960), both versions of True Grit (1969/2010), and Ron Howard’s The Missing (2003). This, however, is just one aspect of the ‘Western’. Other characteristics will be explored in a later essay, nonetheless, based on the above it is reasonable to place the notion and dramatic realization of ‘the West’ into the world of ‘Romance’; and by ‘Romance’ I mean ‘classical Romance’ which is essentially a journey of transformation. What makes ‘the Western’ a unique ‘Romance’ is that invariably it occurs at the frontier of civilization. Furthermore, as exemplified in numerous novels and films, it is a place in which gender issues are sometimes blurred. It may well seem male-dominated (and it is), but women can and often do play an equal role in respective power and survival struggles, exemplified by Nicholas Ray’s extraordinary Johnny Guitar (1954) and Tommy Lee Jones’ The Homesman (2014).
This concludes the first essay about how ‘the West’ has been imagined. It has essentially been a ‘curtain raiser’ for the examination of the ‘Western’ film genre, one of the most extensive and diverse and influential in World Cinema. Time and space have not permitted me to cover all aspects of ‘the West’ prior to its prime position in film. All art forms in one way or another have dealt with ‘the West’; and intriguingly, virtually every major actor of the 20th and 21st Centuries have done at least one if not more ‘Westerns’. The ‘West’ sits in the frontier world of our lives; we may never actually go there, especially the American ‘West’, but we can and do go there imaginatively. Subsequently, whatever it may mean personally and/or professionally it plays a significant role in all our lives.