By Scott A. McConnell

Remember ShaneBonanza and The Lone Ranger? In novel, film and television, westerns once ruled the range. Until the 1960s westerns were the most popular fiction genre and remained popular until the 1970s. In his book The Searchers the western historian Glenn Frankel tells us that western novels “consistently outsold all genres, including the closest competitor, the detective story—whose protagonist was, after all, just another version of the Western hero”. Frankel notes that “of the 300 million paperbacks sold in 1956, one third were westerns”.

 

Western films were similarly popular. As Frankel reports, “Westerns by the mid-1950s accounted for one third of the output of the major studios and half the output of the smaller independents.” Incredibly, “well over seven thousand Westerns have been made”.

Westerns were even more popular on television. “From 1949 to the late 1960s, there were over 100 western series that aired on the networks,” writes Stephen Kiss. Westerns hit their peak of television popularity in the late 1950s: “The 1959 season opened with twenty-seven westerns in prime-time, constituting nearly one fourth of prime-time programming. In January 1959, eight of the top ten rated programs were westerns.” By 1975, however, Gunsmoke, the most popular television western of them all, was in its twentieth and final season and most westerns had ridden off the big and small screen. The classic period of westerns (1939 to 1969) was over.

 

Why were westerns so popular? The answer is found in the meaning of westerns, and in the meaning of the culture that gave them birth. The meaning and popularity of westerns are explained by the American ideals and virtues that westerns represented. This does not mean that these ideals were not dramatised in other story genres. However, the vast majority of films and television shows of this once prolific western genre are so American in their content and themes that they became representative of the country.

For more than 150 years, especially since 1900 when the frontier period was ending, the American West was revealed in the western novel. Influential among these were Whispering Smith (Frank Spearman, 1906), Riders of the Purple Sage (Zane Grey, 1912), Destry Rides Again (Max Brand, 1930) and True Grit (Charles Portis, 1968). With the arrival of television in the United States in 1947, the western and its view of America dominated the small screen for many years. Some of the most influential shows and stars during the television western heyday included The Lone Ranger (starring Clayton Moore), Rawhide (Clint Eastwood), Bonanza (Michael Landon) and Gunsmoke (James Arness).

 

To most people, however, westerns are movies. The American Film Institute (AFI) has defined the western film as “set in the American West that embodies the spirit, the struggle and the demise of the new frontier”. Film (and western) star Gary Cooper once stated:

 

the western picture tells stories of the pioneer period. The pioneers braved the elements and we are brought close to the pioneer people by seeing the western picture and we realize our country was and is filled with people who believe in America.

 

Another star of many westerns, James Stewart, stated that the western “is really an original of American films. This is ours.” John Wayne, the greatest western movie star of them all, expressed it this way: “When you think about the western … it’s an American art form. It represents what this country is about.” “Yet,” he added, “we’ve created a form, the western, that can be understood in every country. The good guys against the bad guys. No nuances.”

 

To understand the nature of westerns, we will examine many western films and multiple television shows, but I will be focusing on three of the most critically acclaimed, popular and influential western films. The AFI ranked The SearchersHigh Noon and Shane, in that order, as the three greatest westerns. The Searchers, a 1956 Warner Bros film, starred John Wayne; High Noon, a 1952 United Artists release, starred Gary Cooper; and Shane, a 1953 Paramount movie, starred Alan Ladd.

 

Individualism

Let’s now turn to the American ideals and virtues that form the character of westerns. To understand westerns, one must understand America’s founding. Unique among nations, the United States of America was founded on explicit principles. It is this ideology that sets the context for the American expansion westward and the meaning of westerns.

In the Declaration of Indep­endence, Thomas Jefferson wrote that “all men are created equal, that they are endowed … with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness”. This is the American creed, the essence and unique meaning of America. In one word, the meaning of America is “individualism”. Individualism is the view that each person is an independent being who owns his own life, can think for himself, should take responsibility for his own actions, and must be free to keep any product of his thinking and actions. That is, each person is an end in himself with an inviolable right to his life, liberty, property and pursuit of his own happiness.

 

American individualism is an expression of what has been called the Aristotelian side of Western civilisation. The Aristotelian worldview stresses reason, the individual, freedom, science, and life on this earth. (The opposing side of Western civilisation is the Platonic/Judeo-Christian worldview, which stresses faith, supernaturalism, self-sacrifice, the collective and its importance over the individual.) In the eighteenth century, the Aristotelian worldview became dominant and led to the Enlightenment. The pro-reason, pro-individual, pro-this-world ideals of the Enlightenment became the philosophical underpinning of the United States and its political system of an individual rights republic. Taking seriously their right to pursue their happiness, Americans marched westward.

 

To further understand Americans one must also understand the American approach to life or what has been called “a sense of life”. A consequence of Americans’ individualistic ideals and practices, this approach is how Americans characteristically view life: man is an independent free being whose reason and hard work will result in success and happiness on this earth. Such beliefs underlie the unique American innocence, optimism and “can do” spirit.

 

Although America’s founding is the most important period in American history—because it forged the identity of the country and its basic institutions—this period did not become the country’s most important period aesthetically. It would be difficult to name one great novel, television show or film about the Revolutionary War period that truly captures the meaning, importance and gravitas of those times. How many fictional heroes from the Revolutionary War period are household names, even in America? Across the Western world, most people could easily name several, maybe even many, western “celebrities”, real and fictional. From London to Sydney to Toronto, people know about Wild Bill Hickok, Wyatt Earp and Billy the Kid, and many would recognise the names of Annie Oakley, Calamity Jane and Laura Ingalls Wilder. Many more would have watched Mattie Ross, Matt Dillon and Hoss Cartwright. Countless millions would know of the Lone Ranger, Shane and the Man with No Name.

 

Every country and age has its heroes. Heroes reflect the dominant values and ideals of a specific time and place. Many of America’s most popular fictional heroes have been the men and women of westerns.

 

Part of the reason that so many people are aware of the Old West and not the Revolutionary War period is that the American Revolution was a time of philosophical heroes and events. The period is, consequently, much harder to understand and dramatise than almost any period in world history. The American founding truly was revolutionary in its leaders and ideas. The western period of American history was much less so; the Old West was more the fulfilment of the American Revolution and its ideology rather than anything original in ideals or beliefs. The westward expansion put American ideals into action.

Fictional accounts of the American West may be the most popular artistic expression of American individualism, but westerns are not usually dramas that explore ideas. Westerns are primarily action stories that dramatise rugged independence. Although western films are not intellectual, they do express, more implicitly than explicitly, the ideals of American individualism.

 

The individual in the western

Since 1894, when the first western film clip was produced, western films have developed their own premises and language. The key elements of westerns—their themes, characters, conflicts, locations, look and feel—have undergone a long creative development to produce a distinctive art form. Westerns have, for example, many varied locations spread across an ever-moving frontier: plains, mountains, desert, forts, ranches and towns. Further, westerns are populated with many unique characters such as the scout, drifter, railroader, cowboy, marshal and gunfighter. And, of course, the Indian.

One especially important trait of the western is its iconic shots: the marshal marching down the main street, the express rider whipping his horse to a relay station, a wagon train being circled by attacking Indians, the cavalry captain leading a charge against a band of renegade Indians, the singing dance-hall girl, and, of course, the fast-draw showdown. However, the individualistic essence of western films is best found in the first frames of most westerns. Many westerns open the same way: a lone man riding on a horse, often towards a town. The world this loner is entering is often morally out of kilter, and this individual can set it right.

Shane has the classic western opening: wild hills, then a man on a horse enters the frame from behind. He is calm, assured, alone. Shane (played by Alan Ladd) canters down to a valley, an outpost of civilisation. The Searchers opens with Ethan Edwards (John Wayne) riding towards a ranch house as his sister-in-law Martha stares at him from its porch. High Noon opens with Colby (Lee Van Cleef), one of the Miller Gang, seated near his horse, awaiting another killer riding towards him.

The opening (and many times the ending) of a western is the dramatisation of Dr Stockmann’s individualist words at the end of Ibsen’s play An Enemy of the People: “the strongest man in the world is he who stands most alone”.

Note the individualist themes in these three classic westerns. In Shane, we see how strong individuals changed the American West from lawlessness to peace and development. In The Searchers we see the courage and endurance each man and woman needs in order to achieve a purpose and to civilise a land. And in High Noon we see the integrity individuals need in order to be able to defend civilisation.

 

Individualism is essential to westerns and is why they were so popular. But individualism is a very broad term, entailing many different values and virtues. The dramatising of these values and virtues is what makes the western the art form it is. Let’s now look at the key values and virtues of westerns.

 

The moral code

Westerns are famous for their strong, independent men and women of action: Kirk Douglas shooting it out during the Gunfight at the O.K. Corral, Charlton Heston in hand-to-hand combat with an Apache leader in Arrowhead, Mattie Ross hunting her father’s killer in True Grit. And, of course, Will Kane fighting the Miller Gang on the main street of Hadleyville, Ethan Edwards searching for five years to find Scar and Debbie, and Shane facing the gunslinger Wilson in a showdown.

These westerners lived by a moral code. J.B. Books (John Wayne) in The Shootist spoke for the independence of the westerner when he stated, “I won’t be wronged, I won’t be insulted, and I won’t be laid a hand on. I don’t do these things to other people, and I require the same from them.” As did Tom Doniphon (also John Wayne) in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance when he pronounced, “Out here a man settles his own problems.”

 

More generally, the morality of the western hero was perhaps best stated by the apocryphal quote often (falsely) attributed to a John Wayne western character: “A man’s gotta do what a man’s gotta do.” The closest a John Wayne character actually came to expressing this ethic was the lead character in Hondo, who states, “A man oughta do what he thinks is right.” A similar morality was expressed by the Ringo Kid (also John Wayne) in Stagecoach: “Well, there are some things a man just can’t run away from”, and in The Tall T, when Pat Brennan (Randolph Scott) states that there are “some things a man can’t ride around”.

 

As these quotes signify, a fundamental part of the westerner’s moral code is the virtue of moral independence. The westerner thinks and judges for himself, chooses his own values, then acts to gain or keep them. And the westerner remains true to his values. He has integrity. In The Alamo, Davy Crockett (John Wayne) defined integrity when he stated: “There’s right and there’s wrong. You gotta do one or the other. You do the one and you’re living, you do the other and you may be walking around but you’re dead as a beaver hat.” The theme of integrity is deeply embedded (mostly implicitly) in the western genre, but in High Noon it is the explicit theme of the story. Will Kane’s integrity is his highest value. Kane will risk his life and forsake his marriage rather than betray his own standards of justice, courage and self-respect.

 

High Noon has a hero rare in westerns, one with an explicit moral dilemma. Will Marshal Kane stay and fight, thus keeping his integrity, or will he run and live to enjoy life with his new bride Amy? Both choices are high values to Kane. Or as the film’s title song declares, “Oh, to be torn ’twixt love and duty.” Early in the story, we see Kane happily marrying Amy. But soon after, when he learns that the Miller Gang is coming to kill him, he states his deepest motive: “I’ve never run from anyone before.” Kane knows that Frank Miller is a murderer, that he “will make trouble”. But Kane explains, “This is my town. I have friends here.” Kane greatly loves his wife but understands that his conscience is more important to him, so he stays to fight.

The other great challenge to Kane to keep his integrity is finding allies to help him defend the town. If he finds allies he has a better chance of staying alive. His biggest enemy (and the core of the main storyline) is the pragmatism and cowardice of his fellow townspeople. While the film’s villains (the Miller Gang) are destroyers of values, the towners, for a host of different reasons, are betrayers of their values. They lack integrity. The citizens’ many short-range arguments (really rationalisations) of why they won’t help Kane include: “It’s plain committing suicide. I got no stake in this … I got a wife and kids.” And, “It’s all for nothing, Will. It’s all for nothing.”

 

As the ticking clocks in the film get bigger, the citizens of the town get smaller. One by one the citizens betray Kane. It wears on his soul. Near the end of his ninety-minute wait for the Miller Gang to arrive, Kane goes to the stables, tired. He stares at his horse, considering quitting the town. But he can’t. He knows that surrendering his integrity would be the end of who he is, the destruction of his self and life.

 

High Noon brilliantly dramatises the conflict of those who have principles against those who do not. A conflict of those who have a self—that is, their own independent judgment and conscience—against those who think short-term, who let their emotions rule their beliefs.

 

Will Kane is a heroic loner who stands against the irrational mob. He is a great American individualist. Ayn Rand once wrote that “Art is the indispensable medium for the communication of a moral ideal.” In his courageous stand for his values and integrity, Will Kane is such an ideal.

 

Kane shares the virtue of integrity with many western heroes. Shane’s belief in justice and his loyalty to the Starretts are deep, personal values to him. These values are why he stays in the valley and fights Ryker. No matter the danger, Shane won’t surrender his ideals. In The Searchers, Marty treks across the West because of his love for his adopted sister Debbie, never surrendering her to kidnappers, failure, his need for Laurie, or Ethan’s bullying and desire to kill Debbie. In countless westerns, the heroes always do what a man’s gotta do. No nuances.

 

Objectivity

The westerner could not have succeeded if he had not been focused on reality. Although religion was invoked at times in westerns, especially at weddings and funerals, westerners were predominantly focused on the here and now. Westerners focused on crossing rivers, planting seed, getting cattle to market, celebrating work, and defending their property and family.

The thinking style of the westerner was to call a fact a fact, and then act resolutely on it. For example, in The Shootist, J.B. Books accepts that he is dying and resolves to die his way. In The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, Tom Doniphon’s experience has taught him to believe in the righteousness of his gun to defeat malice, so he kills Liberty Valance. Shane understands the nature of Wilson and that only the gunslinger’s death will save Joe Starrett and the farmers, so he kills Wilson. Ethan Edwards knows the ways of the Comanche and won’t evade these facts with Christian charity, as Captain Clayton does. Will Kane will not turn off his mind to the nature of the Miller Gang.

 

Facts are facts, and truth is truth to the westerner. And from truth comes life and survival. The pioneers’ focus on reality not only underpinned their skill to defend themselves but also their ability to produce and trade, to develop the west.

 

Courage

The western hero is famous for his virtue of courage, which is amply demonstrated in countless westerns. Courage, generally, is the choice to act bravely in the face of duress or danger. And, as Tex Ritter sang in “The Ballad of High Noon”: “If I’m a man I must be brave.” Courage, however, has different manifestations, from moral courage to physical bravery. Will Kane, for example, is morally courageous to overcome his fears and value conflicts to keep his integrity. In The Last Train from Gun Hill the marshal (Kirk Douglas) demonstrates moral courage when he arrests the son of a good friend for murder. It takes moral and physical courage for cowboy Gil Carter (Henry Fonda) to stand up to the lynch mob in The Ox-Bow Incident.

 

Physical courage is a core trait of the heroes in westerns. There is, for example, the bravery of the seven heroes in The Magnificent Seven who, against overwhelming odds, fight a large gang of Mexican bandits. There’s Nevada Smith hunting vicious killers of his father even though he’s young and has never killed before. In True Grit, a sheriff says of Rooster, “The meanest one is Rooster Cogburn, a pitiless man, double tough, fear don’t enter into his thinking.” Or as Rooster says of himself to Mattie Ross, “Baby sister, I was born game and I intend to go out that way.”

 

In Shane, the bar-room fight between Shane and Ryker’s six thugs dramatises Shane’s courageous fight for his values. Shane fights for justice, his own self-respect and his new friends, the Starretts. Joe Starrett bravely joins the fight out of loyalty to Shane and to stand up to the bullying thugs.

 

The two most famous symbols of western courage are the marshal/sheriff and the cowboy. One especially popular lawman was Matt Dillon in Gunsmoke. Marshal Dillon bravely protected Dodge City from kidnappers, murderers, bullies and gunfighters. In one 1956 episode, “The Killer”, Dillon faces Crego (Charles Bronson), a gunfighter he cannot outdraw. After he recovers from wounds inflicted by Crego, Dillon figures out Crego’s weakness and bravely faces him again.

Through such television shows as High Chaparral and The Virginian, and in such movies as Red River and The Cowboys, the cowboy became the most popular symbol of the west. Part of that appeal was the cowboy’s manliness, especially as manifested in his courage. In Red River, the classic cattle-drive tale, whatever his flaws Thomas Dunson (John Wayne) lets nothing get between him and his goals, not murderous Indians, gunfighters of a Mexican grandee, cattle stampedes, rebellious cowhands, and finally not even his adopted son who bitterly disagrees with him. Dunson may be tyrannical but he always bravely stands by his own judgment.

 

The wagon-train genre of westerns dramatises the bravery of pioneers. In epics like The Big TrailThe Indian Fighter and Westward the Women, pioneers are shown overcoming nature (drought, storms, mountains, rivers), animals (rattlesnakes, mountain lions and scorpions) and a myriad of evil men. And they also have to deal with the odd religious nut, murderous fellow trekker or dictatorial wagon-master. Wagon Train, one of the most popular western television series, chronicled the courage of pioneers.

The ranchers in The Searchers exemplified pioneer courage. The movie’s trailer blares that Ethan has “a rare kind of courage”. The frontispiece of the novel states its theme:

 

These people had a kind of courage that may be the finest gift of man: the courage of those who simply keep on, and on, doing the next thing, far beyond all reasonable endurance, seldom thinking of themselves as martyred, and never thinking of themselves as brave.

 

The Searchers contains one of the greatest acts of courage in movies. Near the start of the film, Ethan understands that the Comanche are on a “murder raid” that threatens his family’s ranch, but he also realises that his and Marty’s horses “need rest and grain”. Knowing that if he rides his horse now it will die and he will not reach the ranch, Ethan stops to feed and rest his horse rather than follow Marty charging off towards home. The next shot is of Ethan’s anguished face looking over his saddle towards the homestead where the woman he loves might be dying.

 

Justice

Another fundamental feature of westerns is the westerners’ belief in the virtue of justice. The western hero fights for right over wrong, good over evil. He does this by objectively judging the characters of men and then by acting on this judgment.

A staple of many western films is the westerner fighting for justice against the violators of his rights. In The Searchers, Ethan hunts the Indian killers of his brother, nephew and beloved Martha in order to wreak justice upon them. An eye for an eye, a scalp for a scalp. Ethan guns down Futterman when he tries to shoot Ethan in the back to steal his gold. In Shane, Joe Starrett wants to live free to farm in the valley. But wanting to keep the range to himself, Ryker lowers himself from reason and persuasion to initiating violence against the farmers. Ryker encourages Chris to fist-fight Shane, and Wilson to shoot him. Shane and Starrett invoke their moral right of self-defence and fight back. Ryker reaps what he sows and is shot down by Shane in the climax of the film.

 

Western men and women also respect the rights of others. One could not imagine Will Kane or Shane wanting to violate the rights of others. To achieve their own self-interested goals, they demand to be left alone. Western heroes respect the same freedom in others. Woe unto him who violates this code of the west. Part of western justice is the westerners’ fight for his own freedom and that of others. This is especially seen in ShaneThe Magnificent Seven and The Alamo.

In many westerns, the fight for justice is the central conflict of the story. In Gunfight at the O.K. Corral, Wyatt Earp rids Tombstone of the dangerous Clantons. In Warlock, town tamer Clay Blaisedell (Henry Fonda) cleans the town of hell-raising cowboys. The Fastest Gun Alive3:10 to Yuma and My Darling Clementine dramatise good citizens battling criminals. And the climax of many westerns depicts good Americans victorious against evil.

 

Productiveness

When people are free to apply their reason and skill to improving their lives, human progress results. The deep-seated American belief in progress was a result of Americans’ Enlightenment thinking and is a hallmark of Americanism. In their New World, Americans believed that human progress was inevitable and unending.

Man applying his reason to change his environment and condition has resulted in humans building huts, creating fire, digging wells, blocking rivers, and developing the world in countless other ways. In America specifically, progress especially entailed man taming the vast western wilderness for productive purposes. The theme of bringing civilisation to the “Wild West” is intrinsic to westerns. The march of American progress is depicted in plains becoming fields, rivers becoming dams, deserts becoming mines and towns, ravines being crossed by bridges, mountains being drilled for tunnels. Westerns show the raising of cattle and sheep, the planting of crops, the building of towns. Westerns dramatise the success of new technology—coaches, steamers, trains, telegraph, Winchester rifle and Colt revolver—all of which changed history and helped tame a wild land.

 

More specifically, in Shane, the development of the land is dramatised through cattle ranchers and farmers. The cattle ranch and cattle drive were pivotal to many western stories, including such films as Cattle Drive and Red River, and of course to the popular television series Rawhide with Clint Eastwood. In Red River, we see the ambitious Tom Dunson create from raw Texas grassland a cattle ranch with 10,000 head that he needs to drive hundreds of miles to Missouri. Cattle ranch television series like BonanzaThe Big Valley and High Chaparral showed the intelligence, skill and dedication needed to work the land to create economic bounty.

 

In Little House on the Prairie, we see the development of the community of Walnut Grove. We witness Americans building farms, growing crops, learning in schools, developing businesses. All were the work of pioneers dedicated to making better lives for themselves.

 

The Searchers shows the hardships the pioneers endured to tame a hostile land: freezing winters, baking summers, loneliness and the vast emptiness. Ethan’s neighbour Lars Jorgensen tells him, “It’s this country that killed my boy.” More importantly, The Searchers dramatised pioneers overcoming the hardships of frontier life. Or as Mrs Jorgensen says:

It just so happens we be Texicans. Texican is nothing but a human man way out on a limb. This year and next, and maybe for a hundred more. But I don’t think it’ll be forever. Some day this country’s gonna be a fine, good place to be. Maybe it needs our bones in the ground before that time can come.

 

The importance of the telegraph was depicted in Western Union, the power of the Winchester rifle in Winchester ’73. The life-changing consequences of the stagecoach were shown in a myriad of westerns, including Stagecoach and Wells Fargo. The technological advance of the railroad greatly developed the American West. The “iron horse” transported pioneers, shipped beef and connected towns, and featured in countless westerns, like Denver and the Rio Grande and How the West Was WonUnion Pacific, starring western regulars Barbara Stanwyck and Joel McCrea, portrayed the coming of the railroad. The plot follows the building of the Union Pacific railway to meet up with the Central Pacific railway. The railroaders battled to overcome nature (snow and mountains) as well as Indians and outlaws. In the television show Iron Horse, Ben Calhoun (Dale Robertson) has to overcome many obstacles to finish his recently acquired railroad.

 

Civilising the west also meant bringing law and order, creating a peaceful life so production, commerce and trade could take place. Peace required the pacification of what classic westerns depicted as two types of men antithetical to progress: the outlaw and the hostile Indian. Many westerns portrayed pioneers or lawmen fighting white outlaws so that citizens could live free, productive lives. Additionally, traditional westerns also commonly portrayed Native Americans as aggressors, enemies of progress and champions of stagnation. In Stagecoach, the brave travellers fight the murderous Apaches. In Fighting Caravans and Only the Valiant the soldier heroes battle raiding Indians. In The Searchers, the Comanches rape, murder, kidnap and terrorise settlers but in the film’s climax, Scar and his band are defeated and peace and family are restored.

 

Scar, Wilson and Frank Miller do not develop the land, do not build businesses or create technology. They destroy and plunder those who do. Most classic westerns are unequivocal in their condemnation of the initiation of violence against settlers and support the pioneers’ right to produce and to defend themselves. In such westerns, evil is the destruction of the productive.

 

While westerns don’t often delve deeply into ideas, they do almost invariably depict human progress positively. The western is a paean to man improving himself, of men and women struggling to make better lives for themselves. This progress was the enactment of the deep belief Americans had in their country’s founding ideals of individual rights, progress and happiness here on earth.

 

Self-esteem

A prominent attribute of the on-screen westerner is his self-confidence. Like many western heroes, Ethan Edwards is self-assured. After Ethan kills Futterman, Marty, who was Ethan’s unknowing bait to trap Futterman, challenges Ethan, “What if you missed?” Ethan replies, “Never occurred to me.” Shane is coolly confident in his gun skill, as are Wyatt Earp and Doc Holliday in Gunfight at the O.K. Corral and the Man with No Name in The Good, the Bad and the Ugly. Consider Captain Lance in Only the Valiant. No matter what dangerous order, betrayal from a subordinate, or ploy by the Apaches Captain Lance faces, he always trusts himself to find an answer.

 

A western hero always knows the ethical thing to do. He never hedges. He makes up his mind and backs it up with action. In Rio Bravo, Sheriff Chance (John Wayne) confidently faces the villains, supports his friends and rejects help he doesn’t need. In one scene, Chance confidently tells the powerful villain Burdette:

I don’t like a lot of things. I don’t like your men sittin’ on the road bottling up this town. I don’t like your men watching us, trying to catch us with our backs turned. And I don’t like it when a friend of mine offers to help and twenty minutes later he’s dead! And I don’t like you, Burdette, because you set it up.

 

In True Grit, Mattie Ross (Kim Darby) always knows her mind and goes confidently about her business. No matter her disappointment with Rooster Cogburn, the interference from La Boeuf, or the conniving of Colonel Stonehill, Mattie charges forward. Courageous and resourceful for any age, but especially so for a fourteen-year-old, Mattie carries a Colt Dragoon to kill her father’s murderer and when disgusted with Marshal Cogburn’s drunkenness, she upbraids him: “Now I know you can drink whiskey and I saw you kill a rat, but all the rest has been talk. I’m not paying for talk.”

 

And Rooster Cogburn, drunk, sober, testifying in court or hunting killers, always believes in his ability to get the job done. In True Grit’s fiery climax, without any fear or doubt, Rooster faces the killer Ned Pepper and his three henchmen. Pepper asks Rooster: “What’s your intention? Do you think one on four is a dogfall?” Rooster replies, “I mean to kill you in one minute, Ned. Or see you hanged in Fort Smith at Judge Parker’s convenience. Which’ll it be?” To which Ned replies, “I call that bold talk for a one-eyed fat man.” Rooster growls, “Fill your hand, you son of a bitch!” and confidently charges the four killers, dispatching three of them. That is the way of the western man.

 

Competence

Because the westerner was dedicated to using reason in what he did, he learned confidence. And because of this confidence the westerner stuck with things and became competent in what he did. It took great skill to trek across a continent, to develop a ranch, to fight outlaws. Many film genres have characters who are competent, but competence is a mandatory virtue in westerners. Westerns so typically show the American as productive and efficient that western heroes became international symbols of American skill and competence. The western hero was expert at riding horses, driving coaches, shooting guns, mining gold, crossing wild rivers, hunting buffalo, building railroads, fighting Indians, and so on.

Witness Wyatt Earp (Henry Fonda) in My Darling Clementine. Tombstone was under threat by killers led by the Clanton family, but Marshal Earp knew how to defeat them and did so efficiently. During the showdown at the O.K. Corral, Earp has to find a way to cross an open stretch to get to the heavily armed Clanton barricade. He crosses by hiding in the swirling dust of an arriving stagecoach. Earp (and others) then skilfully defeat the Clantons.

 

Shane is an especially eloquent example of competence, and not just as a gunfighter. One of the most poignant scenes in westerns is the tree-stump-removing scene in Shane. The scene depicts the clearing of the land for productive use but also dramatises the skill and efficacy of the westerner. Shane and Starrett trade cut for cut, shove for shove, in a test of skill and strength to remove the stump and conquer nature. Together they upend the stump, watched by the admiring Marian and Joey.

In production notes for The Searchers, the associate producer Patrick Ford describes the Ethan character in the novel thus: “There is a greatness to him, too. His courage, relentlessness and frontier skill are magnificent.”

Arguably the most dramatic and popular legend of the Old West is that of the fast gun. Wild Bill Hickok, John Wesley Hardin and Wyatt Earp are famous across the world as western gunfighters. In film, J.B. Books and Shane are renowned experts with a six-shooter. And remember Clint Eastwood’s deadly skill as the Man with No Name. In The Fastest Gun Alive, starring western regular Glenn Ford, the fast-draw legend is twisted by Ford’s character being a super-fast draw who has never drawn against a man. The riveting climax of many westerns was the marshal or cowboy hero facing an evil gunslinger in a showdown. The hero drew faster and shot more accurately.

 

On television, western heroes were equally skilled and competent. Ben Cartwright (in Bonanza) always had a solution for the many problems his family faced on the Ponderosa, as did the no-nonsense ranch foreman the Virginian in the series of the same name.

Living in the American West often meant surviving in a wilderness or lawless land. The westerner had to know what to do. To be incompetent meant failure and death. Westerns starkly show that man survives and prospers by his knowledge and skill.

 

American masculinity and femininity

Western film and television characters exhibit a uniquely American masculinity and femininity.

Ethan Edwards, Shane, Matt Dillon and many other western heroes are admired as “real men”. They are strong, competent and independent. What makes their manly virtues especially masculine is the decisiveness in which they enact them. For instance, Scar calls Ethan “Broadshoulders” but Ethan’s strength is more than his physical or mental toughness, it is especially his moral surety and confidence to quickly choose a course of action. Ethan ignores Captain Clayton’s commands at the river and shoots at the Indians. Ethan doesn’t ponder or fret about entering Scar’s camp. He finds a clever ploy to enter and soon confronts and taunts Scar. The men of westerns are tough guys, laconic and strong, whether they are marshals or railroaders or cowboys. And they are admired by other characters for their masculinity. In Shane, after the saloon fist-fight where Shane and Starrett vanquish Ryker’s bullies, Marian tells Joe and Shane, “It was ugly and you were both wonderful,” while the worshipful Joey declares, “I bet you two could lick anyone.”

 

When discussing the roles for men and women in westerns, one needs to remember that men are physically stronger than women and that westerners lived in violent times. It is therefore consistent that the lead roles in westerns were most often men. Women in westerns, however, were often mentally strong and confident individuals. In fact, before today’s superhero movies there was no other film genre that allowed women to be so independent and confident. The women in westerns, like their male counterparts, were imbued with American optimism and ambition, and were usually competent, whether they were pioneer trekkers, singers, saloon owners or cattle queens. Westerns depict a period when women were becoming freer. American women of the time were the most independent women in the world and also expressed American individualism. They could think for themselves, take advantage of new economic opportunities, and often created more wealth and better lives for themselves. They had grit. They needed it.

 

The so-called traditional view of femininity—women as dainty and weak, only concerned with babies and dresses—had little reality for historical pioneer women. Besides sharing the same dreams and ideals as American men, pioneer women endured the same hardships on the trail that the men suffered, the same deprivations in the settlements, the same diseases, crime and Indian attacks. The American West was no place for the weak or stupid, male or female. Western women had to be mentally strong and confident. Real-life western female heroes included frontierswoman and scout Calamity Jane, sharpshooter and showman Annie Oakley, and pioneer Laura Ingalls Wilder. The West also had tough female outlaws such as Pearl Hart, Belle Starr and Etta Place.

Compare the strength and independence of the American women of the Old West with, for example, the women of England and Europe of that time. Although freer than most women in the world and able to take advantage of factory jobs from industrialisation, English women had less freedom and opportunity than their American counterparts. They were especially controlled by a rigid class system. In Europe, women were generally more subservient and dependent than their New World counterparts. They had no frontier to escape to, no wagon trains taking them to opportunity, no guns to defend themselves, and no farms to help tend. The freedom of the American West gave pioneer women great challenges but also much independence. It is little wonder that so many European men and women migrated to the Americas.

 

Westerns may have had their fair share of silly pretty heads, gossiping church harpies, sweet schoolmarms, pretty ladies in distress, and whores with hearts of gold, but western films and television shows also had many strong and confident women. Who could forget Marlene Dietrich as the feisty handful Frenchy in Destry Rides Again or as the hardcase Altar Keane in Rancho Notorious? Remember also the strong-willed Vienna (Joan Crawford) in Johnny Guitar or Raquel Welch as the gun-toting avenger Hannie Caulder. Or western regular Barbara Stanwyck as shooting ace Annie Oakley or as tough territory boss Jessica Drummond in Forty Guns or as the ruthless Vance Jeffords in The Furies. And there was the strong Katy Jurado in High NoonBroken Lance and Arrowhead. And that other western regular Maureen O’Hara as the no-nonsense Martha McCandles in Big Jake, the fiery bullwhip-cracking Katie Howard in Comanche Territory, and the sensitive but unforgiving Kathleen Yorke in Rio Grande.

That strong women were prevalent in westerns did not mean that other film genres did not have confident and determined female protagonists. There was the occasional female swordfighter or warrior, such as Spitfire Stevens (Maureen O’Hara) in Against all Flags and Joan of Arc in several movies. And there was the strong queen in historical dramas, such as Queen Christina and The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex, and the villainous woman in film noir or suspense thrillers, such as Mrs Danvers in Rebecca. And there were dramas, such as Mrs Miniver, where a woman was courageous, or stories of tough shrews or neurotics, as often played by Bette Davis, and female detectives, such as Miss Marple. But no other film genre had so many strong women who were such a distinctive feature of the genre as did westerns.

 

To argue the case, let’s examine in more detail Barbara Stanwyck’s character in Forty Guns, Sam Fuller’s moody 1957 western. Stanwyck plays the self-made cattle queen and “boss of Cochise County”, Jessica Drummond. The song played at the start of the movie describes Drummond as a “high-riding woman with a whip, no man can tame her”. A female film character never had a more dramatic introduction than Drummond has in Forty Guns. Across the stark black-and-white landscape thunders a column of forty gunmen, headed by Drummond, dressed in men’s black clothing, riding imperiously on a pure white horse. Drummond is intelligent, confident and strong, even when she meets a man who is stronger than her, a tough marshal whom she tells, “You shot yourself across the map.” Drummond’s persona as the strong female leader dominates the film.

 

And consider the Raquel Welch western Hannie Caulder. Welch once noted the type of women she liked to portray: “I never liked cute women. I always thought that women should be extraordinary and magnificent.” Welch played Hannie Caulder as tough and heroic. As the avenger against her husband’s three murderers and her rapists, the dedicated Hannie learns the skills of a gunfighter and in the climax fights each of her rapists. In 100 Rifles, Welch plays another strong woman, the Indian revolutionary Sarita.

Strong women were also a part of television westerns. In Gunsmoke, the smartest business ­person and one of the strongest individuals in Dodge City was Miss Kitty (Amanda Blake). Miss Kitty was principled in her work and belief in justice and often stood toe to toe against the villains. During the climax of the “Mannon” episode, Miss Kitty confronts her rapist, hoping to undercut him psychologically so he can be killed by Matt Dillon. In The Big Valley, the Barkley family was headed by the steel-willed matriarch Victoria (Barbara Stanwyck). In this 1960s series, Victoria Barkley is the mother of four quarrelsome children, and the operator of a large ranch. The show is centred on the Barbara Stanwyck character. She runs the ranch, leads her family and deals with such crises as being locked in an insane asylum, being kidnapped, and dealing with bandits, thieves and land grabbers. She also knows how to wield a shotgun.

 

Glenn Frankel has written that John Ford’s women “are strong, fearless, determined, and in the end triumphant”. In The Searchers, for example, Mrs Jorgensen is intelligent on the importance of pioneers, love and happiness. She bravely endures the loss of her son and the massacre of neighbours. She and her daughter Laurie (Vera Miles) are better educated and more intelligent than their romantic partners, Lars and Marty, respectively. Both are good men who do their jobs well, but both have women who are miles ahead of them in their understanding of people and the world. Lars brags of his wife, “She used to be a school teacher, you know.” Mrs Jorgensen was not shy to give Ethan this insightful advice: “Don’t let the boys waste their lives in vengeance.”

Arguably the greatest female heroine in any western is Mattie Ross in True Grit. Mattie is strong, resourceful and moral. As the true hero of the story (not the Rooster Cogburn character), Mattie firmly advises her father on guns and ponies, tracks down Rooster and confronts him, outwits La Boeuf, ably bargains with and bests the slippery horse trader Colonel Stonehill, stands up to Rooster and his drunken ways, and relentlessly hunts her father’s killer, even to shoot him with her Colt. After Mattie courageously rides her pony across the rushing river, Rooster exclaims, “She reminds me of me!”

More than any other film genre, westerns allowed women to be heroic, smart and confident. One important unique character westerns gave the world was the independent American woman.

 

Benevolence

The fundamental acceptance by Americans of the beliefs and virtues discussed above has greatly influenced the American approach to life or sense of life. Ayn Rand defined a sense of life as “the integrated sum of a man’s basic values”, and noted that a “culture, like an individual, has a sense of life … an emotional atmosphere created by its dominant philosophy, by its view of man and of existence. This emotional atmosphere represents a culture’s dominant values.” Because America was so deeply a product of the Enlightenment, Americans had a strong reliance on reason and a deep experience of its efficacy in the world. This experience gave Americans a confident, this-worldly focus and a great trust in their own futures. Americans viewed the world as an arena of endless possibility. In short, Americans viewed life benevolently. This benevolence is reflected in such popular beliefs as “The American Dream” and America as the “The Land of Opportunity”.

 

The American sense of life can be contrasted with the traditional European one, where deference to the collective is paramount and, more specifically, to England, where one knows one’s station and duties. Or even in contrast to Australia, a former frontier colony with many rational values, but where no one must rise above the herd unless he or she genuflects to it. Such views are alien to the American, who views his own success, achievement and happiness as the norm of life.

American benevolence was prevalent in westerns from their inception to the late 1960s. It was expressed in how classic westerns looked. The Searchers, for instance, shot in brilliant Technicolor and wide-screen Vista Vision, revealed a gloriously vibrant world. No western ever looked more larger-than-life, more mythological than The Searchers with its Monument Valley vistas and towering figures like Ethan Edwards. And remember that introduction of the menacing but stunning Scar (Henry Brandon). The music that opens The Searchers and Shane heralds rare men and great deeds.

 

Stylised good guys and bad guys shone on the western screen. For example, Shane’s gunfighter’s outfit was a buckskin top, black gun-belt with silver buckles, and, of course, a white hat. The villain Wilson was dressed in black hat, vest and cravat, and often wore a malevolent smirk. You stepped back when you first saw Wilson. Shane and Wilson’s opposite looks symbolised their opposite principles. The climax of their conflict symbolised which of those principles was right.

 

Most importantly, westerns were benevolent in their spirit. The characters in classic westerns were most often productive, competent people striving in a world where success was possible and happiness often attained; a world where heroes rode tall into a glowing sunset. At the close of The Lone Ranger, the Lone Ranger and Tonto would ride confidently away, off to another adventure: “Hi ho Silver, away!” Justice had been achieved and the good had triumphed. In the climax of The Tall T, the hero (Pat Brennan, played by Randolph Scott) kills the three villains. Witnessing the deaths, Doretta cries. Brennan puts his arm around her and says, “Come on now, it’s gonna be a nice day.” They wrap their arms around each other and walk off towards their happy future together.

 

Shane beautifully captures the western spirit of rationality and goodness. Shane, Joe and Marian are self-aware, moral and benevolent individuals. They know what their feelings mean, what their values and goals are. They know what is right to do in the world, big and small things. For example, near the start of the story, after Shane helps Starrett stand up to Ryker, Starrett invites Shane to dinner. They eat pie and now as friends they work shoulder to shoulder to cut out the tree stump. Another example of westerners’ benevolence in Shane is the way Starrett and the farmers will help Fred Lewis and his family rebuild their home after Ryker burns it. In the climax of the film, as in most westerns, the good guys (the builders and creators) defeat the evil guys (the destroyers). Shane shows that though westerners might have to struggle to create or defend their values, they live in a just world. At the end of Shane, Shane has vanquished Wilson and Ryker and righted the world of the valley. As he’s leaving, Shane asks Joey to tell Marian that “everything’s all right, and there aren’t any more guns in the valley”.

 

Even in a story as harsh as The Searchers, American benevolence shines through, primarily inside the ranchers’ homes. In the outside world, brutal nature and human evil might lurk, but these Texicans don’t let it defeat them. Inside their loving homes, caring relationships and friendly respect dominate. At the end of The Searchers, Ethan returns Debbie home, and Marty will marry Laurie. Even Mose Harper (“that old goat”) achieves his goal. He locates Debbie and earns his rocking chair by the fire.

The marriage scene in The Searchers is not just John Ford giving his audience relief from the dark tension of Ethan’s search and anger. The scene also expresses frontier benevolence and humour and shows the good fellowship and relaxation that westerners need away from the constant strain of hard work and danger. The Marty and Laurie subplot symbolises the benevolent relationships that are possible for pioneers. Its focus is not on the pain and failure of the life possible outside the home but on the purpose of these lives and struggles: to be happy. Laurie and Marty might be at opposite purposes and understandings during the story, but at its end they find fulfilled love and walk hand in hand into her home, as Marty brushes the dirt of the trail from his hat.

 

Because of her American values and virtues, Laurie Jorgensen represents the unique beauty of the American woman, with her purposefulness, innocence, and a “go get ’em” spirit. Laurie is at ease with herself and explicit in her worldly ambition, not afraid to seize what is hers. She kisses Marty, declares they are engaged, and she watches him bathe, unabashed. When Laurie’s face lights up watching or talking of Marty, the screen bursts with the joy and confidence of a woman in love. Yet Laurie is wise enough to know that she can’t have Marty until his highest value is achieved, the rescue of Debbie.

 

Benevolence was also a trademark of television westerns. Each week viewers would see the Cartwrights succeed on their ranch and Matt Dillon win for the good guys. And there were many benevolent western heroes beloved by children. Standing tall among them were Hopalong Cassidy, Wild Bill Elliott, the Cisco Kid, and the most famous of them all, the Lone Ranger. Clayton Moore lived that role, imbuing the Ranger with the elegance and gravitas of a matinee idol in a benevolent world. The Lone Ranger walked with decisive purpose and was handsome and poised. He looked nifty in his sky-blue outfit with black gun-belt, boots and mask, and of course he used only silver bullets. The Lone Ranger wasn’t shy to state a moral lesson along the way, often speaking in principles or aphorisms suitable for kids. Tonto was equally stylised and benevolent, from his distinctive visage to his attractive buckskin outfit, to his loyalty to the Ranger and all he and the Ranger stood for. The derring-do of the Lone Ranger and Tonto was heightened by rousing classical music and was dramatically introduced each week by Rossini’s “William Tell Overture”.

 

That westerns showed men and women who were purposeful, ambitious and successful does not mean that some classic westerns did not have dark streaks or themes. One such motif was the western hero at the end of the film riding off alone to some unknown future. This is the fate of Shane, who rides back into the hills, alone and wounded. And the fate of Ethan Edwards. As the rest of the families enter the Jorgensen home, Ethan remains outside and ambles away, implying that he is fated to be alone. But in the main, westerns, especially those on television, had happy endings with positive meanings. It became a cliché around the world that in westerns the cowboy always gets his girl and the cavalry always arrives on time. Western stories and heroes inspired millions of children and adults, giving them not only the vision of American benevolence but also the vision of what a good American is.

 

Morality tales

From The Lone Ranger for children to Shane for adults, westerns were morality tales. They taught us how to live. Shane, for example, showed that for civilisation to grow good men must stand up for their rights. High Noon taught us that to truly live we must live with integrity. The Searchers showed us that to succeed we need grit and endurance. These are important life lessons. In a 1962 article, Ayn Rand addressed the significance of westerns this way:

The appeal of crime stories and Westerns does not lie in the element of violence, but in the element of moral conflict and moral purpose. Crime stories and Westerns are the last remnant of romanticism on our airwaves. No matter how primitive their terms, they deal with the most realistic issue of man’s life: the battle of good and evil. They present man as a purposeful being who is able to choose his goals, to fight for his values, to resist disaster, to struggle and to win.

 

For children, there was no greater example in westerns of “the battle of good and evil”, of explicit American moral lessons, than The Lone Ranger. Often during their adventures the Ranger would declare to Tonto the importance of fighting for law and order and progress or some other important ideal. “The Letter Bride” episode, written by Wells Root, dramatised the ideal that all races are equal. A Chinese “good friend” of the Ranger and Tonto is being terrorised by racists who kidnap his Chinese fiancée.

 

The Ranger explains why the kidnappers have taken Lee Po’s girl: “The lowest reason the human heart is capable of … Because their skin is a different colour to yours.” When one kidnapper later snaps at the Lone Ranger, “What’s wrong with it?” The Ranger replies, “I’ll tell you what’s wrong with it. Chinese are people and have the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness that you have.”

 

Clayton Moore once stated: “I like playing the good guy. I’ll wear the white hat for the rest of my life. The Lone Ranger is a great character, a great American. Playing him made me a better person.” Millions of children around the world who learned ethics from the Lone Ranger understood what Moore meant.

 

In Shane and The Searchers, and many other westerns, adults are taught more subtle moral lessons. Like other western heroes, Shane is unfailingly loyal and just in all his dealings, either for the good, such as the Starretts, or against the bad, such as Ryker. Shane also shows us wisdom in the way he deals with Chris, the young cowboy who challenges Shane to a fist-fight and loses badly. In a lesson for us all, Chris reflects on his own bullying and after seeing more clearly the nature of Ryker, turns against him and warns Shane of Ryker’s plot to kill Joe Starrett. Shane respects the goodness in Chris and, ignoring their past conflict, shakes the cowboy’s hand. The relationship between Shane and the hero-worshipping Joey has moral lessons. Shane respects Joey’s need to look up to him and his father and to act like a man. Part of Shane’s reason for fighting the bullies in the saloon is to show Joey courage. Later Shane teaches Joey how to shoot a gun. He advises Joey’s mother: “A gun is a tool, Marian; no better or no worse than any other tool: an axe, a shovel or anything. A gun is as good or as bad as the man using it. Remember that.” As Shane farewells Joey, he counsels him, “Grow up to be strong and straight.”

 

In The Searchers, Ethan has a morality that no outside force can break. Watching Ethan seek justice against the killers of Martha, refuse to kowtow to Captain Clayton’s badge, and confront Scar, we learn that to succeed one needs a rock-hard character. We know that nothing will stop Ethan or change his values, except his own experience and thinking. Ethan’s code is at times harsh and belligerent but we respect his courage to live life by his own standards. Those standards are based on fact and experience, and they are successful. That is a moral lesson.

 

Even when the protagonist in classic westerns was not a hero in a white hat, the story still often dramatised a moral lesson. Note the cautionary tale of The Gunfighter. Seduced in his youth by the excitement and adventure of the gunfighter’s life but now in his middle years, Jimmy Ringo hungers for the quiet life with his separated wife and young son. Ringo’s youthful irrationality costs him his life. The Gunfighter is a morality tale by negative example.

 

American heroes

The ideals, virtues and traits discussed above when integrated produce a unique hero: the American westerner. The western hero is an independent man or woman with virtues such as rationality, competence and courage. The western hero fights for values such as freedom, rights and his own self. This hero acts in a world where progress, justice and goodness win.

 

The heroes of classic westerns have inspired millions around the world. We see Will Kane and think about integrity. We watch Shane and become familiar with benevolence and competence. We follow Ethan Edwards and are girded by his courage. We behold Mattie Ross never wavering ethically and are motivated to act similarly. We thrill seeing the Magnificent Seven overcome great odds and applaud seeing Maverick outsmart evil. We straighten seeing Matt Dillon stand resolutely against malice, and cheer watching the Wilder family realise their dreams. These western heroes stand tall and to look them in the eye we raise ourselves. In doing so, we make ourselves better people. All heroic and benevolent art can inspire us, but westerns, because of what they are and because of their great popularity, have inspired us perhaps more than any other film genre.

 

Western heroes became symbols of the American. Travel the world and ask many older non-Americans which Americans they admire and you will often hear the names Clint Eastwood, James Stewart and John Wayne—all western stars. A year before Wayne’s death in 1979, the actress Elizabeth Taylor testified to Congress that John Wayne “gave the whole world the image of what an American should be”. It was primarily through the western hero that the world knew and loved the American. The marshal and cowboy hero were America.

 

But over the last four decades Hollywood has declined. The once giant silver screen has become smaller and dimmer. The type of characters Hollywood now presents and the nature of the lives it portrays have shrunk. Reasons for this decline include scripts populated with “flawed” characters in clichéd, shallow value conflicts, the tragic and naturalistic sensibility of many producers and directors, and the low tastes of many viewers. But the actors of Hollywood have also imploded. Although there are many very talented actors today, they are rarely “stars” that symbolise high values and virtues, who leap from our screens as idealised individuals. We had Charlton Heston and John Wayne, Greta Garbo and Maureen O’Hara. Actors and acting reflect the culture that gives them birth and sustenance. The stars have fallen to earth. Except for a few rare bursts of brilliant light, our screens today no longer explode with stories of giant heroes or shimmer with visions of actors able to play great-souled men and women.

 

But the implosion of actors, screen stories and heroes is a consequence of something much greater: a change in ideals and beliefs. Our world today extols the everyman, the mediocrity, the loser. It has become commonplace to make screen “good guys” and “bad guys” morally equal or to make screen “heroes” a grey sludge of virtue and vice. Nobody today is a pure hero and nobody is better than anyone else, we are told. These egalitarian ideals helped topple the hero from the silver screen, as did the artistic preference for small worlds of “ordinary” or “gritty” slices of “life”. Larger-than-life giants of morality and confidence have been replaced by “complex” and self-doubting “regular Joes”. The best heroes extant on our screens today are born with superpowers or have acquired them accidentally. Any virtues that these heroes may have are buried in valueless violence, mindless chases and special effects. And characters with superpowers cannot truly inspire adults; they are not human. In the values desert of today’s films, great heroes struggle to find life. And thus western heroes died.

 

The fundamental reason western heroes and westerns died was the reversal in the dominant intellectual values of America. Reason has been supplanted by mysticism and scepticism, self-interest by self-sacrifice, individualism by collectivism, and economic development by environmentalism. As a consequence, the prodigious, independent individual pursuing his own rational values and self-interest is no longer revered. Such heroes do not represent the philosophy and sensibility of our times. The western hero is out of step, out of kilter, with the current mores. Classical westerns will not return until the rational ideals and heroic virtues that made the real American West and inspired western movies are again dominant.

 

Westerns and life

An article on classic westerns should end positively and with a clear understanding of the most profound meaning of the western. The deepest meaning of westerns is that they dramatise values and virtues crucial to life. Westerns are an American art form that show how to live on this earth. Westerns teach us that to live we need to value reason, independence, justice, courage, progress, benevolence and heroism. The motto for the westerners who made the American West and for those who later fictionalised or enjoyed their stories could be: “Go west, young man and woman, go west and live.”

 

The life-affirming nature of westerns is the deepest cause of their once unparalleled popularity. Across the world, millions of American-minded people enjoyed a value affinity between their life-supporting American ideals and westerns. If the meaning of westerns were put into one word it would be: America.

…..

This article first appeared here: https://quadrant.org.au/

Scott A. McConnell is a writer and story consultant in Los Angeles and Melbourne, and the writer of the western screenplays My Father’s Son, The Two Cowboys and Dudageree.

The Meaning of the Western
Tagged on:         

One thought on “The Meaning of the Western

  • June 11, 2018 at 10:57 pm
    Permalink

    Very well analysed and put across Scott……i have to add a little more…..
    In her book There Must Be a Lone Ranger, Jenni Calder had written, while the West was yet untamed, the stories of how men had brought justice and order to the wild became a national legend. They provided meat for a country that was hungry for heroes as well as for beef…….
    kit carson, Wild Bill Hickok, Buffalo Bill and many others-outlaws,Sheriffs and adventurers…were sublimated into a superb fiction while they still lived…..elsewhere she adds, The western defies the limitations of history, just as all myths tend to defy their origins, and just as so much popular expression tends to defy the imagination’s more serious and studied efforts.
    While John Ford, Howard Hawks, John Sturges, Richard Brooks and Sam Peckinpah and many film directors brought life to the frontier myth live on screen, writers, Zane Grey, Louis L’amour, Max brand others brought the West with their vivid narratives in book form.
    It was not only a vision of the Garden of Eden that lured men westward, it was the particular attraction of virgin land. here was a true wilderness, untouched, unspoilt, waiting to be shaped by human hands, for individual profit and the nation’s good.

    Reply

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *