The Landscape of Hollywood Westerns: Ecocriticism in an American Film Genre

Article excerpt

THE LANDSCAPE OF HOLLYWOOD WESTERNS: ECOCRITICISM IN AN AMERICAN FILM GENRE. Deborah A. Carmichael, editor. The University of Utah Press, 2006. 248 pages; $21.95.

FAST DRAW

As a popular cinematic genre the Hollywood Western - those rip-roaring, fast-riding, Hell-bentfor-leather photodramas with clear distinctions between good and evil - remain forever embedded in the psyche of countless Americans. Why wouldn't they? As motion pictures, these titles conjure up one vicarious thrill after another. What young boy doesn't dream of jumping on a white horse and, with a lasso twirling in the wind, toss it around the shoulders of a fleeing, black-mustachioed villain, trying to escape with some widow's lifetime savings or maybe a fast draw, on a dusty main street, against a pockmarked desperado, some baddie, who has just pushed aside a local shopkeeper and wants to take over the town?

But what about topography? What role does it play in understanding motion pictures from this period? Does this terrain - sometimes hostile and unfriendly, often bucolic and serene - foster the myth of cowboys, rustlers, and Indians? Does it create a faulty and dreamlike reality of nineteenth-century expansion? In short, how significant is the environment in understanding the reality of America's West? These questions - and many more - are posited in a superb anthology that scrutinizes the importance of nature and countryside in popular feature-length photodramas. Edited by Deborah A. Carmichael, The Landscape of Hollywood Westerns: Ecocriticism in an American Film Genre offers twelve interpretations of environmental themes found in Western screenplays.

For starters, the 1928 silent film, The Wind, evaluates both the novel and photodrama of a social document that, historically, was ahead of its time, while The Grapes of Wrath, the gritty social protest story about the plight of the Okies, contains numerous latent Western motifs, Tulsa, the oil field film, examines industrial expansion, and Pale Rider - a copycat version of Shane - serves as a morality tale. A fourth chapter highlights the Technicolor process in Northwest Passage a breakthrough technology that spotlighted the landscape's natural beauty, while a fifth selection heralds the river-as-teacher theme glorifying the mysticism associated with free-flowing water. …