The Oxford History of World Cinema

By Geoffrey Nowell-Smith | Go to book overview
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The Western


Between 1910 and 1960 the Western was the major genre of the world's dominant national cinema. Its popularity was a vital factor in establishing Hollywood's control of the global film market. But the development of the Western as a distinctive formula within popular culture, with its own conventions and stereotypes, pre-dates the invention of the cinema by a quarter of a century. Two moments in the history of white expansion across the North American continent had a decisive effect. In the aftermath of the Civil War cattle ranchers on the Texas plains were desperate to find a market for their livestock. As the railways spread through Kansas on their way to California, the herds were driven up the thousand-milelong trail to the new towns of Abilene and Dodge City, strung out along the track. The cowboy, whose accoutrements and life-style derived mainly from the Hispanic culture to the south, quickly sprang to prominence as a mythic figure, a free spirit reliant on nothing but his horse, his gun, and his own manly virtues. Also at this time the smouldering conflict with the Indians burst into a full-scale conflagration, with a series of Indian wars across the plains, culminating in the spectacular and traumatic defeat of General Custer in 1876. As with the cowboy, the Indian, whether in the guise of the noble redman or the screaming savage, was rapidly incorporated into a range of fictional and quasi-documentary discourses, including the novel, the theatre, painting, and other forms of visual and narrative representation.

Though the cowboy and the Indian were to remain the central figures, a motley crew of outlaws, mountain men, soldiers, and lawmen were also pressed into service as Western heroes by the rapidly developing communication and entertainment industries. During the 1880s cheap popular fiction in the form of dime novels featured stories based on real-life personalities such as Jesse James, Billy the Kid, and Wild Bill Hickok, as well as fictional characters like Deadwood Dick. Many of these were also the heroes of stage melodramas. More consciously artistic forms of fiction also began to draw on Western themes. Just after the turn of the century, in 1902, Owen Wister's The Virginian provided the definitive portrait of the cowboy hero, a combination of natural gentleman and resolute man of action. Mass circulation magazines such as Hatper's were also employing the talents of artists such as Frederic Remington to visualize and embroider events out on the plains. Most influential of all, in 1883 Buffalo Bill Cody began touring with his circus-style Wild West entertainment. This included such crypto-narratives as the Battle of Summit Springs, in which Cody rode to the rescue of white women captured by Indians. The huge popularity of Buffalo Bill, in Europe as well as in America, demonstrated conclusively that the West was an ideal source of raw material for commercial entertainment. By 1900 the West was not only America's national myth, it was a valuable commodity.

The sheer variety of situations, locations, and character types that have attached themselves to the Western has resulted in a form which at times appears fluid, eclectic, and lacking any discernible centre. A generic category such as the Western, however, is more usefully understood not as an internally coherent corpus of texts but as a label employed by the film industry to identify and differentiate its products. The cinema Western, therefore, cannot properly be said to have existed until the industry began to separate out the Western from other films involving lawless acts, and until it had put the term into circulation as a useful description of a novel type of film. But the process was remarkably rapid. Aided no doubt by the fact that the film audience had already encountered Western adventure stories in the theatre and in cheap fiction, the emergent cinema soon developed a recognizable kind of narrative which displayed a distinctive combination of features.

First, the films are set on the frontier, the dividing line between white civilization and its opposite, 'savagery'. On the one side are law and order, community, the values of a settled society. On the other, the outlaw and the savage Indian. Following the landmark essay of Frederick Jackson Turner in 1893, American historians have concurred in fixing 1890 as the year in which the frontier finally disappeared and the continent was deemed pacified. This was also the year of the Battle of Wounded Knee, which ended organized resistance by the Indians. The great majority of Westerns, even those with no very exact historical settipg, situate themselves within the period 1865- 90, though this limit can extend earlier and later if frontier conditions are deemed to exist. Similarly, the geographical location is usually west of the Mississippi, north of the Rio Grande, but if the film is set in earlier times the location may be further east, and locations in Mexico may also qualify as the 'frontier'. The basic conflict develops from a struggle between the forces of civilization and savagery, and the narrative features lawless acts by those who, because of the frontier location, are beyond the pale of civilization. These acts require forcible retribution before order can be imposed. This combination of a specific time and place, and a transgressive act which these specifics make possible and which because of the nature


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The Oxford History of World Cinema
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