Hollywood's West: The American Frontier in Film, Television, and History

Hollywood's West: The American Frontier in Film, Television, and History

Hollywood's West: The American Frontier in Film, Television, and History

Hollywood's West: The American Frontier in Film, Television, and History


American historians such as Frederick Jackson Turner have argued that the West has been the region that most clearly defines American democracy and the national ethos. Throughout the twentieth century, the "frontier thesis" influenced film and television producers who used the West as a backdrop for an array of dramatic explorations of America's history and the evolution of its culture and values. The common themes found in Westerns distinguish the genre as a quintessentially American form of dramatic art. In Hollywood's West, Peter C. Rollins, John E. O'Connor, and the nation's leading film scholars analyze popular conceptions of the frontier as a fundamental element of American history and culture. This volume examines classic Western films and programs that span nearly a century, from Cimarron (1931) to Turner Network Television's recent made-for-TV movies. Many of the films discussed here are considered among the greatest cinematic landmarks of all time. The essays highlight the ways in which Westerns have both shaped and reflected the dominant social and political concerns of their respective eras. While Cimarron challenged audiences with an innovative, complex narrative, other Westerns of the early sound era such as The Great Meadow (1931) frequently presented nostalgic visions of a simpler frontier era as a temporary diversion from the hardships of the Great Depression. Westerns of the 1950s reveal the profound uncertainty cast by the cold war, whereas later Westerns display heightened violence and cynicism, products of a society marred by wars, assassinations, riots, and political scandals. The volume concludes with a comprehensive filmography and an informative bibliography of scholarly writings on the Western genre. This collection will prove useful to film scholars, historians, and both devoted and casual fans of the Western genre. Hollywood's West makes a significant contribution to the understanding of both the historic American frontier and its innumerable popular representations.


Ray Merlock

The Western obviously means different things to different people. To some, it conjures a sense of nostalgia, memories of Saturday afternoons at the downtown picture show, where a kid could get popcorn, a soft drink, and candy for a dime, or a quarter, or seventy-five cents (depending on the decade) and cheer Gene, Roy, Hoppy, Durango, or any number of hard-riding heroes. For others, the Western brings to mind Sunday nights with the family, watching Bonanza (NBC, 1959–1973) on a new color TV.

To filmmakers and production students, the Western must be cited as one of the building blocks of filmmaking, a genre possibly as old as moving pictures, cameras, screens, and projectors. The Great Train Robbery (1903) helped establish cinematic terminology and narrative possibility. Orson Welles, in preparation for directing Citizen Kane (1941), acknowledged screening John Ford’s Stagecoach (1939) over and over (once stating he watched it more than forty times, on another occasion stating he viewed it so many times he lost count), always with different technicians enabling him to inquire how this was done or why Ford chose to do a shot or scene that way. Film schools for decades used (and still use) a documentary on editing entitled Interpretation and Values: The Filming of a Sequence from the Television Series Gunsmoke (28 min., 1958) to clarify the concepts of “establishing shot,” “master shot,” “inserts,” and “cut-ins and cutaways” and the varied ways a scene can be assembled, thereby instilling in the minds of would-be filmmakers a primal connection of Westerns to filmmaking.

To discerning critics, historians, and fans, the Western undeniably includes some of the finest motion pictures ever made, remaining for decades a preferred genre for directors, producers, and stars central to American—even to world— . . .

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