Magazine article UNESCO Courier

Knights of the Far West

Magazine article UNESCO Courier

Knights of the Far West

Article excerpt

Knights of the Far West

The cowboy starred in epics which unfolded on cinema screens the world over. Has this modern knight on horseback ridden into the sunset for the last time? No myth is more widespread or more deeply woven into the fabric of contemporary culture than that of the western. As the twenty-first century approaches, it is striking that a historical phenomenon over a hundred years old should still be so fresh and alive. The behaviour patterns, aspirations, styles of dress, and even the kind of food depicted in westerns have become familiar models for people the world over to dream about.

Blue jeans, the cowboy's trademark, are the most popular garment on earth. And clothing, surely, is the most visible emblem of the image of themselves people want to project. Hundreds of millions of would-be cowboys walk around in jeans. Why has the western had such a universal impact? Two of the main reasons would seem to be the archetypal power of the myth, and the technological and cultural background of the twentieth century.

From knight to cowboy

The cowboy is the democratic heir of the mythical knight in shining armour. He evokes and adapts for the modern public the countless legends that have grown up through the ages, all over the world, around the taming of the horse.

The chivalrous knight is someone who masters his animal nature, thereby raising himself above other men. He is more powerful, more mobile and freer than they. He shoulders the noble responsibility of restoring justice and defending the weak and the oppressed. But he is vulnerable, because if he wavers and falls from grace, he has a long way to fall. He is lonely, too, for not everyone can become a knight. The attraction of the myth of the chivalrous knight is rooted in the twofold dream we all harbour, of achieving self-control and meting out justice. For a long time the fulfilment of this dream was beyond the reach of most of us.

Then, with the American and the French Revolutions, the great principle of human equality came to the fore and transformed ways of thinking. The ideal of the western was the perfect substitute for an over-elitist myth. The dignity and freedom of the knight were now within the grasp of everyone, at least in imagination. A figure from the New World, the cowboy, was grafted onto an ancient myth, ready to captivate the whole world.

The Golden Age of the Far West

Then along came the cinema, an invention that has had inconceivable repercussions. Like Gutenberg's printing press, it revolutionized communications. It propagated the same dreams to a worldwide audience. As early production and distribution techniques were cumbersome and expensive, only a limited number of films were available to an ever-widening public.

The sheer size of the American market meant that the United States would play a dominant role in world cinema: films whose costs had already been recouped at home could be exported at prices that defied all competition. Add to this the extraordinary popularity of American films, and the result was that the whole world began to see the same films and to share the same cinema landscape.

In response to the production needs of a rapidly increasing output, the American film industry set up in California, where there is sunshine practically all the year round. Film-makers need decors as well as light and actors--and California has plenty of outstanding natural locations, ideal for westerns.

The advent of television meant that the myths vehicled by the American cinema reached an even wider audience. …

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