How the Western Was Lost

Tracking the Decline of an American Genre: 
From Appomattox to Vietnam to Disney World

by  J. Hoberman

THE BUFFALO ARE GONE. The railroad is finished. The red men are in disarray. The sun sets on Monument Valley. Once the quintessential Hollywood genre, certainly the mode that dominated Cold War Kinderkultur, the western, as we knew it, is virtually extinct. The cowboy movie was typically the way America used to explain itself to itself.  Who makes the law?  What is the order?  Where is the frontier?  Which ones are the good guys? Why is it that a man's gotta to do what a man's gotta do--and how does he do it?  Each Hollywood western, no matter how trite, was a national ritual, a passion play, a veritable presidential election dramatizing and re-dramatizing the triumph of civilization, usually personified as the victory of the socially responsible individual over "savage” Indians or outlaws. "They tell me everything isn't black and white,”  John Wayne growled in 1969. "Well, I say why the hell not?”

Why not indeed? Black and white or Technicolor, it is the western that was our true Fourth of July celebration.  For, as historian Richard Slotkin has pointed out, in the national imagination, America's real founding fathers are less those celebrated and enlightened gentlemen who solemnly composed a nation in the genteel city of Philadelphia than "the rogues, adventurers, and land-boomers; the Indian fighters, traders, missionaries, explorers, and hunters who killed and were killed until they had mastered the wilderness.”

Add to these the cavalrymen and demobilized soldiers, freed slaves and impoverished homesteaders, picturesque immigrants and miscellaneous riffraff who went west after the Civil War--as well as "the Indians themselves, both as they were and as they appeared to the settlers, for whom they were the special demonic personification of the American wilderness”--and you have the set of characters for what seemed the pageant that could not die.

That the western landscape still holds the promise of liberation and/or redemption, rebirth or reinvention can be seen in such disparate recent hits as Thelma & Louise and City Slickers, not to mention the phenomenal success of Dances With Wolves.  The latter's awesome popularity, like the current word-of-mouth resurrection of Forrest Carter's autobiographical novel, The Education of Little Tree, demonstrates the enduring fascination of the classic western situation--the confrontation, in the wilderness, between the European and the Native American--even when that situation is presented all but devoid of context.

The continuing significance of the West for American identity is expressed by the panic greeting the possibility that a Japanese company might administer our national parks, no less than in the moral fervor of the Smithsonian's recent controversial exhibition, "The West as America.”  If nothing else, the hysterical response to this show--centering, for the most part, on the unremarkable curatorial suggestion that the Western art of the 19th and early 20th centuries may have had its own ideological biases--shows how contested and problematic this territory remains.  In that sense, the western is still at the impasse it reached 20 years ago.

Like baseball, the western is a sacred part of America's post-Civil War national mythology--a shared language, a unifying set of symbols and metaphors, and a source of (mainly male) identity.  But baseball is all form; the western is heavy, heavy, heavy on content. That the national pastime was successfully integrated after World War II while the demographics of the western remained overwhelmingly white up until the eve of the genre's demise--despite the fact that at least a quarter of the working cowboys in the late 19th century were of African descent--should alert us to the possibility that the western was as much concerned with concealing as illuminating historical truth.  In his catalog essay for the Smithsonian show, Alex Nemerov makes the point that the cowboy and Indian icons that developed around the closing of the frontier at the turn of the century can best be understood in relation to the urban, industrial culture that produced this iconography.

What is true for Western painting is no less true for the Hollywood oat opera: "Reluctant to give up the spectacular vistas that had already entered the nation's mythology,” as Nancy Anderson notes in her contribution to the catalog, "Americans took comfort from the constructed artifice of studio paintings that offered assurance that the West could endure as both iconic symbol and economic resource.”  Urban cowboy Norman Mailer explicitly linked the development of Hollywood to the closing of the West—“the expansion turned inward, became part of an agitated, overexcited, superheated dream life.”  We were born to be wild--at least in our hearts.

As a genre, the western was most often but not always confined to a relatively brief era of American history--the 25-year-long mop-up operation between Lee's surrender at Appomattox and the defeat of the Sioux at Wounded Knee. (Fascination with this particular period does not usually extend to the contemporary phenomenon of Reconstruction.)


Similarly, the Hollywood western enjoyed its Golden Age during the quarter-century Pax Americana that followed World War II, a mainstay of early television no less than "grind” movie theaters.  In the 1865-1890 period, individuals were armed and the threat of violence was constant; in that of 1948-1973, the nation was mobilized and the fear of war endemic. By focusing on the distinction between legal and illegal killing, the western supported American hyper vigilance during an age when, it was feared, widespread affluence might lull the nation into decadent complacence.  Not for nothing did John F. Kennedy name his program the New Frontier or Stanley Kubrick choose cowboy icon Slim Pickens to ride a hydrogen bomb bareback to Armageddon.

The celebration of national expansion intrinsic to the western implicitly supported the Cold War ethos of limitless growth and personal freedom. The Cinerama spectacular How the West Was Won (1962), which climaxed its epic saga with a vision of freeways, conveniently designates the watermark of this optimistic worldview. Thereafter, confidence in the western began to ebb in response to the struggle for civil rights at home and the question of imperial ambition abroad. If the Eisenhower era represented the western’s high noon, an era in which the U.S. appointed itself global sheriff and the gunslinger supplanted the cowboy as the archetypal western hero, shadows had lengthened by the time Kennedy reached the White House.  The old stars and veteran directors were aging.  Sam Peckinpah's Ride the High Country and John Ford's The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (both 1962) introduced the crepuscular mood that deepened in Ford's Cheyenne Autumn (1964) and Howard Hawks's El Dorado (1967).

The ‘60s brought unprecedented domestic and foreign upheaval and, given its privileged place in American popular culture, it was inconceivable that the western would remain immune.  In Italy, Sergio Leone made the genre more immediately relevant by raising the body count.  At once more abstract and more violently naturalistic than Hollywood westerns, Leone's "Dollars”  Trilogy reintroduced TV cowboy Clint Eastwood as the last western hero.  First, cynical bounty hunter, then outlaw-lawman, Eastwood was the "dirty” icon who would preside over the end of the western and the birth of the urban anti-Miranda policier [police thriller].

Like the Beatles and the Trinitron, spaghetti westerns (shot in Spain, directed by Italians, starring Americans) marked the internationalization of our popular culture.  Leone defamiliarized the genre:  his westerns, Vincent Canby observed, were "twice removed from reality, being based on myths that were originally conceived in Hollywood studios in the nineteen-thirties.”  Perhaps three times removed from reality would be more realistic--the movies were based on myths that were themselves based on myths. Nor was Leone alone.  Don Siegel's Coogan’s Bluff,  a vehicle for the new Eastwood, and Andy Warhol's Lonesome Cowboys--two self-consciously "modern” examples premiering within a month of each other during the final weeks of the 1968 presidential campaign--each in its way presented the genre itself as a form of Pop Art.  By then, however, the western had outgrown the screen.

In the national dream life, Indochina was an extension of the western frontier and Americans were once again settlers, cavalrymen, schoolmarms, gunslingers, and marshals on a mission of protection and progress.  The analogy was felt from the very beginning.  In 1962, The Saturday Evening Post characterized JFK's notion of strategic hamlets as "the old stockade idea our ancestors used against the Indians,”  while Admiral Harry D. Felt hung a sign in his Honolulu headquarters that read, "Injun Fightin' 1759. Counterinsurgency  1962”. Helicopters were named for Indian tribes and their machine-gunners compared to the men who rode shotgun for the stagecoach; military operations coded "Sam Houston,” "Daniel Boone,” and "Crazy Horse.”  This mythology affected our allies as well. The novel The Green Berets describes the reaction of a South Vietnamese strike force to the showing of a western against the side of a building. They "loved the action and identified themselves with it. When the Indians appeared the strikers screamed ‘VC,' and when the soldiers or cowboys came to the rescue the Nam Luong irregulars vied with each other in shouting out the number of their own strike-force companies.”

Nor did America's soldiers, toting guns through hostile territory inhabited by an unseen, uncanny foe of an alien race, fail to grasp the analogy. (A celebrated passage in Michael Herr's Dispatches has the combat reporter invited on a search-and-destroy mission: " ‘Come on,' the captain said, ‘we'll take you out to play Cowboys and Indians.'”)  After all, the men who fought in Vietnam were raised on westerns--presented with Cap-firing six-guns and Davy Crockett coonskin caps, deposited in Saturday matinees to watch the adventures of Hopalong Cassidy and Gene Autry.  The average recruit was graduating grade school in the 1958-1960 height of the cathode-ray shoot-'em-up, when eight of the top prime time TV shown were oat operas.  Small wonder then that John Wayne, the greatest of movie cowboys, became a talisman for American soldiers.  The unwieldy .45-caliber, service pistols were known “John Wayne rifles,”  the hard tasteless biscuits included in boxes of C rations as "John Wayne cookies.”   Wayne himself made numerous appearances in Vietnam--as well as in Hollywood's only Vietnam movie during the actual conflict.  The war was almost his personal crusade.

And why not?  With she abdication of that tarnished Texan cowboy LBJ, Wayne was virtually the only establishment authority figure around--his appeal transcended politics.  The Duke was asked to run for vice-president with George Wallace while, in a cover story that identified Wayne as "the Last Hero,” Time quoted an SDS organizer's enthusiastic endorsement: "He's tough, down to earth, and he says and acts what he believes.  He's completely straight and really groovy.  I mean, if they really want to make a movie about Che Guevara, they ought to have Wayne play him.”

Wayne's base in The Green Berets (1968), described by its producer as "Cowboys and Indians... the Americans are the good guys and the Viet Cong are the bad guys,” is called Dodge City.  Meanwhile, in the real Vietnam, dangerous areas were known as Indian country, Vietnamese scouts were termed "Kit Carsons," and more than a few grunts echoed the notorious slogan coined by General Phil Sheridan a century before, painting THE ONLY GOOD GOOK IS A DEAD GOOK on their helmets or flak jackets.  Lieutenant William Calley [convicted of killing women and children at My Lai]  complained that the Vietnamese laughingly called him and his men "cowboys.”  But there's nothing funny about a range hand gone loco. One scene in the documentary Interviews With My Lai Veterans has three vets discussing the mutilation and scalping of dead Vietnamese: "Some people were on an Indian trip over there.”

In short, the metaphor was irresistible, only this time there was no consensus as to who were the good guys and who were the bad guys. While Lyndon Johnson called upon the nation to "nail the coonskin to the cabin door, the counterculture that opposed his war identified itself with outlaws or worse ...

The western mythology played itself out in Vietnam and, of course, vice versa.  No less than the nation's hearts and minds, the western movie was up for grabs. Two of 1969’s three key releases, The Wild Bunch and Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (less dirty perhaps than dirty-blond, albeit the highest-grossing western made before Blazing Saddles), embodied a striking inversion of values.  At once cynical and romantic, both movies presented the unregenerate criminal as a sympathetic figure, regretful at his elimination by the agents of law and order.  In the wake of The Wild Bunch and the My Lai massacre, the genre grew increasingly apocalyptic.

After The Green Berets, Hollywood produced no movies on the war.  Instead, there were such revisionist and counter revisionist essays as Little Big Man (1970), The Cowboys (1972), Bad Company (1972). Ulzana'sRaid(1972), and High Plains Drifter (l973)--crypto-Vietnam films all.  No less than America's increasingly polarized political scene, the western split into radical right- and left-wing camps.  Those starring John Wayne and, to a lesser extent, Clint Eastwood took up the cudgels against those directed by Arthur Penn and Robert Altman, while Peckinpah's Westerns were divided against themselves. Common to all, however, was a sense of social breakdown, disillusionment, and the distrust of "liberal” mainstream values.

By the late 1960s, parallels between Vietnam and the Indian wars were commonplace (and were to be developed into formidable scholarly treatises by historians Richard Slotkin and Richard Drinnon).  Like Boston's Sons of Liberty or the leaders of the Whiskey Rebellion, the hippies of  Haight-Ashbury impersonated Native Americans--adopting a wardrobe of long hair, headbands, and love beads.  Indians were remythologized as heroic forebears whose traditional way of life was more organic, spiritual, and communal than that of white settler society.  Taking up "tribal” lifestyles, rationalizing the use of marijuana, mescaline, and peyote as Indian sacraments, promoting the connection between political and ecological concerns, the hippies more or less suggested that the current and past evils of American history might be redressed by reenacting that history in the guise of Indians rather than cowboys.

Thus, the most overtly ideological of revisionist westerns concerned the Indian wars. The revelation of American atrocities in Vietnam only reinforced their argument that the slaughter of Native Americans was less the distortion than the essence of the white man's wars. Little Big Man, Soldier Blue, and A Man Called Horse identified with the Indians so strongly as to be the equivalent of marching against the war beneath a Viet Cong flag. Released in 1970 and coinciding with the publication of two influential histories, Custer Died for Your Sins and Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee, these films proposed that any and all Indian barbarities paled before the enormity of white genocide. (Indeed, Sidney Poitier's Buck and the Preacher proposed an alliance of red and black men.)

Contempt for soldiering was a given in the dirty western. The Wild Bunch and Little Big Man make a mockery of the army, while prominent western deserters include Clint Eastwood (The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly), Jim Brown (El Condor), and Robert Redford (Jeremiah Johnson).  Bad Company portrayed hostility toward the nation's wars as an American tradition--in this case, the refusal to serve in even so "just” a conflict as the Civil War--and linked it to an overall absence of authority.  By the middle of Richard Nixon's first term, the quintessential Hollywood genre had clearly come unglued--although, in addition to widespread confusion, the extraordinary succession of revisionist and parody westerns that appeared around the turn of the decade acknowledges a multiplicity of perspectives on the winning (or losing) of the West.

The ultimate desecration--Blazing Saddles (1974), the highest grossing western before Dances With Wolves--capped the assorted anti-, post-, spaghetti, revisionist, psychedelic, black, and burlesque westerns of the early 70s.  (It's appropriate that the concept for Heaven's Gate, blamed by some for the demise of the genre, also dates from this period.) By that time, The Godfather had emerged as a new sort of national epic while, as presaged by Coogan's Bluff(l968), Fort Apache was relocated to the urban wilderness of the Bronx.

From 1910 through the end of the 50’s, a quarter of all Hollywood films had been westerns. As late as 1972, the high point of genre revisionism, the year of Jeremiah Johnson and The Life and Times of Judge Roy Bean, The Great Northfield, Minnesota Raid, and The Culpepper Cattle Company, Buck and the Preacher and Greaser's Palace, westerns still represented 12 per cent of Hollywood's total output.

But the year that brought Richard Nixon's triumphant reelection was the last in which western releases would reach double figures. The subsequent falloff was dramatic:  Four westerns were released in 1973; two in 1974; five in 1975; seven for the Bicentennial; two in 1977; three in 1978; and a total of three between 1979 and 1984, the year of TV western host Ronald Reagan's even more spectacular reelection.  As J. Fred MacDonald put it in his history of the television western, "no form of mass entertainment has been so dominant and then so insignificant.”

Though she western has bequeathed such enduring American totems as Marlboros and blue jeans, its decline effectively redefined the masculine screen image.  After Clint Eastwood, the bounty hunter par excellence, there were no new heroic cowboys.  When Dustin Hoffman made a western he impersonated an Indian.  Robert Redford played a charming outlaw, Warren Beatty a failed pimp.  The 70s saw a whole generation of movie stars who never donned Stetsons or strapped on six-guns (Robert Dc Niro, Al Pacino, Sylvester Stallone, Richard Dreyfuss).  At the same time, the issues that preoccupied the western have either been repressed or else dispersed to other genres--including the Vietnam War film.

That, save for a handful of releases, the western itself has remained defunct since the fall of Saigon suggests that the spectacle by which America came so be America has proved resistant to the reillusionment [sic] of the past dozen years.  Although middle-aged generals reflexively referred to Iraqi-occupied Kuwait as "Indian country,” the rhetoric that supported, the commentary that described, and the celebrations that followed Operation Desert Storm were notable for a paucity of western imagery despite the leadership of our first Texan president since Lyndon Johnson.  It striking that the origin of the yellow ribbon is habitually located in a 1973 Tony Orlando song, rather than a 1949 John Ford calvary [SIC! He means cavalry!] western.

As the only game in town, and a softer version of the Indian western of the 1970s  Dances With Wolves has been attacked from the left, the right, and points unknown. (My favorite critique, from Spy, argued that Costner's film is "nothing more than a remake of the suitably degenerate, mid-50s calvary [sic]-western sitcom F Troop.)   Moreover, it is a backhanded tribute to Hollywood's authority in general, and its western franchise in particular, that Dances With Wolves has presented the means with which to characterize the revisionism of the Smithsonian exhibition.  The Moonie-owned Washington Times denounced the show as embodying "the Kevin Costner approach (a art history. . . the sort of fantasy approach to an issue one expects from Hollywood movies,” and then again as "a crazed, illiterate diatribe against the west-ward expansion of the United States. . . a product of the Kevin Costner revisionist school of American history. The more sympathetic City Paper found the exhibit a less romantic "art-historical counterpart” to Dances With Wolves, while in Time, Robert Hughes dryly observed that "John Wayne would have disapproved.”

Response to the show has been no less revealing than the show itself.  It's fascinating that while movies are perceived as ideological fantasies, paintings have come to seem neutral representations. Fueled by press reports, political opposition was led by a group of Republican senators from western states--Ted Stevens of Alaska, Slade Gorton of Washington, and Alan Simpson of Wyoming, who maintained that it was "silly” to read "all this religious and  symbolic nonsense into the paintings.”  At least Simpson saw the show. Stevens, the strong supporter of oil and mineral development who led the charge, told the Washington Post that "we from the West live here in the East really under attack all the time. To see that exhibit. . .  I’ll tell you, that really set me off”--thus imagining himself one of the protagonists of Frederic Remington's extensively interpreted Fight for the Water Hole, even though he had yet to actually visit the Smithsonian.

"The West as America” doubled attendance at the Smithsonian, but has since been cancelled by museums in Denver and St. Louis. The problem, of course, is not with the reading of individual paintings; the problem it that it is has become impossible to study or think about the West without facing some unpleasant truths.  "How can we revel in the glorious self-confidence of the mountain men, the cattle drives, the pioneers, and at the same time know the attendant tragedies that all but destroyed the native cultures? How can we glory in the grandeur of the landscape and still count such burdensome environments as Los Angeles, Phoenix, and Las Vegas as part of the West?” asks Chris Bruce, curator of "Myth of the West,” another show of western art that perhaps because it was mounted in Seattle, Washington, rather than Washington, D.C., has avoided the charge of "political correctness.”

The man the French called Ronnie Le Cowboy might have brought America back, but restoring the myth of our "innocent origins" defied even his magic. If we date the end of the Cold War to the 1989 Polish election in which Solidarity successfully identified itself with the image of Gary Cooper in High Noon, then is history over?  The western as a genre implies a belief in secular progress. Even when the hero kills in revenge he is acting in the name of immanent law and order. (The frontier, by definition, is the sphere where civil rule has yet to be established and thus, from the spectator's point of view, a legitimate arena for the spectacle of violent conflict.)  In the workaday world of urban stress, against a civilization complicated by the insights of Marx and Freud, the western argued a form of natural morality; it proposed an instinctive awareness of right and wrong, and granted the freedom to act, often violently, even kill upon that awareness.

For this reason, the western narrative is typically the rationalization of aggression.  The climactic murder may redress either a personal wrong or an injustice done to the community, and usually contrives to be both--Manifest Destiny given emotional meaning as a personal vendetta.  The western hero is licensed to kill, providing that his adversaries have been characterized as sufficiently atrocious as to warrant extermination.  The Indian and the outlaw equally reject and threaten the new order (or rather, the immanent order), which is to say, ours.  But who, exactly, are we?  And even if "we” are of European origin, does our American History begin at Santa Fe or Plymouth Rock?

It may not be coincidental that the Smithsonian's critics come from northwestern rather than southwestern states--it will be rather more difficult, I suspect, to make so "universal” a movie as Dances With Wolves on the subject of the Alamo or the Mexican War.  Although acknowledging the presence of blacks and Asians and thus grudgingly "urbanizing” the West, the two most ambitious Reagan-era westerns, Clint Eastwood's Pale Rider and Lawrence Kasdan's Silverado, were noticeably uncomplicated by the presence of Indians or Hispanics.  Indeed, Dances With Wolves is itself so antiseptic and well-regulated as to reduce our national dark-and-bloody ground to campsite proportions.

My guess is that the born-again western may not be a western at all, but rather, as presaged by Westworld (1973) and suggested by the grand climax of Back to the Future, a theme park.  As Time's recent cover story on the New American Mecca, Orlando, observed, "Disney World is predominantly white and middle class--and so is Orlando.  The city, like Disney World, offers relief not just from the pressures of geography (it is flat and still undeveloped) and of  history (more than half the area's population arrived during the past 20 years) but, most of all, from contending ethnicity.  In that sense, Orlando is a new psychological frontier, a jumping-off place for a society that revels in the surface of things, even if deeper problems remain "undressed.”

Comfortably unicultural, if not implicitly white supremacist, this liberating new psychological frontier is the virtual reality that has supplanted the western as the repository of American order, morals, history, and civilization.  Bloody and confused, the iconoclastic last westerns took moviegoers to the end of a long and winding trail--and found less a clearing in the forest than a thicket of ambiguities.  It remains to be seen whether the first postwestem generation has any pathfinders with the nerve so push deeper still into that wilderness and reignite a genre that once epitomized America to itself and to the world.

[Note: this article was written before the release of Unforgiven in 1992.  The Western will not die!]