From One to Many: What Westerns Tell Us About The Past

ULY / AUG 2017: BY RACHEL KOVACINY

When you think of classic western movies, what do you think of? A lone hero walking out into the street to take on the bad guys? Or a group of heroes working together to take on the bad guys? They’re both famous and popular patterns for westerns, and both appear in movies made from 1930 to 1970, but they weren’t both popular at the same time. In his book Sixguns and Society: A Structural Study of the Western, author Will Wright posits that changes in the story construction of movies reflected the changes going on within American society during the period.

From the 1930s through the mid-1950s, the majority of popular westerns were about lone heroes who saved the weak-but-civilized townspeople or small farmers from the strong-but-uncivilized villains. A great example is Destry Rides Again (1940). Tom Destry (James Stewart) comes to town as a new deputy, proves his dexterity with firearms, and takes on the villain (Brian Donlevy) with minimal help from some comically inept sidekicks. Once he has dispatched the villain, the town is safe for good and decent folks to live in, especially with Destry around as the sheriff.

Another late example is Shane (1953). Shane (Alan Ladd) comes out of nowhere, goes to work for a farmer (Van Heflin), and turns out to be a gunfighter who can defend all the farmers in the area against the greedy rancher who wants to force them off their land. Once he’s defeated the villains, the town is secure, but he feels he can’t stay and enjoy the peace he’s won because, now he’s shown himself to be a gunman, he no longer belongs with the farmers.

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Jimmy Stewart in Destry Rides Again

 

Will Wright ties this lone-hero-who-defends-society pattern to the fact that, in the first half of the 20th century, there was a big emphasis on each individual’s ability to produce goods and services, which depended a lot on “his ability to make himself attractive to the market” (p. 136). Like the lone hero in the westerns, a lone businessman could achieve great things by his own efforts and abilities without having to work closely with anyone else like him.

But society and its demands changed a lot in the middle of the 20th century. Industries relied on technology more and more, and Wright explains that “technology requires group decision-making” (p. 178). Individuals had to work together more and more, and the need for people who worked independently waned. It was about this time that a very different plot pattern for western movies became popular.

Instead of one lone hero, you get a group of heroes working together. But the heroes aren’t people who have great gunfighting abilities they end up using to defend people they care about; they are paid professionals who save the day because it is their job. They might also believe it’s the right thing to do, but their primary motivation is that they’re getting paid to do this. An early example is Rio Bravo (1959). Sheriff John T. Chance (John Wayne) and his deputies (Dean Martin, Ricky Nelson, and Walter Brennan) refuse to give up a murderous prisoner to his powerful brother, but keep him in jail so he can stand trial for his crimes. They save the weak-but-civilized townspeople because it’s their job. Then they go on living in that same town — they were not accepted into the town because of their special abilities, they already belonged there.

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John Wayne in Rio Bravo

 

The most famous example of this later pattern is The Magnificent Seven (1960), in which weak townsfolk hire seven gunmen to save them from a greedy bandit who steals their food every year so he can feed his band of robbers. The seven gunmen become personally invested in this fight, but the reason they got involved in the first place was because they were being paid to do so. And like at the end of Shane, once they have triumphed over the villains, most of the surviving heroes move on because the town has no place for them once their job is finished.

Will Wright concludes that “[n]arratives explain change; they have a beginning, middle, and end” (p. 192).

As American society changed during the years when western films were popular, western movies changed too, both to reflect what was happening in the world, but also to help people process what they were experiencing. Humans have used storytelling to make sense of their experiences since time began, and who knows—perhaps in a few decades, we’ll be studying the changes in the superhero films of the 21st century and seeing what changes in our society they correlate to. I, for one, will find that just as fascinating as the way western films helped my parents’ generation deal with the changes they experienced.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Rachel Kovaciny’s story “The Man on the Buckskin Horse” appears in the Five Magic Spindles anthology now available in paperback and Kindle editions. Learn more about her at her author website, rachelkovaciny.com

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4 Replies to “From One to Many: What Westerns Tell Us About The Past”

  1. Hmm. So . . . if the townspeople are weak-but-civilized, and the villains are strong-but-uncivilized, where does that leave the hero? Is he the “best of both worlds,” both strong and civilized? Or does he fall entirely outside the civilized/uncivilized dichotomy?

    Wow! That’s Marlene Dietrich, isn’t it? She looks so much OLDER than Jimmy Stewart in that photo, it’s a little creepy. (To me. Maybe not to everybody.)

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    1. Jessica, the hero tends to be “separate” or “other” than both the townspeople and the villain. Often, he’s an outsider who has recently arrived. Because he’s not part of the townsfolk, he’s not weak. But he’s often not entirely civilized, either.

      A lot of times, the hero will be equated with the wilderness, untouched and unspoiled, free and pure. Like how Shane rides down out of the mountains during the opening credits of Shane, or how the Ringo Kid arrives out of the desert in Stagecoach. A lot of times throughout the film, he’ll get shown against wild backgrounds, or be knowledgeable about the wilderness in special ways.

      Marlene Dietrich was 7 years older than Jimmy Stewart. She doesn’t exactly play his love interest in Destry Rides Again — she’s the bad guy’s girlfriend, but does a lot of flirting and fraternizing with Destry all the same. She’s a pretty amazing female character, very strong and independent and clever.

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      1. So in a way, the cowboy hero is kind of borrowing from the “noble savage” trope–he’s not civilized, because he doesn’t need to be civilized. He’s BETTER than civilized. Interesting.

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