Westerns And Social Commentary Essay Research Paper

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Westerns And Social Commentary Essay, Research Paper Throughout history Americans have had a fascination with unexplored, uncharted, and untamed territory. Never has this been so pronounced as with the American west. Stories of bravery, new peoples, cultures, and strange new lands have enchanted Americans for nearly two centuries. This attraction is strikingly prominent in the film history of the west. Yet, despite it s early and lasting popularity, the Western has not until recent years attracted the attention of interpretive critics. Many critics viewed Westerns as an escapist, immature medium. Discussions of Westerns characterized the genre as endlessly repetitive, utterly simple in form, and naive in its attitudes (Cook 64) . However, since the late 1960 s Westerns have

been recognized, similar to other forms of popular culture, as a useful barometer of shifting currents in American society and culture (Etulain 3). The development of the western film genre in American film culture has progressed in manner, style, and ideology, and can be tracked in association with the political, societal, and cultural trends of the last 90 years. The first westerns were the same as many other first films, merely scientific recordings of actual events such as wild west shows and rodeos. The first Western with any content was The Great Train Robbery (1903). While still very primitive it gave much of the stock form to westerns that exists today. It established the essential formula of crime, pursuit, showdown, and justice, and within its ten minute running span it

included, in addition to the train robbery itself, elements of fisticuffs, horseback pursuit and gunplay, along with suggestions of small child appeal, and probably the first introduction of that clich to be, the saloon bullies forcing a dude into a dance (Everson 15). As train robberies and similar crimes were not uncommon in the early nineteen hundreds The Great Train Robbery was immensely popular and even introduced a social consciousness to film (Etulain 8) . Many of the Westerns that followed were similar in that they represented the progress of film technology, art, and entertainment. Two early pioneers of Westerns were D.W. Griffith and Thomas H. Ince. Admittedly, Griffith s great masterpieces came much later, but they would not have been possible without the language of

film that he evolved in those earlier years (Everson 24). Despite the technical and developmental elements of their films, both Ince and Griffith were making films that had something of cultural and social importance (24). The basic value of a popular western is the triumph of progress and its attendant middle class milieu over alternative lifestyles that threaten society (Etulain 18). Common themes, as in Griffith s Fighting Blood (1911), included a likable pioneer family with many helpful children, that were struggling with life on the frontier. As the films progressed, the family would fight off the threatening Indians, solve their family disputes, and prosper in their simple but rewarding life. An evaluation of the historical environment reveals a link between this typical

plot and social and economical climates of the time period. During the early nineteen hundreds much of America was poor and struggling, yet, the industrial revolution was changing the lives of most Americans. Transportation, production, and communication were becoming easier, faster and more efficient. Thus there was a hope that the culture as a whole could achieve more and with less struggle. This is echoed in the stock family s early struggle and eventual triumph. Secondly, the Indians in the films represented resistance to difference. African Americans were receiving more recognition and, as a result, more discrimination. This is especially true in Griffith s films, which displayed a highly prejudicial motif. The Indians in early films were depicted as uncivilized, marauding,