The Western Myth – Approaching genre theory from the western.

Westerns have occupied a very important place in the discussion on genre theory. Despite the fact that westerns are not as popular as they used to be in the 40’s and 50’s, the western is still central to the theoretical approaches to genre.

However the western’s central position in the development of genre theory is complicated because its main characteristics are unusual, meaning that they are specific to the western, rather than typical characteristics that can help define genre theory as a whole. Thus the western proves not to be a suitable model for general conceptions of genre theory.

Another complication regarding the western is the relationship it plays with American history and US culture, which makes is susceptible to formal methods of thematic, cultural and ideological analysis. The western also one of the principal points or reference for theories of iconography in the 60’s and 70’s, which proves the richness, the distinctiveness and the highly encoded characteristics of its visual conventions.

In his writings on the Western, scholar Edward Buscombe discusses the imagery of the western and it’s relation to American history and American geography. The relationship is complicated since it has created a mythic sense of the west that has in itself taken a central role in US culture and identity. Such mythology is grounded in the notion that there actually existed, between the XVII and late XVII century, a moving western frontier in the US.

One of the center points of this notion of the frontier is the meeting point between Anglo-Americans and “other” cultures. Yet it is also a place where Anglo-Americans of the West are forced to face their own “otherness” against Anglo-Americans of the East, where Europe brings on the connotation of civilization man comes to encounter his uncivilized double.

Other ideas of the Western have more to do with the spirit of the frontier as a place marked by opportunity and hardship, adventure and violence, where hard work and spirit to conquest and displace “other” (inferior) people was rewarded with land. The Western is central to the idea of Anglo-American racial and cultural superiority, despite the fact that the frontier increasingly ensured its “mestizage” and its disappearance.

The term “mythology” or “mythic” might be considered loaded by many scholars but as exemplified by the work of Jim Kitses, the thematic structure of the Western derives directly from the “mythology” created around the frontier and the dialogue that the West establishes with the East.

The West The East
America Europe
The frontier America
Equality Class
Agrarianism Industrialism
Tradition Change
The past The Future

The Wilderness Civilization
The Individual The Community
Freedom Restriction
Honour Institutions
Self-knowledge Illusion
Integrity Compromise
Self-interest Social responsibility
Solipsism Democracy

Nature Culture
Purity Corruption
Experience Knowledge
Empiricism Legalism
Pragmatism Idealism
Brutalization Refinement
Savagery Humanity

Despite the fact that Kitses grid fails to name ethnic or racial terms, done so by many contemporary scholars (specially by those concerned more with aspects of race and representation), Kitses grid nevertheless manages to encompass its basic ambiguities; ambiguities that are at the center of the Western’s drama and ideology.

However, explorations of the frontier are not done by Western movies alone, nor are they the Western’s sole focus. Films that had the Indians as the central figures (there are many examples of such films in the early 1900’s alone, so numerous where these film that some scholars have grouped them as a subgenre of the Western ** I dare say that there were perhaps more films made then that had Indians as their main characters than those done nowadays) have a different approach to the “frontier” subject. Despite the fact that the tropes of noble and ignoble savagery, or of tragically vanishing of a race and of “white” Anglo-Americanness prevails, many films are merely comedy’s or dramas set in the West with Indians as their main characters.

The exploration of the early “Westerns” and the “Indian westerns” conflicts the pre-established sense of the Western, since the heterogeneity of the Indian films of the silent era is matched by the heterogeneity of films about “whites”. The silent western is also very different to the talkie western, despite the fact that they might share common elements. The differences between the westerns and their “subgenres” illustrate that there are more elements to the Western than those that scholars who work on genre theory have chose to address and that the problem when theorizing on a particular genre lies in the limited cannon of films that scholars chose to work with.

Despite ‘post-revisionist’ westerns (such as John Sayles’s Lone Star, 1996 + Maggie Greenwald’s The Ballad of Little Jo, 1993 + Robert Altman’s Buffalo Bill and the Indians, or Sitting Bull’s History Lesson, 1976) frontier mythology, the construction of masculinity and gender, along with the western’s iconography seem to prevail when discussing the genre, despite the awareness that there is more to say about the Western’s recent – and not so recent- history.

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