Westerns are an important part of American culture both as a foundational film genre and as a central part of American mythology. While there are rules about the typical Western, set in the American Old West during the latter half of the 19th century often featuring a black and white morality with the rugged individual fighting the forces of evil to defend home and family, we can see this story played out over and again in a variety of media from film, television, books, and other arts. This story has become so embedded in the mainstream that it is now a trope, a cultural shorthand, that needs no explanation. Many people believe that the Western should be celebrated as a part of our history, but are dying as much as J.B. Books was in The Shootist. However, I would argue that while the heyday of the Western is past, Westerns will never die and here are three reasons why Westerns are still important to our culture.
For good or ill, the Western represents the American Dream of equal opportunity to achieve success and prosperity through hard work, determination, and initiative – even when the stories (especially when?) resemble nothing like reality – they are the way we picture the American story. We want to believe that good can overcome evil, justice will triumph, and a hero will always arrive in the nick of time. This is our mythos and explains our national optimism, politics, and foreign policy (see McClintock). As long as there is an America and American Dream, there will be Westerns.
As they represent our story, we can, and do, remake the Western in our modern image (see Firefly). Westerns offer us the opportunity to question ourselves as individuals and as a collective. Westerns challenge us to examine our “manifest destiny” and its costs for ourselves and the “others” we are saving at home and abroad not to mention the “others” we destroy along the way. Westerns have critiqued, and continue to critique, our national moral code, ethics, and justice system. In fact, Westerns, as a cultural representation of American mythos, continue to serve this purpose in other genres. We need the Western to help us understand ourselves.
Although many Westerns are formulaic, these are familiar formulas that we have seen throughout the millennia. The hero’s journey and archetypes of powerful stories are easily located in many of the most powerful representations of the Western genre. From the solitary mysterious gunman with unclear motivation to the fierce western fighting to protect his home, we recognize the traditional codes of storytelling from the Greek tragedy to the anti-hero (see Unforgiven). The Western provides a familiar backdrop and characters where we can explore the great philosophical questions.
Why do you think Westerns were so important to our American identity? Do you agree that Westerns continue to inform as well as entertain?
Photo shared on PixabayTags: #Stories, #Storytelling