America Circles the Wagons

After 25 years missing and presumed dead, the Western movie genre has enjoyed an amazing resurrection in the past few years. The Oscar-winning successes of Dances With Wolves and Unforgiven started the rebound. Mario van Peebles’ Posse soon followed.

This year two Wyatt Earp movies are out or on the way (featuring Kurt Russell and Kevin Costner respectively), as well as two Geronimo movies (one made for Ted Turner’s TNT cable channel). Still to come is Mel Gibson’s Maverick (a remake of the James Garner TV show). Women are getting in on the cowperson act with Bad Girls (Madeleine Stowe, Drew Barrymore, and Mary Stuart Masterson), and even Sharon Stone is starring in a Western later this year. On broadcast TV Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman and the Adventures of Brisco County, Jr. keep the Old West in America’s living room on a weekly basis.

The Western genre may owe much of its newfound vitality to Kevin Costner and his bare butt, which helped draw typically anti-shoot-em-up female audiences into his revisionist frontier fable Dances With Wolves. That movie was made because Kevin Costner’s popularity obliged studio executives to humor him when he said, "I want to make a Western."

When Costner started filming, everybody in the American culture industry knew that Westerns were history. Then Dances With Wolves made zillions of dollars, and, like the song says, money changes everything.

But the money in movies comes from the audience. So there must be a reason why American audiences are again responding to stories of the Old West a full century after the Wounded Knee massacre, and a full century after historian Frederick Jackson Turner declared the American frontier closed.

The fact is that, after all these years, "the West" is still the arena of America’s most important mythology. We were mythologizing the Old West even while it was happening. In the late 19th century, daily newspapers, dime novels, and local-color hucksters were already marketing Western heroes as creatures of national fantasy.

Buffalo Bill, Wild Bill Hickok, Billy the Kid, Jesse James, Butch and Sundance, Calamity Jane, Annie Oakley, Belle Starr, Geronimo, and Sitting Bull—they were all legends in or near their own time. They have been a part of a mythic tapestry—woven of fact and fantasy—that American popular culture reworked constantly from the 1870s to 1960s. Now we are working it again.

HISTORICALLY speaking, the Puritans and the Jeffersonians conceived America, and the Civil War brought it through infancy. But the frontier was America’s period of adolescent self-creation. And as with an individual’s adolescence, the seeds of our country’s mature identity are contained there in exaggerated and melodramatic form.

Now we are at the end of the Cold War and in the middle of a new wave of immigration. We are at the end of our economic expansion and we are entering our third full century as a nation. All of these are things that force us to look inward at questions of national identity. This may be America’s mid-life crisis. And at a time like this, we find ourselves returning to the vividly drawn dreams and terrors of adolescence. This can result in pitiful self-parody, but it may also lead to renewal and integration.

In addition to setting the commercial stage, Dances With Wolves set the political tone for the new Western genre. Much of the energy in today’s pop cultural examination of the West involves questions of race and gender. Filmmakers are looking back at history and seeing a place where, in fact, cowboys were at least half black or Mexican. In the Old West, most of the conventions of cowboy dress and culture were handed down from the days when the American Southwest was Northern Mexico. And the real West was a place of cultural flux where the few women who were on the scene had to be strong and unconventional merely to survive.

At any given time, our popular culture seems to give us the mythical West that we think we need. The West that we most need now is probably the real one, in all of its grit and contradiction. It was inherently violent and racist at the same time that it was intensely democratic in politics and egalitarian in culture. It was the place of the immigrant dream and the indigenous nightmare. It was a deeply communitarian culture, in the places where families of frontier settlers depended upon each other for life itself.

The Old West was also a pathologically individualistic place. Cattle-herding and mining pitted armed male entrepeneurs against one another in a laissez faire parody not unlike today’s inner-city drug trade. The Old West was messianic and amoral, which is to say that it was America.

The time is especially ripe for re-examining the Western myth in terms of the values of individualism and community. To do that requires stepping outside of the individualist assumptions that are even more extreme in our culture today than they were in the 1880s.

We haven’t yet seen the Western epic that gets at this deepest heart of the American paradox. When we do it will probably have to be a wagon train story. The wagon train tradition is the one that puts community at the center of the story and so forces all of the other contradictions to the surface. And speaking of what goes around comes around, did you know that Clint Eastwood, the ultimate Western loner, got his start in a TV series called Wagon Train?

Danny Duncan Collum, a former Sojourners associate editor and now a contributing editor, lives in Alexandria, Virginia, where he is a free-lance writer.

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