America Circles the Wagons | Sojourners

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.

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Sojourners Magazine May 1994
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