by Steve Lancaster 10/26/17
In 1893 Fredrick Jackson Turner stated in his paper “The Significance of the Frontier in American History”, that not only was the finite frontier closed but Americans might need to find a replacement. Since then, historians, authors of both fiction and non-fiction, playwrights, musicians and movie makers have sought to enlarge and explain the mythos of the American west. The west, Turner says is closed, lives on in our shared American conscience. A question we ask our collective self is how does our nation grow and expand without creating an empire without a good answer? Other countries and empires emeritus tend to view the US as more or less valuable empire, but nonetheless an empire.
Travel to any part of the world, make known that you’re an American, as if you could actually fool someone that you’re not, and in the space of a conversation the cowboy will come up. As a derogative or in admiration. Turner was talking about the realities of the fixed frontier. The formation of states, often by less than democratic process, but resulting in alignment with constitutional requirements. With the official separation of the LDS church from polygamy, a notably theocratic state, Utah, was admitted to the union in 1896. In Turner’s America, there was a lot of room for differing styles of state governance.
Rather than deal with Turner, the pros, and cons of his thesis; I would like to argue the west as myth and its importance. One of the first authors to help create the mythos of the west has to be James Fenimore Cooper with, The Leatherstocking Tales. Writing about the American version of the French and Indian War (1755-1763). Cooper describes unique American traits in fiction years before Tocqueville wandered through on his grand tour. Although, Cooper and Tocqueville lived at about the same time. Each chronicled what they saw in America in fiction and fact.
Hawkeye is the quintessential American, strong of character, independent and in his own words, “subject to no man”. On the intellectual side, Perry Miller a contemporary of Turner, discusses in “The New England Mind, and Errand in the Wilderness, the growth of New England Puritanism and writes on the growth of independence, in the colony, and the efforts to spread Christianity to the Indians of Massachusetts. Miller is perplexed by how the Puritans transformed into transcendentalists and subsequently into Unitarians. However, even these worthies just by leaving England and separating from the English Church exemplify the ideals of what would later be the code of the west.
Building on the example of Cooper and other authors like Zane Grey they set down and elaborated the code of the west; Vardis Fisher and Raymond Thorp’s books, Mountain Man (1920) and Crow Killer (1959) merge into a single movie, Jerimiah Johnson (1972) produced by and starring Robert Redford. The movie spins off of the real life of John Johnson and his personal war with the Sioux into an American legend. Redford may not agree, but if you could get our enemies to watch Jerimiah Johnson and assure them this is the character of the average American, peace would be just around the corner. Although, nearly 200 years separate them, Chris Kyle and John Johnson are examples of the men this country produces. Be afraid, very, very afraid if they are coming after you.
On a demographic basis, the early settlers of the west were largely male, up to 90% in some mining camps. Of course, all of the military units were male. The presence of a commander’s wife or daughter on a post or fort was rare. Since most of the men were of the “worst” type, most of the women that traveled west were of the same. The men were young, looking for adventure, drunkards, gamblers, pimps, thieves, murderers, and the women they wanted were of similar bent. Many a grandmother of the pioneers got her start in the west working in a saloon or bordello and conveniently forgot that part of her personal history when marrying a customer and moving to the city. Josephine Marcus married Wyatt Earp after leaving Arizona. Trivia fact Wyatt Earp is buried with Josie in a Jewish cemetery in Coloma CA.
The author Louis L’Amour, (1908-1988), born in N. Dakota is a shaper of the western myth and code of the west. His novels and short stories covering the settlement of the west from the early arrivals of the Sackett family into the modern west. So many of his stories were incorporated into movies and television that almost no western in the last 50 years does not, in some way pay homage to his talent. The John Wayne movie Hondo is but one example of a L’Amour work on the screen.
Back to fiction and myth. In 1951 Lerner and Lowe produced for Broadway a musical called, Paint Your Wagon. In 1969 the film version was produced with additional screenplay by Patty Chayefsky. The movie is mostly good fun, although there are some subthemes worthy of exploration. Set in a gold rush mining camp, no name city, has no law but mining law, and is an endless collection of saloons, brothels and opium dens. All set to extract as much from the miners as possible. It is even possible for a Mormon with two wives to sell one off and for that wife to then marry two men. However, the music, in the movie performed by the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band that makes the movie. From the opening overture of I’m On My Way to Clint Eastwood singing, I Talk to The Trees, and the best known, They Call the Wind Maria. An inside joke, in Hebrew Mariah can be translated as bitter. Then there is, Wand’rin’ Star and if Eastwood singing is a peculiarity, then Lee Marvin, as Ben Rumson, singing is a phenomenon to behold. Nevertheless, the character of Ben Rumson is the more interesting.
I have little doubt that if you dig into the ancestry of many pioneer families you will find a grandfather like Ben Rumson. A man unknown to history, perhaps not even to his own descendants, certainly not an E B Crocker or John Stanford. Ben Rumson and his cronies traveled the west, building roads and towns, laying track and stringing telegraph wire and they moved on, as they always did, from one gold or silver strike to the next. California, Nevada, Utah, Colorado and Alaska, the roads they built are littered with their unmarked graves. Paint Your Wagon is just one of several musicals that present an ideal of the American west, Oklahoma, 7 brides for 7 brothers and Showboat among others.
However, we always seem to come back to movies. Almost from the first time a motion picture was made it was the classic American western, The Great Train Robbery (1903). A silent movie with bad guys, good guys and a shootout. Who could ask for more? This was the style for the next 36 years. Then in 1939, over shadowed by the world blockbuster, Gone with The Wind, a movie that created a legend of its own. John Ford cast a young actor Marion Morrison (John Wayne) who had made a lot of B movies in Stagecoach.
Stagecoach could truly be viewed as the real beginning of Wayne’s acting career and over the next 40 years until his last movie, The Shootest, Wayne set the model of the western hero. Along with John Ford as director they made a list of timeless movies: The Searchers, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valence, The Horse Soldiers, Rio Grande, She Wore a Yellow Ribbon. When we think of the west and the men and women who settled it our visual is the Duke on horseback with the mittens of Monument Valley in the shot. We cannot help it by now it is part of our cultural DNA.
The B and C movies, second features from the 30s and 40s made the transition to radio and then into television. Roy Rogers, Hopalong Cassidy, The Lone Ranger and others moved from successful radio programs to the new home entertainment medium. In the 50s and 60s we got an assortment of westerns, Wagon Train, Rawhide, The Big Valley, The Virginian, The Rifleman and the much-loved Bonanza and the moralistic Have gun, Will travel. All of them with strong independent characters, male and female. Have Gun, was a 30-minute ethics play of a knight errant dispensing justice, often in conflict with local law enforcement.
Modern westerns take advantage of this emotional image. Westworld, an HBO series is largely filmed in and around Monument Valley, and the demarcation between black hat and white hats is still the fastest method to tell who is a good guy and who isn’t. The western style has now progressed beyond the west.
A single western franchise covering over 50 years, the first and most famous is the television and movie franchise of Star Trek, an example of the western transiting into space. Additionally, just like in the 30s with the same easy to identify characters, shootouts, chases and iconic good and bad guys is the more modern western Star Wars. An interesting new western is the Dark Knight Batman Movies Directed by Christopher Nolan and starring Christopher Bale. If the Duke were alive he would recognize this Batman as a true western in the Ford/Wayne tradition. It could be argued that the Dark Knight is just a remake of High Noon.
The American west has grown far beyond the limits that Turner opined about in the 1890s. It has been absorbed as a part of our human condition. Yet it remains a distinctive American genre. It twists and turns to fit generations but surely, hundreds of years from now on some far-off planet, there will still be stagecoaches rolling. • (305 views)