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The Transformation of the American West Through Film and Literature

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The American West lives as a myth in the minds of Americans.  Movies and books describe and illustrate a representation of a wild, wonderful west where adventures abound and heroes are made.  Westerns have caught the love of many Americans with the tales of adventure and wide open spaces.  Throughout the twentieth century, writers and directors have given America how they saw the West, and how they wanted it to be.  As the century progressed, however, more focus was given to actual issues over what the West really was, and the mythic Wild West dissipated slowly, though never fully disappeared.  The portrayals of the American West have changed through the twentieth century from a wild mythic West to a more variable and realistic West both in literature and film.

     Characters play a significant role in the depiction of the West.  Men of the West are depicted as strong, both physically and mentally.  They carry guns and know how to use them.  They drink in bars.  They do well at whatever that do.  The men are very dominant.  The Western man is the ideal man.  Women, whether single of married, are beautiful and young, often acting as a homemaker and with a delicate Victorian persona.  There are very few women in Westerns.  These characters build the West by creating hard-working men with strong, nuclear families.  Classic Westerns often exaggerate these traits and further develop them to create heroes and bad guys, which then form the basis of a plot.

Heroes act as someone to look up to and someone to turn to when in trouble.  They give the audience someone to love, someone that they can strive to become.  These heroes are calm, wise, and mysterious, and have a strong and dangerous disposition.  They are good with a gun and cool under pressure, and are always attractive.  These men add a romantic mythical feel to the West by almost personifying it in one strong, unbeatable person.  He represents the vastness of the West through his calm attitude, and his mystery is representative of the unknown past and unforeseeable future.  In Stagecoach, Ringo acts as this hero: a young man with an uncertain though somehow exciting past.  He is introduced when picked up by the stagecoach as a lost criminal, yet his worth is shown through his skill with a gun when fighting the foreboding Apache.  He wins the heart of Dallas, a high-class woman, and shows his honor and skill throughout the film.  Shane, the title character in Jack Schaefers book, proves to be another hero with cool composition and a dangerous appeal.  He is strong and wise, with an unknown past.  He helps the family through hard times, both helping on the farm and saving it. 

     In contrast, the stereotypical bad guy opposes the hero.  This can come in the form of a single man or as menacing Indians.  As a single man, this bad guy generally has much power, which he abuses, and uses guns to further his desires.  In Lone Star, the old sheriff, Charlie Wade plays the bad guy.  He oppressed everyone and took the townspeople's money for himself.  If someone stood up to him or did not do as he pleased, that person would soon meet Wades bullets.  On the other hand, in Shane the neighboring farm owner Fletcher plays the "bad guy" in a different way.  Fletcher amassed his power in farmland and his desire to extend it.  Instead of using a gun himself, Fletcher sends out hired hands to do his dirty work, attacking his opposition through cronies.  The Indians, on the other hand, are often generalized Plains Indians, set on a warpath, and intensely feared.  In Stagecoach, the fear of Indians is present from the start of the trip.  When actually encountered, however, they are represented as barbaric and stupid.  A large group of Apaches, over three dozen, attacks the small stagecoach holding nine passengers.  Though both use firearms, the travelers diminish the Indians to one-quarter their number before a single shot hits anyone in the stagecoach. 

     The contest between heroes and bad guys shows the view of the West as a struggle between good and evil.  It attempts to make Western stories black and white, where you are on one side or the other.  It presents a romantic view of the West, where the hero looks to be in trouble and is at a disadvantage, yet he always defeats the bad guy.  This type of Western has reached many, and ingrained in millions the way the West was.

     As the twentieth century progresses, so to does the view of the West in stories.  Through the mid- to late-twentieth century, plots began to reflect real issues facing the West rather than simply the good versus evil plotline.  In early works, such as Stagecoach, few actual problems are seen, with exceptions of an over exaggerated and generalized view of Indian raids, and a light brush over the issue of government interference in conversation.  Mid-century, however, other more prevalent dilemmas began to be addressed.  Issues over early commercialization and consolidation is seen in Shane, as Fletcher pushes small farmers off his land in order to secure more for himself.  This reflected the problem faced by many small independent farmers as they were slowly pushed off their land in order to make way for larger commercialized farms.  This progression of relevant issues is seen further in Lone Star concerning the complicated crisis over immigration and a clash of cultures along the Mexico-Texas border.  In the film, arguments steamed up over presentation of history in schools as both white and Hispanic sides had differing views, and wanted their views taught.  Self-segregation within the community was present, as Paine runs the only bar where blacks feel safe, Hispanics stuck together, and the feeling of alienations by Caucasians with the overwhelming Hispanic population.  These issues concerning land and cultural differences present a more realistic examination of the problems facing the West, and give a more realistic view of what the West truly is.

     Toward the end of the twentieth century, a new unique look at the West is also brought into play.  N. Scott Momadays The Way to Rainy Mountain presents a new Western viewpoint so different that it is difficult to classify as Western.  In it, Momaday presents the West with a triple explanation of the West through Native myth, historical research, and through his own eyes.  It shows the West as a different sort of myth, one not characterized by the clash of good and evil, but one of unity between man and nature, a story much older than previous stereotypical Westerns.  It presents a new sort of West, unadulterated and spiritual.  It gives a scholarly look into the past through the eyes of a native.

     Setting further represents how the West is viewed.  In Shane, the ranch is an open homestead: vast, peaceful, rugged, yet tamed with hard work and dedication.  In Stagecoach, the trail is barely noticeable through the vast arid land, with an air of unseen adventure.  Even in Lone Star, which takes place in a town, the old broken down buildings say something for an old past, and the dusty wide-open streets invite a feeling of vastness within the town.  These setting represent the wide-open spaces and ideas of what the West is and can be.  Stagecoach shows a land yet to be developed and Shane illustrates the open land that can be developed with hard work.  This representation of the West as vast and arid shows how many view the West: a great land with endless possibilities.  The setting provides an open palette for the writer or director to form whatever they want out of the West, whether it is a shoot out or the surroundings for a native myth.

     The West lives as a dream in the minds of millions.  The Classic Wild Western story presents adventurous tales of "good guys" fighting "bad guys" and Indians, and has built up an exciting fantasy where gunfights are common and good always conquers evil.  Even as this vision of the West fades, it is still present as a legendary past, as seen in Lone Star where flashbacks continue the classic Western tale.  Recent books, such as Momadays The Way to Rainy Mountain presents a new sort of Western through native eyes, and even that catches a spiritual dream, not as much of a violent strife between good and evil, but of a peaceful existence between the West and its people. 

As the stories have changed through the twentieth century, Americans view of the West as a whole has slowly changed to reflect a more open outlook on what the West really was.  Though the myth of the West as a simple contest between the hero and bad guy still is set in the minds of many, other aspects of the West are slowly entering the ideology of what the West actually was.  Though the transition from the one-dimensional good and evil struggle to the more broad and realistic view of the west has not fully occurred, newer film and written representations are slowly changing notions of the West.

The change in literature- and film-depictions of the West has changed from the early twentieth centurys hero-bad guy struggle to a broader spectrum encompassing Western dilemmas and non-western perspectives.  This transformation has slowly occurred, and is slowly working its way into the American mindset.  Regardless of perspective, the West has captured the interest of millions, whether it concerns a hero defeating all or an ancient native myth.