“Westerns are always a magnifying glass": How movies trace social change involving race, gender, ethnicity, youth & class

From "The Great Train Robbery" to "Django Unchained," westerns tell the story of the American century

Published April 12, 2015 12:00PM (EDT)

Jamie Foxx in "Django Unchained"     (The Weinstein Company)
Jamie Foxx in "Django Unchained" (The Weinstein Company)

Excerpted from "The Sagebrush Trail: Western Movies and Twentieth Century America"

Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained was released on Christmas Day 2012. A movie poster spotlighted the star, Jamie Foxx, standing front and center. Staring straight ahead with determination, he’s dressed in black and wearing a cowboy hat with a silver studded band. Ready for action, he holds a six-gun. Slightly behind him to the right stands costar Christoph Waltz, guarding his back with revolver in hand. On the far left is Leonardo DiCaprio’s smarmy villain, holding a pipe and glaring menacingly. The tagline at the top—“life, liberty and the pursuit of vengeance”—no doubt resonated with many Americans in an age of terrorism and violence.

Django Unchained tells the story of an ex-slave who comes out of the American West to seek retribution for past injustices and rescue his wife from a brutal plantation owner in Mississippi. “I wanted to do an exciting western tale,” explains Tarantino, “an almost odyssey voyage that Django goes on, a journey to free his wife from the clutches of an evil empire but use antebellum South slavery as a backdrop for that adventure.”

Tarantino’s movie is a fascinating western hybrid. On the one hand, it is a throwback to revisionist westerns of another era. It pays homage to Django (1966) and other spaghetti westerns of the late sixties and early seventies. It features the same excessive violence and dark characters found in those earlier films. It includes music by the spaghetti western maestro Ennio Morricone. It even offers a cameo appearance by Franco Nero, who starred as the original Django. Tarantino has Nero saunter up to Jamie Foxx and ask, “What’s your name?” Foxx coolly replies, “Django.” Nero says, “Can you spell it?” Foxx looks at him and says, “D-J-A-N-G-O. The ‘D’ is silent.” Nero looks at him and replies, “I know.”

Like earlier revisionist westerns, Tarantino’s film uses western themes and images to comment on both the past and the present. Issues involving race and violence are highlighted throughout. The brutality of slavery in the film and Django’s extremely violent reaction to it not only condemn the “peculiar institution,” but they reflect ubiquitous violence in modern America. The very fact that Tarantino’s Django character is African American indicates the multiculturalism of modern America.

At the same time, Django Unchained is a very traditional western. It depicts the majestic beauty of the American West and offers a familiar western morality tale about vengeance and redemption. The movie features a rugged hero who is fast on the draw and determined to succeed. Django rides in from the West to clean up the decadent and corrupt South. By film’s end, he saves his wife and dispenses justice to evil doers. The redeemed couple then ride off into the sunset to live happily ever after in the mythic West.

Django Unchained demonstrates the continuing power of the mythic West. Just as it did in earlier days, the myth in the twenty-first century offers viewers escape to a fantasy world while it simultaneously serves up lessons about the real world around them. “One of the things that’s interesting about westerns in particular is there’s no other genre that reflects the decade that they were made and the morals and the feelings of Americans during that decade [more] than westerns,” explains Quentin Tarantino. “Westerns are always a magnifying glass as far as that’s concerned.”

Django Unchained became one of the biggest box office hits of 2012 and went on to earn two Oscars and a nomination for Best Picture. The phenomenal success of Tarantino’s film was proof of the mythic West’s relevance in a new century. Like Django “unchained,” westerns would be unleashed to deal with changing times in the new millennium.

Westerns in Troubled Times

Americans began the twenty-first century wondering what new frontiers lay ahead. Some were apprehensive about Y2K and other perceived threats. Others had more realistic problems to worry about in a new age marked by 9/11 and growing polarization over myriad political, social, and cultural issues. These concerns would find their way into numerous westerns—both neotraditional and revisionist—that were released in the early years of the new century.

Neotraditional westerns relied on familiar images of the mythic West to assure viewers that any problem could be solved as long as Americans adhered to the traditional values that had won the West. For example, Open Range (2003) starred Kevin Costner and Robert Duvall as old-fashioned cowboys who defend freedom, family, and honor against a greedy cattle baron. Other neotraditional westerns featured heroines or multicultural heroes, which given the changing times was no longer an innovation. Regardless of approach, neotraditional westerns remained true to the notion that good always triumphs over evil. The Missing (2003), directed by Ron Howard, is a perfect example. The plot recalls John Wayne’s 1956 classic, The Searchers, but this time around, one of the protagonists is a strong, determined woman. Maggie Gilkeson (Cate Blanchett) learns that her daughter, Lilly, has been captured by Apache raiders. She teams up with her estranged father (Tommy Lee Jones), whom she hates because he abandoned his family decades before. Along with her younger daughter, Dot, they set out to track down the Indians and rescue Lilly. “The Missing features great characters, flawed men and women, who demonstrate enormous courage when they are confronted by an unspeakable horror,” explains Howard. “It’s a story of healing and reconciliation that also has the twists and turns of a thriller. I wasn’t looking to merely exercise an old genre, but rather to tell a story that was relatable on a human level and exciting and suspenseful—but that still treated the period in an authentic way.”

Whether intentional or not, Howard’s tale of “healing and reconciliation” picked up on American anxieties after September 11. The Missing mirrored new fears in a new century just as The Searchers reflected the 1950s Cold War culture. The hostile Indians in Ron Howard’s western come across as terrorists who attack innocent men, women, and children on the American frontier. Their messianic leader, a brujo (witch) named Pesh-Chidin, is evil incarnate. The similarities to Osama Bin Laden are striking. He uses religious beliefs as a weapon, hates Americans, and dispassionately brutalizes his enemies. Even the name of the movie recalls the phenomenon that occurred in New York City in the days and weeks after 9/11, when posters of missing loved ones were taped to store windows, lamp posts, and anywhere else they might be noticed. “They were a humble catalogue of the missing, on view for months, intense visual windows onto internal disruption and cosmic pain,” wrote Jerry Saltz in New York Magazine. Bruce Springsteen noticed it, too, and wrote a song called “You’re Missing” for his Grammy Award–winning album, The Rising, inspired by the horrors of 9/11.

Maggie and her father prove just as relentless as John Wayne’s character in The Searchers. Ultimately, they brave the elements, defeat the enemy, and rescue Lilly and other captives. En route to success, they also find redemption. Tommy Lee Jones’s character redeems himself by sacrificing his life to kill the brujo who is about to shoot his daughter, and Maggie finds redemption by forgiving her father posthumously. She brings his body home for a decent Christian burial, leaving behind her hatred for the man who had abandoned her years before. Like other neotraditional westerns, The Missing emphasizes the role of individuals in the fight against evil. When both the town sheriff and the U.S. military refuse to get involved, Maggie and her father take it upon themselves to set things right. Ron Howard’s film also highlights women and minorities. Maggie and her daughters are strong, independent, and fearless. Maggie also proves to be an excellent shot as she guns down numerous Indian enemies. But the film is careful not to dismiss all Indians as evil. Just as President George W. Bush reminded Americans after 9/11 that not all Arabs were terrorists, Ron Howard’s film distinguishes between evil Apache militants and “good” Apaches. It offers a sympathetic portrayal of the Apaches who help Maggie and her family. The Indians are treated as courageous allies and caring human beings. They speak an Apache dialect, wear historically accurate clothing and hairstyles, and practice traditional religious beliefs.

A neotraditional western released one year after The Missing was an even more obvious attempt to connect to the post-9/11 mood of America. Hidalgo (2004), which starred Viggo Mortensen as a part-Indian American cowboy and Omar Sharif as an Arab sheikh, told a traditional tale about a cowboy and his horse. This time, though, the story takes place in the Middle East. It focuses on an endurance race between the quintessential westerner and his Arab rivals. The cowboy—and by extension America—triumphs, defeating evil Arabs and winning over moderate Arabs who come to understand that the “infidel” is a good man who can be trusted. Cowboys and Aliens (2011) was another neotraditional western that dealt with the threat posed by terrorists from afar. The big-budget film, which featured a traditional cowboy hero and an alien cowgirl using laser ray guns to fight flying saucers that were threatening the planet, showed just how bizarre westerns could get in the new millennium.

Neotraditional westerns frequently picked up on social change. Although heroes in these films were often updated to keep pace with the gains made by women and minorities in modern society, they still defeated evil and found success in the mythic West. Following The Missing, other westerns such as True Grit (2010), 6 Guns (2010), and Sweetwater (2013) showcased independent heroines with the wherewithal to defeat male villains. Shanghai Noon (2000) featured a Chinese martial arts expert as a good guy in the Old West. And African American heroes could be found in westerns such as Texas Rangers (2001), Gallowwalkers (2013), and, of course, Django Unchained.

Revisionist westerns were equally successful in the new millennium. In keeping with the pattern established back in the late sixties, these films rejected the notion of the mythic West completely and/or used familiar western types in new ways to comment on the times. Brokeback Mountain (2005) won three Oscars for its innovative portrayal of romantic love between two cowboys. Other films, such as The Proposition (2005), The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (2007), and There Will Be Blood (2007), featured antiheroes with dubious morals. The revisionist approach even spilled over to television with the success of HBO’s award-winning western series Deadwood (2004–2006), which spotlighted antiheroes with ambiguous values who reveled in sex, alcohol, violence, and profanity.

No revisionist western was more successful than No Country for Old Men (2007), which won four Oscars, including Best Picture. Directed by Ethan and Joel Coen, the dark film captured the depressed mood of America in the first decade of the twenty-first century. The movie is set in the modern West. A psychopathic killer (reminiscent of the unstoppable villain in the 1978 horror movie Halloween) is terrorizing the Texas countryside. A local sheriff (Tommy Lee Jones) sets out to track him down, but the killer (Javier Bardem) just keeps coming as he brutally murders or eliminates all those in his path. Innocent people are shot mercilessly in the head; those who try to stand up to him are hunted down and killed; even the good sheriff feels helpless in the face of omnipotent evil and gives up, opting for early retirement.

Although the Coens’ thriller often feels more like a horror movie than a western, it clearly shares attributes of a western movie. Set in the wide open spaces of the West, it features a sheriff who wears a cowboy hat and rides a horse. It also follows a familiar western trail, setting forth what appears to be a classic morality play that pits a good and decent cowboy hero against a thoroughly evil villain. This time, though, evil wins. Bardem’s malevolent character personifies the senseless and ubiquitous violence that surrounded Americans in the new century. Audiences that recalled 9/11 and were fearful of new terrorist attacks, anxious about school shootings like Columbine, or troubled by ongoing wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, could relate to the unrelenting horror represented by Bardem’s menacing character.

No Country for Old Men drove home the point that not even the mythic West could guarantee happiness and safety. The western landscapes in the Coen brothers’ movie are bleak and as depressing as most of the characters. Success and redemption are nowhere to be found. Instead, there is only gloom, failure, and death, which reflected the despair of audiences caught up in bad economic times and fearful of senseless violence from terrorists, drug lords, and deranged murderers. The result was a sense of helplessness and hopelessness, whether it was in the mythic West or the real world. No wonder viewers could relate to the sheriff when he explains to a friend that it seems like the entire world is crumbling around him, yet he feels helpless to stop it. They also understood the friend’s reply: “What you got ain’t nothin new. This country’s hard on people. You can’t stop what’s coming. It ain’t all waiting on you. That’s vanity.”

If No Country for Old Men captured the depressed mood of the country in 2007, the Coen brothers’ next western, True Grit (2010), showed that the optimism associated with the mythic West was still a force to be reckoned with. The Coens’ remake of the John Wayne classic followed the same basic plot as the original, but the new version was more realistic. Even the taglines used to promote the two movies suggest the contrast. Where the first True Grit glorified “the strangest trio ever to track a killer,” the tagline for the remake states fatalistically, “Punishment comes one way or another.”

Despite its somber tone, the Coen brothers’ rendition of True Grit is very much a traditional western. Like the heroes in the original, the protagonists in the remake defeat the bad guys and demonstrate courage, determination, and, of course, true grit. True Grit redux shows that the mythic West was alive and well in 2010, albeit in changed form. The film reflects the anxious mood of a nation reeling from 9/11, mired in two wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and staggered by a Great Recession. But it also mirrors a new sense of optimism in the country. Its assurance that good will triumph in the end made it a western movie equivalent of Barack Obama’s message of hope and change. The Coen brothers’ movie brought the mythic West back full circle by showing that individuals could achieve equality and justice as long as they held fast to the values and resolve that had won the Old West.

The 2010 version of True Grit was a traditional western morality play with obvious heroes that contrasted sharply with the pessimistic outlook and absence of heroes in No Country for Old Men (2007). Despite totally different approaches, the two movies received rave reviews from audiences and critics. Their phenomenal success offered proof that both revisionist westerns and neotraditional westerns resonated with audiences in the new millennium.

Still Riding the Sagebrush Trail

Ever since the late 1890s, westerns have evolved in response to shifts in American history and culture. The changing images of the West in these films offer evidence about ordinary people and everyday life that historians might otherwise miss. Westerns reveal how Americans reacted to political and social movements such as Progressivism, the New Deal, and civil rights. They express attitudes about war, including World War I and II, the Korean War, the Cold War, and Vietnam. And they mirror social change involving race, gender, ethnicity, youth, and class. Westerns became a virtual public forum that allowed Americans to consider a variety of issues, events, beliefs, and actions. They capture ongoing discussions about Americans’ hopes, dreams, and fears.

Along with providing new information about the past, westerns suggest fresh historical interpretations. These movies call into question the common wisdom that the years 1945 to 1963 were dominated by conformity and consensus behavior. Westerns released during those years actually reveal considerable conflict and changing attitudes toward race, gender, and youth. Similarly, westerns of the late sixties and seventies require a rethinking of the era known as the sixties. They provide ample evidence of continuity as well as conflict in America during that tumultuous time. Traditional images of the mythic West that supported established values and beliefs coexisted with revisionist images that mirrored polarization over the Vietnam War, race, gender, youth culture, and other issues. Later movies force us to reconsider the Reagan era. Post-1980 westerns suggest that the political, social, and cultural forces that divided sixties America continued to churn throughout the rest of the century and beyond. In addition, western movies provide proof that the New Western History associated with revisionist historians in the last two decades of the twentieth century was actually not that new or different. Long before New Western Historians arrived on the scene, western movies of the fifties and sixties were reinterpreting race, class, gender, the environment, and the role of government in the West.

The men and women found in westerns are—like Hector St. John de Crevecoeur’s “new man”—products of a distinctly American way of life. These cinematic westerners take Frederick Jackson Turner’s frontier thesis to new heights. They believe in freedom and opportunity. They are independent, self-sufficient, innovative, hardworking, moral, and fair. Though proud of their country, they are suspicious of government bureaucrats, incompetent military leaders, corrupt businessmen, and other special interests. When necessary, these cowboys and their cohorts know how to use guns in the name of justice. But once they clean up Dodge, they ride off into the sunset, making the West safe for democracy. Ever since western movies began, they have remained true to the belief that every American has a responsibility to defend the nation’s goals and ideals. If government or society is unable or unwilling to solve a problem, then individuals need to do the job. Westerns have always understood that there is a time and place for everything in the mythic West. For practical Americans, the end always justified the means.

The twentieth century opened with Edwin S. Porter’s ground-breaking western The Great Train Robbery (1903). It was only fitting that it closed with an equally important benchmark in the history of western movies—Clint Eastwood’s Unforgiven (1992).

In the decades that separated those two movies, westerns continued to attract large audiences. Fans plunked down hard-earned cash to see traditional westerns, neotraditional westerns, revisionist westerns, B-Westerns, musical westerns, comedy westerns, space westerns, and other westerns in various shapes and forms. Maybe the draw was the magnificent western scenery. Perhaps audiences loved the gunslingers, cowboys, Indians, and other colorful characters. Or, it could have been the lure of cowboy hats, guns, boots, or spurs that jingled, or the attraction to rugged individuals riding horses. Audiences might have gone for the action, adventure, and excitement. Perhaps they were drawn in by western stories and myths that offered a common heritage, promoted American values, and provided a guide to success—for both the nation and the individual. Or maybe some viewers loved westerns because they provided escape to simpler and more exciting times.

Regardless of the reasons audiences were attracted to westerns, the continuing popularity of these movies throughout the twentieth century demonstrates the power and continuity of the mythic West. Every generation has used that shared memory to define itself and to cope with issues and problems. Like inkblots in a Rorschach test, the mythic West has appeared in various forms in different eras, yet it remains an indelible mark on the American psyche. Movies show that the main elements of the western myth have remained remarkably consistent for over a century. The mythic West has remained a land of enchantment, a place filled with adventure and romance. Predicated on American exceptionalism, it is a fabled land of freedom, liberty, opportunity, and redemption. It not only suggests continuity in American life and thought since the late 1800s, but underscores the nation’s self-identity and adds to a better understanding of the American character.

The mythic West epitomized the American Dream that hardworking individuals, regardless of their background or heritage, could strike it rich if they had the skills and determination to succeed. The mythic West helped Americans find their way through times of war and peace, affluence and anxiety, crises and calm. During good times and bad, the mythic West reflected—and possibly helped shape—American life and thought.

All the while, it never failed to remind Americans where they’ve been, who they are, or where they’re bound.

More than one hundred years have passed since Edwin S. Porter amazed audiences with The Great Train Robbery. Yet, westerns are still around in the twenty-first century and thriving, albeit in changed forms. Contemporary westerns now ride a variety of western trails, mixing old, new, and postmodern approaches. But in basic ways they remain the same. Westerns continue to explore the mythic West through exciting stories, colorful characters, and exotic landscapes. They rely on the same props, symbols, and artifacts as earlier films. And they continue to blur fact and fiction in legendary tales about cowboys, Indians, and other heroes and villains of the Old West. Equally important, they still provide comfort and escape if not solutions during times of great change or danger. Not surprisingly, westerns grew in popularity during the 1990s as an uncertain nation headed toward a new century. They would spike again in popularity after the trauma of September 11, perhaps because, like an old friend, they provided comfort in a time of sorrow and assurance that America could succeed in the future just as it always had on earlier frontiers.

Since the early 1900s, western movies have enabled viewers to ride alongside all the good guys, bad guys, and other characters who blazed an unforgettable path through the mythic West. This cinematic “sagebrush trail” comprises a valuable cultural history not only of westerns but also of America. To this day, whenever or wherever cowboys, cowgirls, gunslingers, Indians, pioneers, or other westerners saddle up and ride across the silver screen, they are adding one more chapter to America’s longest-running cultural attraction—the Sagebrush Trail.

Excerpted from "The Sagebrush Trail: Western Movies and Twentieth Century America" by Richard Aquila. Published by University of Arizona Press.

By Richard Aquila

Richard Aquila is a professor of history and American studies at Penn State University, the Behrend College, and a distinguished lecturer for the Organization of American Historians. He has published four books, including "Wanted Dead or Alive: The American West in Popular Culture."

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