RESPONSE TO MICHAEL AGRESTA
It’s heartening to see The Atlantic magazine asking the question of what killed the Western. See the article, “How the Western Was Lost,” by Michael Agresta:
Agresta asks the right questions. He notes the importance of the Western film genre to the identity of the American nation. But he provides the wrong answers.
“What Killed the Western Movie?” is the chief subject of my new ebook, ABOUT WESTERN MOVIES. I spend the entire 40,000-word narrative answering the question, directly and indirectly. I can only summarize two of the points here.
A.) The Western movie became a popular worldwide art form because it presented the West as it was: a romantic, beautiful place. Think Frederic Remington and Charles Russell.
In the 1960’s, dark revisionism began: a reflection of the disillusion of the postmodern world. From Spaghetti Westerns to “Lawman” and “McCabe and Mrs. Miller,” the West was portrayed as a thoroughly unattractive place, romance stripped away. A landscape which eventually became filled with killing-machine sociopaths and little else. All in the name of an “authenticity” that was a sad and sadistic distortion of Western reality.
B.) The Western reflected the views of the U.S. intellectual class—their loss of faith in American ideals, and, subliminally, in themselves.
This stands out in Michael Agresta’s essay. He’s right. the Western movie can, and at times should, address America’s history. But not if it’s addressed through the prism of America’s supposed collective guilt. That prism is based on a narrow view of history, and on a shallow understanding of historical forces.
The history of civilizations is the clash of peoples and cultures. More vigorous peoples with belief in themselves have been moving into vacuums for thousands of years. Recall that Julius Caesar slaughtered entire Gallic tribes in the name of civilization. Or that half of Europe was conquered by vigorous Islam. As recently as 1683, Vienna, gateway to Europe—in the heart of Europe—was besieged by Turkish armies.
The creation of the American nation, including the settling of a sparsely populated West, was one of the great achievements of human history. Objectively, maybe the greatest achievement, seeing the civilization that resulted, of which Michael Agresta, as well as the big-bucks high-tech “Lone Ranger” movie producers, are thoroughly part. It’s nothing to be embarrassed about!
(To talk solely of Indian massacres is a distortion. The word “genocide” is at best an exaggeration. There were massacres on both sides. The recent Glenn Frankel book on “The Searchers” makes clear that the Comanches were a brutal, warrior-centered people. The genocidal scene in “The Lone Ranger” is a fiction.)
Western movies used to reflect the history of American achievement. They did it without the “strictly white, male” perspective Agresta talks about. Ironically, it was later Westerns—both the Spaghetti and revisionist varieties—which eliminated women and families from the Western genre.
In my ebook I spend an entire section on a single film, “Westward the Women” (1951). A movie which gives a tiny sense of the difficulties faced by the pioneers. It’s also the most pro-women movie ever made. I invite Michael Agresta, and everyone else, to watch the film (then read my remarks about it) to realize what the Western movie at its best was about.
Incidentally, faith in the American dream isn’t confined solely to “Republicans.” Two modern-day Democrat Presidents, FDR and JFK, had vigorous faith in American idealism and exceptionalism. The winning of World War II; the moon landings and journey into space: these followed a direct line of American accomplishment—of American belief in itself.
The failure of the Western genre also isn’t due to distorted media-elite misconceptions of nationality and race. Anyone who spends much time online clicking on YouTube videos knows that Hispanics, Japanese, French, et.al., are among the biggest fans of the genre.
The bizarre framing device of “The Lone Ranger,” Johnny Depp on a guilt trip—crucifying himself for our sins—showed from the get-go the unappealing confusion of the film’s producers. (“The Lone Ranger” also failed for other reasons. Like the 1969 big-budget dud “Mackenna’s Gold,” it tried to do too much. “Keep It Simple, Stupid!” Westerns don’t require a large budget.)
We’ve had fifty years of disbelief in America, of self-flagellation by intellectuals taught by a bankrupt educational system to hate their country, and, as I said, themselves. It’s a ticket to failure, culturally and nationally. No nation can survive without myths. The Western movie is America’s myth. To replace it with a more historically inaccurate and distorted Anti-Myth is nutty. It’s to commit cultural and national suicide.
America has always been an awesome brand. The brand attracted the peoples of the world—and continues to attract them. But the brand needs to be the genuine article—populist; democratic; beautiful; believing; confident: expressing American values of simplicity, honesty, character, integrity—and freedom.
The great Westerns, from John Ford’s “My Darling Clementine” to Sam Peckinpah’s “Ride the High Country,” did this. Viewing them isn’t a mere amusement or distraction. It’s not a guilt trip or a university history lesson. It’s restoration, of ourselves, our roots, our souls.
These matters I address in my ebook. ABOUT WESTERN MOVIES by King Wenclas. 99 cents. Nook or Kindle. Read it now.