The Western and
American Civilization

Hoping to understand better the civilization that produced and sustained the genre, scholars have analyzed the Western from many perspectives. It has been approached in terms of religion, militarism, sociology, anthropology, psychological symbolism, dialectical materialism, and assorted critical methodologies. In the richest dissection of its inner dimensions, literary critic John Cawelti discerned a multiplicity of implications accounting for the popularity of the genre. He argued convincingly in The Six-Gun Mystique that the Western possesses social, political, psychological, artistic, sociological, anthropological, and other qualities that make it misleading to focus too narrowly when seeking its meaning. Certainly, Cawelti was on target when he contended that

the Western's capacity to accommodate many different kinds of meaning—the archetypal pattern of heroic myth, the need for social ritual and for the disguised expression of latent motives and tensions—as well as its ability to respond to changing cultural themes and concerns—have made the formula successful as popular art and entertainment over many generations.

Cawelti's eclectic approach, however, fails to answer the fundamental questions posited by this study. If the genre is so vital to American culture, so adaptable to changing times, and so chronically popular, why is it no longer accepted by the mass audience as a video entertainment form? It lives in the lusty writings of Louis L'Amour. It survives, albeit sparingly, in the modern films of actors such as Clint Eastwood, Gene Hackman, and Charles Bronson. The Western motif may appear occasionally in TV commercials, exploited to sell hamburgers, candy, and the like. Moreover, it still captures the imagination of cultural scholars. On television, however, the most popular medium, the weekly entertainment forum for hundreds of millions of viewers, the genre is moribund. If it is dead on TV, is it not dead as an idiom of social importance?

In seeking to understand why the Western perished on American television, the most profitable line of inquiry is that which appreciates the sociopolitical implications of the genre. Here, analysts have rightfully suggested that since the stories and iconography of the Western deal perforce with an historic reality, their connotations possess a significance that is both topical and enduring. Attesting to the relevant emphases within the genre, Philip French in his study of Western feature films actually discerned four types of Westerns. These were the "Kennedy Western," the "Johnson Western," the "Buckley Western," and the "Goldwater Western." As French explained it in the 1960s, these typologies had critical differences that more or less matched the policies and social philosophies of new-liberal John F. Kennedy, old-liberal Lyndon B. Johnson, new-conservative William F. Buckley, and old-conservative Barry Goldwater.

With more precision and depth John H. Lenihan traced the Western film as it adapted to shifting historical forces in the decades after World War II. In explaining the ways in which the genre incorporated themes of the Cold War, the struggle for racial equality, and the alienated condition of modern mankind trapped in urban and technological anonymity, he argued in Showdown for the vitality and basic adaptability of the Western. "There is no demonstrable reason why the Western should be less appropriate for today's audiences than it was for those of yesterday," Lenihan maintained in 1980. He concluded, romantically as well as optimistically, that the genre's "proved capacity for redefining America's mythic heritage in contemporary terms would suggest, even during the current period of its quiescence, that the Western is an unlikely candidate for cultural oblivion."

The critique of the Western offered by Jenni Calder was a vigorous defense of the genre as an historically American phenomenon with implications for the world. In There Must Be a Lone Ranger, this British scholar in 1975 focused principally on Western movies and concluded that the genre was indestructible—at least hopefully so. "It is likely that the Western myth will survive, and will survive on many different levels," she asserted.

It enriches a brief past for the benefit of a barren present. It feeds contemporary culture, and has done so for many years, with a vision of independence which America and the world find both comforting and exciting. It can suggest anarchy, rebellion, as well as the most offensive acts of nationalism. It can emphasize the uniqueness of a nation and the inviolability of the individual. It can provide simultaneously an escape and a challenge. All this is arguably dangerous mental pabulum for a nation that is inactive on its own ground and overactive on the territory of others, but with so much to offer the Western myth is, hopefully, invulnerable,

Anticipating structuralist thought on the matter, John W. Evans argued perceptively in an essay in 1962 that the Western, especially as evidenced by its proliferation on television, represented a psycho-social answer to the oppressive qualities of modern society, a society marked by the decline of close relationships, the deterioration of accepted norms, and the gradual shrinking of the individual's sphere of choice. The basic appeal of the genre, Evans contended, "lies in the fact that it is an invitation to escape to—or better, participate in —a world in which psychological gratifications are an almost perfect antidote to the alienated conditions of life in modern industrial society." Still, however, Evans saw the Western as socially robust, a salubrious mechanism with an apparently bright future.

More than a decade later, from his perspective as a structuralist historian cognizant of the complex linkages between American civilization and its cultural products, Will Wright reached provocative conclusions. He suggested that the Western had come to reflect and support fundamental alterations in postindustrial capitalist society. In Six Guns and Society, he argued that the emergence of the modern technological state—with its emphases on specialization, social control, and power as wielded by elitists who placed group loyalty above obedience to law or altruistic social pursuit—had effectively destroyed the archetypal Western.

The story of the individualist-hero using physical strength and moral courage to rescue innocents from malefactors, in Wright's view, had given way to the corporate champion—the professional hero who operated as an autonomous actor while finding purpose and satisfaction as part of an elite power group—who worked for money and acted out the bogus individualism of the technocratic society where systems of mass production and mass consumption must suppress individuality in favor of the mass market.

Despite an apparent distaste for the new form, Wright remained optimistic about the viability of the genre. In his view, if modern humanity found power and meaning in belonging to or envying influential elites, the acceptable Western need only reflect the values of this structural realignment. For him the new Western only had to highlight the professional hero whose prowess "depends more on technical strength and less on strength of character"—who "does much less standing up for ideas or principles and much more proving of his technical skills as a fighter"—and who "by joining the group and accepting the values of technical proficiency . . . shows himself to be superior to the petty, dull, weak people in ordinary society."

Despite the appreciative and optimistic themes found in most scholarship on the Western, there have been voices offering contrary interpretations. As early as 1967 Larry McMurtry, a novelist whose works include The Last Picture Show, Lonesome Dove, and Horseman, Pass By the book upon which the feature film Hud was based, suggested that the Western was headed for oblivion. Drawing upon the literary theories of critics such as Robert Warshow and Northrop Frye, he wrote of the genre: "The appeal cannot last forever ... since the West definitely has been won, the cowboy must someday fade." McMurtry suggested that the Western would fall victim to certain cultural and social transformation already under way. "It is clear that the figure of the westerner is being replaced by more modern figures, principally that of the secret agent," he argued.

To McMurtry, demographic shifts from rural to urban foreshadowed the demise of the Western. "An urban age demands an urban figure," he maintained, and "the secret agent, like the westerner a sort of insider-outsider, is an updated type of gunfighter. The secret agent has appropriated the style of the gunfighter and has added urbanity and cosmopolitanism."

Writing almost two decades later, two foreign critics proclaimed the death of the filmic Western. After tracing the history of the filmic genre in The Life and Times of the Western Movie, the British writer Joe Hyams concluded that the end of the Western was proven in the fact that neither the popularity of Ronald Reagan, a politically conservative president, nor the urban cowboy craze of the early 1980s did anything to reinvigorate the Western film. "To the strains of country-and-western music," he contended, "the heads of studios—studios owned by conglomerates interested only in finding 'this year's Star Wars’"—casually agreed that the westerns were dead. No one seemed to believe in the West anymore.

In Le western, published in 1982, the French film scholar Christian Viviani asserted that "the genre such as it is, is dead." For him, the demise was evolutionary, the end result of diversification in thematic content, of aging Western stars who were never replaced, and of changes in the studio system in the years after World War II. As Viviani understood these developments, the death of the Western was more a matter of artistic and business forces than sociopolitical developments.

The Western is dead as a genre. The structure of the genre was tied to a production arrangement now obsolete. The era of five or six Westerns per month has ended. Certainly every now and then a filmmaker returns to the original sources and recaptures, as if by enchantment, the right balance ... but the genre nowadays is finished.

Those arguments declaring the Western dead have done little more than open the discussion. McMurtry was correct to link support for the genre with demographic and cultural developments, yet he needed to tie the Western to other aspects of American life, most notably changes in political, moral, military, religious, and psychological attitudes during the past several decades. Hyams failed to offer a thorough argument explaining why the Western died, and why neither the urban cowboy craze nor the nostalgic political conservatism of the Reagan presidency was unable to reinvigorate the genre. Likewise, Viviani's perspective as a student of the art of cinema offered no satisfying reasons for the demise of the Western. In mourning the passing of the genre as a function of industry decline instead of audience taste, Viviani focused on effect rather than cause.

Few analysts of the Western have given the genre sufficient attention as a powerful communicator of political values, and, as such, as a barometer of American popular thinking. Yet, in its archetypes, symbols, story lines, and historical interpretation, the genre of a century has presented a ritualized reaffirmation of American prerogatives. In foreign nations the Western may be appreciated as a compelling adventure or probing human drama, but in the United States it has always had a political undertone offering a philosophy of right and wrong with personal, national, and international implications.

It was no coincidence that during the first Reagan administration the Congress of the United States ordered a medal struck honoring John Wayne—the first medal minted to commemorate a movie actor —for his filmic embodiment of the American character. In his movies, and especially in his Westerns, John Wayne by that time represented a stereotyped view of the American as strong, assertive, and resourceful; dedicated to the concept of individualism and its economic corollary, the free enterprise system; and nationalistic, even jingoistic, in his support for the United States. In sum, his movie image epitomized conservative American political thinking by the early 1980s.

Importantly, too, none of these interpreters of the genre have focused with analytical depth on the Western as it appeared on television. Yet, for decades TV offered countless thousands of Westerns with their relentless mix of adventure and political values. Their enticing message was communicated most effectively, entering the privacy of living rooms, bedrooms, dens, and other areas where families and individuals relaxed in the informality of their homes. A Gallup poll in January 1963 revealed that two-thirds of the nation watched Westerns on TV. Ironically, the same survey indicated that more than half the population of the United States had not gone to a movie during the entire preceding year.'

For its part, the public was a willing customer for television. By 1960 there were video receivers in 89.4 percent of the households in the United States. More than electric toasters, washing machines, automobiles, or vacuum cleaners, people owned TV sets. Demand remained strong, too, as manufacturers between 1959 and 1961 produced 6 million units annually. Americans devoured the medium. In 1961 the average household each day watched TV for 5 hours and 22 minutes. That year at any minute between 7 A.M. and 1 A.M. almost 14 million homes—representing 29.6 percent of all receivers in the nation—had a television set turned on. In the evening hours, between 6 P.M. and 1 A.M., that figure was even higher. At that time receivers were operating in more than 21 million homes, accounting for 44.9 percent of all sets in the nation.

If they owned and operated video receivers, Americans also trusted what they saw. Surveys in the 1950s and 1960s demonstrated a burgeoning belief in what was televised. In 1959 respondents to a Roper poll rated TV stations far ahead of local government in terms of the quality of the job being done. When asked in the same poll which communications medium they would most want to save, respondents placed television first at 42 percent, far ahead of newspapers, radio, and magazines. By November 1963, TV surpassed newspapers as the most believable source of information-36 percent for TV compared to 24 percent for newspapers. Six years later the margin was even wider, 44 percent calling TV the "most reliable" news medium while only 21 percent named newspapers.

As well as a trusted informant, television quickly became the principal medium of entertainment in the United States. For example, the effect of video upon Western commercial movies—whether first-rate features, B movies, multi-chaptered serials, or two-reel shorts—was devastating. Of the 3,372 commercial Westerns made in the period 1930-77, more than 64 percent of the total appeared in the first two decades—more than 82 percent in the years before the emergence of adult-oriented TV Westerns in 1955. As statistics in Table 1 suggest, with the coming of television, the Western feature film practically ceased to exist.

Table 1: Western Commercial Films, 1930-77
YearWesterns % of All
Made Westerns
1930-411345 39.8
1942-45412 12.2
1946-49423 12.8
1950-55592 17.5
1956-59244 7.2
1960-69203 6.0
1970-77153 4.5

It is a major oversight for analysts of American culture or politics to disregard the historical importance of television, and specifically the rise and fall of the video Western. Television is more influential and more indicative of popular thought than feature film, yet TV studies are scarce—and even frowned upon by some—while the consideration of motion pictures has become an accepted aspect of modem scholarly inquiry. Twenty years ago, however, Richard E. Peck in a pioneering essay suggested that the key to understanding the times rested now in the analysis of television programming. His observation remains valid.

A work of art becomes in the hands of an historian, an artifact, a primary document which he uses to define the culture that produced it. Developments in literature, in the plastic arts, even in handicrafts, somehow help the archaeologist or historian to understand the minds and opinions of the people whose concerns foster them. If such an approach is valid, and I think it is, consider then the delights awaiting some future historian who turns his attention to tapes of films of today's television fare. For television—not the plastic arts, not literature, not theater, not cinema—is the characteristic art form of the 1960s.

Throughout most scholarship on the Western there has been an appreciative and optimistic theme. Even when intimating that such optimism rested more on wishful thinking than substance, most critics have been fans and most have predicted a limitless future for the genre. Yet, if the performance of the Western on television is the standard by which to assess the popularity and the future of the genre, the conclusions of these scholars need scrutiny.

On TV the Western had an unusual career. For the first quarter-century of the medium, it was an essential, often dominant, force in network programming. In its earliest manifestations the cowboy drama was primarily a juvenile phenomenon, carrying into network video a stunted understanding of the genre that was manifested also on network radio.

Ironically, when NBC, ABC, and CBS in the mid-1950s finally did commit themselves to Westerns intended for adult audiences—a move made in feature films almost two decades earlier—the Western attained unprecedented popularity and shaped TV programming for years.

Finally, in the wake of its overwhelming acceptance, the Western entered a period of retreat and popular rejection. By the 1970s the genre ceased to relate to TV audiences. By the 1980s it was dead. However, this was a period not without significant attempts to resuscitate the genre.

By considering the TV Western in its several historic phases, one can obtain a clearer picture of its importance to television, society, history, and culture. Moreover, such inquiry facilitates an understanding of the relationship between mass entertainment and political and social development in the United States.

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