The Western As Political Drama
The message of the adult Western meshed well with the political climate of the late 1950s and early 1960s. This was a time of international Cold War, and the Western inspired the nation. "It was no accident that the renaissance of the cowboy film took place during and immediately after World War II," wrote the British film scholar Herbert L. Jacobson in 1953. "And as America girds herself for the possibility of another great struggle," he continued, "it is not surprising that the frequency of these films, which reflect and nourish her picture of herself as a successful defender of high ideals, has been stepped up.
In the popular American view of the time, this was a contest between good and evil. On one side appeared the Soviet Union as advocate of International Communism, crusher of hopes for global peace, brutal master of captured nations, would-be conqueror of the Earth. On the other side stood the selfless United States of America as advocate of freedom, protector of the downtrodden, champion of Free World democracy, proponent of bourgeois capitalism. The Russians were global outlaws: forcefully grabbing other people's countries, undermining world stability, threatening the future of mankind. Wanting nothing but freedom and happiness for everyone, however, the Americans hoped only to rescue the world for honest people—to thwart the expansionists and bring a happy conclusion to this challenge from godless Red "bad guys."
It seemed so easy to comprehend. Indeed, it was well understood by the citizens of the United States. Fearful of Soviet expansionism overseas and Red subterfuge at home, the once isolationist Americans slid deeply into a prepossessing rivalry with the Soviet enemy.
No one was unaffected. The Cold War was a pervasive reality. Like those innocent ranchers and townspeople in countless Westerns who found their parochial existences threatened by dastardly outlaws, unassuming Americans at this time of global tension were compelled to defend themselves, their possessions, and the values for which they stood. A noble cause had been thrust upon them. Failure to act heroically might have been tragic.
In the late 1960s Swedish film scholars Leif Furhammar and Folke Isaksson recognized this pattern when they wrote of the Western myth of silent, lonely men riding off the prairie to take up arms in noble defense of freedom-loving farmers against "gangs bent on grabbing land and money." "This national myth fitted the United States to perfection when the Truman doctrine against communist expansion was proclaimed," they contended. Furhammar and Folke even suggested that "the Western plot offers the perfect filter through which to look at the Vietnam War."
The Western was the nation's most popular militaristic genre and its influence was apparent as the Cold War became hot and bloody in Southeast Asia. In his book Backfire—a perceptive analysis of historic cultural dispositions in the United States and their influential role in leading the American people into the Vietnam War—Loren Baritz has remarked on the prevalence in that conflict of the language and symbols of the Western. According to him, John Wayne became "a model and a standard" for an "astonishing" number of American soldiers in Vietnam. He continued, "Everyone in Vietnam called dangerous areas Indian country." Paraphrasing the familiar phrase, "The only good Indian is a dead Indian," Baritz added that "some GIs painted on their flak jackets THE ONLY GOOD GOOK IS A DEAD ONE. They called their Vietnamese scouts who defected from the Communists "Kit Carsons."
Poignantly, Baritz described how U.S. soldiers in Vietnam often justified their activities in terms of the frontiersman logic learned through visual media.
These nineteen year old Americans, brought up on World War II movies and westerns, walking through the jungle, armed to the teeth, searching for an invisible enemy who knew the wilderness better than they did, could hardly miss these connections. One after another said, at some point, something like, "Hey, this is just like a movie.
Indeed, the young men fighting in Vietnam in the 1960s and 1970s were nurtured on the abundance of Westerns that had glutted television five to ten years earlier. This generation of warriors learned as children to define itself with reference to the cowboy imagery and rhetoric delivered so approvingly via TV. Moreover, this generation accepted the Western so overwhelmingly in part because its stories explained so much so easily.
In many ways the political-military-philosophical scenario of the Cold War was familiar to viewers of television cowboy dramas. The linkage between anti-Communist politics and the flourishing of cowboy dramas was aptly summarized by David Shea Teeple in The American Mercury magazine in 1958. Arguing against the diplomatic weakness of "dressed-up dude rancher" politicians, and in favor of the successful "rough and ready character," Teeple summoned a legion of television stalwarts to press his point.
Would a Wyatt Earp stop at the 38th Parallel, Korea, when the rustlers were escaping with his herd? Ridiculous! Would a Marshal Dillon refuse to allow his deputies to use shotguns for their own defense because of the terrible nature of the weapon itself? Ha! Would the Lone Ranger, under any circumstance, allow himself to be bullied and threatened by those who sought to destroy the principles by which he lives? Would Restless Gun or Jim Hardy of Wells Fargo attempt to buy friends who would fight for the right? Can you imagine Paladin of Have Gun Will Travelstanding aside, while women and children were being massacred? Can you imagine Cheyenne living in a perpetual state of jitters because he fears the next move of some gunslinger? Would Judge Roy Bean release a murderer on some technicality devised by a slick lawyer? Would Wild Bill Hickok sell guns to the bad men?
Again, realities made painfully apparent since the 1960s have undermined the simplistic qualities of the political philosophy in the Western. A war against Communism in Southeast Asia cost billions of U.S. dollars, more than 58,000 lives, and hundreds of thousands of physical and emotional wounds. A high price to pay, but when it resulted in military defeat and politically negligible advantage for the United States, popular thinking on militaristic enterprise was perforce affected.
Furthermore, if the Western flourished because it mirrored popular thought in the Cold War, that period of U.S. history is not only completed, but the uncritical belief and unquestioning trust that characterized the time have been eroded. While contemporary politics still gives evidence of nationalistic fervor and intense rivalry with a Communist enemy, these sentiments are neither as widespread nor as uncritically accepted as in the 1950s and 1960s. Where once it meshed perfectly with the fearful yet crusade-like temper of the Cold War era, the Western now must fit into a society of conflicting, articulated, and relatively informed political awareness. The inability of the Western to find a mass constituency in a society of relatively open debate is a testimony to the depth of the new social and political attitudes developed by many Americans during and after the Vietnam War.