The Spirit of the Western

The destruction of the Western as viable television fare was no inconsequential accomplishment. It was truly the all-American genre. No type of popular entertainment has been associated more completely with American civilization. Politically, spiritually, economically, and ethically the genre has communicated an understanding of the United States and its place in the world.

Historically, the Western has flourished in popular literature, film, radio, and especially television. The noted scholarly critic Leslie Fiedler traced its New World inspiration to Massachusetts as early as 1609. For a nation seeking enduring social role models, the genre offered an array of frontier characters whose names and exploits remain legion. From embellished historical realities like Daniel Boone, Wyatt Earp, and Buffalo Bill to purely fictional types such as Natty Bumppo, Pecos Bill, and the Lone Ranger it has offered a pantheon of heroic activists as inspirational as they were entertaining.

The spirit of the Western has ingratiated itself into varied dimensions of American reality. It endures in the commercial names given to models of automobiles. High schools and universities adopt its terms to describe themselves. Professional sports franchises use its vocabulary to name their teams. Urban dwellers have been drawn to the leather boots and denim that are its clothing styles, and to country-western performers and songs that are its musical taste.

Even recent national presidential administrations have found the mystique of the Western appropriate. John F. Kennedy christened his presidency "The New Frontier." Lyndon B. Johnson was more or less an authentic cowboy whose LBJ Ranch, situated on the banks of the Pedernales River in south-central Texas, became the alternate presidential residence throughout the mid-1960s.

Twice elected chief executive, Ronald Reagan formerly starred in cowboy movies such as Santa Fe Trail and Cattle Queen of Montana; and during the 1965-66 television season he hosted the Western series Death Valley Days. Even Dr. Henry A. Kissinger, the foreign relations advisor for Presidents Richard M. Nixon and Gerald R. Ford, understood himself as a frontiersman with portfolio. He characterized his diplomatic technique in terms of the heroic loner who rides to the rescue. "I've always acted alone," he told the Italian journalist Oriana Fallaci in 1972.

Americans like that immensely. Americans like the cowboy who leads the wagon train by riding ahead alone on his horse, the cowboy who rides all alone into the town, the village, with his horse and nothing else. Maybe even without a pistol, since he doesn't shoot. He acts, that's all, by being in the right place at the right time. In short, a Western.

The genre has exercised a significant influence on American society in the twentieth century. Despite the learned debunking of an intellect otherwise as perceptive as Henry Nash Smith, it has been considerably more than a vacuous form of amusement that has degenerated since its inception "to the near-juvenile level it was to occupy with virtually no change down to our own present day." To the contrary, the Western has been hailed as an original art and cultural form sprung totally from U.S. civilization. Its mythic characters have been emulable types for generations. Its stories have offered timely justification for a society that at base remained a relatively pristine experiment in self-governance.

The Western possesses a classic formulation recognizable to all audiences. Here is the cowboy, frontiersman, or lawman operating on or near the furthest reaches of civilized life. Here is the cruel wilderness in which incipient American society struggles against adversity to survive and even flourish. The classic Western contains familiar ingredients: heroes and guns, horses, cattle, settlers, outlaws, Indians, and the like—usually situated in desert locales on the nineteenth-century U.S. frontier.

As with most entertainment classifications, however, there exist gray areas within the Western, places where the traditional formulation overlaps other genres. Here it meets and blends with such forms as situation comedy, adventure stories, and military dramas. In cases where the archetypes and themes of the Western dominate these relationships, the result is a modified, peripheral Western—but one that must be understood together with the classic relationship of the genre.

In television this hybrid Western constituted a small, but not insignificant, part of the totality. In Hawkeye and the Last of the Mohicans, for example, the West was located in upstate New York in the eighteenth century. In Daniel Boone, frontier heroics took place in the Kentucky backwoods at the time of the Revolutionary War. Yancy Derringer was set in New Orleans immediately following the Civil War. Alaska and the Canadian Yukon during the Gold Rush were locales for Klondike, The Alaskans, and Sergeant Preston of the Yukon.

Alias Smith and Jones added levity to the drama of the Old West, The Rounders offered humor in the new West, and F Troop and Pistol `n' Petticoats burlesqued the genre. Series like Stoney Burke, The Wide Country, Empire and The Yellow Rose ranged into the contemporary West interpreting that area as a place where civilization now thrived, but where modern cowboys and ranchers faced challenges similar to those confronted by their pioneering ancestors.

For the most part this study focuses on those series with classic formats. Such programs constitute the vast majority of the Westerns shown on television. These were dramatic offerings inspired by fanciful notions of the historic West. Ironically, the West in actuality was little more than a geographic region explored, conquered, and assimilated in a short, distinct time. But for a nation built by self-motivated immigrants seeking personal betterment, the West, real or otherwise, always seemed to perpetuate the promise. Here was elbow room and a fresh start—a place to plant and to grow. For a nation fashioned by dreamers, the West was an antidote to crowded cities and failed careers, a refuge for the bold still seeking challenges, a spiritual and geographic last chance to make the dream come true.

This strategic relationship between the West and the American psyche was not a detection of modern academic analysis. Its earliest delineation was made in 1893 when Frederick Jackson Turner described the manner in which the frontier experience shaped the character of the United States and its citizenry. Among his contentions, Turner argued:

The result is that to the frontier the American intellect owes its striking characteristics. That coarseness and strength combined with acuteness and inquisitiveness; that practical, inventive turn of mind, quick to find expedients; that masterful grasp of material things, lacking in the artistic but powerful to effect great ends; that restless nervous energy; that dominant individualism, working for good and for evil, and withal that buoyance and exuberance which comes with freedom—these are the traits of the frontier, or traits called out elsewhere because of the existence of the frontier.

In its own peculiar way, the West—through its chief vehicle of communication, the Western—has been the American affirmation of an ancient aspiration. Its tales envisioned the new Eden, the land of milk and honey lost by the Israelites, the idealized place described from Plato to St. Augustine to Jefferson. With such an influential place in American civilization, indeed in world culture, its unimportance as a contemporary television format is all the more striking.

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