Westerns: Making the Man in Fiction and Film

Westerns: Making the Man in Fiction and Film

Heidi Kenaga

Studies of the Western heralded the general shift from auteur to genre studies in the late 1960s and 1970s. Its clear iconography, characters, plots and use of space spurred several classics. But as the genre seemed to ride off into the sunset in the late 1970s, other types of popular cinema emerged as favored analysands. Melodrama, film noir, and most recently horror and pornography have generated much critical interest. The generic approach has, however, been increasingly supplemented by historical contextualization; one current example is Mark Jancovich’s Rational Fears: the American horror genre in the 1950s.

The feedback loop of academic film criticism has lassoed new attention toward what can be called the ‘cinema’s oldest profession’, that is, making Westerns. This is true on the production front, the boomlet created by Lonesome Dove, Dances with Wolves and Unforgiven, but also on the intellectual frontier, as ways to reconceptualize Western representation have been explored in a spate of critical texts. Examples include Jane Tompkins’ West of Everything: the inner life of Westerns (1992), Robert Murray Davis’ Playing Cowboys: low culture and high art in the Western (1992), the anthologies Reading the West: new essays in the literature of the American West (1996), The Book of Westerns (1996), and The Crowded Prairie: the Hollywood Western and American national identity (1997).

While work on the Western has traditionally critiqued its racial politics, nationalist imaginary or ethos of regenerative violence, the genre’s depiction of gender has lately come under most scrutiny. Tompkins’ thesis in West of Everything has been the most influential: ‘the Western answers the domestic novel. It is the antithesis of the cult of domesticity that dominated American Victorian culture’ (p. 39). In some ways, Lee Clark Mitchell’s Westerns: making the man in fiction and film investigates the same terrain. He claims the Western in all its print and visual forms always returns to one essential problematic, the ‘expression of irresolvable questions about masculinity’ (p. 7), that the familiar elements of iconograpby, characters, land and even plot are secondary to the real cultural work of the Western: engaging in the guise of fantasy bow manhood may be (re)defined and (re)constituted. ‘Western authors’, Mitchell argues, ‘have responded to current issues through narrative transformations so severe that even the ongoing obsession with “making the man” has taken distinctive shapes at different moments in American history’ (p. 6). In his emphasis on the social fabrication of manhood, Mitchell addresses burgeoning scholarship on the construction of masculinity in film (e.g. Steven Cohan and Ina Rae Hark’s anthology Screening the Male: exploring masculinities in Hollywood cinema [1993]). As such, his work can be placed at a nexus between two topoi of recent cultural criticism: a revised approach to the array of Western representations more sensitive to specific historical and social contexts, and an emerging tradition that investigates representations of the male body in a variety of cinematic genres.

Choosing from ‘among the most popular texts in American history’ not just for what they reveal about their audiences but also for their impact on the genre itself, Mitchell suggests a dialectic between historically determined ‘crises about gender construction’ and aesthetic form. In situating his readings of Westerns within shifting social contexts, Mitchell thus distances himself from Tompkins’ view that the male heroes of Hondo, Riders of the Purple Sage, and The Virginian are essentially ‘all the same man’. Appropriately, he develops his argument chronologically, focusing on the representation of manhood in Western painting, fiction, and cinema. Natty Bumppo is the ‘poised but still, responsible but detached … model on which all other attempts to “make the man” will be practiced’ (p. 9). Albert Bierstadt’s landscapes and Bret Harte’s short stories provide the majestic setting and stereotypical supporting players during the 1860s-1880s, and then all three elements come together in the first ‘acknowledged embodiment’ of the Western novel, The Virginian. However, Mitchell develops a compelling argument for the narrative’s actual atypicality, more concerned with turn-of-the-century suffrage issues–witness the Virginian’s spare but effective rhetoric in conversations with Molly about sexual equality–than with fisticuffs and shootouts. Riders of the Purple Sage thus becomes a historical if not actual sequel to Wister, in that Grey’s abduction scenario is developed as a way to both reinforce and undermine emerging discourses about the independent ‘New Woman’. Next Mitchell explores the common beating/recovery trope endured by the Western hero, arguing against the view that spectators are ‘punished’ for looking at the (bruised) male body. Rather, ‘the point of violence directed at a physical body is to arouse a tension that allows an emotional self to exhibit its capacity for restraint. In that mutual pressure of threat and restraint, the terrain is mapped in which masculinity in the Western is ever contested’ (p. 183). The didacticism of three 1950s’ films (High Noon, Sham and Hondo) is explored next, each offering audiences a different resolution to contemporary anxieties about parenting, gender roles and adolescence. Finally, Mitchell illuminates the paradox of the corpse-like heroes’ ‘restraint’ in legitimating great bloodshed as seen in The Wild Bunch and Leone’s Dollars trilogy, produced during an era of extreme ambivalence over both the state’s use of violence and liberal social policies. A last brief chapter concerns the ‘revisionism’ of Eastwood’s Unforgiven in light of Mitchell’s previous arguments.

Mitchell displays great skill in developing formalist analyses sensitive to historical context especially in the chapters on Western fiction. In addition, the chapter on the beating/recovery scenario presents a fascinating analysis of a little-discussed Western familiar. After this point, however, his discussion loses some steam. The analysis of the 1950s’ films is rather unconvincing; for example, surely in Hondo the discourses on gender and race are equally important in delineating appropriate masculinities, and too often his argument seems to reduce the films to allegories of male adolescent trauma. Further, in the discussion of the 60s’ ‘anti-Westerns’ his specification of contemporary ‘crises in gender construction’ gets a little diffuse. Mitchell himself notes that his contextualizations are deliberately ‘sketchy’ and non-exclusive, acknowledging other historical explanations are possible. True enough, but not all are probable. Particularly in regard to the films he discusses, incorporation of trade discourse, reception materials, and studio advertising would have helped Mitchell limn ‘that historically specific response’ be wishes to discern from textual features alone.

Overall, however, Making the Man is a welcome contribution to new scholarship on Western representation. Like the exemplars of the subject he describes, Mitchell’s writing is concise and elegant. If the delineation of historical context is not always as substantive as it might be, his work helps clear the trail for further investigations.

HEIDI KENAGA, University of Wisconsin-Madison


COPYRIGHT 1997 Carfax Publishing Co.

COPYRIGHT 2004 Gale Group