For me, Westerns only start to get interesting in the era when film-makers were starting to break down the conventions and clichés of the genre. Ironically, one of the key movers in this re-interpretation was John Ford, who had played a key part in creating those clichés in the first place.
Could you give us a time line? Did the conventions start getting broken down in the 50s? 60s? 70s?
Larry McMurtry is the only recent writer who has made much of a splash writing in the genre.
Elmore Leonard has written a few excellent westerns, too. I think at least one of them was made into a movie.
We also have a writer named Craig Johnson writing a series of very good books about a sheriff in Wyoming who has Indian friends from a nearby rez (reservation), and don't forget the series of books by the late Tony Hillerman centered on the Navajo at Four Corners. As it happens, my room mate in this hospital where I currently dwell is a Pueblo; she told me she read the Hillerman books to learn about the Navajo because "they're too damn stuck up to tell me themselves."
Which brings up the fact that discrimination also exists among the tribes, not just by anglos toward red skins and brown ones too.
I read somewhere that in Northern California a reservation was set up for two or three tribes. What the government officials didn;t realize was that the tribes in question didn't like each other much.
>> discrimination also exists among the tribes <<
We tend to forget .. perhaps we never really understood
that among the 500 native tribes in North America there
were constant rivalries, distrust and warfare.
The Iroquois Nations consisted of six tribes and were on
their way to forming one of the largest coalitions about
the time white men first came. As CASS noted above they
were likely the only tribe to have begun building a central
capital city; they included most of the tribes and subsets
throughout the northeast (now New England, the Maritime
Provinces, Ontario and parts of Quebec).
This Great Nation was constantly raiding and expanding north
and east into the territories of more 'primitive' hunter/gatherers
like the Miqmacs of Nova Scotia and Prince Edward Island, the
Malaseet of New Brunswick, the Cree of Quebec, the Beothuk of
Newfoundland and the Huron of Ontario (the latter two now being
'Way out west' Sitting Bull managed to pull together formerly
rival tribes in an alliance that defeated Gen. Custer at the
Little Big Horn, but historically individual tribes were much like
tribal societies everywhere, maintaining their own patch and with
long standing prejudices and animosities for neighboring clans.
On the west coast, especially the northwest (what is now British
Columbia) several tribes were loosely associated and held annual
gatherings and ceremonies to exchange news and gifts and engage
in cooperative fishing and bride swapping. But even here, one tribe,
the Haida, dominated just as the Iroquois were central to the Six
Nations of the NE.
We might have learned much about the human condition and the
psychology of human family and tribal relations if we had looked
more closely at the subtle differences between tribal societies
but we tended, and Hollywood 'helped', to homogenise all native
Americans into a feather-headdressed-savage-stereotype who
rode horses and lived in teepees.
We tend to forget... perhaps never knew that teepees would exist
only on the plains where the hides of buffalo were used to create
these iconical conical tents. There were really as many types of
housing as there were tribes using whatever materials nature might
provide in their area - from huge long houses made of tall timber
to ice formed igloos, seal-skin lean-tos, thatched spruce-bow
wig-wams, clay-brick pueblos...
Sorry to go off on one.
The morning coffee is kicking in now.
Have to add that where differences between tribes
was recognised by white settlers they were quick
to exploit the rivalries and ally with whichever
tribe promised to offer the best warriors.
It was easy and convenient to promote warfare and
sometimes just giving them a few guns could 'solve'
the 'Indian problem' by letting them kill each other.
Early on, many tribes allied with the French against
English settlers in exchange for support against the
dominant warriors of the Iroquois Nations (this is
how the Huron went extinct). Later, as mentioned in
an earlier post, the British, with the promise of an
Indian Homeland, gained support from a large coalition
of tribes against the newly created American nation
which was expanding rapidly inland from the original
coastal settlements. (From the French Indian Wars of
the 1760s through the Revolution and War of 1812 -
and none of these eastern tribes rode horses.)
The first thing to remember is that 'Westerns' are almost as old as film itself. 'The Great Train Robbery' was made in 1903, and is considered one of the landmarks of early cinema. Early Westerns were incredibly popular in the silent era, and Hollywood churned them out in huge numbers.
John Ford began directing in 1917, and by 1921 he'd already made 36 films!* This is not particularly exceptional for the era, but I am told that he was a major player and very highly regarded, even back then. A key feature of the entire genre was that the main character(s) would be entirely virtuous and heroic, often at the expense of any other characters that were pitted against him. John Wayne typified this. I should point out at this juncture that my information is second-hand here: I've never seen any of these films.
It was in the very late 40s and early 50s that things started to change. I've seen "She Wore a Yellow Ribbon" from 1949, and it rather surprised me by how even-handed it was towards the Native Americans in the film. "The Searchers" is another legendary film, in which both Ford and Wayne go against type by portraying a character with a vicious, often misdirected temper. Don't underestimate the shock at the time which came from seeing John Wayne killing someone who *gasp* may not necessarily have entirely deserved it!
The final nail in the coffin, so to speak, was Sergio Leone's "spaghetti westerns" in which everyone was dirty, mean and either callous or vicious. Those are really great films. Clint Eastwood was another person who started out toeing the Hollywood heroic line, before going on to subvert the genre from within. As a director, he made several Western films with real nuance: 'The Outlaw Josey Wales' portrays villainous Native Americans, but the reasons are given, and they are differentiated from the good majority.
These days, a Western will only succeed if it brings something new to the genre. The term "revisionist Western" is widely used. Check out Tommy Lee Jones' "The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada" or "The Assassination of Jesse James By the Coward Robert Ford".
* By contrast, Terrence Malick has done almost exactly the reverse: 5 feature length films in the 39 years of his career to date.
It is worth mentioning that in the early days of h2g2
we had several native American researchers. But one by
one they grew weary of our insensitivity to their ongoing
struggle for recognition as human entities. I miss them.
Especially RAFWing (Rusty Analiese Farthing Wing)
She had a bullet in her arse from some redneck cattle-rancher
who objected to her bare-backed ramblings across 'his' range.
Here's a taste from her h2g2 homepage:
"Why? Because there ain't enough of us left to marry within our own tribes without having kids with six toes okay? So you marry outside but try to keep the families close by because gas ain't getting any cheaper, especially with everybody using locking gas caps now.
So when you wear out your welcome at one set of grandparents you can go visit the other set and still have a little money for groceries and horse piss and mountain water, Budweiser and Coors okay? That's important so remember that if you don't remember anything else."
"The fact is the earliest settlers knew nothing about survival, and starving to death, they were desperately raiding native villages for food."
A couple of years ago I got around to reading "The Chronicle of the Pilgrim Fathers" and discovered what appears to be a rather different reality to the "God's Providence" tale which those "Godfearing people" imposed upon the reality and handed down through their "God on our side" version of history.
I have to suspect, contrary to the naive ignorance of the settlers (candy and babies comes to mind) that the London merchants never really intended to get the settlers to Virginia, where they would have been a liability rather than an asset- as opposed to Cape Cod.
The exploitation of the fish stocks off Cape Cod had been an important activity for transatlantic fishermen for more than a 100 years, in fact the story of the locals at Palos that supplied the Pinzon Brothers, real master-mariners who accompanied Columbus maintains that their ships had been going to the Newfoundland and Cape Cod fisheries for some time even before 1492.
Of necessity this had involved some contact with land for harbouring in order to repair ships,chopping down timber to replace masts etc, get new stocks of food, and fresh water. And it seems most likely that the coastal tribes had set up a barter trade with the Europeans. We know from subsequent French Chroniclers that this is very much what happened after the Mayflower expedition.
But such contact had its dangers and it seems that the local population in Cape Cod had been ravaged by disease, leaving a useful region (for the merchants) underpopulated. The presence of a permanent British settlement there would not only be a useful substitute, but offer additional advantages and security and Tisquanto, a Cape Cod Amerindian who had lived in Tudor England could teach them survival skills in the region, and help them to handle relations with the local tribes.
There seems to have been a fairly well-established system of the Amerindians growing corn supplies above and beyond the needs of mere subsistence, in order to have food to trade with these alien visitors: and Tisquanto showed the settlers how to locate these stores of corn, take what they needed and leave goods in exchange. I am not very well-versed in culinary matters but I get the impression that corn flower has been used more extensively in Iberian and Italian cuisine than Anglo-Saxon cooking, and it may well have begun with fishermen sailing back across the Atlantic with this "Indian Corn" which meant that the ships did not need to carry enough food for the trip across the Atlantic and back again.
As for Fifties "Westerns" I think that they were generally much more concerned with backing up the new Post-War reality in which the USA as a country, and therefore American males, were required to take up the burden of being the global policeman, that the late Victorian British "establishment" took up- not least in response to the blatant and deliberate genocidal militarism associated with the expansion of the American and German Empires.
A famous cartoon portrayed J.F.K as some US Marshall at "High Noon" facing down the "Reds" in the Cuba Missile Crisis.
And Westerns adapted to the peaceful Co-existence message with stories in which, not just (as in Oklahoma) the cowboy and the farmer could be friends, but the cowboy+settler and the Amerindian. I was struck by this recently when I watched part of a 1960's Western. The dialogue was clearly aimed at the Cold War. I think it was around the same time as Julie Christie's "Dr Zhivago".
This trend was already evident in a film that I saw in the Cinema c1958-9 entitled something like "The Run of the Arrow".
Btw, the film 'High Noon' itself does not feature Native Americans that I can think of. The adversaries in it are ordinary outlaws of the white European kind... and, of course, the townspeople who successively refuse to help Gary Cooper's sheriff hero, thus making up the main part of the plot.
I have to admit that I can think of no film, either in the modern era or before, that _does_ indeed deal with the genocide of the Native Americans. I think I would like to - if done well, it would make a really good story. Perhaps a horror thriller style about the last survivors in a village being overrun by bounty hunter scalpers.
If you haven't seen it yet, check out 'Little Big Man'
starring Dustin Hoffman as a young white man adopted
by western Indians who sees the ongoing slaughter of
plains Indians by encroaching white civilisation and
finds himself at the battle of Little Big Horn (aka
Custer's Last Stand).
It begins well before and goes beyond that famous date
with an unremitting sympathetic view of the final days
of native culture 'way out west'. It portrays the whites
(both civilian and military) as savage, genocidal beasts
and shows the Indians as the relatively innocent victims.
A similar plot is developed in 'Dances With Wolves'
starring Kevin Costner. *Warning - it contains the
obligatory Kevin Costner naked bum scene - yes, those
same tight buns we see in Robin Hood and Waterworld.*
I heard that Costner employed a bum-double for those scenes, his own being far less tight. He did his own riding, though.
Those older western movies are pretty much of the same ilk as science fiction movies from the fifties -- period pieces. You have to be in a particular mood to watch them, or have them on in the background during a bridge night with friends. I've been to a`small party whose purpose was to share the experience of watching Plan 9 From Outer Space. It was a great party, too.
My point is, the showing of a movie where "I hate Comanch[es]" is a key line doesn't necessarily endorse genocide. You want to see some real unconscious racial prejudice, watch The African Queen (Bogart, Hepburn) to see what John Huston thought of the natives there.
Yes "High Noon" exemplifies the point I was making which was that the Fifties Western was particularly concerned with struggles between those who were supposed to be building a "Promised Land" for Civilization. As in the Cold War this was the immediate imperative for the struggle could produce a Nuclear Holocaust, though obviously the challenge of an age of "post-Imperialism" and relationships with the "Third World" were also part of the wider context.
I think that it was in the early Sixties that there was the TV series "Tenderfoot" which featured a young man who was a Law Student living like a Rolling Stone 'Knight Errant' trying to solve the problems that he came across primarily by reason and discussion, only putting on his gun-belt 'in extremis'.
Francis Parkman the great North American historian wrote with real insight about the Amerindians not least because he had lived among some tribes for some time in (I believe) the late 1830's. And he added to this, exhaustive studies of the evidence produced by Seventeenth Century missionaries and explorers, as well as of the early history of French and English settlement.
But, as I suggested in my previous post, there seems to be a tendency to discount the impact of the opening up of the Atlantic and the very first contacts of Europe with the Americas.
The comparison with Aliens from Outer Space is quite apposite, though in a less scientific age the idea of Gods would have been more appropriate. The Aztecs believed that Cortes and his expedition were the Second Coming of Huiszilapotli, the Feathered Serpent God, not least because the Spaniards had been able to find out much about this legend because of the "princess" that they had kidnapped on an expedition to one of the Caribbean islands, and who was then taught Spanish so that she could act as an interpreter, informant and guide. They timed their landing in line with Aztec horoscope predictions.
In the same way Tisquanto was only one of several North American Amerindians in the late Sixteenth and early Seventeenth Century kidnapped into slavery (as per Amerindian custom)and brought to Europe. And there are plenty of stories of aliens doing just the same in the twentieth century.
But the Amerindians who saw the Cortes landing thought that these strange Gods had two heads and six legs, for Cortes ordered his small number of mounted and armoured knights to ride up and down the beach at Vera Cruz. Those were the first horses in the Americas. There had been some small horse-like animals but they had become extinct long before.
The horse most obviously radically altered the whole development of the Amerindian people, especially in the Great Plains to which some escaped and bred to produce herds of wild horses.
The importance of the horse in the Wild West is immediately obvious and the use of the horse radically transformed the world of the Amerindian people- especially the Plains Indians, who had always been the poor relations of the Woodland Indians, where many rivers and the use of canoes helped mobility. The horse was especially an immense asset to the warrior.
One general feature of Amerindian Society seems to have been the great power of women, compared to contempory European Society. Land and property often belonged to the women, and heredity passed through the female rather than the male line. In the councils that discussed communal affairs, women were often of key importance.
Parkman tells of one Eighteenth Century kidnapping of some European women in New England, that resulted (Somali pirate style) in a ransom being paid for their release. But one young woman, the daughter of a Presbyterian minister, chose to stay with the man she had fallen in love with, feeling I suspect better off in a more female friendly culture than the Puritan one in which she had been brought up. Once a year she visited her family with her children and they eventually gave up asking her to put on European clothes when she was with them.
This core dependence on females (or more accurately 'squaws'- for men apparently could opt to be squaws not 'warriors'. Becoming a warrior usually involved brutal 'rites of passage') seems to suggest that the life of a warrior was very unsettled and unsure, usually away from home for long periods either hunting, trading or fighting, leaving the "squaws" to "hold the fort" [Machu Pichu?] and produce most of the "daily bread". War Chiefs had their place and value, but were rarely tribal chiefs deciding policy.
The horse transformed hunting and fighting, not unlike the way that new technology and science in the early modern age transformed hunting, trading and fighting in the new Nation States of Europe. The tribes of the Great Plains were able to prosper and expand as never before producing an era of conflict and instability that might have been rather like the 'lifaquane' across Southern Africa.
When Dingiswayo studied the military drills and maneouvres of the Dutch garrison, he created his own Zulu application and set out to create the Zulu Empire, raiding, slaughtering the men, taking the women and children into slavery, taking the herds, and extending Zulu authority. This created a westward tidal wave of violence as others either fleeing from the Zulu, or breaking away (especially from the crazy Shaka, Dingiswayo's general who became the Zulu King)did the same right across the Veldt.
You make some good points, Cass. I can see what you mean about High Noon. As people have said, all these films are definitely to be considered in the context of the age they were made, and I don't think that reduces their value to a modern viewer in the slightest. If anything, it enhances it! The same goes for any film made more than a couple of years ago, when it comes down to it.
Since people have mentioned the old science fiction films, with hindsight, the 1956 sci-fi flick 'Invasion of the Body Snatchers' is blatantly about Cold War paranoia (although it's less certain which side's paranoia it is criticizing) but it does so extremely well, and is very enjoyable to watch today.
You know, I had completely forgotten about 'Dances With Wolves', and of course, its indirect offspring 'Pocahontas' and 'Avatar'. That goes some of the way to narrowing the gap in coverage of the colonists-as-villains idea.
Mentioning the warrior rites of passage reminded me of the film "A Man Named Horse" in the filming of which Richard Harris got injured in the scene that recreated the appropriate ceremony for the Mandans (?). This involved cutting incisions into the chest and fixing leather straps by which the aspiring warrior was lifted off the ground, weighed down by other cuts and leather straps from which Buffalo skulls were suspended. After the warrior had been hung he was dragged along the ground by horse until the Buffalo skulls broke off.
Even filming was dangerous, the harness that Harris wore, or the lifting mechanism, broke and Harris seriously damaged his back.
In terms of the morality of US History, especially "The Wild West", I think that it is important to recognise power of the Puritan tradition in which people are mostly sinners but everyone can be "born again".
The whole "New World" philosophy was based upon the need for a new beginning- for all people from "Old Worlds". The USA is the place where it is never too late to "set the counter back at zero", as someone said specifically over a recent lottery draw.
So you do not condemn people over the past. To err is human, and yet salvation is possible. Surely this theme of redemption is a constant theme of "Classic Westerns".
As for the whole "Noble Savage" tradition, I think that it was a few weeks ago that French TV had an item about the death of an actor who had made his name in the German speaking world in bringing to the screen the stories written by some German author in the early Twentieth Century, who had failed in other careers, and had decided to write children's stories about "Red Indians" and in particular his hero.
In the basic thrust of an admiration for a pre-Civilized life when 'men were men' etc this had much in common with the "Gothic" literature of for example Sir Walter Scott and later works like Charles Kingsley's "Herewarde the Wake", the introduction of which expresses views which were at least proto-Nazi. Kingsley was part of the circle of admirers around Thomas Carlyle, whose great biography of Frederick the Great was also proto-nazi, and was one of the books that Hitler had in his final bunker days.
This was the period when Darwin was formulating his theories about the life and death struggle for "the survival of the fittest" being the basic driving force in sustainable evolution.
A spokesman for the "Native Peoples" of the Earth argued in his contribution to "The Way Ahead" -thoughts on the new millennium published c1993, that Nature would need a "Great Cleansing" in which about 90% of Humankind would have to perish in order to return to their kind of way of life.
But I was listening to a Radio 4 item this lunch-time with a BBC reporter visiting some Reindheer Herders in Siberia. The number is dwindling year by year, as young people prefer what the modern world has to offer. We should not "knock it" all the time.
Please note that Not Panicking Ltd is not responsible for the content of any external sites listed. The content on h2g2 is created by h2g2's Researchers, who are members of the public. Unlike Edited Guide Entries, the content on this page has not necessarily been checked by a h2g2 editor. In the event that you consider anything on this page to be in breach of the site's House Rules, please