OldAle1 wrote: ↑July 8th, 2021, 10:21 pm
It'd be good to read a strong defense of the neo-modern western, if anybody can make one - or has a link to one. I'm just not convinced right now myself.
I'll give it a shot. I'll quote two sections from my undergraduate honors thesis below. I wrote this 15 years ago, so I don't think it's particularly well-written (an over-reliance on quotations was a hallmark of my academic writing at the time), but it will do. If it's too long, I can summarize my point briefly: The Western is a form of national mythology that reveals how the United States defines itself. The "modern Western," despite traveling outside the conventional chronological boundaries of the genre, interact with and comment upon this mythology and so should be considered legitimate Westerns. (In other words, I define the genre conceptually or thematically rather than chronologically, geographically, or structurally.) For this reason and because they're damn good movies, I'll be including Hud, Lonely Are the Brave, and Brokeback Mountain in my list.
From the intro:
Westerns were popular because they appealed to the way that American viewed their nation's past. Historian Wayne Sarf claimed that the Western has "provided what has been termed our national epic, a substitute for an Iliad or Aeneid that serves as a young nation's heroic age and a reflection of that nation's value." These are accurate comparisons for they indicate the extent to which the Western was rooted in myth rather than literal history. Westerns are essential elements in what may be termed the American mythology - the stories that encapsulate what is idealistically considered the defining principles and dogma of this country. As Richard Slotkin, whose Gunfighter Nation is perhaps the most in-depth academic exploration of the Western genre, explained, "Myths are stories drawn from a society's history that have acquired through persistent usage the power of symbolizing that society's ideology and of dramatizing its moral consciousness." The mythological cachet of the Western stems from two seminal ideas in the history of the United States - Frederick Jackson Turner's Frontier Thesis and the doctrine of Manifest Destiny. In 1893, Turner presented an essay titled "The Significance of the Frontier in American History" to a conference of historians at the World's Columbian Exposition. The central idea of the paper, which was to become very famous and influential, was that the frontier promoted the growth of individualism, democracy, national identity, and American political institutions. Manifest Destiny, a term coined in the 1840s before the Mexican War, posited the United States' exceptionalism, and thus, its divine obligation to expand across the American continent, spreading democracy and freedom. This concept was famously immortalized in painter Emanuel Leutze's paean to pioneers, Westward the Course of Empire Takes Its Way, which showed a large group of settlers trekking across the rough Western landscape and pointing heroically to the sunlit lands beyond the Rockies. Taken together, these concepts established the West as a landscape of American ideals, a place that embodied all the positive and unique characteristics of the fledgling nation.
From the chapter on modern Westerns:
When Frederick Jackson Turner declared that the frontier had closed according to data drawn from the 1890 U.S. Census, he not only drew a boundary through the timeline of American history, but also one across the chronology of Westerns. With the exception of an occasional oddity like The Far Country, traditional Westerns were set for the most part between the end of the Civil War and 1890. The mythic individualism and dignity of the cowboy did not allow any of the classic Western stars like Tom Mix, Roy Rogers, or John Wayne to cross this latter date. If they rode into a dusty, desert town only to find telephone poles and automobiles, it would be too incompatible for audiences to accept.The gunslinger's mastery of Western skills and traits was limited both to a geographic section of the country and to one of its historical eras. How would the Western protagonist, armed with his trusty Colt Peacemaker, defeat the villains if they used modem technology like cars and machine guns? Traditional Westerns could not face such a question for their mise-en-scenes were too closely associated with a particular epoch. Thus, when Lonely Are the Brave and Hud, two modern-day Westerns, were released in the early 1960s, they provided a revisionist analysis of the genre's fundamental underpinnings. Philip French wrote, "Seen out of his time and place, the Western hero seems an incongruous figure. Depending on the dramatic use to which he may be put, he can be variously seen as vulnerable and pathetic or dangerous and anarchic, an upholder of cherished traditional values or the embodiment of outmoded ways which linger menacingly on, a challenge to modem conformity or the incarnation of a past that must be rejected." This description of chronologically transplanted cowboys was almost an exact depiction of the primary protagonists of Hud and Lonely Are the Brave: Hud Bannon, Homer Bannon, and Jack Burns. By presenting traditional cowboys in a modern, mechanized West, these movies juxtaposed cultural and historical understandings of America's past with its present. The result was two films that deconstructed the myth of the cowboy as a timeless figure of the nation's virtue and revealed his obsolescence in a more contemporary era.