The Western Through a Red Lens: Historiography, Propaganda, and Umfunktionierung in Red Westerns and
Copyright 2018 by Michael W. Rickard II
Editor's Note: In 2016 I wrote a paper for my undergraduate senior project on the Red Western, a sub-genre of the Western film. Here is the paper in its original form.
The Western has been called a true piece of America, as integral to its culture as jazz and baseball (Kitses 1). The idea of an individual fighting lawlessness on the frontier and helping to bring order has been said to be linked with America’s westward expansion. The values of America, both mythical and real, are seen in the Western film genre, providing an examination of American history and society. However, how we see ourselves often differs from how others see us. What happens then when another country uses a genre often linked to America, to scrutinize America? Also, what if another country uses this genre to cast America in a negative light? Red Westerns, films produced in the Warsaw Pact during the Cold War were made to criticize capitalism and American values by showing the sins of American settlers. Warsaw Pact nations also saw the attractiveness of the Western genre as a way to promote Communist values by depicting frontier adventures of their own, leading to the development of films known as “Easterns”. In these films, the frontier was that of Asia during the Soviet revolution rather than the American West of the late 19th century. Examining these films is important because: 1) it allows a comparison of American depictions of the West to Warsaw Pact depictions, and 2) it allows a chance to determination if there are universal elements of the Western genre that are not limited to the geography and a particular historical era in the American West.
This paper will examine the origins of the ideology behind the American Western, its transition into cinema, and the Warsaw Pact nations’ creation of Red Westerns and Easterns, two films full of the elements found in American Westerns but unique to their individual nations. This paper contains an annotated bibliography for more information on the research materials and films used in this paper.
The Ideology of America’s Western Expansion: Myths and Reality
The Western is a genre with deep roots in American history. Westward expansion has been a goal of Americans since the earliest settlers, fascinating the settlers themselves as well as people who read about their exploits. Some scholars English professor and pop culture scholar John Cawelti argues the earliest Western stories date back to the 17th century Slave Narrative of Mary Rowlandson, the story of a Puritan woman taken captive by Indians who eventually was released. “Rowlandson’s story established one of the themes which would be central to the Western tradition, the supposed threat of Native Americans to the welfare and morality of white women (Cawelti 59). As the American frontier expanded, new tales arose, ranging from the frontier tales of James Fennimore Cooper that dealt with early America to the Wild West adventures of outlaws such as Billy the Kid and the James Gang.
Over time, three artistic mediums helped to tell the story of the American West. According to the BFI Guide to the Western, they were the dime novels, stage shows, and paintings. The dime novels were cheaply produced books containing various tales set in the American West and some based on real-life characters such as Billy the Kid, Jesse James, and “Wild” Bill Hickock. The stage show presented depictions of life on the frontier, the most popular being William “Buffalo Bill” Cody’s Buffalo Bill’s Wild West show. Lastly, painters such as George Catlin, Frederick Remington, and Charles Marion Russell, helped to capture key historical moments and life in general in the American West. How accurate a depiction these mediums were shall be examined in a moment. The story of the American West is one of ideology. Like any ideology, there is the question of hegemony and what the prevailing worldview is. The ideologies tied in with the American West present different worldviews and it is important to understand the ideologies and their relation to ideologies presented in Western films.
For many years, the ideology of American expansion was built on two concepts; Manifest Destiny and the Frontier Theory. During the 1800’s, some (but certainly not all) Americans believed that they had a destiny and an obligation to occupy all of America, utilizing America’s resources to the fullest, and giving the world an example of the American project started by the thirteen colonies. Inherent to this idea was that Americans would make the best use of the land, even land occupied by others. This became known as Manifest Destiny, a term credited to newspaper editor John O’Sullivan from an 1845 essay in the Democratic Review. Related to Manifest Destiny was the idea that taming the frontier had a transforming effect on Americans. Frederick Jackson Turner’s “frontier theory” was put forth as an ex post facto justification for westward expansion. In 1893, Turner presented his thesis “The Significance of the Frontier in American History” to the American Historical Society in Chicago, postulating that American democracy was developed through the struggles associated with taming the West. The thesis along with other essays would be published as The Frontier in American History. Turner’s idea proved popular and would become central to American history over the next forty years. Turner argued that Americans developed their unique identity through the hardships involved with settling the West.
Not everyone agreed with Manifest Destiny and the frontier thesis, either now or when it was first suggested. Writer Henry David Thoreau wrote against the Mexican War, a war tied in with the idea of Manifest Destiny. Politicians such as Senator Thomas Corwin, former President John Quincy Adams, and future President Abraham Lincoln voiced their opposition to the idea of Americans taking lands from others. Some view the ideas of Manifest Destiny and the frontier thesis as a way to whitewash the conquering of the land’s indigenous people (Indians) and an established nation (Mexico). Despite the talk of destiny and helping to “tame” the West, it is argued that the reality is that Americans conquered their way from sea to shining sea, taking land they had no right to take.
These two very different perspectives cannot be reconciled. One must support one version or the other. The question becomes the following: did American Western films support one view? In her book, Rhetorical Criticism: Exploration and Practice, scholar Sonja Foss shares her knowledge of ideological rhetoric, the means of communication used to persuade or reinforce attitudes. She notes that cultures tend to favor one ideology over another, “Some ideologies however, are privileged over others in a culture, and ideologies that present oppositional or alternative perspectives on the subjects to which they pertain are sometimes repressed” (210). Related to this is the concept is hegemony: “Hegemony is the privileging of the ideology of one group over other groups” (210). As Foss notes, “A dominant ideology controls what participants see as natural or obvious by establishing the norm” (210). As we shall see, films are a medium for conveying ideological messages and reinforcing hegemony. This will be seen in American Westerns that reflected the ideas of Manifest Destiny and Red Westerns that reinforced Communist ideology.
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