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.
Conventional wisdom is that American Westerns did not provide an honest look at the reality of American expansion into the West. A Hollywood film like How the West Was Won implied truth in its title but reality could be different. It wasn’t until revisionist Westerns arose in the 60’s, that Hollywood took a stark look at America’s conquest of the West. This question is important as it ties in with the criticism leveled at the United States in Red Westerns.
Will Wright’s Sixguns and Society examines America’s fascination with the West and the myths that arose to gloss over what he perceives as American sins in conquering already occupied lands ranging from the Mexican War to the Indian Wars. Wright talks of how society build up the myths of the frontier expansion, tying it in with Manifest Destiny to justify American expansion. The challenges of historiography are mirrored by the questionable historical accuracy of Western films. Professor Janet Walker’s Westerns: Films Through History suggests that only recently have films explored the American West with a perspective other than that of a white male. The University of California, Santa Barbara Film Studies professor’s collection of essays examine traditional presentations of the West and asks: What of the Indian view? The African-American view? The Mexican view? If Walker is to be believed, American Westerns suppressed these perspectives to cover up American injustices towards one or more of these groups.
Communist nations used cinema to point out America’s sins in a variety of ways, the Red Western being one. The Communists claimed the Red Westerns would provide an honest look at America’s conquest of native peoples and the capitalist ideology that fueled the Western expansion. The fact that the films could be used for propaganda was obvious but should that take away from the validity of the film’s portrayal of history?
A Brief History of Western Films
A discussion of Western films is necessary to explore the Red Westerns and as we shall see, Western films date back to film’s early days. In his book, Cowboys and Cold Warriors, English professor Stanley Corkin notes that Thomas Edison displayed his kinetoscope at the same exposition where Turner delivered his Frontier Thesis (8). The advent of film led to development of the Western film genre. Although scholars differ on the first American Western, The Great Train Robbery (1903) is recognized as an important film in terms of the Western and film in general. Edwin Porter’s innovative use of editing and a short narrative proved irresistible to his audience, leading to copycat films. The American Western film would go through cycles of popularity, seeming to fade as a genre only for an innovative filmmaker to build a new audience.
A general definition of a Western film is: An enduring film genre with worldwide popularity whose classic setting is the period of the winning and settling of the US western frontier between around 1865 and 1890. Mixing history and archetype, stories are typically told from the standpoint of the settlers, with key themes including cattle drives and cowboys, the building of railroads, farmsteading, Indian wars, and the rule of the settlers’ law (Kuhn and Westwell, “Western”).
This definition shows that despite the restrictions of time and geography, there are many stories to be told with the Western. Western pulp writer Frank Gruber has listed seven basic plots:
1) The Union Pacific Story centered around the construction of a railroad, telegraph or stagecoach line or around the adventures of a wagon train; 2) The Ranch Story with its focus on conflicts between ranchers and rustlers or cattlemen and sheepmen; 3)The Empire Story, which is an epic version of the Ranch Story; 4) The Revenge Story; 5) Custer’s Last Stand, or the Cavalry and Indian Story; 6) The Outlaw Story; and 7) The Marshal Story (qtd. in Cawelti 19).
These elements in Western literature are also found in Western films. Scholars such as John Cawelti and Will Wright have examined the story structures of Westerns, identifying key elements. It is important to categorize these elements for later analysis of foreign films (which in this case will be the Easterns) to see if there are identical or similar elements found in films dealing with the frontier.
The American Western has two connected elements, those of geographic location and time. Generally, Western films are set west of the Mississippi. They are set during the time frame from 1866 to roughly 1890, the time when the American West had been settled. It should be noted that some American Westerns are set in the twilight of the West (Big Jake and The Wild Bunch are two examples) and deal with the culture shock of Westerners dealing with civilization and its new rules. Not all critics agree that the American West is an essential element for a Western. “Attempts by critics to pin down the geographical limited of the genre, however, fail to understand the subtlety of the relation between actual and imaginative geography” (Buscombe 17). In the book, International Westerns: Re-locating the Frontier, several critics analyze foreign films set in their nation’s frontier, arguing the Western genre is not limited to the setting of the American West.
The element of the frontier is tied in with the geographic setting of the Western (West of the Mississippi). Cawelti’s The Six-Gun Mystique and The Six-Gun Mystique Sequel detail the frontier concept as one where civilization has not arrived. The frontier is a place of wildness where characters such as outlaws and/or indigenous people pose a constant threat. The frontier setting can be seen in a variety of stores ranging from townspeople dealing with outlaws, settlers in the process of taming the land, or soldiers trying to keep the peace at a frontier fort. Overcoming these challenges is the final step in taming the land.
A third element concerns the protagonist drawn into the frontier setting. This person is often a hybrid of civilization and the wild. He or she can survive in the wild, often possessing skills that the pioneers do not have. The hybrid may be a former outlaw or have had interaction (positive and/or negative) with indigenous peoples. It is these skills that will make the difference between whether civilization or chaos will prevail.
A fourth element is the transforming effect the hybrid protagonist’s actions will have on him or her. The protagonist may choose to stay with the pioneers, undergoing a taming of sort. The protagonist may decide to move on as they are not ready for civilization yet. In some cases, the protagonist may not be welcome, even if they are willing to become civilized.
Like any good genre, the elements are varied in the production of original and compelling stories. The Western has undergone several cycles of popularity and innovation, each era often brings a new look at the West. Silent films like Hell’s Hinges and The Iron Horse anticipated sound films such as Stagecoach, Shane, and High Noon. Westerns in the 60’s contained new looks at the West with films like A Fist Full of Dollars and The Wild Bunch. Even as the Western seemed to be fading away, filmmakers explored the West with parodies like Mel Brooks’ Blazing Saddles and Michael Cimino’s bleak Heaven’s Gate. People have lamented the Western’s demise, but as films like Unforgiven and Dances with Wolves have shown, there is always an audience for a good Western. Like any genre, the Western continues evolving, maintaining key elements but also adopting new ones.
Alexander Nevsky. Directed by Sergei Eisenstein and Dmitri Vasilyev, performances by Nikolai Cherkasov, Nikolai Okhlopkov, and Andrei Abrikosov, Mosfilm, 1938.
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Broken Arrow. Directed by Delmer Daves, performances by James Stewart, Jeff Chandler, and Debra Paget, 20th Century Fox, 1950.
Buscombe, Edward. ed. The BFI Companion to the Western. Da Capo Press, 1988.
Cawelti, John G. The Six-Gun Mystique. 2nd ed., Bowling Green University Popular Press, 1984.
Cawelti, John G. The Six-Gun Mystique Sequel. Popular Press, 1999.
Corkin, Stanley. Cowboys as Cold Warriors: The Western and U.S. History. Temple University Press, 1999.
The Elusive Avengers. Directed by Edmond Keosayan, performances by Viktor Kosykh, Mikhail Metyolkin, and Vasiliy Vasilev, Mosfilm, 1967.
Fenin, George N. and William K. Everson. The Westerns: From Silents to the Seventies. 2nd ed., Grossman Publishers, 1973.
A Fistful of Dollars. Directed by Sergio Leone, performances by Clint Eastwood, Marianne Koch, and John Wells, United Artists, 1964.
Fort Apache. Directed by John Ford, performances by John Wayne and Henry Fonda, RKO Radio Pictures,1948.
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The Great Train Robbery. Directed by Edwin Porter, performances by Gilbert M. 'Broncho Billy' Anderson, Shadrack E. Graham, and A.C. Abadie, Edison Manufacturing Company, 1903.
Heaven’s Gate. Directed by Michael Cimino, performances by Kris Kristofferson, Christopher Walken, and John Hurt, United Artists, 1980.
Hell’s Hinges. Directed by Charles Swickard, performances by William S. Hart and Clara Williams, Triangle Distributing Company, 1916.
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Lemonade Joe. Directed by Oldrich Lipský, performances by Karel Fiala, Rudolf Deyl, and Milos Kopecký, Československý Státní Film, 1964.
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The Magnificent Seven. Directed by John Sturges, performances by Yul Brenner, Eli Wallach, Steve McQueen, Charles Bronson, and Robert Vaughn. United Artists. 1960.
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The Prophet, the Gold and the Transylvanians. Directed by Dan Pita, performances by Ilarion Ciobanu, Ovidiu Iulian Moldovan, and Mircea Diaconu, Centrul de Productie Cinematografica Bucuresti, 1978.
Rio Bravo. Directed by Howard Hawks, performances by John Wayne, Dean Martin, Ricky Nelson, Angie Dickinson, Walter Brennan, Ward Bond, and John Russell, Warner Brothers, 1959.
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The Sons of Great Bear. Directed by Josef Mach, performances by Gojko Mitic, Jirí Vrstála, and Rolf Römer, Deutsche Film-Aktiengesellschaft, 1966.
Stagecoach. Directed by John Ford, performances by John Wayne, Claire Trevor, and Andy Devine. Walter Wanger Productions, 1939.
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The White Sun of the Desert. Directed by Vladimir Motyl, performances by Anatoliy Kuznetsov, Spartak Mishulin, and Kakhi Kavsadze. Lenfilm Studio, 1971
The Wild Bunch. Directed by Sam Peckinpah, performances by William Holden, Ernest Borgnine, and Robert Ryan, Warner Brothers, 1969.
Wright, Will. Sixguns and Society: A Structural Study of the Western. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1977.