In Search of the American Myth: Go West, Young Man
Last week, we discussed Walt Disney’s influence on American mythology, establishing myth and story through America’s central medium, film. Disney, however, borrowed heavily from former stories from Europe and the East and looked at them through an American context.
Yet, one particular American myth, the Western, we can say is ours. The themes of the Western definitely fit our American paradigm of progress and self-improvement as individuals looked westward to fulfill their vision of independence and success. Life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness meant expansion, and the stories of wild frontier and the dangers faced by brave pioneers enticed Americans for decades.
Hollywood capitalized on the Western, turning thrilling stories of the West into probably one of the most recognizable genres of American film and television. Probably the foremost filmmaker to effectively capture the Western myth is John Ford, who sparked a rival in Western film with Stagecoach in 1939. He also created other classics such as She Wore a Yellow Ribbon, My Darling Clementine, The Grapes of Wrath, The Man Who Shot Liberty Vance, and probably his most famous Western, The Searchers. Other famous Hollywood directors found success in Westerns: John Huston with The Treasure of Sierra Madre, Fred Zinnemann with High Noon, George Stevens with Shane and Giant, George Roy Hill with Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, and the Coen Brothers with No Country for Old Men and True Grit. Some Westerns were adaptations of Akira Kurosawa films, such as John Sturges’ The Magnificent Seven (Seven Samurai) and Sergio Leone’s A Fistful of Dollars (Yujimbo).
Clint Eastwood sticks out in my mind as the greatest director for a Western, with bleak, haunting films like The Outlaw Jose Wales, The Pale Rider, High Plains Drifter, and Unforgiven. He acted in all of these films in addition to acting in what is considered the greatest Western trilogy: A Fistful of Dollars; A Few More Dollars; and The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly.
The actor-director, with the iconic John Wayne, immortalized the morally-complex, socially-distant cowboy hero that we so often find in Westerns. For some reason, this elusive hero and his fight for justice and freedom resonates with Americans, most likely because the hero really is a man without a country and a king, a person who is his own man. He embodies freedom, the ability to roam and settle where he pleases and to protect and defend himself and his loved ones with almost superhuman cunning and speed. Essentially, the cowboy or Western hero was the original Superman.
Westerns have since fallen out of favor with American audiences. However, it seems that with the resent scattered success like Dances with Wolves, Unforgiven, and True Grit, America has not completely forgot its original myth, the one we call ours.