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The Western: Americaís Story, Part Two

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Additional funding is provided by the Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation, the John M. Olin Foundation, the Bernard and Irene Schwartz Foundation, and the Smith Richardson Foundation.

(opening animation)

Ben Wattenberg: Hello, Iím Ben Wattenberg. The Great Train Robbery, considered by many to be the first Western film, premiered a century ago in 1903. Scholars are divided over Americaís fascination with the Old West. Some say the Western film is more flawed and less heroic than movie audiences assume. Others say the films reflect the real hardship and courage of Nineteenth Century America. What do Westerns say about American life? And what do they say about our changing view of history and heroes? To find out, 'Think Tank' is joined by Scott Simmon, co-director of film studies at the University of California at Davis and author of The Invention of The Western Film: A Cultural History of the Genreís First Half Century, R. Philip Loy, professor of political science at Taylor University and the author of Westerns in American Culture, 1930 to 1955, and Holly George Warren, author of Cowboy: How Hollywood Invented the Wild West. The topic before the House: 'The Western: Americaís Story, Part Two,' this week on Think Tank.


Ben Wattenberg: In 1903, Edwin S. Porterís silent film The Great Train Robbery stormed on to the silver screen. It changed the way people thought about movies. For the next hundred years generations of imitators made the Western a staple of the American cinema. By the time of The Great Train Robbery the rural American West was swapping traveling gunmen for traveling salesmen. Small towns and farms transformed the frontier of the open prairie into Middle America. Real cowboys became actors. Outlaws became directors. Filmmakers returned for inspiration again and again to the stories from the frontier: the conquest of Indian land, the California Gold Rush, the expansion of the transcontinental railroad and all the other tales of rugged individualists settling a wild land. Bad guys in black hats, good guys in white hats, even singing cowboys. In contrast to the glamour on screen, the life of the real cowboy was a gritty and primitive existence. Westerns are the tales Americans tell themselves about the bravery, the triumph, the good, and the evil all wrapped up in the American character. And as many Americans changed the way they thought about themselves and their history, the Western film evolved

Ben Wattenberg: Lady, Gentlemen, thank you for joining us for part two of our program on the American Western film. I wonder if we might begin just with a little discussion about this: Weíre moving into an era now, World War Two and beyond, where these movies are getting the top talent with top technology, top screenwriters, some of them classically great dramatic performances either by individuals or as...as movies as, uh, as a whole. Where what we call the epic heroic Western is taking center stage so to speak. The Big Country, Red River, Rio Grande, Gun Fight At O.K. Corral, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, Iím reading obviously, Giant, which is set a little later, My Darling Clementine, The Man From Laramie, Red River, The Searchers, High Noon, High Noonís a great movie. I mean thatís a really piece of art. Uh, Shane and so on. Whatís the moral of those movies?

Scott Simmon It seems to me that for the first decade or so, the Westerns are always threatening to be sort of too easily optimistic. That is, in the Thirties, whatís maybe wrong with 'B' Westerns is that they sort of have a facile optimism. And one of the things that happens after World War Two, it seems to me, is that for maybe a decade from the Oxbow Incident through High Noon, from maybe the mid-1940s to mid-1950s, the Western starts confronting a kind of darkness and despair and sometimes sort of visual darkness like incorporating little bits of 'film noir.' And so the western gets in that sense more serious...

Ben Wattenberg: Would you explain that term 'film noir'?

Scott Simmon: 'Film noir' is a term which is usually applied to city films about crime, that have a kind of visual darkness.

Ben Wattenberg: Itís a French term originally.

Scott Simmon: French term for an American form, so that...

Ben Wattenberg: Noir meaning?

Scott Simmon: Meaning literally black film.

Ben Wattenberg: Black film...

Scott Simmon: But it usually involves characters who are kind of despondent and stories of crime.

(film clips: The Oxbow Incident, 1943; The Searchers 1956; , Westward the Women, 1951)

Scott Simmon: For me I think thatís one of the things that makes Westerns interesting in this period is they really get more serious and in essence darker.

Ben Wattenberg: And again they tell the human story against a familiar backdrop. But itís the human story that they are interested in. So itís reinterpreting the West. I mean, itís using the West as the locale of whatever the moviemaker has on his mind.

Phil Loy: Thatís exactly the point I was going to make. I think that from 1946 to 1956, these epic Westerns reflect America itself. We were both an optimistic people and a people scared to death over communism. We wanted to celebrate our past but yet the G.I.s come back from World War Two, not willing to just lapse back in to the kinds of life that they had lived. And so I think the epic Western--She Wore A Yellow Ribbon, Shane--share a lot of continuity with American optimism, the American dream. But then you get Red River and The Searchers and High Noon and the Anthony Mann-James Stewart Westerns--Winchester 73, The Naked Spur, The Man From Laramie--that had these film noir elements. I think it reflects a culture in transition. I think itís a fascinating period in terms of the Western.

Holly George Warren: The Westerns were very much, for the most part, there were a few exceptions, very black and white. You know the good guy and the bad guy and it was very clear-cut who the hero was and who the villain was. There was no question. And then these later movies, especially the Anthony Mann movies, you have brother going against bother. You have who you think is the good guy turning out to be a bad guy. And even the good guy being a blood-thirsty killer. So no longer was there a simple answer and a simple easy way to say, oh, heís got the white hat, so heís the good guy.

Ben Wattenberg: I mean, weíve touched on it before, I am fascinated by this idea of whether the Westerns are telling the truth about America, about that era. And on the one hand obviously you got a guy on a horse with a guitar and doing horse tricks in flowered shirts and you say, you know, thatís not the real America. On the other hand, youíre talking about a people starting in Massachusetts and heading west who, over a couple of hundred years, conquered a continent, not just a country, a continent, and populated it and governed it, with some inherent cruelty in it, without question. But it is a truly epic human story. Europeans land in this so-called virgin continent and create a whole new society. And (laughs) and we see this difference Old World, New World being played out to this very day. So, there is something in my judgment at least, to be said for the idea that while a lot of this was hokey, the essence of it, the greatness of it that it tried to portray was, while not factually correct, mythically correct.

Phil Loy: I think that one has to understand the people to whom Westerns appealed. And since Iíve done most of my work in 'B' Westerns, the people to whom 'B' Westerns appealed. They came from the Southwest, the Southeast, the rural Midwest, small town Midwest. You know, I grew up with them.

Ben Wattenberg: Where did you grow up?

Phil Loy: Marion, Indiana. And I grew up with them. Every weekend at the movies when I was a kid. I grew up with Westerns. And I think that they conveyed the meaning of America that was very popular in what we might call the American Heartland. And my impression is that Westerns were less popular, of all places, on the West Coast. And Westerns were less popular in the urban areas of the northeast in New England.

Ben Wattenberg: They were pretty popular in the Bronx, Iíll tell you that. I mean the lines went around the corner to get into them...

Phil Loy: Okay. Well, they really spoke to what the people in the Heartland of America thought the country was all about.

Scott Simmon: One can argue with you about whether itís sort of true to the sort of Nineteenth Century history of frontiering in America. There is a kind of truth to Westerns, more in how theyíre speaking to the same era that theyíre made in. So that for the 'B' Westerns that Philip writes about. John Wayne, for instance, is often a federal agent. Seems very surprising now in a sort of, you know, post-Oklahoma city, post Ruby Ridge era that the Westerns would be so friendly to federal agents. But John Wayne in the Thirties is, you know, often as he says, sent here by Washington. There have a movie like Riders of Destiny where the citizens are going 'if only that man from Washington would come.'

Phil Loy: Right.

Scott Simmon: John Wayne is Singing Sandy Saunders who sings when he goes to his showdown but...

Ben Wattenberg: Not exactly what you would think as a John Wayne theme, 'Iím from Washington and Iím here to help you,' right?

Holly George Warren: The outlaw movies were very popular, too. You know, thatís how suddenly Billy The Kid and Jessie James and even the Dalton Gang became heroes. And thatís where the myth really took over the reality of what these people were really like.

Ben Wattenberg: They were not Robin Hood in reverse?.

Holly George Warren: No.

Ben Wattenberg: They were not. They were...

Holly George Warren: Jessie James was a total racist, you know, psychopathic killer basically.

Ben Wattenberg: What about his brother, Frank--Henry Fonda, I should say?

Holly George Warren: Well actually itís funny. You know he lived to be quite an elderly man and ended up in the end, to make money he would you know sell pieces of the Jamesí family fence and give little tours and go around. And he became like a temperance speaker and all this kind of thing. But you know I donít think he was quite as psychopathic as his brother. He controlled himself better.

Phil Loy: Frank James lived long enough to write his own history. Thatís the key.

Ben Wattenberg: I mean I remember seeing that Jessie James movie, who played Jessie James?

Phil Loy: Tyrone Power.

Ben Wattenberg: Tyrone Power. And I mean you do come away from it saying Jessie James was a good guy.

Holly George Warren: Totally gorgeous.

Ben Wattenberg: Not a psychopathic killer but a good guy.

Phil Loy: What Holly just said, again, growing up in Indiana, someone like John Dillinger was not necessarily a bad guy totally. You know when heís arrested and asked his occupation, he says I rob banks. Well you know the people in small town Indiana that had lost all of their savings when the bank failed didnít really care for bankers and so that this guy robbed banks didnít make any difference to them.

Holly George Warren: Right. The same thing with the farmers that lost a lot of their land to the big railroad companies when the tracks go through. They just took away land for a pittance to people...

Ben Wattenberg: So if you rob railroads, youíre not an all bad guy.

Holly George Warren: Exactly. And whatís really wild is that when the first, you know, going back to The Great Train Robbery in 1903, trains were actually still being robbed at that point. I mean Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid were still doing robberies at that point.

Ben:Wattenberg Sydney Pollack once said--may have said it many times--but he did it in an interview with me: American movies all have the same plot: The hero shapes destiny.

Scott Simmon: Well a lot of people think all Westerns are alike. They often have the same plot. I think the most invariable aspect of the Western is almost all Westerns have a gunfight ending. And if they donít, itís a big surprise. One of the things the Western does is sort of thrown into relief by this non-Western John Ford film, which you may know, The Grapes of Wrath. When the process server comes to evict this Oklahoma share-cropper named Mewly and he says, theyíre there with their rifles on the front porch. And theyíre saying, you know, whoís trying to get us off? And the process-server says, itís the Shawnee Land and Cattle Company. Well, you know, they have a president, donít they? Can we go to his house with our guns? Say, itís not a person, itís a company. Theyíre just being pressed by banks. And Mewly says, well, who do we shoot? And the process-server says, brother, I donít know. If I knew who to blame, Iíd tell you. And the one thing the Western does is provide a focus of blame so that there will be somebody to shoot in the Western story. There are stories like The Grapes of Wrath about social discontent and you donít know who to blame. Does it purvey violence? Well, in a sense it does because thereíre always will be somebody to shoot. You may sort of choose not to at the end. But thatís the story the Western tells.

Phil Loy: I think prior to the mid-1960s, violence, in order to be approved in a Western, had to have some legitimate end. There had to be some legitimate reason to use violence.

Scott Simmon: Well the myth of course is that the violence is a temporary expeditionary that one needed in order to lead to this higher, gentler system. And that we only need this violence for a short time and then peace will reign.

Phil Loy: But it seems to me it ends in the Sixties. The Wild Bunch and beyond. Thereís no legitimation of violence there.

Ben Wattenberg: The magic word, as Iíve done this reading, is Vietnam. I mean suddenly, at least the film community, turns antiwar, as did many of what we call the chattering classes and a portion of the American public, and suddenly these movies are again using this same backdrop, the same scene, the same Western ambiance, but telling a very different story about America.

Holly George Warren: Well I think what one of the messages, I mean, that great opening scene in the Wild Bunch, where thereís just these children watching this just horribly, just sadistic, violent, you know, interaction between these insects. You know with the scorpions, you know, eating each other and...

Phil Loy: And the bed of ants.

Holly George Warren: Yes, and the ants and the childrenís faces gleefully watching this. And the message is that people enjoy violence, that human beings like violence, that itís a pleasurable experience to experience violence. And then of course we see a very violent movie and they become more and more violent as time goes on. And the six, with of course the Sergio Leone films where you know the banditos they donít kill people just for a means to an end to kill the bad guy or the good guy, itís because itís fun to watch somebody suffer.

(clips from The Wild Bunch, 1969)

Scott Simmon: These spaghetti Westerns, which are extremely violent, kind of lead the way really, start maybe 1964, 1965 before you can really sort of blame it on the Vietnam experience. And I think, you know, maybe Kennedyís assassination, at least the way people started understanding Kennedyís assassination...

Ben Wattenberg: That movie, The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly--all they do is shoot each other. Itís just rat-tat-tat.

Scott Simmon: Right.

Holly George Warren: And torture each other.

Ben Wattenberg: Itís like an Al Capone movie or something, except doubled and tripled. You know, itís just rat-tat-tat.

Scott Simmon: Well, I mean, the emblematic moment of The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly is this three-person shootout at the end between the good, the bad, and the ugly: Clint Eastwood and two others. And it kind of visualizes that Machiavellian world of, you know, all against all.

(clip from The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, 1966)

Scott Simmon: One of the appeals of this, I think, is that Clint Eastwoodís character is only sort of marginally less pitiless than the guy you like least.

Ben Wattenberg: Now John Wayne was more of a good guy in most of his movies.

Scott Simmon: Well I actually think what makes John Wayne interesting is heís often not such a good guy. But talking about the spaghetti Western and the Wild Bunch--Sam Peckinpahís film--and one of the things thatís interesting about them was they were speaking about Mexican characters before is they become much more interested in, you know, people on the other side of the frontier. They become interested in border stories. This is about you know the Mexican stylistics and spaghetti westerns and, um, Sam Peckinpahís violent films become about the relationship with Mexico too.

Ben Wattenberg: But the idea that in this case Italians would do movies about a particular era in America a hundred years ago shows something already true then, the internationalization of the American story, for good or for ill, that the movies are the original, and I think still although not so much in the Western form, the essential purveyor of American culture.

Scott Simmon: Right. And certainly, you know, American directors like John Ford, who was still alive when spaghetti Westerns were being made, were outraged that Italians thought they could reinterpret this essentially American myth. But Italy knows the milieu. I mean the sparsely populated rural towns, landless laborers, even cowboys. I mean, and Italy as a collective country, sort of parallels the era of the West. So it wasnít completely unfamiliar to Italians and they, you know, had a right to reinterpret but...

Holly George Warren: In fact, the whole idea of the cowboy, you know, Buckaroo Vaqueiro, the whole look, the whole horse riding, everything, the rodeo, the lasso, everything came from Latin culture.

Phil Loy: As someone who thinks about himself in general as a liberal Democrat, I want to come to the defense of John Wayne. Because I think John Wayneís post-1965 Westerns, beginning with The Sons of Katie Elder and going on after that, have to be seen, have to be read, have to be understood as reactions to what Sam Peckinpah was doing to the genre in the Wild Bunch, Major Dundee, The Ballad of Cable Hogue, Pat Garrett and Billy The Kid. And they have to be read and seen in response to Clint Eastwoodís Man With No Name. That, you know, hang íem high that he begins. I think Wayne was consciously making Westerns that tried to link back to the classic, what the Western had been. I canít see them without seeing them as sort of Wayne standing up watching Eastwood and Peckinpah and yelling 'I dissent' and then going out and making a Western thatís almost the opposite. I think Unforgiven ends the genre. In 1890 the United States census declared the frontier closed. I think about a hundred years later in Unforgiven Clint Eastwood sort of closed the western film genre.

Holly George Warren: Unforgiven I think is probably I think one of the best Westerns ever made in my opinion.

(clip from Unforgiven, 1992)

Scott Simmon: Clint Eastwood as an actor, I think, is quite under-appreciated. Heís very good because he does very little--like really all the great Western actors, people to think they were just being themselves. I mean the only actor who has really managed to create a Western persona and keep going with it. I mean building himself from those spaghetti Westerns that he started with and bringing them back home, and in some ways taming them. But bringing a Western persona into his cop films and others.

Ben Wattenberg: Letís sum up briefly. And I want you to do it through the lens of this argument about the hero and the anti-hero, how the Western has changed from this heroic genre into one that can get dark and sort of anti.

Scott Simmon: The Western hero traditionally was always the best fighter and morally the best so that that principle was invariable. I mean even agent Spencer Tracy playing a one-armed hero in the modern western Bad Day At Black Rock can still beat up town thug Ernest Borgnine. But as heroism has been questioned, that starts to break down. So that Westerns really arenít being made anymore. We are talking here 2003, and no theatrical Western has been released since 2001. And people start saying things like Henry Fondaís last words in a Western, which was the film called My Name is Nobody where he says it seems to me that we were all a bunch of romantic fools who still believed that a good pistol and a quick showdown could solve everything.

Phil Loy: I think the movement of Western films from the hero through the descent of the hero, the emergence of the anti-hero, confused the genre. It confused audiences. And if itís not, and it certainly is not, the sole reason for the decline, I think itís the major reason for the passing of the Western genre from public affection.

Ben Wattenberg: Okay. Thank you very much, Holly George Warren, Scott Simmon, Phil Loy. And thank you. Please remember to send us your comments via e-mail. For Think Tank, Iím Ben Wattenberg.


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Funding for this program is provided by:

At Pfizer weíre spending nearly five billion dollars looking for the cures of the future. We have twelve thousand scientists and health experts who firmly believe the only thing incurable is our passion. Pfizer. Life is our lifeís work.

Additional funding is provided by the Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation, the John M. Olin Foundation, the Bernard and Irene Schwartz Foundation, and the Smith Richardson Foundation.

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