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American Western Movies

Jane Tompkins in her book West of Everything suggests certain elements as representing the inner life of the American Western movie. She cites a series of images and themes that represent the main features of this film genre, among them death, women, language, landscape, and horses. She notes that realizing that these themes are repeated over and over again calls to mind a series of questions, such as why is the Western haunted by death, why does the Western show a hatred of language and women, and what do the landscape and horses represent? She sets out to answer some of these questions, and reference to a number of films in the genre suggests how well her answers fit and offer other answers as well.

The continuing presence of death in the Western is evident in the plots centering on gunfights, hangings, saloon violence, Indian wars, and other sequences in which men both defy and court death at one and the same time. Tompkins states that the plot turns on "external conflicts in which men prove their courage to themselves and to the world by facing their own annihilation" (Tompkins 31). The struggle over life and death becomes the central issue and trivializes all else. Tompkins believes that this derives from the West's rejection of Christianity, and she sees the Western as part of a larger effort "to get rid of Christianity's enormous cultural weight" (Tompkins 32).

What Tompkins says seems to hold more weight if we view the history of the Western through this century than if we consider the Western simply as a genre. This is because the Western reflects cultural changes taking place in American society year by year and decade by decade. What Tompkins says applies more clearly to later Westerns--she cites a film like The Outlaw Josey Wales in which the hero places a homemade cross on his son's grave and then picks up a gun: "Exchanging the cross for the gun is a theme replayed countless times in Western films as part...

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American Western Movies. (1969, December 31). In Retrieved 23:13, April 21, 2019, from