Hilary Swift/The New York Times

February 17, 2021

Deconstructing the Wild West

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As a lifelong East Coast resident, the idea of “the West” has always loomed in a shroud of obfuscatory intrigue. As my history teachers covered the push for westward expansion year after year, I felt each time as if I was embarking on the exploration alongside the emboldened settlers. I, too, was relishing the chill of the Mississippi, dauntlessly traversing the Rocky Mountains and swatting away the ubiquitous dust of the open plains. 

For entire eras in United States history, the shared conception of our nation’s western half was overly and unapologetically romantic. Traveling westward was publicized as the ultimate fulfillment of American ideals — the “Manifest Destiny” that was simultaneously an honor and an obligation. The covered wagon was the instrument of choice, used to travel to a nearly otherworldly realm – the lively towns that cropped up in Colorado and Arizona and Nevada were unfamiliar and alluring. 

Few genres have capitalized upon this twisted dynamic more than the classic Western. Archetypal films like John Ford’s Stagecoach (1939) and later Sergio Leone’s Once Upon a Time in the West (1968) cemented an image of the “Wild West” for new generations. It was these images — the bustling general stores, the blistering heat and the rough-and-tumble grit — that long guided my blurry perception of the region. 

Upon a preliminary browse, the most salient motif of the classic Western appears to be, not surprisingly, freedom. Sweeping shots of men on horseback cutting across the plains as stoic plateaus dot the background are a dime a dozen throughout the genre, occurring so frequently that one genuinely has to wonder if they have sat down to watch a movie or a National Geographic documentary. The rugged and uninterrupted landscape conveys an overwhelming sense of freedom, the token American value that has spawned an artistic junkyard brimming with symbols and metaphors.

This sense of liberty is only feigned, however, predicated on the fact that the actions upheld as exercises of freedom were actually transgressions. Of course, the settings for these beloved Westerns were neither new nor unexplored. The land upon which our characters duel and ride off into the sunset is in large part land that was manipulated and terrorized away from its prior inhabitants. It is in the height of this expansionist era that we see a slew of devastating confrontations between Native Americans and settlers, with the slaughter of the Cheyenne at Sandy Creek in 1864 and the Sioux at Wounded Knee in 1890 as just two prominent examples. 

In order to accommodate this falsehood, then, a more accurate evaluation of the driving force behind these Westerns swaps freedom for something else — detachment. To travel westward was to voluntarily unhinge oneself, both from the meticulously ordered social patterns of the late 19th century and the monotony borne by industrialization. Our paradigm protagonists are detached from the traditional family structure, abandoning existing relations in favor of chilling independence in an inhospitable geography. They are detached from law and order, from formal obligations and their pasts. 

In this way, Westerns provide for us what we often cannot achieve on our own. They offer, albeit vicariously, an escape into a world that looks remarkably different from the one in which we find ourselves. The towering buttes and mesas, merciless dust and uninhabited stretches of desert that characterize the West could very well be the marks of another planet, especially for viewers conditioned to the persistent buzz of urban life or the serene verdure of the countryside. They present us with a Martian experience in which chaos is carefully curated, where duels are scheduled for sundown and long journeys are heedfully planned in advance. Absent are the unwelcome masses of email correspondence, far removed are the sluggish stretches of traffic on the morning commute. 

The fact that Westerns allow us to elude our own realities is at the heart of the genre’s remarkable longevity. While the specific factors from which we are looking to escape have evolved drastically from the 1950s to present day, the desire stands unwavering. The characters are enviable outsiders, as they have succeeded in doing what we can barely tempt ourselves to fathom — untangling the repressive chains of routine. It is for this reason that new Westerns continue to crop up across film and television, even long after the West has shed its status as the “last frontier.” 

Of course, one could argue that Westerns are not unique in their ability to transport us into an entirely separate universe. Might science fiction films do the same? Horror? Action? Surely these genres offer us alternate views of what life might look like under different circumstances. These alternatives, however, often fail to latch onto the sense of collective identity upon which Westerns rely so heavily. Our Western protagonists may themselves be pursuing their own unique projects, but they unfailingly represent a set of ideals (and ideals only, for we have already touched upon their catastrophic execution) in which we can clearly see our own pursuits — exploration, fortitude, resourcefulness and autonomy.

Megan Pontin is a sophomore in the School of Industrial Labor Relations. She can be reached at mpontin@cornellsun.com. Rewind runs alternate Wednesdays.