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Historical discourse and American identity in Westerns since the Reagan administration.

"Certain, very small liberties."--History and authenticity

I shall start with a rumor and a disclaimer. The rumor: that there was a shrine to John Wayne at the Alamo. My mother, a museum curator, just had to know, and emailed a counterpart whom she had never met at The Alamo. Dr. Bruce Winders responded:
 To my knowledge there never was a "shrine" to John
 Wayne at the Alamo, with or without candles ... There
 once were several items from the film on display
 here--his director's guild award, his coonskin cap,
 and a promotional painting for the movie--but these
 have been in storage for some time ... The decision
 was made about eight years ago to play down the John
 Wayne connection. There was a shift toward having
 an accurate historical interpretation. I came here
 nearly five years ago and have at time[s] had to tackle
 the clash of popular culture and history. It is an interesting
 challenge. There is a whole generation that
 has the Wayne movie (or Disney film) firmly fixed in
 their minds. (5 March 2001)

The disclaimer, from the copyright page of Dave Eggers's A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius: "All events described herein actually happened, though on occasion the author has taken certain, very small, liberties with chronology, because that is his right as an American." The refutation of the rumor reminds us that films "clash" with history as much as they clarify it. The disclaimer reminds us that the "taking of liberties" is almost unavoidable even in historically responsible films, and in Westerns might be a culturally specific "right."

The Western is a genre whose cultural meanings, both held and contested, coalesce as something oscillating between myth and history. (1) Before 1980, a Western could be "affirmative" like My Darling Clementine (1946), Red River (1947) or Shane (1952), lauding "regeneration through violence," (2) the centrality of the individual, the inevitability of progress, the virtues of capitalism, the necessity of force and law, or the primacy of a community of men. Or it could be "critical" like High Noon (1952), Cheyenne Autumn (1954) or Little Big Man (1970), condemning violence and the genocide of Native Americans, and trading the simplistic hero for more complex figures. Either way, there was little questioning of the necessity for the Western itself.

The Western's near-disappearance after the critical and financial catastrophe of Heaven's Gate in 1980 (to recall how big a catastrophe that was, just close your eyes and imagine Titanic in the red), and its resurgence with the Oscar winning Dances with Wolves in 1990 and Unforgiven in 1992, coincide with the seismic shifts in American culture that were the Reagan-Bush years. There are specific reasons why, some touching the political rhetoric of Ronald Reagan himself, some touching the "natural" generic cycles of Westerns. (3) When Reagan left office, Westerns began to return. "As a matter of fact," wrote pop culture observers Jane and Michael Stern in 1993, "the new popularity of Westerns can be quite easily explained by the fact that Reagan is no longer president. As long as that one-time sagebrush star was in the White House, Americans didn't need westerns so much because we had a cowboy hero leading the country." (4) The Sterns delivered this assessment tongue in cheek, to be sure, but after Reagan, we can legitimately wonder whether--and why, and how--America once again "needs" Westerns.

The Western re-emerged under a controversial sign: full-blown Postmodernism, the conditions of which have profound implications for historical discourse. As Hayden White (who does not use the P-word) has it, the story embedded in history is a narrative act profoundly marked by context, and neither neutral nor objective. "[F]ar from being merely a form of discourse that can be filled with different contents, real or imaginary," writes White, historical narrative "already possesses a content prior to any given actualization of it in speech or writing." (5) History, then, is not separate from or, in its alleged objectivity, opposed to cultural production; it is cultural production.

Neither authentic details of Native American dress, nor, say, the appearance of Wyatt Earp in any film bearing his name guarantee historically illuminating cinema--and obviously the excessive detail in traditional Westerns often amounts to the crudest of stereotypes and inaccuracies. But in the rhetoric of 1990s revision, one of the most important proclaimed strategies was to "set the record straight." Especially in their classical mode (from John Ford's Stagecoach [1939] to the breakdown of the Hollywood studio system in the early 1960s), whether Westerns referred to actual events and people or not, they made a general claim to authenticity through an explicit grounding in "History," not in all individual texts but in the genre as a whole. Indeed, film's capacity to represent mimetically and kinetically leads to what Robert Rosenstone calls film's slide into "false historicity." As he writes, this:
 Myth of facticity, a mode on which Hollywood has
 long depended.... is the mistaken notion that mimesis
 is all, that history is in fact no more than a "period
 look," that things themselves are history, rather than
 become history because of what they mean to a people
 of a particular time and place. The baleful Hollywood
 corollary: as long as you get the look right, you
 may do whatever you want to the past to make it more
 interesting. (Italics in text) (6)

In classical Westerns, this seamless, totalizing presentation is achieved through a realist aesthetic that naturalizes information so that it appears historically accurate, even if it is not.7 Despite--indeed because of--this appeal to apparently genuine detail and the monolithic, inviolate discourse of History itself, the Western is the bearer of its own seamless authenticity.

During its 1980s hiatus, a certain elegiac rhetoric pervaded criticism about Westerns. Richard Slotkin's own grim prognosis was that recent Westerns largely failed:
 ... to creat[e] ... the illusion of historicity that is so central
 to the genre.... If Westerns do come back, it will
 be because someone has been able to duplicate John
 Ford's achievement of connecting the special language
 of the Western to a story and a set of images that--with
 absolute economy of form--will represent for
 us our true place in history. (8) (Italics mine)

The Western's relationship to history is privileged, problematic, and weirdly intimate, especially for contemporary Westerns that either take as subjects actual historical figures, or that invest in historical discourse to construct their narratives. Walker (1987), Dances with Wolves (1990), Thunderheart (1992), The Ballad of Little Jo, Tombstone, Posse (all 1993), Wyatt Earp (1994), Wild Bill (1995), and Lone Star (1996), are to varying degrees self-conscious of their historical natures, as well as to their chosen modes of history. They also share a self-awareness of their own historical placement on the other side of the generic Diaspora of the 1980s.

Dancing vs. Walking: The Nostalgic, the Radical and the Corrective Western

Three films succinctly illustrate the range of historicity in Westerns since the waning Reagan Era years: Kevin Costner's Dances with Wolves, Tombstone, starring Kurt Russell as Wyatt Earp, and Alex Cox's Walker. Dances with Wolves is not a movie about a real person, but aspires to be far more than a period or genre piece. Walker describes the antics of real-life 19th century Manifest Destiny poster boy William Walker (Ed Harris, whose most famous roles have been historical figures). Tombstone claims to rehistoricize an American story so legendary it has become American myth--which is the general problem and power of Westerns.

Dances with Wolves is the best known and most traditionally historiographic--or more accurately, historiophotic--of these films. By 1990 it was hardly a radical revision to the Western to suggest that Anglos did horrible things to Native American nations who did nothing to provoke them. What did appear to be new was a meticulous devotion to getting the facts about the Sioux absolutely correct. The film's rhetoric hinged much of its claim to authority on this very authenticity. Much of the dialogue was spoken in Lakota and translated into subtitles. Native Americans were cast in Indian roles that in earlier Westerns had typically gone to whites. Based on the paintings of Karl Bodman and George Catlin, the costumes were historically accurate, as one of the studio's press releases claimed, "down to the last elk tooth decoration." The authenticity culminated in the induction of Costner, producer Jim Wilson, and co-star Mary McDonnell into the Rosebud Sioux Tribal Nation at the film's premiere, a kind of ritual of naturalization as performance piece and publicity stunt.

Dances with Wolves is revisionist in content, but formally it is a nostalgic Western (as is Eastwood's Unforgiven). It is nostalgic not because it yearns for the racism of yore, but because it never problematizes traditional historiophotic method. For if what the film "remembers" is more accurate than classical Westerns, it still attempts to recuperate the category of Individual Anglos. Yes, white folks were institutionally terrible, the film suggests, but this one was okay! Costner's protagonist Lieutenant Dunbar's change of name to "Dances with Wolves," though conferred by the Sioux nation, permits him to colonize their historical prerogative, to speak in place of them while seeming to speak for and even with them.

Dances with Wolves is also classical in its regard of the frontier, the essential element of the Western that is, as historian Edward Countryman explains, "the most powerful tool for understanding America itself." (9) Richard White suggests that two diametrical views of the frontier dominate its popular conception--Frederick Jackson Turner's relatively peaceful, linear proposal of "an area of free land" whose settlement "explain[s] American development" (10) and Buffalo Bill Cody's more violent scenario in which "the bullet is the pioneer of civilization." These two versions added up to an extraordinary totality. As White asserts, "by the early twentieth century there was no way to tell stories about the West, no way to talk about an American identity, without confronting either Buffalo Bill or Turner. They had divided the narrative space of the West between them."11 Westerns typically take the form of Turner's thesis and imbue it with Cody's content, such that the progressivism, exceptionalism and inevitability that mark Turner's discourse, narrate stories of relentless violence a la Cody.

Early in Dances with Wolves, Dunbar says, "I've always wanted to see the frontier before it's gone," and later describes the anguish of the Sioux: "There was only the confusion of a people unable to predict the future." For Dances with Wolves the frontier is strictly a location, and, given the film's status as an "eco-Western," a non-renewable resource that can be used up. The frontier is a set on which History transpires, rather than a construction of History itself. Walker, on the other hand, sees the frontier as a how rather than a what: a socio-political operation rather than a geographical location. The West in Walker (as its story moves from Mexico to New Orleans to San Francisco to Nicaragua to Honduras) has little to do with a compass, but is instead a potentially endless series of political maneuvers which, when faced with the geographical endpoint of California, Alaska, or even Mexico (12) simply move on covertly, perpetually enacting Manifest Destiny thousands of miles from "home." Not that Dunbar is without his own expansionist imperatives, but in his case they are constructed as personal. Walker's renunciation of his U.S. passport, on the other hand, presents an alternative to Dunbar's classical either/or binary, though hardly a more savory one.

The oppositional historical stances of the two films are further articulated by their varied use of the voice-over. In Dances with Wolves, Dunbar tells his own story, as lifted from his diaries. He speaks by turns retrospectively in the past tense and (rarely) impressionistically in the imperfect. Always, however, he speaks in the first-person. This first person empirically identifies Dunbar's experience--it lays claim to a set of events having happened at all, regardless of anyone's particular interpretation of it. That the narration exists in a mutually ratifying format with the visual images contributes to its impression of accuracy, and this type of voice-over is familiar from earlier proto-revisionist Westerns like John Ford's apology, Cheyenne Autumn (1964), and is hardly exclusive to the Western genre. What Dunbar says, what we see written in his diary and what happens all correspond exactly. Moreover, it emanates from a textual product--Dunbar's diaries, replete with watercolors, sketches and the odd verse. And rather than intensifying the subjective nature of Dunbar's point of view, the proliferation of different media all telling the same story actually have the effect of rendering the sum total apparently objective. If in fact Dunbar might be a reliable narrator precisely because he has a unique, often prescient, and increasingly disenfranchised perspective, Dances with Wolves' particular historical model actually transforms the personal narrative into a history (almost) without authorship.

Walker's radical historical approach is also reflected in a radically reflexive use of voice-over. Walker's voice-over derives from articles, speeches, essays and letters he actually wrote, but it is not quite in the first person, as evidenced by the film's opening. This variation on a classical trope is part of how Walker uses historical distance in order, eventually, to collapse history utterly into the present, insisting that the past is not a place to which to escape but a locus where it is possible to identify the source of a number of contemporary problems and issues. History for Cox is not a safe, resolved, completed place, as it is for Costner, but rather a highly unstable and contested set of discourses, the form of whose remembering directly speaks to the present. One sees this in Walker in its rehearsal of the Last Stand trope, which, like Dances with Wolves, first occurs at the beginning of the diegesis.

Walker begins with William Walker's first Last Stand in Sonora, which serves as an overture of sorts to the numerous other Last Stands in which he will engage. Dances with Wolves regarded the Last Stand as a site which itself needed to be recuperated--to be made into a First Stand, the survival of which ratified Dunbar as a hero and readied him to bear witness to the Last Stand of the Sioux. But in a critically postmodern Western like Walker, so closely aligned with New Historicist polemics, the Last Stand trope can proliferate itself seemingly endlessly inside a single narrative. In each one, Walker appears as an austere, puritanical version of General George Armstrong Custer's epicurean, inciting in his men a maniacal passion for the hopeless.

In its first few shots, Walker takes a metacritical approach to history through a very un-nostalgic pastiche. The film openswith a completely black frame and a voice-over of Walker narrating his own story in the third-person. (The reflexive nature of the voice-over is, of course, not yet apparent.) "In 1853 a small group of Americans journeyed to Sonora, Mexico. Their mission was to free that territory from a corrupt dictatorship. Their leader's name was William Walker."

The first image frame has Western written all over it: a wide, blue sky, a broad ribbon of dusty green trees and a long foreground of sun-beaten earth. Across it a line of infantry and cavalry (with no recognizable uniform) race right to left as the camera tracks them in long shot. Then an intertitle, square red letters on black:


Then back to the scene, this time in a slow motion very familiar from the westerns of Sam Peckinpah. We see a quartet of shots of soldiers being blown discreetly apart by cannon fire. Then the title, also in block red letters on black:


The typeface in both cases is apparently neutral, ahistorical, almost utterly without style as opposed to the marked "Western" title fonts (usually Playbill) of any number of films, notably Anthony Mann's The Naked Spur (1952), Sergio Leone's Once Upon a Time in the West (1968) and Robert Altman's Buffalo Bill and the Indians, Or, Sitting Bull's History Lesson (1976). Certainly its simplicity is a tweak on the Western look of the first few frames of action. But already there is an implicit political position being taken up here. This is the bare bones, Marxist-inspired color scheme and typeface of Nicaragua's FSLN party, the Sandinistas. (13) Cox frequently and publicly voiced his support for them (and in 1987 such sympathetic voices were far more provocative), and he extended that graphic support to the film's music. Joe Strummer, composer of Walker's score, had been lead singer and songwriter for the British punk band The Clash, with whom he had, just a few years before, put out a musically accomplished and politically astute multi-album project entitled Sandinista. (14) The familiarity of the film's political position is contingent on a highly intertextual and interdisciplinary spectatorial knowledge of Latin American politics, popular music styles from a variety of cultures, and previous Westerns. The title frame cuts to a flat, frontal medium shot of William Walker at his desk, sternly dressed in black, his interior surroundings a range of cool blues and greys to contrast the exterior's brighter earth yellow-browns and blood reds. He speaks out loud the very words he is also writing in his diary, though he is so quiet and so tight-lipped that it is at first difficult to see it as synchronous dialogue rather than voice-over: "Walker's forces would never slip away from here. His men would rather die first."

Walker's sense of his own historicity is remarkable when compared to, say, Errol Flynn's General Custer of They Died With Their Boots On (1941). Custer is, if not naive, certainly untroubled about his relationship as a potential Great Man to a larger historical firmament in which he might be hung. Walker, on the other hand, has an almost Foucauldian or Althusserian knowledge of that Great Man paradigm. That is, as his highly self-conscious narration explains time and again throughout the film, he knows History to be a discursive construct. Indeed he knows it to be one of the biggies--one of the Master Narratives of western culture. But he also knows that any position is a discursive one, so, given the opportunity, he might as well construct a Great Man discourse for himself. (15)

And whether or not his men would rather die first, it is what they do. Slowly, balletically, blood dances out of musketball wounds in joyful arcs and spurts as if choreographed by the Peckinpah of The Wild Bunch, while Strummer's neo-salsa soundtrack cheerfully plays on. The carnage is relentless, and Cox metes it out soldier by soldier, each with a doting close-up or a prolonged slow motion meditation on his gushing wounds. In the first extreme long shot of the film, we see the Mexican cavalry, flagged and uniformed, sweep in over the low, stone walls of Walker's enclave. Captain Hornsby (Sy Richardson), an African American, booms at his white private soldiers: "You have to sacrifice yourselves! For freedom! For justice! For religious conviction! Stand up and fight! Fight you bastards ... Fiiiight!!!" But they can't fight. They are too busy being slaughtered by men wearing nicer uniforms; too busy quoting Peckinpah's articulate blood-letting. In the terminology and rhetoric of the Gulf War, which the conflicts in Grenada, Nicaragua and Panama presaged, they are necessary collateral damage.

Walker assembles what remains of his officers' corps and admits defeat, saying only an act of God can save them, which, in the form of a sandstorm, it does. A French officer tells him in a trembling, portentous voice that at least they'll go down in history. Walker shrugs and blinks. "Don't be so silly, man." And he walks away, leaving the Frenchman to be shot down while trying to rescue the phalange's flag. Discursive pragmatism: they can't go down in history unless Walker lives to write it. Put another way, Walker will go down in history while his men simply go down.

Throughout the film's opening, Walker speaks about himself as if he were another person. Now, this is a sign of a developed psychosis, but it is also an accomplished understanding of the nature of historical recounting and of narrative in general. (16) Walker the man, a pre-postmodern historical figure, is postmodernized by Walker the movie, which recognizes Walker's split personality: producer of historical discourse as well as produced by it. (17) Dunbar's first person does just the opposite--it obscures the fact that History doesn't happen, it's assembled out of what did.

For Cox, the reflexive and critical framing of the subjective voice in Walker is not enough to keep the spectator from buying into that false historicity. He also peppers the film with historical anachronism. Simultaneous to Walker's emphatic fall from heroic abolitionist to psychotic imperialist is an encroaching of the present tense (the 1980s) onto the past of the film (the 1850s). Computers appear in Cornelius Vanderbilt's office, soldiers smoke Marlboros and drink Coca-Cola, the 19th century Nicaraguan aristocracy read Newsweek in their horse-drawn carriages, and the Marines land by helicopter to airlift all American citizens out of Nicaragua. As the end credits roll a small television shows spliced together news reports and Reagan's presidential press conferences, which compete with each other in revealing and denying that the United States is in any way involved in Nicaraguan affairs.

This image is not a finale but a coda, wherein the appearance of the present is meant to illuminate the way that linear historical models camouflage Manifest Destiny, rather than expose it. Such camouflage reflects Michael Rogin's assessment that during his administration, President Reagan "was replacing history by visionary myth." (18) It is against this visionary myth that Walker speaks.

Tombstone offers yet another strategy and sense of historical discourse in Westerns by using what I call paracinematic verification. This is the use of passages from other actual fictional narratives as if they were documentary film footage to construct a field of reference internal to the viewer's experience of the film, but not necessarily to the film's story. It can also be seen in John Wayne's last film, The Shootist (1976), The Grey Fox (1982), Young Guns (1988) (two of very few 1980s Westerns, and both "true stories"), and in a slightly different way even in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969). Typically but not always presented at the beginning of the film, these interludes indicate the film's historicity and claim authenticity. The privileged documentary status normally imparted to the photograph extends to the motion picture itself in an even more reflexive gesture. Many revisionist Westerns (e.g., The Shootist, The Grey Fox) open with black and white "documentary" footage designed to place the fiction that follows under the aegis of an alleged factual past.

Tombstone was in hot competition with Wyatt Earp, and each claimed to best the other in telling the authentic Earp story. But Tombstone, like many 1990s westerns, felt a need to do this for an audience that might have forgotten in the intervening eighties how to watch a Western. It equated authenticity with pedigree and placed itself in the genealogy of classical Westerns. But at the same time it did so in a form that also put the narrative in a genealogy of (proposed) actual Western history. Tombstone opens with Robert Mitchum, western icon and (at the time) beef industry spokesman, narrating in voice-over the history of western expansion as "primitive," black and white, silent images play out on a small square in the middle of the big, rectangular screen.

Though Tombstone uses both real and faked silent film footage, it is almost impossible to tell the difference, especially for the young audience to whom the film was targeted. (The real footage comes from such standards as Edwin S. Porter's The Great Train Robbery of 1903--the first Western ever, and shot in New Jersey, some of Edison's early works, and some footage from the films of early Western star Bronco Billy Anderson.) What is arguably somewhat insidious about this insertion of black and white, scratched and silent shots of Val Kilmer's Doc Holliday and Kurt Russell's Wyatt Earp, is that it signals a desire for, if not an entirely successful return to the naturalized historical stance of classical Westerns. The last shot in the prologue montage is the famous image from The Great Train Robbery of the cowboy shooting directly into the audience, and this immediately cuts to the full wide screen, color image with the film's title spread across it. This is an extraordinary ellipsis, simultaneously encompassing and collapsing the entire history of Westerns. From the earliest image to the latest, Tombstone not only proposes itself as the authentic story of Wyatt Earp, but also as a state of the art Western.

Nevertheless, Tombstone's narrative closes with a diegetic recognition that the facts of Wyatt Earp had given way to myth in his own lifetime. Tombstone has three reflexive points of closure. First, Earp's last visit to Doc Holliday in a Colorado sanitarium closes with Earp slipping a book he has written about Holliday into Doc's dying hands. Second, Earp heeds Doc's call to go after his love interest and live happily ever after (this is reflexive insofar as there is at least a limited commentary on the Hollywood happy ending). Finally, the closing voice-over, delivered by Mitchum, speaks of Earp's last years in Hollywood and the pallbearers at his funeral, including Tom Mix (another, wholly different kind of Western legend) who "wept openly." At the end of Wyatt Earp, Wyatt and Josie (Joanna Going), on a boat bound for Alaska, encounter a young man who tells the story of his uncle, whom Wyatt Earp saved in what appears to be a very dramatic way, true to the Earp legend. When Earp admits to Josie, "Some people say it didn't happen that way," she replies, "never mind, Wyatt. It happened that way." This is the closing couplet of the film. The couple takes an active role in validating the myth. This "pro-activity," to give it the nineties twist it warrants, is also an accurate reflection of the couple's post-frontier self-mythification.

Facts vs. Meaning: the Historiographic Potential of Westerns

But to what extent does it matter if Tom Mix did or did not weep, if Earp did or did not write a book about Doc, or if Earp did or did not save a particular person from an angry lynch mob? Here it is important to clarify the different levels on which accuracy must be considered specific to the Western: factual, or material accuracy and discursive accuracy. First, material accuracy: it will be true or not true that Wyatt Earp used a particular kind of gun at the OK Corral shootout. It will be true or not true that he was with Josephine Marcus at a particular moment. But, following John Mack Faragher's suggestion that "audiences don't want history's messy facts; they want its meaning," (19) the virtues and limitations of material accuracy are largely self-evident: one can dress a group of actual Sioux actors in utterly authentic period clothing and have them interact with equally authentically costumed and directed cavalry and still come up with an equally factual story that communicates almost nothing of ideological, historical, political or even dramatic importance to the spectator. Second, discursive accuracy: and this may forego factual accuracy for a stronger sense of how a certain set of events occurred and what those events meant in history. Historical personages may be combined to create a single character, events may be likewise conflated or compressed, but the perceived sense of the episteme may in fact be stronger for doing so.

The extent to which Westerns need not be held accountable for either form of historical accuracy has thus far been somewhat overstated. One of the most important (passively) camouflaged components of Westerns (now and then) is their frequent aspiration not simply to represent history but to write it. Though it often may be more of a consequence than an intention, Westerns have, often by default, posed themselves as the way things were, and depending on contemporary politics and events, the way things are, or ought to be. The Westerns most firmly lodged in the generic canon along the entire course of its development are either profoundly utopian (Stagecoach [1939], My Darling Clementine, Dances with Wolves) or aggressively dystopian (The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance [1962], The Wild Bunch [1969], Little Big Man [1970]). But in the history of writing on Western films there has been little recognition of the idea that acts of historical theorization as well as representation occur in cinematic texts.

Dances with Wolves suggests that historical narrative is a zero-sum game: if Costner got it right, that is because he is correcting those who got it wrong. But even if, as historian Peter Gay puts it, "The tree in the woods of the past fell in only one way, no matter how fragmentary or contradictory the reports of its fall, no matter whether there are no historians, one historian or several contentious historians in its future to record and debate it,"20 the fall can be narrativized in any number of ways. As White (Hayden, not Richard) suggests:
 [w]hat we wish to call mythic narrative is under no
 obligation to keep the two orders of events, real and
 imaginary, distinct from one another. Narrative becomes
 a problem only when we wish to give real
 events the form of story. It is because real events do
 not offer themselves as stories that their narrativization
 is so difficult. (21)

The linear sense of history to which Dances with Wolves adheres, has traditionally been one of the fundamental markers of the Western genre. John Cawelti writes that the rituals of and in the Western are "means of affirming basic cultural values, resolving tension and establishing a sense of continuity between present and past." (22) Walker as a postmodern Western interrogates basic cultural values. It questions the very act of affirmation, and establishes a critical sense of how we draw continuities between the present and past. Tombstone performs an increasingly familiar cinematic three-card monte by substituting claims to being an authentic Western for claims to being an authentic history of the West.

By way of closing via aperture, I want to inscribe another coda: the final image of John Sayles's Lone Star, which uses a fictional narrative to examine the truly uneasy relation between the 20th century multicultural border and the mythic 19th century frontier. This is the moment when Sam Deeds (Chris Cooper), the Anglo sheriff of Frontera, Texas tells Pilar (Elizabeth Pena), his Mexican American lover, that he has just discovered she is also his sister. They sit together at an abandoned drive-in and discuss the matter. The mere presence of a film technology representation within the frame prompts us to read the scene reflexively, suggesting as it does film within the film. The drive-in screen is now decrepit, in contrast to the lively and contentious scenes that took place in an earlier flashback during which images played upon it. We might then take Sayles to be bidding farewell to the Western, suggesting that it is a genre whose utility to public discourse is now questionable. I think this is a reading that cannot hold long. For in the blankness of the screen is also a certain sort of possibility, a sense that Sam and Pilar can project their own film (which is to say their own history) onto the space of the drive-in, which only they inhabit now.

The drive-in is called the Vaquero, an important naming. It is from this Spanish word that the English "buckaroo" derives, and from the vaqueros themselves came the lassoes, horned saddles, chaps and so much else that has become iconographically significant to the Western. These signs have all been absorbed into what has been proposed as a uniquely (Anglo-)American system of mytho-narrative signification, when in fact their origins come from further south than America was permitted to stretch, and from a culture that, having borrowed from it, was largely dispatched by the Western back over the Rio Grande. Having already pointed out the political utility of the line that separates Mexico from "el norte" earlier in the film, Sayles wants here, I think, to remind his viewer one last time that if the frontier is not an arbitrary designation, it is also not a fixed one. And neither, therefore, is the Western, which founds itself on this essential figure. For the line that serves to physicalize the largely ideological category of the frontier, also masks, as does the etymological shift from vaquero to buckaroo, that, as Richard Rodriguez puts it, "'West' is imaginary." (23)

The end of Lone Star allows us to circle back to the shadow issue of this essay: how Westerns have their own history, and what that relationship to U.S. history might be. Starting sometime in the late sixties, which is to say that time in the sixties that we think of as "The Sixties," which is to say that time in the sixties recently narrativized on the NBC miniseries called The Sixties, Westerns became increasingly focused on a particular period of frontier history--the years following its closing. Obviously, any era can be revised. But that passage of American chronology when the fact that the frontier is officially closed according to the US Census is simultaneously confirmed by the fact that "everything's up to date in Kansas City," to quote Oklahoma!, and challenged by the continued abundance of "Wide Open Spaces," to quote the Dixie Chicks--has seemed to suit the revisionist needs of Western filmmakers more than any other period (that is, when they're not recreating the life of Wyatt Earp). This makes Lone Star a very important touchstone for the future of Westerns. Lone Star's final scene finds Sam and Pilar recommitting themselves to each other in full knowledge of the incest taboo that they had theretofore unknowingly broken. The film has moved not from the desert to the garden, but from the desert to the drive-in, which is itself out in the middle of an incipiently verdant desert. Rather than seeing its situation in terms of a race and class either/or, Lone Star suggests it may be possible to improvise new models in which neither side loses because the situation is not perceived in terms of sides. Pilar's final line, "Forget the Alamo," suggests not a form of national amnesia about America's past, but a willingness to construct a future with a new architecture of history.


(1) Richard Slotkin, "Prologue to a Study of Myth and Genre in American Movies," Prospects 9 (1984): 407-432.

(2) See Slotkin, Gunfighter Nation: The Myth of the Frontier in Twentieth-Century America (New York: Harper Perennial, 1992).

(3) Reagan's political rhetoric derived much of its logic, as well as its images, from classical, conservative Westerns. By 1980, the Western, having become the counter-western for the duration of the Vietnam War, itself was experiencing a momentary and not unusual fatigue.

(4) Jane and Michael Stern, "Why We So Love Those Oaters," The Los Angeles Times Calendar, 5 December 1993, 28.

(5) Hayden White, The Content of the Form: Narrative Discourse and Historical Representation (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1987) xi.

(6) Robert Rosenstone Visions of the Past: The Challenge of Film to Our Idea of History (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1996) 60.

(7) Larry Ranney notes the incorrect use of firearms in several classical Westerns that was nevertheless legible both as a highly efficient internal system of codes and as a claim to historical authority. These inaccuracies also served a narrative purpose: repeating rifles were used in stories set before their invention because they literally moved the narrative along faster than a single action rifle would have. Larry W. Ranney, "Colt 'Peacemakers,' Winchesters and Film Narratives: An Overview of the Historically Inaccurate Use of Firearms in the Western," paper delivered at The Society for the Interdisciplinary Study of Social Imagery's "The Image of the Frontier Conference," Colorado Springs, Colorado, 15 March 1997.

(8) Slotkin, Prospects 430, italics mine.

(9) Quoted in Ed Buscombe ed. The BFI Companion to the Western, New York: Athenuem, 1988. (2nd edition London: Andre Deutsch/BFI Publishing, 1993).

(10) Frederick Jackson Turner, "The Significance of the Frontier in American History," in Rereading Frederick Jackson Turner: "The Significance of the Frontier in American History" and Other Essays, commentary by John Mack Faragher (New York: Henry Holt, 1994) 31. Originally printed in the Annual Report of the American Historical Association for the Year 1893 (Washington, D.C., 1894).

(11) Richard White, "Frederick Jackson Turner and Buffalo Bill," The Frontier in American Culture, James R. Grossman ed. (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1995) 45.

(12) See The Naked Spur (1953), The Far Country (1954) and The Wild Bunch (1969), respectively.

(13) It is also very similar to the font Clint Eastwood used in High Plains Drifter (1973).

(14) The massive project of The Clash's Sandinista is itself a stunning, stirring and aggressive exercise in radical left postmodern politics. It lashes itself to the mast of late punk while tempting itself with the siren calls of consumer capitalism. Out of its resistance comes songs like "Charlie Don't Surf," as much about Coppola's failure to do anything but re-mystify Vietnam in Apocalypse Now as it is about the war itself, as well as the title track, which is a revision of the folk song's use as a transmitter of oral history for the masses.

(15) Certain histories of Walker imply he went through significant theoretical modulations regarding history. (cf. Albert Z. Carr, The World and William Walker) Walker as a left-wing abolitionist journalist originally held to a very proto-Althusserian social critique. After Vanderbilt puts him into circulation in the framework of colonial expansion, he reverts to a Great Man approach to history and ideology.

(16) Hayden White's suggests that it is impossible to know outside of some narrativized context or another--though that does not imply that the events do not exist without the narrative, merely that they remain indiscernible. To distinguish his positions from Foucault's, White's work insists that historical writing is best understood not as neutral, quasi-scientific discourse, but as literary production, and just as subject to and structured by fictive forms and tropes as literature itself. See Hayden White, Metahistory: The Historical Imagination in Nineteenth Century Europe (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1973).

(17) In this he echoes Simon and Spence's observation that in Buffalo Bill and the Indians, Buffalo Bill "seems to be taken in by his own legend, a consumer of his own image" (5). This will also be more equivocally true of Bill Hickock in Wild Bill.

(18) Michael Paul Rogin, Ronald Reagan, the Movie, and Other Episodes in Political Demonology (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1987) xvi.

(19) John Mack Faragher, "The Tale of Wyatt Earp: Seven Films," Past Imperfect: History According to the Movies (New York: Henry Holt, 1996) 160.

(20) Peter Gay, Style in History (New York: Basic Books, 1974) 210.

(21) Hayden White, The Content of the Form: Narrative Discourse and Historical Representation (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1987) 4.

(22) Cawelti, John G., The Six-Gun Mystique (Bowling Green Ohio: Bowling Green University Popular Press, 1970) 32, italics mine.

(23) Richard Rodriguez, "True West," Harper's 293.1956 (1996): 37.

Alexandra Keller is the assistant professor of Film Studies at Smith College. Her forthcoming books include Re-Imagining the Frontier: American Westerns since the Reagan Administration and Everything You Ever Wanted to Know about James Cameron but Were Too Appalled to Ask. In addition to other work on the western, she has also published work on avant-garde film, experimental radio, and theories of the consumer body, and is also working on a book about the Reaganization of American culture.

by Alexandra Keller

Smith College
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Title Annotation:Special In-Depth Section
Author:Keller, Alexandra
Publication:Film & History
Article Type:Critical essay
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jan 1, 2003
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