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Peter C. Rollins and John E. O'Connor, editors. Hollywood's West: The American Frontier in Film, Television, & History.

Peter C. Rollins and John E. O'Connor, editors. Hollywood's West: The American Frontier in Film, Television, & History. University Press of Kentucky, 2005. 373 pages; $40.00.

Winner: Ray and Pat Browne Award for an Edited Work.

Real Men

As an ongoing Hollywood genre, probably no group of photodramas can generate such unbridled enthusiasm and provide innumerable vicarious thrills than a good shoot-'em-from-the-hip, get-out-of-town-before-sundown cowboy motion picture, those rip-roaring Westerns where real men wear spurs, fasten their Colt-45's low on their femurs, and keep their backs to the sun. Here--in the untamed world of picturesque valleys, high plateaus, or desert cacti--these fast-on-their-feet heroes leap on stallions, fend off range rustlers, protect hapless widows from unscrupulous land speculators, and rescue orphaned children from the clutches of savage Apache marauders.

Why wouldn't they? As the motion pictures' national hero, the American cowboy's credo--beginning with a 1903 twelve-minute silent performance, The Great Train Robbery--always incorporated fair play, quick thinking, six-gun agility, and soft-spoken piety. As national frontiersmen, these high-spirited equestrians preserved the law and, in their own nonpolitical way, explained to audiences what Manifest Destiny really meant. While this doctrine of Western expansion originated in the 1840s, most moviegoers never understood its implementation until Richard Dix, John Wayne, Randolph Scott, or Tex Ritter sternly looked into the camera, quietly coughed, and demurely explicated the need for an extended border that stretched from ocean to ocean.

But, why was this? What role did Hollywood screenplays assume in explaining nineteenth-century expansion to a twentieth-century audience? How about a contemporary understanding of Western development? How much is learned from the silver screen? And, what about parallels, allegories, or analogies? Are they found--directly or subliminally--in these photoplays? Clearly, this is a complicated subject and, once more, two established film historians, Peter C. Rollins and John E. O'Connor, have corroborated to produce another eclectic anthology that analyzes every facet of the American frontier portrayed in the print and visual media.

Without question, Hollywood's West: The American Frontier in Film, Television, & History contains a wealth of research examining many intricacies about this national expansion movement and, later, its perception on the screen and television, plus its contents in books and magazines. Beginning with a thorough analysis of Frederick Jackson Turner's 1893 bellwether safety-valve theory--that defined the Western frontier's intrinsic value--this thirteen-chapter collection, arranged in chronological order, contains some outstanding information about cinema, its natural offspring, television, and the many creative and nonfictional titles that have fashioned, for better of worse, America's image of this bygone era.

Starting with a good foundation article praising the 1931 Academy Award feature, Cimarron, this anthology segues into a well-organized array of diversified topics including Tiny Town, the 1938 B-oater that used an all-midget cast. Other chapters comprise a detailed study of The Lone Ranger movie and television series, with a fine explanation of the Masked Man's origin, an assessment of John Ford's photodramas, an in-depth look at Howard Hawk's Red River, and a discussion about the World War II motif in Giant.

Further essays examine High Noon, Warlock, Devil's Doorway, Firecreek, and Lone Star citing their numerous themes, symbols, and parallels to contemporary American life, while another article takes a hard look at the Turner Network Television production of made-for-TV Westerns, a collection of profitable and entertaining titles proving, once again, that most cable subscribers can't get enough of those wide-open range, frontier adventure tales.

Still other topics, including a comprehensive discussion of Westerns since the Reagan years, round out this diverse anthology, shedding new light on America's perennial landmark. Certainly, the nation's obsession with cowboy movies--those titles that create the illusion that somewhere out there, as the songster promises, looms an ethereal Cockaigne full of land, lots of land, under starry skies at night--remains firm. Why is this? What sustains such mythical illusions and romantic dreams? And, what about the frontier? How did this elaborate land mass become, both literally and figuratively, our national ethos?

Obviously, these questions sit at the tip of the iceberg when discussing American values, hopes, and aspirations. What, then, is the common thread between Western expansion and contemporary democracy? Why does this topic, as seen in film, television, and literature, maintain such popularity? Many of the answers are found in Hollywood's West. Here is another book of quality and substance, a wonderful study that offers new information and atypical insight about a subject that will always remain part of American culture.

Robert Fyne

Kean University
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Author:Fyne, Robert
Publication:Film & History
Article Type:Book review
Date:Jan 1, 2006
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