In Defense of Westerns
During my childhood, the Western was very a popular form of fiction. My father watched the cowboy shows of the day including Gunsmoke, The Big Valley, and his favorite, Bonanza. I watched them, too, though I didn’t become a fan until the debut of The Wild Wild West. This sci-fi Western starred Robert Conrad and Ross Martin as secret agents in 1870s America. I loved their cool gadgets and the show’s larger-than-life villains.
In the 1970s, the Italian-made “Spaghetti Westerns” were the craze, the most famous being The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly, starring Clint Eastwood. These were popular with young people, since they emphasized misunderstood heroes and antiheroes. We also loved Mel Brooks’ screwball satire, Blazing Saddles.
After that, the Western practically disappeared from cinema, with occasional exceptions like Dances With Wolves. Western-themed novels, once ubiquitous, became rare. The great Zane Grey was long gone, and Louis L’Amour died in 1988, leaving a void in that part of our culture. I’ll confess that I haven’t read much of this literature, preferring science fiction, though I did enjoy Tony Hillerman’s modern-day Southwestern detective novels.
It wasn’t until the 2000s and the ascendancy of Steampunk that I became interested in Westerns once again. Since that genre focuses on the late 1800s, it was only logical that some of those stories would take place in the American West. Another catalyst was the release of the Cohen Brothers’ remake of the classic film True Grit. I loved the story, its period feel, and particularly its archaic dialogue.
This set me off on a Western craze. I began by rewatching the John Wayne version of True Grit and reading the Charles Portis novel. I consumed a series of classic Westerns via Netflix. There’s something very appealing about the simple messages of films like High Noon and Fort Apache. Though the later Clint Eastwood movies were more cynical than idealistic, they weren’t any less entertaining. My next step will be to read some classic Western novels, as well as works by new authors like South African-born Peter Grant.
One of my most eye-opening experiences was watching old episodes of The Wild Wild West online. I hadn’t realized how comical the action scenes were, reminiscent of the campy 1960s incarnation of Batman. Despite the show’s popularity, the network canceled it due to the outcry over TV violence. That’s ironic, considering the more violent and realistic police dramas that took their place in succeeding years.
It got me wondering why the Western had disappeared in the first place. Perhaps the public had tired of them, but an element of ideology may also have been at play. Certainly, Westerns have become politically incorrect, with their simple moral codes and one-dimensional portrayal of Native Americans. It’s OK, however, if cowboys are the bad guys. Better yet, demonize the Confederates, as in Quentin Tarantino’s blood-soaked atrocity, Django Unchained.
In real life, no group has ever held a monopoly on good or evil, despite what anyone tells us. Whites have indeed done a lot of evil things, but Native American tribes massacred each other and Africans sold their defeated enemies into slavery. The value of history, to paraphrase Santyana’s oft-paraphrased quotation, lies in what it can teach us about human nature and our capacity for both villainy and heroism. It’s also given us some fine adventures in the Western tradition. It would be a tragedy if we were to forget them.
Vaughn Treude grew up on a farm in North Dakota. The remoteness of his home, with few children nearby, made science fiction a welcome escape. After many years in software, he realized that the discipline of engineering could be applied to writing fiction. Check out his works at SteampunkDesperado.com and look for his exciting new website VaughnTreude.com, coming soon!