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June 17, 2024

The Mythic West

By Dan Mulhollen

Every culture has its own mythos, a collective nostalgia that unites them and, to a fair extent, defines a people. For the Greeks, it's Achilles storming the walls of Troy, and Odysseus spending ten long years struggling to return to his beloved Ithaca. The English have the tales of King Arthur holding court at Camelot and sending his knights out on heroic missions.

For Americans, it is the west.

The setting, a vast and varied landscape. Fertile plains with towering mountains on the horizon. Deep forests and forbidding deserts where one might lose his way ... or his life. And towns where liquor, women, and poker were all within view of the gallows.

The cast is equally diverse. Prospectors looking to strike gold. Settlers looking for a better life. There would be gunslingers -- either the trusty town sheriff, or the feared desperado.

The most iconic of all was the cowboy. These self-taught philosophers had the qualities the defined the west; self-reliant, courageous, and possessing an unyielding sense of justice. They could be trusted, whether it was with your money or with your daughter. A knight-errant with a lasso and six-shooter.

The plots themselves were usually the standard notions of good versus evil. Good was rewarded and evil eventually brought to justice. Themes often focused on the power of the rugged individual against seemingly overwhelming odds. The sheriff on the trail of band of outlaws, or a cowboy who had been wronged seeking vengeance.

For the Americans of the late 1800s, westerns had a powerful appeal. They offered open and somewhat exotic spaces instead of crowded cities or small farms. In an age when scientific innovation was changing how people lived, they offered certainty instead of ambiguity. And they offered adventure, an escape from the monotony of daily life.

The lure of wide-open spaces wasn't only appealing to Americans. A German writer named Karl May built a successful career writing westerns for a German audience, even though he never traveled further west than Buffalo, New York. One European who did visit the west was Polish novelist Henryk Seinkiewicz who used his impressions of the Great Plains when describing the Ukrainian Steppes (which he did not visit) in his Trilogy -- a work that helped him win the 1905 Nobel Prize in Literature.

Two years earlier, in 1903, Edison employee Edwin S. Porter directed "The Great Train Robbery". This landmark twelve-minute movie was the first use editing techniques that would define cinema as an art form. This began a long partnership between movies and the west.

Western movies had already gone through several cycles of lost and rekindled popularity by the time Marion Morrison arrived in Hollywood and changed his name to John Wayne. Yet his persona exemplified he cowboy. Slow-talking but someone whose words mattered. Trustworthy, honorable, and unafraid, the truest of friends and the deadliest of enemies.

The western has evolved over the years, the simple morality of the nineteenth century replaced by a more honest view of the west. We know cattle towns were dirty places that did not resemble the old Hollywood back lot. The typical gunfighters often were either "good guys" or "bad guys" as circumstances dictated -- and that most had very short, unsuccessful careers.

Yet this knowledge has only enhanced our appreciation of the west. Perhaps this is because a mythos is something that exists on a deeper level. We can imagine ourselves walking down a dusty street, our Stetsons keeping the hot sun out of our eyes. We long for the camaraderie of sitting around the campfire, sipping coffee, telling stories, and listening to the harmonica's wail. And at one time or another we all wish we were out on the open prairie, just us and our trusty mount, and not another human being around for 100 miles.

That is the essence of the west, a focal point shared among all Americans.

Article © Dan Mulhollen. All rights reserved.
Published on 2007-05-28
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