Back in the Saddle Again: New Essays on the Western.
Edited by Edward Buscombe and Roberta E. Pearson. London: British Film Institute, 1998. Photos, color plates, notes, index. vi + 218 pp. $22.50 paper.
Reviewed by Juti A. Winchester, Instructor of History, Northern Arizona University.
This volume of thirteen essays by American and West European film scholars covers a wide range of topics, while centering on the idea that Westerns are not simply fictional narratives but are documents reflecting contemporary concerns. In their introduction, Edward Buscombe and Roberta Pearson write that even though the Western as a film genre seems to be in decline, the West and its imagery still are very much part of the American psyche. Americans grapple with political and social issues through film, finding wishful solutions to unwieldy problems in Western films.
Several of the essays deal with film images of minorities. Steve Neale agrees with traditional film history’s assessment that Native Americans were used as “stand-ins” by filmmakers to symbolize other races. He asserts that Indians thus became signifiers of social problems, rendering them invisible in American society. In his essay on photography, Edward Buscombe writes that images of Native Americans in photography and film do not strictly portray individuals, but reinforce definitions of Indianness constructed by whites. Noel Carroll’s analysis of professional plot Westerns finds that in the case of American protagonists in Mexico, they become involved with indigenous revolutions, reflecting 1960s American anxiety about United States military involvement across international borders.
Two of the essays use gender constructs as a category of analysis. Gaylyn Studlar’s study places Westerns featuring Douglas Fairbanks in the context of early twentieth century concerns about the “feminization” of America and male identity. In his essay on early Westerns as “Americanization” projects, Richard Abel suggests that films promoted racist Anglo-Saxonism and masculinity as an influence on American identity.
Peter Stanfield studies singing cowboys, particularly Gene Autry. Stanfield argues that the origins of the singing cowboy genre are found outside of film, and that Autry’s movies symbolically confronted social and economic problems. William Boddy discusses the historical factors in the rise and fall of television Westerns. Tassilo Schneider discusses German Westerns and their ties to Karl May’s work, finding that the moral universe inherent in classical Westerns holds enormous appeal for Germans. Jean-Louis Leutrat and Suzanne Liandrat-Guigues uncover rhetorical meaning and architectural metaphor in John Ford’s use of Monument Valley as a backdrop for his films. In his too-brief essay, Colin McArthur describes how American advertisers drew on Western film iconography in the 1930s, 1940s and 1950s. Writing about authenticity in Western film costume, Jane Marie Gaines and Charlotte Cornelia Herzog decide that mythic Western imagery has become recognized as historical reality, connected to consumer demand for Western wear. Rick Worland and Edward Countryman connect New Western historiography and recent Western film, finding that recent historical trends have had the most significant impact on non-fiction cinema. Finally, Roberta Pearson takes a postmodern look at film representations of George Armstrong Custer and Native Americans.
All of these essays provide fresh and interesting interpretations of what might seem an overworked subject. New Western history informs many of the works, as does a postmodern theoretical framework. They are well-written, although most of the essays end somewhat abruptly, with only a brief conclusion. A few of the authors use movie stills and photographs, enhancing their narrative. This book serves in a new way to underscore the importance of the West in American national identity, and in the perception of America by Europeans. Each essay is well-documented, making it a useful volume for film scholars, for university classroom use, and for historians, but the book is somewhat scholarly for a general audience.