Saturday, February 12, 2011

1950s Cowboy Stories

I have been writing an essay on the rise of the Marlboro Man in the late 1950s and early 1960s. The Marlboro man first appeared in 1955. The argument I make is that Marlboro borrowed from an existing network of meaning surrounding the cowboy to invest meaning in its cigarettes. Sounds reasonable? To that end I have been doing a bit of work on cowboy stories- a great subject. There are, obviously, lots of different ways of slicing this cake. Many of the virtues of the cowboy, his emphasis on freedom and autonomy, emerged in the "pleasant conditions" of life in America in the eighteenth century, before the Revolution. ("Pleasant conditions" is a reference to Hannah Arendt, On Revolution, 1963, p. 24). The relationship with the landscape, which is such an important site for the cowboy to express his virtues, is made possible, so the argument goes, by virtues of ideas about the sublime (Kant and Burke) and the noble savage (Rousseau). The vision of the frontier played a role in the nineteenth century when settlers flooded west, particularly following the gold rushes in California, 1859-1852. The notion of the Western, as we know it, emerged in the 1890s after the conquest of frontier had been finalised. The cowboy myth, in a way, is a nostalgic, kitsch rendition of an earlier history. The first Buffalo Bill Wild West shows first appeared at this time, as did Turner's famous paper on the affects of frontier life on American man. Teddy Roosevelt was a great advocate of western imagery. It is the 1950s that could be considered as the golden age of the west. Hollywood produced more western films at this time than before or since. Westerns like "Gunsmoke" dominated television ratings. Radio and dime novels also told western stories. The principle setting for the western is Texas in the 1870s.

I have been working my way through the western collection of my local video/DVD library- watching mainly the classics. High Noon (1952), Directed by Fred Zinnemann, starring Gary Cooper and a 23 year old Grace Kelly: Shane (1953), directed by George Stevens, starring Alan Ladd: The Man From Laramie (1955) directed by Anthony Mann and starring James Stewart (they made five westerns together): The Searchers (1956), Directed by John Ford, staring John Wayne: Rio Bravo (1959), directed by Howard Hawks starring John Wayne and Angie Dickinson.

The genre talks about many features of American life. The battle between ranchers (“we don’t need fence wire”) and homesteaders is fascinating. Men and masculinity is an important theme. The representations of Indians in films like The Searchers is a bit hard to intellectualise. I’m sure you could say something about the connections with American foreign policies during the era. The gender relationships are also fascinating. The tough guy who is quite unmanned in the presence of a woman seems to talk to ideas that we want women who are beautiful and vulnerable, but (secretly) tough as well.  It’s a hard act to follow.

There are blaxploitation westerns too. A flick through Darius James’s That’s Blaxploitation: Roots of the Baddasssss ‘Tude (1995) highlights Bucktown (1975), directed by Arthur Marks, starring Fred Williamson and Pam Grier. Then there is The Harder They Come (1972), directed by Perry Henzell and starring Jimmy Cliff, would count as one. Nelson George gives The Harder They Come mad props in his Buppies, B-Boys, Baps and Bohos: “The Harder They Come starring reggae star Jimmy Cliff, turns into a midnight hit that helps popularise Jamaican dance music in the U.S. while showing the effects of American western movies in the Third World... With its blend of advocacy, rebellion, and music, this film will stand as both the best rock movie and he best blaxploitation movie of the decade.” Western imagery featured in Jamaican dancehall into the 1980s, with Lone Ranger’s series of classic early 1980s hits, like Hi Yo Silver Away (Greensleeves, 1982), and, M16 (Hitbound/Channel One, 1982).

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