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The Invention of the Western Film: A Cultural History of the Genre’s First Half-Century, Scott Simmon, 2003


Book Review by Daniel Herbert.

Within a discussion of Frederick Jackson Turner’s ideas about the frontier and their bearing upon the Western film genre, Scott Simmon notes that by 1890 the American West was essentially “closed” (page 156). Although it is true that the expanse of the United States had been geographically delimited and was largely privately owned by this time, Simmon provides excellent proof that the Western genre currently remains open to new and valuable explorations, with his book The Invention of the Western Film: A Cultural History of the Genre’s First Half-Century. Many of the book’s successes result from its approach, as Simmon examines the cultural history which informed the Western genre, from its beginnings to its formation of “classic” textual patterns. Simmon elucidates how conventions in literature, photography, and painting, as well as ideological and technological changes impacted the formulation of this classic American film genre. He balances this cultural approach with precise and illuminating analyses of specific texts, which in turn service his greater arguments about the modes of textuality and cultural relevance of the Western genre. In addition of Simmon’s methodology, The Invention of the Western Film invigorates the study of the Western through three interventions in content. In the first section of the book, Simmon examines the very early development of the genre, from the “eastern Westerns” shot in New York and New Jersey, through the aesthetic and ideological changes that resulted from the move to the desert Southwest. Next, Simmon rehabilitates the B-Westerns of the 1930s, as he shows that these films articulate the existing culture’s conceptions of the historical west and modernity, as well as the ideological conflicts that arise in this confluence. Finally, in the last section of the book, Simmon looks at the “classic” Western of the 1940s and 1950s, specifically arguing that the formation of the genre’s classic period came about through its interaction with film noir. Thus, in both the sophistication of its approach and in the freshness of its topics, The Invention of the Western Film provides an excellent and engaging new study of the genre.

The organization and style of The Invention of the Western Film greatly augment its strengths. The book proceeds in a chronological fashion, which clarifies many of Simmon’s arguments about historical changes within Western films. However, in addition to this progressive development, Simmon interweaves conceptual paradigms within his historical organization, which help alleviate any possible teleological pitfalls that might have been encountered. For instance, by focusing particularly upon the work of John Ford to illuminate dynamics of the classic Western in the last section of the book, Simmon manages to cut across time and discuss the variable dramatic treatments of space, heroism, and violence in the genre. Such theoretical tactics add another layer of analytical sophistication to Simmon’s observations. In addition, he attends closely to the textual nuances of acting and performance styles, dialogue content and delivery, visual styles, as well as greater narrative structures within his extensive and helpful analyses. All of this is conveyed in clear and straightforward prose, which flows in a seamless narrative punctuated by moments of intellectual reflection.

Simmon begins the first part of the book by tracing the development of the “eastern Western” from the literary tradition instituted by James Fenimore Cooper in such novels as The Last of the Mohicans (1826). Centrally important within this analysis, and the subsequent development of the genre in its early period, is the dramatically changing role of Native Americans within Western narratives. In fact, Simmon notes that in many ways the Western finds a primary source in the “Indian Film,” which existed during the early part of the Twentieth Century as a genre in its own right. Simmon’s analysis reveals a shift in attitude toward Native Americans as film production moved from the east to the southwest, from characterizations of nobility and friendship with whites, to their vilification and relegation to faceless hordes in later “Plains War” narratives. This shift goes hand in hand with changes in the visual aesthetics of the Western, as the films moved from the lakes and lush vegetation of the east to the deserts and wide-open vistas of the southwest. Using the films of D.W. Griffith as models by which to extrapolate greater generic tendencies, Simmon describes in detail how the American southwest posed unique aesthetic problems to the early filmmakers who worked in that environment, such as its arid austerity and visual expansiveness. He states, “it took until The Battle at Elderbush Gulch [1913] and other late Biograph Westerns for the landscape solutions arrived at forty years earlier by still photographers to be incorporated into Griffith’s movie-making in the West” (page 41). Simmon’s method of cultural history enables him to trace such developments in the representational paradigms of other media, in order to show explicitly how they intersected with certain cinematic conventions. At the same time, Simmon indicates how the move to shooting locations in the actual American southwest was prompted by economic factors, as the novelty of Indian Films and forest imagery wore off with contemporary audiences. Nicely interweaving visual histories with sources from literature, the novels of Zane Gray with the social-Darwinist thought of Herbert Spencer, Scott Simmon provides a complex and intriguing account of the early development of the Western. Ultimately, according to him, these early formulations testify to changing representations of Native Americans and visualizations of space, as correlative and politically charged elements in a textual/cultural system.

In the second part of the book, Simmon examines the Western films of the 1930s, made after the advent and widespread use of synch-sound cinematic technology. However, he does so along two lines of inquiry. First, he focuses specifically upon the split that occurred in the genre between A- and B-pictures, a division which had economic, narrative, and visual determinants as well as consequences. Second, Simmon looks particularly at the films starring John Wayne, who becomes a textual signpost guiding Simmon’s observations and analyses. Simmon notes that the A-Westerns of the 1930s relentlessly take issue with their own historical accuracy, though on this count they often fall short, and further, Simmon says that this obsession with history is exactly what makes this period of Westerns unentertaining. In addition, Simmon shows how these films precariously, and often contradictorily, negotiate a number of ideological positions, each of which reflect differing points in the spectrum of ideologies circulating when the films were made. Thus, the films reflect polarities between the religious doctrines of Puritanism and Unitarianism as well as between the political imperatives of Jeffersonian and Jacksonian democratic principles, among other ideologies. However, Simmon finds better explication of the genre’s contemporaneous considerations of history and modernity in the B-films of the period, which far outnumbered the A-Westerns made during the 1930s. Although these films have an absurdist sense of temporal congruity, almost entirely effacing historical accuracy, Simmon argues that it is precisely this oddly spatialized juxtaposition of present, past and future through which the B-films articulate the larger culture’s critiques of progress and modernity. Central in this endeavor is John Wayne’s particular photogenesis and style of performance, to which Simmon devotes an entire chapter. When discussing this topic in reference to the film Stagecoach (1939), which for Simmon synthesizes the issues raised by both the A- and B-Westerns, he states, “The philosophy is there even within John Wayne’s silent look at Dallas…His gaze at her carries at its most concise and generous the genre’s argument about how to remake history—and when to forget it” (page 191).

In the third and last part of The Invention of the Western Film, Scott Simmon examines the classic Western of the 1940s, made after WWII. He does so by looking particularly at the work of director John Ford, and the film My Darling Clementine (1946) provides the dominant filmic example for his analysis. In fact, four of the section’s chapters describe and analyze in detail a particular scene from that film, in order to elucidate larger claims about the textual and cultural configurations within the classic Western. Boldly, Simmon states “the classic Western invents itself through the encounter with film noir” (page 207). By this he means that the visual style and thematic content of classic Westerns came about through continual negotiations, and frequent evasions, of the visual darkness, cramped spaces, social nihilism, and threats of sexuality constitutive of film noir. Simmon develops this assertion by circumventing structuralist and mythic methods of analysis, instead looking centrally at the visuality of My Darling Clementine, as well as related cultural details. Thus, Simmon shows how that film purposefully moves out of film noir, in that its imagery moves from dark, cramped compositions to brighter, wider, and emptier spaces. This also bears on the directorial style of John Ford, who eliminated “unnecessary” dialogue and instead put a film’s drama into pictorial arrangements, according to Simmon. Simmon also shows how the film confronts and eradicates the formulations of community and sexuality found in film noir, such when the film uses the construction of a church upon which to center its social inclusions. After having detailed these textual, visual, and cultural processes, Simmon looks at contemporaneous “Western noirs” in order to show how the two genres continually interrelated. He closes this section, and the book, with an informative tracing of the subsequent careers of Henry Fonda and John Ford. For Simmon, the closure of these two artists’ careers stands as a telling parable about the closure of the Western genre more generally.

The Invention of the Western Film has very few faults as a work serious film scholarship, and these are relatively minor. The second part of the book perhaps provides too many quotations of dialogue from the films in question, which at times makes reading less fluid and enjoyable. This is likely a result of the fact that this section specifically deals with Western films made immediately after the introduction of synch-sound technology, and so dialogue becomes a centrally important point of textual development. In addition, although the first and second sections of the book attend tremendously to broader cultural dynamics and their relative impact of the specific film texts, the third section of the book does less of this. It might have been useful, for instance, to evaluate what role conventions in the other visual arts played in the films of John Ford, as Simmon had similarly explored for the early Westerns. Finally, the book may have been augmented by an examination of the use of sound and music in Western films, an axis of analysis which Simmon almost entirely neglects. In a book that otherwise so admirably analyzes the textuality of film, this omission appears notable.

However, none of these very minor problems detract from the book’s significant contributions to the intellectual study of the Western film. The Invention of the Western Film is quite successful in showing how the genre intersects and interacts with myriad cultural texts and ideological discourses. The book is extensively researched, providing reference to hundreds of Western films, cited throughout the text, in an appendix. In addition to the precise and insightful textual analyses throughout the book, it features numerous frame enlargements which help guide to reader through the imagery described by the author. This basis in solid research, punctuated by such details as the photographic examples, contributes strongly to the book’s persuasive assertions. Scott Simmon appears to have accomplished a very rare feat, by writing a genre study which will likely appeal to both novices and experts of the Western film. As the book is so accessible in its style and so intriguing in its arguments, it will provide food for thought to all manner of students, scholars, and fans of Western films.

Daniel Herbert is a scholar of contemporary media culture with particular interests in media industries, geography, and cultural identities. He is assistant professor of Screen Arts & Cultures at the University of Michigan.

 

Book Details

Scott Simmon.
The Invention of the Western Film: A Cultural History of the Genre’s First Half-Century.
Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2003.

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