MYTH OF THE FRONTIER
- The significance of the frontier in American culture has often been traced back to the Puritans’“errand into the wilderness”—their attempt to convert Native Americans from savagery to (white) civilization. Depictions of the wilderness just ahead of the settlements as the Promised Land encouraged the idea that the frontier was something to be conquered, land to be wrested from its native inhabitants and given to, it often was claimed, God’s people. Such underlying narratives eventually developed into fully articulated ideas of Manifest Destiny, the idea that whites were destined by God to inhabit and civilize the frontier. “Regeneration through violence,” became a catch phrase for what, among other things, is usually seen today as a planned genocide of native peoples.After the United States successfully subdued Native American tribes by the 1890s, people began to revaluate what had happened. Frederick Jackson Turner’s Frontier Thesis came to dominate historical interpretation, and Theodore Roosevelt’s idea of “the winning of the West” romanticized the conquest of the frontier and the effort to keep America Anglo-Saxon. The last manifestation of this view came in the epic 1962 film, How the West Was Won, which, ironically, closed the curtain on any thoughts that the United States had undertaken a noble enterprise on the frontier. While the film celebrates the Western conquest, American culture of the 1960s was again revaluating the past and, as Richard Slotkin shows us, seeing the westward movement as one more example of American imperialistic greed that continued beyond the Western frontier into the invasions of Southeast Asia, South America, and the Middle East. The myth of the West manifests itself in many ways throughout cinema Westerns. The frontier, for example, is masculine and must be subdued by raw masculine strength. However, subduing the frontier necessitates feminizing it with eastern civilization.The untamed West represents the base savagery that lies at the heart of all humanity. Left utterly unrestrained, it manifests itself in such practices as scalping, torture, and rape. In order to tame the frontier, white masculinity must wage savage war against uncivilized forces.
Historical Dictionary of Westerns in Cinema. Paul Varner. 2012.
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