CIVILIZATION VERSUS WILDERNESS
- Underlying every Western is the subtext of encroaching civilization. When John Bernard Books (John Wayne) walks down the street in an opening scene in The Shootist (1976), we know that the Western moment is coming to an end as telephone wires are clearly evident in the background. This is the inevitable moment in the future of every Western. First the wilderness must be tamed, then civilization will be welcomed. But this inevitability produces much of the tension in Western plots. We are led to admire the Western frontier and the men and women hardy enough to populate it. The civilized characters—the schoolteachers, the Southern gentlemen, the eastern dudes—are generally portrayed as weak, not hardy enough to survive the rigors of frontier life. Hell’s Hinges (1916) develops this theme through a pair of easterners, a brother and a sister, who come to civilize the town through mission work. The brother becomes corrupted, but the cowboy hero(William S. Hart) becomes civilized as he tames the town and falls in love with the sister.
Historical Dictionary of Westerns in Cinema. Paul Varner. 2012.
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