As in all historical cinema, Westerns concern themselves more with cultural issues contemporary with their audiences than with issues relating to the historical setting itself. Thus throughout their history, cinema Westerns have struggled with racism. As the American culture itself began serious examination of civil rights for African Americans, so did Westerns of the 1960s. In the 1950s African American racial issues were treated by recasting them as a Native American versus white struggles. Such films as John Ford’s Sergeant Rutledge (1960) and Ralph Nelson’s Duel at Diablo (1966) began serious treatment of American racial tensions using actors Woody Strode and Sidney Poitier as sympathetic African American characters, but the most significant civil rights Westerns of the 1960s and 1970s were comedies. John Sturges’s Sergeants 3 (1962) stars Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Peter Lawford, and Joey Bishop—the Rat Pack. The fifth member of the Rat Pack was Sammy Davis Jr., an African American whose mere presence in the film as a comic equal to the white characters made a powerful cultural statement. However, the most significant advance toward integrating African Americans into Westerns as equals resulted from Cleavon Little’s brilliant comic performance of an African American sheriff in Mel Brooks’s Blazing Saddles (1974). From that point on, the civil rights issue of full integration into the casts of cinema Westerns was settled.

Historical Dictionary of Westerns in Cinema. . 2012.

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