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22. The Popular Western

William R. Handley

Subject Literature » American Literature

Period 1000 - 1999 » 1900-1999

Key-Topics novel and novella

DOI: 10.1111/b.9780631206873.2009.00025.x


Echoing how the proverbial Western sheriff — and a recent American president — ambivalently wants his villain in territory beyond clear boundaries of law or nation, the slogan “Dead or Alive” can also be taken as a question that literary, film, and cultural critics and marketers have asked about the popular Western genre, even before the 1960s. No sooner has the Western's demise seemed evident than it has suddenly revived, especially in film. Three decades ago, the spectacular failure of the film Heaven's Gate (1980) — which gave a staple event of the genre, Wyoming's Johnson County War of 1892 between cattlemen and homesteaders, its most profound treatment ever — suggested the genre's pulse was nearly undetectable. But then the “Best Picture” Oscar-winning films Dances with Wolves (1990) and Unforgiven (1992) suggested the genre had only been in hiding. When moviegoers responded enthusiastically to the gender-bending controversies of Thelma and Louise (1991) and Brokeback Mountain (2005), earlier proclamations about the death of the genre seemed, to borrow Mark Twain's response to rumors of his death, highly exaggerated. For more than a century, writers and filmmakers have revisited the genre, setting it in a past, vanished West and “timeless” geography, yet making it resonate with changing contemporary issues often, but not always, dramatized as a matter of life and ... log in or subscribe to read full text

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