From Buffalo Bill to John Wayne, how western movie heroes feed American political ideology
Western films promote the myth of conquest and allow us to look at the capture of land as great, says author
This is part two of the IDEAS documentary series The Cowboy's Lament. In part one, contributing producer Tom Jokinen examined how the myth of the cowboy, the wagon trail and the cattle drive all grew from the history of the American frontier in the 19th century. It explored how that myth favoured romance over fact, especially when it came to the fate of Indigenous peoples, who were cast aside or killed in the name of economic expansion, and the need for America to write its own origin story.
"This is the West, sir. When the legend becomes fact, print the legend."
That's the kicker line near the end of The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, the 1962 John Ford western film starring James Stewart and John Wayne. In the movie, Stewart plays a frontier lawyer named Ranse Stoddard who goes on to become a U.S. Senator by riding a tale of personal bravery: his fatal shootout with the outlaw Liberty Valance, played by Lee Marvin.
But as the film is told in flashback, we eventually find out the truth. He didn't kill the outlaw. John Wayne's character did.
Stoddard's success story is a lie, a myth. And when he admits as much to a hometown newspaper editor, the editor makes it clear: he won't print the truth after all. In the West, he says, crumpling up his notepaper, the legend is more important than the truth.
"A lot of our heroes are flawed figures," says Joseph McBride, film historian and author of Searching for John Ford, a biography of the director of the classic westerns from The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance to Fort Apache to the controversial John Wayne film The Searchers.
Liberty Valance, McBride argues, "is about the making of history. How history is constructed as myth."
Film as a 'shorthand to American values'
The main engine of the mythic West in the 20th century was the western movie. First came silent films of the 1920s, like Double Danger, Blue Streak McCoy, and The Shootin' Fool. They were simple stories of good guys and bad guys.
"There is a fairly recognizable code," says Jennifer McMahon, professor of English and philosophy at East Central University in Ada, Okla.
"You have a villain, you have a protagonist hero, you have visual iconography that helps the viewer identify those figures. The hero is typically wearing the white hat."
For America, western films — especially the great epics that followed the silent era — promote the founding values of a nation. That's how myth's work: they swap out the historical facts, or adapt them, to fit a parable, in the way that Greek myths or other national myths work, from the Finnish Kalevala to the Norse Eddas to the English story of King Arthur and Camelot.
Instead of epic poems or tales, America has its western movies.
"They're films that promote, that have embedded in them, the myth of conquest. And they allow us to look at the capture of land as great and as inevitable," observes Stanley Corkin, professor of English at the University of Cincinnati and author of Cowboys as Cold Warriors: The Western and U.S. History.
"What they do is they provide a kind of shorthand to American values: individualism, self-reliance, and a kind of fitness for the West."
The films became hugely popular in the 1950s, during the Cold War era when America and the Soviet Union were engaged in covert and overt hostilities. The reason they become popular, argues Corkin, is that they were "a great means of promoting nationalism."
The un-American hero
But the political winds soon changed. Mainstream Americans started to ask questions about their political history and future, about issues like racial equality. Some of the A-list Hollywood filmmakers, like John Ford, took on the myth.
Ford's movies are less cut-and-dried fables about good guys and bad guys, about white hats, black hats, and so-called "savage Indians," and are more abstract. In a film like The Searchers, Ford turns matinee hero John Wayne into a rabid racist to make a point: the heroes of the past, he's implying, are in fact un-American
The Searchers is controversial. Not everyone agrees that it's a clear-cut critique of the myth of the West.
"I read The Searchers much more in terms of sort of glorifying violence," says Philip Deloria, a historian at Harvard University who is of Dakota descent.
"I find it a really unpleasant film to watch."
For Deloria, the film — despite its attempt to challenge the myth — skips over the violence against Indigenous people as if such scenes were a normal part of the 1950s movie-going experience.
"They can only turn it into myth, right?" Deloria asks.
"They can only turn it into ideology, in which Indigenous figures just become cardboard cutouts who are able to be killed at will without any consequence, without any implication of what it means to construct a continent on the dispossession, the violent dispossession, of other people."
In the back half of the 20th century and the beginning of the 21st, filmmakers played with the tropes of western films. They asked questions about Indigenous representation, and how the tropes could be bent to reflect modern political dilemmas.
"In the wake of Vietnam, as we're reconsidering the history of American imperialism," says Andrew Patrick Nelson, chair of film and media arts at the University of Utah, and author of Still In The Saddle: The Hollywood Western 1969-1980.
"Suddenly Indians are a ready avatar for the Vietnamese."
This dynamic is a feature of myths: they can be adapted to suit the moment.
In our day, the myth of the West as an American origin story remains strong. It informs the rhetoric of U.S. President Donald Trump.
"Our ancestors," he said, in his 2020 State of the Union Address, "braved the unknown, tamed the wilderness, settled the Wild West."
And it has always been most effective when the facts are veiled, in favour of the legend.
Guests in this episode:
William Deverell is professor of history at University of Southern California Dornsife in Los Angeles.
H.W. Brands is professor of history at University of Texas at Austin, and author of Dreams of El Dorado: A History of the American West.
Philip Deloria teaches Native American History at Harvard University. He is of Dakota descent, and his father, the late Vine Deloria Jr., was an Indigenous activist who wrote Custer Died for Your Sins: An Indian Manifesto (1969).
Julian Brave Noise Cat is an Indigenous writer in Washington D.C.
Jennifer McMahon is professor of philosophy and English at East Central University in Ada, Oklahoma.
Joseph McBride is a film historian and author of Searching for John Ford.
Martha A. Sandweiss is professor of history at Princeton University.
Greg Grandin is professor of history at Yale University, and author of The End of the Myth: From the Frontier to the Border Wall in the Mind of America, which was awarded the Pulitzer Prize in 2020.
Stanley Corkin is the Charles Phelps Taft and Niehoff Professor of film and media studies at the University of Cincinnati. He is the author of Cowboys as Cold Warriors: The Western as U.S. History.
Andrew Patrick Nelson is Chair of the Film and Media Arts Department at the University of Utah. He's also the author of Still in the Saddle: The Hollywood Western, 1969-1980, and co-host of How The West Was 'Cast, a podcast on western movies.
Megan Red Shirt-Shaw is an Oglala Lakota activist and educator in the Black Hills of South Dakota.
*This episode was produced by Tom Jokinen with help from Nicola Luksic.