Special Topics in Film: The Western

ENGLISH 390-6.01

The Hollywood western is one of America’s most celebrated and imitated contributions to global culture.  For over a century it is has been the film genre that has, for better and for worse, defined what it means to be an American for Americans themselves and for the rest of the world.  Ranging from the “classic” westerns of John Ford to the revisionary epics of Clint Eastwood, the Coen brothers, and David Milch (creator of Deadwood) we’ll ride out in search of THE BIG QUESTIONS that continue to challenge, divide, and enliven the American republic:  What is the relationship between American masculinity and violence? Is the nation founded on the ideals of freedom, equality, and justice or on acts of oppression, exploitation, and criminality? Is America an “outlaw” nation? Was the frontier a promised land in which all races, genders, creeds, and ethnicities could mix, marry, and prosper or a hell on earth in which discrimination, social stratification, intolerance, and genocide were the norm?  Was the American West the space where men and women built modernity or escaped from it? Were women the true pioneers and settlers of the frontier? Did God make men and women equal or, as the old western tag goes, was it Colonel Colt (maker of the Colt revolver)? What role did religion play in the founding of modern America? Is the story of the western frontier one of peaceful settlement, commercial enterprise, and entrepreneurial triumph or that of imperial conquest, savagery, and environmental degradation?  Is the American republican experiment truly exceptional or just exceptionally evil? What sort of stories might Native Americans, Mexicans, African-Americans, and Chinese immigrants tell about the “settlement” of the American west? Just how wild was the “Wild West”?  And why is it that more than century after the “closing” of the American frontier and the definitive settlement of the western territories do Americans keep making Westerns?  

In this course we’ll discuss in class every week one classic or contemporary Western.  Among those films we’re likely to explore are John Ford’s Stagecoach (or My Darling Clementine) and The Searchers, George Steven’s Shane, Fred Zimmerman’s High Noon, Howard Hawks’s Red River, Sam Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch, Sergio Leone’s The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly, Clint Eastwood’s Unforgiven, Jim Jarmusch’s Deadman, Tommy Lee Jones’s The Homesman, the Coen Brothers’ True Grit, and David Milch’s (HBO series) Deadwood.  In addition to taking on the questions raised above, the class will also examine the formal, generic, and aesthetic dimensions of the Hollywood Western as a major cinematic art form.  (No detailed knowledge of film criticism or cinematic vocabulary is presumed on the part of students).

Crosslisting Numbers: 

AMI 390