Let's begin with a question posed by Walter Nugent: “What characteristics set apart the West . . . from other regions?” Interpreted another way, the question could ask whether there are distinct characteristics that define the American West. In terms of public memory, the answer is most definitely yes, considering there is an entire Hollywood genre dedicated to the region; something Steven Aron calls the “mythicized frontier heritage.”
The Western is a genre driven by nostalgia and is the only truly American genre; the French can also make Romances, the Germans can also make Horror films, and the Japanese can also make War Epics. Only the Italians have ever tried their hand at making Westerns, which are now classified as ‘Spaghetti Westerns’ since they are not ‘true Westerns.’ The definition of the Western genre provided by Tim Dirks is quite telling in that it offers an answer to Nugent’s question of “where is the American West”: “Westerns are often set on the American frontier . . . in a geographically western (trans-Mississippi) setting with romantic, sweeping frontier landscapes or rugged rural terrain” (see the opening shot of The Searchers for an example). Typically, this seems to imply Texas, California, Utah, New Mexico, and Arizona. Arizona especially has become synonymous with the Western because John Wayne shot five Westerns, including the classic The Searchers, in the Monument Valley area. In fact, Wayne has been quoted as saying, “Monument Valley is the place where God put the West.”
According to Dirks, the Western “often portrays the conquest of the wilderness and the subordination of nature, in the name of civilization, or the confiscation of the territorial rights of the original inhabitants of the frontier.” Film historian Thomas Schatz further suggests that the Western is recognized by three narrative elements: “the Westerner enters a frontier community, eliminates (or perhaps causes) a threat to its survival, and eventually rides ‘into the sunset.’” It could be argued that only the “sunny” ending is a Hollywood invention, for much of the understood history of the American West is a story of conflict that was more than likely caused by the “white man” moving into territory that was already inhabited. In exploring the construction of the American West through Hollywood tropes, my favorite actress, Natalie Wood, becomes surprisingly relevant.
In 1956, she made two films that fall into the Western category, The Searchers and The Burning Hills. In 2008, the American Film Institute named The Searchers the “Greatest Western of All Time.” Most Natalie Wood scholars and fans dismiss these two films for various reasons. In The Burning Hills, she is cast as a mulatto girl and her Mexican accent leaves a lot to be desired. Tab Hunter, who costarred as the clean-shaven Trace Jordan, described the film as nothing more than “an oater about a wayfaring cowpoke chased by cattle thieves who’s rescued by a Mexican girl.” In The Searchers, Natalie only appears in the last twenty or so minutes despite the fact that her character is central to the plot. The thing that is overlooked by previous scholars (and of course her fans) is the role these films play in defining the history of the West. The Burning Hills addresses questions of property ownership, authority, race (and Hollywood race) in this unknown geographic territory while The Searchers tackles head on issues of miscegenation and the tense relationship between indigenous peoples and American settlers.
The Burning Hills was adapted from a 1955 novel by Louis L’Amour. In the opening chapter, L’Amour establishes his Western setting as “a land without water, rarely visited by white men and roved only occasionally by Indians for whom that was a last stronghold and at whose hands no white man could expect mercy,” similar to historian Patricia Limerick’s suggestion that the frontier is “in essence, the area where white people get scarce.” This was a land “of the old west code,” according to one reviewer, where a man risked death if he turned his back on someone who didn’t agree with him. In the opening scene of the film, Trace Jordan’s brother is shot in the back. Jordan’s Mexican comrade suggests that it could have been a Comanche attack or the murder could have been carried out by the white Sutton men who have not allowed anyone to make a homestead within fifty miles of the town of Esperanza. When Jordan goes into town, he finds that the Sheriff’s office has been ransacked and he is told there is no Sheriff because “everyone is friendly.” Stephen F. Austin, the "father of Texas," once said, “I will obligate myself as stated in my memorial to organize the settlers into Rifle Companies and arm them, and to hold them in readiness at all times to march against the Indians within said Province whenever called on.” This raises the question of whether civilization was truly civilized if everyone had guns; how were laws enforced if a simple difference of opinion could result in someone being shot? Trace Jordan determines that getting to the nearest Army post is the only way to shut down the powerful Suttons.
When Trace Jordan’s brother is killed, he tells his Mexican comrade that they had legal claim to the land through a deed. Aron cites the “homestead ethic” in his 1994 article, a nicer term for the squatter mentality that it was actually promoting, where property ownership was justified “on the basis of occupancy and improvement.” The question of property ownership and its validation is also central to the plot of The Searchers, but is the idea of building a house and calling the land yours really unique to the West?
The unique thing about The Burning Hills as a Western narrative is the conflict of white against white. So many Westerns are built as “the white man against the world” (like the 1953 film Shane) or “the white man against the natives.” It is also unique that the Mexican characters are presented in a positive light, as helpful aids in the fight against evil. Natalie Wood plays Maria Christina Colton, the daughter of a Yankee and a Mexican, who helps Jordan outrun the Suttons and get to the Army post. While The Searchers also raises questions of race around Natalie’s character, her casting of Maria Colton was more controversial. She was typecast, in a way, based on “exotic and ethnic charm” - she was of Russian descent and no one lets you forget that. Tab Hunter claims that for “authenticity,” she had to “apply a coat of bronze makeup to darken her fair northern European complexion” while he was just dirtied up and made to look sweaty. This equates to a glamorization of race that Hollywood has long been guilty of. Maria is central to demonstrating the relationship between the whites and the natives in this film as she is at one point called a half-breed and a “hot tamale” by the Sutton men who make various attempts to rape her. At one point she tells Jordan, “they think just because my mother was Mexican, they can treat me like those girls in the dance hall.” Interestingly, at the same time that the Sutton man treat her poorly, they also recognize her as the head of her household.
Sixteen minutes into The Searchers, Ethan Edwards (John Wayne) is out with a group of men trying to track down a herd of stolen cows. When they come across the dead cows, all impaled with spears, Ethan announces, “stealing the cattle was just to pull us out, this is a murder raid.” As dusk approaches, panic sets in at the house of Ethan’s brother. As the action unfolds, it is clear that they have lived with this fear for a long time and they are aware of the impending doom; earlier in the film, Ethan’s brother hides their money inside a chair. They send their youngest daughter out of the house to hide. While her family is murdered by the Comanches and their house is burned to the ground, she is taken by one of the Indians. The remaining hour-and-a-half represents a five year search for Debbie (Natalie Wood). The action of the Indians was described by Ethan as a murder raid, but he also embarks on a murder raid as he is driven by the need to find Debbie and kill her because she has likely been "spoiled" by the Indians who took her. Both The Searchers and The Burning Hills present the Comanches as the native enemy. The Searchers also mentions Kiowas and Wichitas who historian Brian Delay identifies as tribes of the southern plains.
The cast of The Burning Hills was very noticeably whitewashed. There is a single scene involving a tribe of Indians, but information about the authenticity of their casting is not available. In The Searchers, however, it has been noted that all of the Comanches were played by Navajo Indians, showing a slight sensitivity towards the casting of race. The Searchers also shows the Mexicans as friendly allies; it is a Mexican who finally leads Ethan to Debbie.
Arguably the greatest thing about The Searchers in terms of historical analysis is that the writer took pains to identify the areas of the Western region that Ethan and his nephew Martin (Jeffrey Hunter) travel through on their search: Texas and the New Mexico territory, for example. In visual contrast to The Searchers, The Burning Hills presents more green landscapes and trees (largely because production never moved beyond California). The Western genre is most commonly associated with images of dirt and horses, which is why so many John Wayne Westerns were shot in the deserts of Arizona.
The Searchers is a two hour film, but its large, sweeping shots of arid landscape make it seem much longer. If someone had the patience to thoroughly examine every shot and narrative element, it may be the best film to use to learn about the American West. I would argue that much of what Hollywood built with films like The Searchers and The Burning Hills have become the accepted conventions of the historical West. History was surely not romanticized in the same way that the Western cowboy was who "walked off into the sunset," the victor of his mission. Aron argues that “only by fighting for possession of the frontier can revisionists effectively rewrite popular conceptions of the winning of the West,” but can you effectively change an accepted narrative; can a habit truly be broken?
A final interesting tidbit regarding the Hollywood Western: On page 139 of his article, Aron states, “Since World War II, the West has benefitted from a disproportionate share of the nation’s bulging defense budget. Not for Old West six-shooters has the New West become the nation’s ‘gunbelt.’” One of Tab Hunter’s first films was a 1953 Western called Gun Belt.