Wednesday, September 12, 2007

"WHERE YA HEADED, COWBOY?" "NOWHERE SPECIAL." "NOWHERE SPECIAL....I ALWAYS WANTED TO GO THERE." "COME ON.": We often seen the Western as a nostalgic genre, full of romance, adventure, and longing for a mythical age of wide-open land, good guys and bad guys, and trusty horses. But even as Americans were settling the frontier during the 19th century, the Western had already emerged as a popular style of entertainment. James Fenimore Cooper celebrated the "nobleman of Nature" in Natty Bumppo, the frontiersman hero of his Leatherstocking Tales. Davy Crockett, a real hunter and Indian fighter -- who reportedly kil't him a b'ar when he was only three -- became a mythic Western figure through the tall tales of the Crockett Almanacks, best-sellers in the 1830s, '40s, and '50s.

Westerns really took off with the development of dime novels: cheap, sensationalistic adventure stories targeted toward adolescent boys. Beginning in the 1860s, dime novel publishers churned out thousands of these tales, mixing standard narrative formulas and promises of "virtuous" heroes with heaps of violence and a fondness for outlaws. The most famous Western dime-novel hero was "Buffalo Bill" Cody, a former Pony Express rider, army scout, and, yes, buffalo hunter who became the subject of hundreds of books and dozens of stage shows (performances in which Cody often played himself). Cody's celebrity reached its peak in the 1880s and '90s, when he toured the world in Buffalo Bill's Wild West, a spectacular outdoor show that combined historical re-enactments, Indian performances, horse races, riding contests, and marksmanship demonstrations featuring "Little Sure-Shot" herself, Annie Oakley. The Wild West shows spawned numerous imitators and shaped popular impressions of the frontier; ironically, though, they flourished at precisely the moment when that frontier was seemingly "closing."

Of course, the end of the real frontier didn't mean the end of the Western. The genre moved easily and successfully into motion pictures; in the early decades of television, Westerns dominated dramatic programming, with 28 primetime "oaters" in 1958-59 alone. In recent years, though, pop-culture critics have argued that the Western's time has passed, and that occasional critical or commercial triumphs like Dances with Wolves or Unforgiven are merely the exceptions that prove the rule.

What do you think, pardners? Is the Western really dead and buried? After all, last weekend's debut of 3:10 to Yuma and the pending release of The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford -- movies featuring big-name stars like Russell Crowe and Brad Pitt -- has sparked some discussion that the Western might finally be back. And there was certainly lots of love 'round these parts for Deadwood. Or have Westerns simply transformed into other genres, set not on the plains but in the final frontier of space?

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