A Wagon to Washington: American Society and Political Westerns

Posted 25 March 2015 about Film Studies, Heaven's Gate, High Noon and The Alamo and The Wild Bunch.

Our Spring Film Studies term is now booking, open to everyone who loves film and wants to look at it a little more closely. The new term, A Wagon to Washington: American Society and Political Westerns, takes place over eight weeks, with alternative film screenings and discussion sessions. You can book for the whole term or come to see individual films.Wild Bunch

Here's Craig Mann from Sheffield Hallam University, who will be leading the course:

"The Western is one of America’s oldest and most consistently popular cinematic genres. The word brings to mind images of wild open country, dusty thoroughfares and smoky saloons populated by gun-toting lawmen, nefarious bandits and powerful cattle barons. The frontier was a place of romance, violence and moral absolutes in which daring bank robberies, brutal bar fights, devastating cattle stampedes and fatal showdowns occurred on a daily basis. The bad guys were always brought to justice; the devilishly charming cowboy always got the girl; the good guys always won.

"Or, at least, that’s what the classic movies would have you believe. The ‘Old West’ is, of course, a political construction: an exaggerated vision of American history that has slowly passed into myth over a matter of decades. The cinematic genre was born shortly after the death of the frontier. In the years following, the romanticised Old West was immortalised on the big screen and cemented in the American imagination as a concept that provides a foundation for the underlying values of the ‘American Dream’: individualism, self-sufficiency and an unshakable moral code.

"It’s no surprise, then, that the Western has become a landscape for political debate; an apt metaphor through which to discuss, examine and criticise life in the United States. This course will examine four key periods in American history and explore how the Western has been used as a political tool by filmmakers as a platform for propaganda, protest and critique. Our first topic will be a cycle of 1950s Westerns which concentrate on divided communities – including High Noon (1952), Silver Lode (1954), The Tin Star (1957) and Rio Bravo(1959) – and their relevance to the Cold War, the Second Red Scare and the anti-communist politics of U.S. Senator Joseph McCarthy.

high noon

"We will then move on to the turbulent 1960s and 1970s, tackling the ‘revisionist’ Western and its relationship to the birth of counterculture, the Vietnam War and the Watergate scandal. Here, we will consider how films such as The Wild Bunch (1969), Little Big Man (1970), Soldier Blue (1970) and Bad Company (1972) question the bloodless violence, simplistic morality and outmoded colonial attitudes of most classical Westerns.

"Then we will consider the infamous Heaven’s Gate (1980): the box-office bomb that supposedly killed the Western. But while Heaven’s Gate might have been a commercial failure, it is one of the most vehemently socialist Westerns ever made; an anti-capitalist parable that explores the oppression of impoverished immigrants by wealthy and powerful land barons in 1890s Wyoming. We will consider the place of Heaven’s Gate as a Western released in November 1980, just two weeks after the end of a bitter presidential campaign that saw Republican Ronald Reagan defeat Democrat Jimmy Carter.

"Finally, we will investigate the current resurgence of the Western and the relationship between contemporary portrayals of the Old West and the post-9/11 zeitgeist, interrogating films such as Open (2003), The Alamo (2004) and the hugely controversial September Dawn (2007). By investigating these four turbulent periods in American history, it will become clear that the Western is a cathartic genre that has allowed for the fictionalisation of political conflicts; America uses the Western to stage showdowns with itself."


Tickets for the whole term can be booked at the Box Office. You can download a registration form here. Priced at £65 / £50 concessions for the full term.

Tickets are also available for the films individually.


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