How the West Was Projected

Local film historian and authors hope to bring a different perspective to the dated film genre

Johnny Boggs is a Western fanatic, and anything but an armchair historian. He's authored over 60 books, -winning nine Spur Awards, which honor the writing of the American West, and his nonfiction works include Jesse James and the MoviesBilly the Kid on Film 1911-2012 and The American West on Film. Boggs' fiction catalogue boasts such books as Camp Ford—the 2006 winner of Best Western Novel from the Spur Awards which, in 1985, was awarded to a little book you might know called Lonesome Dove.

"Most people think of [Western] films [like they're all the same], but…these are art forms. You can find true art in Westerns," Boggs tells SFR. "It's a uniquely American genre."

Rambo creator and author David Morrell also recalls how films set in the American West built his conceptions of story from an early age.

"I'm the generation from when Westerns were popular," Morell recalls. "Some of the first films I saw were The Last Wagon and The Searchers in their original runs. It was the formative genre for me. When I became a novelist, a lot of my references came from that. When I wrote First Blood, I imagined it as a kind of Western."

Morrel and Boggs are teaming up for a virtual event hosted by Center for Contemporary Arts and the Santa Fe Public Library titled NEA Big Read: History of Western Film. And though the talk will focus on the cinematic angles of the Western genre, it has an ulterior motive—to get folks reading.

The National Endowment for the Arts' Big Read Program awards community grants to promote themes related to a specific book of their choosing. Having been awarded one such grant, the Santa Fe Public Library selected Luis Alberto Urrea's Into the Beautiful North, wherein a 19-year-old girl from Mexico finds inspiration in the 1960 western The Magnificent Seven and travels to America in the hopes of finding heroic men to save her village from threatening bandits.

"The goal of the NEA program is to broaden our understanding of our world, our communities and ourselves through the joy of sharing a good book," says Maria Sanchez-Tucker, library divisions director at the Santa Fe Public Library. "Some in the community might not ever read the book, but they may attend a theatrical performance or a film screening or enter an art contest, so creating opportunities through programs related to the book's themes is a wonderful way to broaden the experience."

To help better understand Into the Beautiful North and its themesthe CCA event delves into director John Sturges' Magnificent Seven. Boggs and Morrell hope patrons finish the film with a better understanding of the genre's complexities and how it relates to the world events at the time it was made—something Boggs tells SFR is often dismissed.

Westerns, he explains, are artistic expressions through which Americans can explore their true nature—for better or for worse.

"Western movies don't reflect the period in which they are set, but they reflect the times in which they were made," he continues. "My Darling Clementine is about post-WWII order, and later films like High Noon and Rio Bravo reflect Cold War mentalities of McCarthyism. And '40s westerns are different from '50s, '60s and '70s westerns."

Morrell cites historian Frederick Jackson Turner's 1893 frontier thesis, which stated that American identity and an understanding of true democratic power only emerged as settlers moved West, removing themselves from the denser, old-world East Coast. Morrell says this might even help Santa Feans understand their own town better.

"The American character emerged from expansion. As easterners moved west, they collided either with the environment or the people who were already there. It's about that collision." he explains. "The Old Pecos Trail, the Old Santa Fe Trail—that was a major throughway for wagons. If you went southwest, that's how you'd go. We're situated just below the Rocky Mountains…a waypoint for people coming through."

The violent history that followed the push west came with a long history of white-washing in the Western genre's early days. Boggs notes many are thus skeptical of the genre and the painful history it represents, yet by ignoring it, he says, one misses out on the American evolution of character—one that's still pervasive.

"People are rightfully dismissive. Most people think you're writing typical shoot-em-ups where heroes never make a mistake," he says. "But at the same time, they're like anything else—they evolve and grow. [John] Ford's films evolve from antagonistic Indigenous characters to antagonistic whites with sympathetic portrayals of Indigenous peoples."

He sees The Magnificent Seven as a strong introduction to the Western's response to geo-political events of the 20th century.

"It's part of a genre known as the Mexican Western, starting with Vera CruzThe Professionals and The Wild Bunch. Some see it as CIA operatives in Central and South America, or even the Vietnam War," Morrell explains. "It's Americans going in and getting involved in other country's problems."

The authors will delve into broader subjects, too, but both recommend films outside of the same old western hits: Boggs recommends The Wind (1925), Blood on the Moon (1948) and Gunman's Walk (1958); Morrell recommends George Steven's Shane (1953), which often is read as a pro-socialist film, even as the Cold War continued to expand at the time.

"It's hard to make Westerns today," Boggs concludes when asked about where the genre is headed. "It's very expensive today. It's harder and harder to even find land to film on—and it's always been a tough genre. Still, as a writer, it's always been said you need good movies to get people to the bookstore."

NEA Big Read: History of Western Film:
6 pm Tuesday, April 13. Free.

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