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The Death of the Western: Back-Trailing for Affirmation

Westerns have never enjoyed much of a highbrow audience or much literary distinction.  Many people tend to sneer at the traditional form, because it seems to represent something obvious and a little dumb.  As one of my students responded to my discussion of western historical fiction as a viable and valuable category of popular culture, “How do you account for the success of such truly stupid and old television programs as Bonanza, The Rifleman, and The Lone Ranger?”  I told him that he had to consider several points before judging such programming.  For example, The Lone Ranger was adapted from a radio serial.  So were Gunsmoke, Wagon Train, and others.  As radio programs, these were initially created (or adapted from other media, such as comic books and comic strips) as popular parallels to the Western films of the 30’s and 40’s, particularly the early work of John Ford, William Wyler, Howard Hawks, and others.  Such popular representations of the West were predicated less on authenticity and historical accuracy than on the legendary derring-do of famous historical figures as they played out against the picturesque landscape of the frontier.  A Western offered early filmmakers plenty of action with lots of moving figures at a very small budget; additionally, there were blazing firearms and colorful costuming, much of which was easily found, since much of the West was still a frontier...

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