How the West Was White: The Museum of Western Film History in Lone Pine, California

Here is what I learned at the Museum of Western Film History in Lone Pine, CA:

First, what they mean isn’t “western film history” but “film history of the Western” (or, maybe, “Western-film history”), which is different.

Second, the “suggested donation” isn’t suggested and it isn’t a donation. It’s a mandatory entrance fee. There’s even a sign that says “Minimum donation: $5.00.” I don’t mind paying, but I do mind people telling me that words don’t mean what they mean.

Third, when John Wayne was young, he was a friggin babe!

FOURTH AND MOST IMPORTANT — Between the 1930s and the early 1970s, film Westerns were the unfolding of a long and multidimensional saga of white dudes. White dudes did everything; they were capable of anything. They were good guys and bad guys; hustlers, heroes, cowards, and cooks; rustlers and ranchers; loners, law men, and outlaws; the moral conscience of a community and the reflection of its vilest impulses; sidekicks, loyal friends, and back stabbers. In short, white dudes were Just People.

Then there were some Others. Women, to start with. In the posters for Westerns (as in the movies themselves) women are in danger or are being saved from danger; they are behind men or, sometimes, literally under them in embraces that looked like they made someone’s back hurt. Mostly, they aren’t on the posters at all. Women could do a few things — take care of children and men (or ruin them); attempt to exert a “civilizing” influence, however unavailingly; suffer loss beautifully. They could shoot, sometimes, if there were no men around to do it for them, or run a ranch or a business if tragedy had left them without a man to do *that* for them. Women were often nearly people in Westerns but never quite completely.

The other Others were people of color — mostly American Indians but sometimes Chinese railroad workers or borax miners, sometimes black cooks or laborers. As for Indians, virtually their only job was to be bad guys, except on a very few occasions. They and the other Others were not even close to being people.

Of course, there are exceptions to all these rules. But the point is that they were exceptions.

What’s kind of unforgivable is that the Museum of Western Film History doesn’t try to tackle any of this. There’s a great deal of quoting of critics and directors and actors (white dudes all) about how Westerns showcased America imagining itself — and they did. Just not exactly in the way these guys meant.

There’s lots of information in the Museum about stuntmen, for example, but nothing about the role of the (many) Native American actors who appeared in Westerns (or of the Pretendians who not infrequently were cast in “native” roles).

Don’t get me wrong: There’s great stuff at the Museum. But there’s no attempt whatever to trouble the notion that America’s vision of itself and of its values, as transmitted in and by more than 50 years of Westerns, is an almost exclusively heterosexual male-centered, white-centered vision.

And yet all this other life is there, just at the edges of the camera frame, waiting to be seen.

If Lone Pine’s Museum of Western Film History shifted its gaze only slightly, it would realize it had all the materials necessary to tell the real (and much more interesting) story behind American fantasies of manifest destiny, masculinity, and white supremacy that Westerns helped create and promulgated for decades.

As it is, though, the Museum’s exhibits simply reify and occasionally even glorify the Western’s sociopathic attachment to the hallucination of America when it was “great,” its sentimental, delusional belief in White Male Benevolence.

Or put it another way: Mythologies are, arguably, neither good nor bad, but what’s perhaps most interesting about them is why they’re needed in the first place and by whom and why some so stubbornly endure.

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Posted on 23 March 2018, in Write ... che ti passa. Bookmark the permalink. 3 Comments.

  1. Always enjoy your pieces. Ever read Louise Erdrich’s poem, Dear John Wayne. Great stuff.

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