The Western film is inextricably tied to American culture: untamed landscapes, fiercely independent characters, and an unwavering distinction between good and evil. Yet Westerns began in the early twentieth century as far more fluid works of comedy, adventure, and historical explorations of the frontier landscape. Nanna Verhoeff examines here the earliest films made in the Western genre and proposes the thought-provoking argument that these little-studied films demand new ways of considering Westerns and the history of cinema.
Verhoeff analyzes the earliest American and European Westerns—made between 1894 and 1915—and finds them to be an international repository for anxieties about modernity and identity, not the instructional morality tales we assume them to be. She draws on an array of archival materials—photography, paintings, Wild West shows, popular ethnographic studies, and pulp literature—to locate these early Westerns more precisely in their original social and cultural contexts. These early films—which coincided with the “closing” of the West and rises in rates of immigration, railroad travel, and urbanization—drove the transformation of film, Verhoeff argues, from just another new technology into the dominant cultural vehicle for dealing with issues of national and personal nostalgia, as well as uncertainty in the face of modernity. From these fragmentary early films Verhoeff extracts a rich historical analysis that radically reorients our view of the first two decades of cinema history in America and provocatively connects the evolution of Westerns to our transition today into a new media culture.
The West in Early Cinema challenges established history and criticism of the Western film and will be an invaluable resource for the film scholar and John Wayne fan alike.