The Landscape | The Easterner | Machines and Cities

The Landscape

Filming Greed in Death Valley

The projector comes to life, and before the eyes of the audience a river winds its way through the canyon, or a tumbleweed rolls across the desert. It's no accident that most of the Westerns began with the landscape shot; the land had provided material for the dreams and plans of early Americans including Jefferson and Fremont, and "the garden" continued to provide mythic possibilities into the twentieth century. Jane Tompkins notes the influence of topography on the plot and characters of the twentieth century western: "the harshness of the Western landscape is so rhetorically persuasive that an entire code of values is in place, rock solid, from the outset, without anyone's ever saying a word." (1)

She continues by stressing the affinity between the Western hero and the landscape he inhabits: "to be a man is not only to be monolithic, silent, mysterious, impenetrable as a desert butte, it is to be the desert butte...nature is what the hero aspires to emulate: perfect being-in-self." (2) And it is not only the character in the film who feels this urge, according to Tompkins, but also the audience. The landscape "arouses the viewer's desire for, wish to identify with, an object that is overpowering and majestic, an object that draws the viewer ineluctably to itself and crushes him with the thought of its greatness and ineffability."(3)

Cameraman Dan Jacobs on location

For this reason, the gardens and meadows of the East coast, which provided the exteriors for so many of the earliest westerns, simply couldn't duplicate the sense of open space afforded in the West. The Sheriff's Love, filmed in 1910, is an example of this weakness. Filmed on the East coast, it appears that the sheriff and the outlaws are chasing each other around a city park, although the intention was to make a Western. Often it took longer to reach the west and film on location than it did to shoot the film, so filmmakers resorted to painted backdrops and what landscape they could find in rural New Jersey and New York. Not until the film industry moved to the West coast and was able to shoot in authentic locations, under the direction of cameramen like Dan Jacobs and Joseph August (who later worked with John Fordin the '30s and '40s), would the impressive Western landscape reach the screen. William Everson notes, "the American western started in artifice and pantomime in the East, found reality and rough poetry as the industry moved west, then devolved to myth and fiction as the star system took over."(4)

It was no accident that the most typical Western locale was the desert. Tompkin notes that the desert provided the "classic landscape" instead of the Pacific rainforests or California valleys because of "the message it sends...it is a tabula rasa on which man can write, as if for the first time, the story he wants to live." (5) The desert landscape, while unforgiving, also in its vistas can provide the sense that "the man can go, in any direction, as far as he can see. The possibilities are infinite." (6)

The Easterner

Scene from The Last of the Mohicans, 1920

Tompkins continues her discussion of the desert landscape by reminding her reader that the desert was only stark, a 'tabula rasa', when seen through the eyes of the Easterner; in fact, it is a landscape with a life all its own. Tompkins's distinction is important, but instead of considering this a flaw of the Western, it is instead a reminder of the lure that the West held for many Easterners. Many of the early Westerns were the product of Eastern imagination, based on the stage plays, firsthand accounts, and earlier fictions of the West.

Zane Grey, althought not a filmmaker, was a novelist working at the time of the Silent Western, and his case is typical of many Western filmmakers and novelists. Grey was no cowboy-turned-author; he was trained as a dentist in Pennsylvania and spent a good deal of time in New York City plying his trade and trying to become a writer. Still, Grey was fascinated by the West; he had ancestors who had resisted Indian attack at Fort Henry in Ohio, and as a boy, Grey recalls that he was a member of "a gang of young ruffians, or, rather, youthful desperadoes who were bound to secrecy by oaths and the letting of blood...We had a complete collection of Beadle's Dime Library and some of Harry Castleman's books, the reading of which could be earned only by a deed of valor." (7) William Everson notes that Grey went West to restore his health, and came away not only with improved health but with a renewed sense of optimism, a theme which would figure in many of his novels. The films based on his work convey his sense of the special quality of the Western landscape. Wild Horse Mesafilmed in 1926 is Grey's statement on the need to protect wild horse reserves. This theme takes precedence over the usual "stock" Western plot; the audience sees two of the seven reels of the film before the hero and the villain appear on screen.

Harry Carey was a New York entertainer who fell in love with the West and became one of the silent screen's leading cowboys. He bought a ranch in the West and built a tiny three room house. His wife Olive remembers that for a time John Ford stayed with them while he was trying to break into the movie business. Each night Harry, Olive, and John would carry bedrolls out of the house and sleep in the alfalfa patch.(8) Ford, of course, would go on to become one of the premier directors in America. Ford shared Grey's and Carey's attachment to the Western landscape; his film Three Bad Men was the last classic silent Western produced, and its opening sequence displays his sense of concern for the disappearing West. The film begins with an iris shot of a man chopping down a tree, and the shot subsequently opens out to reveal the full grandeur of the West behind him. This question about the use of the land is answered in a climactic land rush sequence.

Owen Wister, author of the 1902 novel The Virginian is another Easterner who experienced the regenerative power of the West. In bad health and in conflict with his well-to-do Eastern family, he went to Wyoming to recuperate and he fell in love with the land. The Virginian is a novel of the East meeting the West, of the Easterner learning Western ways, although the story possesses some undercurrents (discussed shortly) which undercut simple romance.

Time and again, the idea of the regenerative power of the West is played out in silent Westerns. In films like The Lamb (1915), All Man (1916), Anything Once (1917) and His Majesty the American (1919), a rich Easterner moves west, "discovers himself" and finds love and redemption. Alistaire Cooke notes that this transformed figure "must be an antidote, a goal for the fretting city worker to aim at...It was the "West" in quotes--a state of mind as well as a geographical area."(9) In 1926's Baited Trap an Easterner moves West to avenge his father's murder, falls in love with the local schoolteacher, and renounces his city ways; 1928's The Avenging Rider is a variation on the same theme, as the ranch hand falsely accused of murder clears his name and wins the heart of the ranch owner's neice, who has recently returned from school in the East. In all of these films, a pronounced inclination for the Western way of life is voiced.

Fairbanks in Wild and Woolly; note the tie, dress shoes, and dress shirt under the cowboy accessories

Douglas Fairbanks treats this idea in a more lighthearted fashion in some of his early films. Fairbanks played a string of European playboys, Eastern milquetoasts and bored rich boys who come west to prove manhood through a Western initiation. In films like 1917's Wild and Woolly Fairbanks proves that a "civilized, urban protagonist could master the East's industrialized world and adapt to the challenges of the primitive, mythical Wild West." (10)

The impulse to celebrate the regenerative powers of the West was matched by an impulse to condemn all things Eastern. Jane Tompkins notes that "the landscape establishes by contrast an image of the corrupt, effete life that the genre never tires of criticizing." (11) In Frank Manchel's commentary on prominent Silent director D.W. Griffith he notes, "Over and over again, his films depicted an American setting based upon tradition and sentiment where country folk were constantly menaced by the wiles of city slickers." (12)

Released in 1918, Mack Sennett's film Mickey is the story of a Western tomboy who has been brought up by her miner father and by an old Indian woman. She is sent to her aunt in the East for refinement; her aunt, of course, turns out to be a wicked woman with plans of her own who banishes Mickey to the kitchen to work with the servants. Mickey is adored by one of the aunt's wealthy acquaintances, Thornhill, but the aunt wants him for her own daughter. In the end of the film, Mickey must come to Thornhill's aid by masquerading as a jockey. She wins the race and Thornhill as well. In The Arizona Wildcat a ranch woman is about to be swindled by Easterners and must be saved; An Arizona Romeo centers around an Eastern girl from the city who chooses an Arizona rancher over a wealthy Eastern business partner of her father's. Once in Arizona she opens a manicure shop and wins the rancher's hands as patrons. 1920's The Mollycoddle is the story of an absurd English lord whose bumbling ineptitude in the Western setting reveals his true worth.

Several silent Westerns made the contrast between life in the East and the West by transplanting the Western hero to the big city. William S. Hart frequently played the Western cowboy who went East and outsmarted the big city crooks. In 1918's Branding Broadway he pursues the villain through Central Park on horseback, where he ropes and hogties him. Harry Carey's film Bucking Broadway contains a similar idea: while Carey battles the villain in a posh New York hotel roof garden, his cowboy compatriots ride up Broadway on horseback to the rescue. Cowboy Cop, King of the Rodeo, and The Taming of Wild Bill make the same claim.

The uniformity of the perceptions of East and West was a staple of the silent Western; Owen Wister's The Virginian is a rare example of transgression. Jane Tompkins writes that the story is "incredibly romantic on the surface...[it] initiates the narrator (an Eastern tenderfoot much like the young Wister) into Western ways." However, Tompkins is also careful to note the thread which runs counter to so much of the natural prejudice of the Western: "in a climactic episode, the Virginian humiliates his men in front of a crowd of wealthy Easterners by suckering them with a tall tale. The trick depends on their ignorance of fancy restaurants and Eastern high life, and upon his knowledge of these things." (13)

It was even more rare that a silent film could simultaneously depict the flaws in both ways of life. Way Down East filmed in 1920 is a noteworthy exception; in the film, a young girl is betrayed by her city slicker husband, and subsequently turned out in the cold by the farming family to whom she had gone for help.

Machines and Cities

The desert may be the quintessential Western landscape, but few Westerns would be complete without a dusty Western town as well. Jane Tompkins notes that the town is necessary for the Western dialectic: "there is a tremendous tension in Westerns between the landscape and town. The genre pulls toward the landscape--that, in a sense, is its whole point. But because there's so much emphasis on getting away, town also exerts a tremendous pull; otherwise there would be no reason to flee." (14) Tompkins believes this dialectic operates because "town always threatens to entrap the hero in the very things the genre most wishes to avoid: intimacy, mutual dependence, a network of social and emotional responsibilities...Town seduces." (15)

However, when viewing Westerns, town and the landscape don't seem at odds; rather, they serve complementary functions. If the landscape provides its own rhetoric of values, as Tompkins asserts, then the town presents the extent to which those values can and should be incorporated into a larger American body. Earlier men thinking about the West had envisioned the yeoman farmer or homesteader as the "ideal" position between complete savagery (wilderness) and the corrupting influence of the metropolis. In the same fashion, "town" in the Westerns functions as the fulcrum between complete isolation and the big cities of the East; it is the ideal community. Tompkins admits as much when she writes, "It is home, safe, authentic, the way life was meant to be--close to the earth, to the land, to the senses, to good materials, to sun and wind and dust, to people and animals. This town represents a simpler, more benign social order, a place for everyone and everyone in her place." (16) In this way, "town" in the Westerns can serve as a sort of blueprint for how the Western landscape might be ideally incorporated into the republic.

If town seems at odds with the ideals of the Western to Tompkins, technology is even more so. Tompkins declares that Western "requires a technologically primitive environment." (17) The introduction of technology to the West is a subject for several silent Westerns, including Always Ridin', filmed in 1925. In the film, two towns are competing to be chosen by the railroad as the site for a new station. In other films like The Easterner and Bill Haywood, Producer cars are used, and even planes in a few of the later Westerns. In general, certain forms of technology (particularly those having to do with transportation) are tolerated in silent Westerns, and even celebrated, in films like John Ford's The Iron Horse, which is an epic treatment of the transcontinental railroad.

In short, it is not the technology itself which is at odds with the ideals of the Western, but rather the capitalist and industrialist society and workforce it creates. D.W. Griffith's 1909 film A Corner in Wheat is an excellent example. Based on Frank Norris's novel The Octopus and his short story "A Deal in Wheat," the film begins with the agrarian landscape and with the expressions of weary farmers after a day in the field. Griffith then cuts to a frenzied scene of speculators and the stock market; one of the speculators, who has built up a 'wheat empire,' is giving a tour of his operation when he receives word that he has cornered the world's wheat market. Elated, he accidentally slips and falls into his own grain elevator and dies. Griffith ends the film by cutting back to the weary workers on the farm.

The shift from the early Western ideal of the yeoman farmer to the farmer who is dealing in a market economy is nearly complete in the silent Westerns. The presence of cattle drives and cattle ranches is largely a given, with the notable exception of John Ford's first film in 1917, Straight Shooting which deals explicitly with tensions between cattlemen and farmers in a range war story. The cast of crooked speculators, mine owners, and oilmen, to name a few, represent the uneasy accomodation of the industrial economy in the Western landscape.

The Silent Westerns: Home Page


Notes

1  Jane Tompkins, West of Everything, 74.

2  Tompkins 57.

3  Tompkins 76.

4  Richard Everson, Before Hollywood, 154.

5  Tompkins 74.

6  Tompkins 75.

7  Quoted in Tompkins, 158.

8  Thames Television, Out West, VHS tape.

9  Quoted in Frank Manchel,  Film Studies, 1406.

10  Manchel 1400.

11  Tompkins 73.

12  Manchel 1363.

13  Tompkins 148.

14  Tompkins 85.

15  Tompkins 86.

16  Tompkins 85.

17  Tompkins 34.