The Modern Western

Ashley Robinson's Composition II

When we think of Westerns, we often picture the old, grainy, cheesy black-and-white movies our grandparents loved (and we hated). These movies, books, and shows glorify the American Dream: the idea that we can be anything we want to be, achieve our dreams, go on grand adventures, and live in a world where good triumphs over evil. Unfortunately, though, those films and books seem to portray a time long past—a time that appears to have little relevance to America today.  

That idea, however, could not be further from the truth.  Americans still love Westerns...it's just that the Western itself has changed.  Instead of cowboys and their trusty steeds, Westerns now feature interstellar travel, talking toys, and the apocalypse. Western heroes no longer duel with pistols, but with lightsabers and superpowers. John Wayne's open prairies have been replaced with vast unexplored oceans and fantasy wastelands.  Our bookshelves, DVRs, and movieplexes are filled with Westerns. You just have to know what to look for. 

Throughout this class, we'll be exploring how these films portray the American Dream, and how the Western (and American values) have changed over the past 70 years.  We'll start by looking at some classic Western dime novels and Zane Grey's Riders of the Purple Sage to establish a benchmark.  From there, the class moves on to consider the Neo-Western—that is, new movies that still have Western settings and images.  We'll specifically consider Cormac McCarthy's No Country for Old Men and the graphic novel, Jonah Hex.  After we finish those, we consider how Westerns are now marketed to children.  Pixar has become one of the foremost Western filmmakers in the United States; movies like Wall-E, Finding Nemo, and Up are all reimagined Western films.  Finally, we conclude with the future Western by examining Star Trek and The Book of Eli.  

So saddle up, partners.  This section of Composition II is going to be one wild ride.