Once Upon a Time in the West, Rio Grande, High Noon. We know the films – and the many books.
“The bray of a lazy burro broke the afternoon quiet, and it was comfortingly suggestive of the drowsy farmyard, and the open corrals, and the green alfalfa fields. Her clear sight intensified the purple sage-slope as it rolled before her. Low swells of prairie-like ground sloped up to the west. Dark, lonely cedar-trees, few and far between, stood out strikingly, and at long distances ruins of red rocks. Farther on, up the gradual slope, rose a broken wall, a huge monument, looming dark purple and stretching its solitary, mystic way, a wavering line that faded in the north. Here to the westward was the light and color and beauty. Northward the slope descended to a dim line of canyons from which rose an up-flinging of the earth, not mountainous, but a vast heave of purple uplands, with ribbed and fan-shaped walls, castle-crowned cliffs, and gray escarpments. Over it all crept the lengthening, waning afternoon shadows.” – Zane Grey, Riders of the Purple Sage (1912)
But why are the films and books all set in the United States? Didn’t the very similar continent of Australia have similar stories? Well, up to a point.
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If we want to know why things are the way they are, the answers often lie in history and geography (Jared Diamond makes an especially strong case for geography in his Guns, Germs, and Steel). European settlement in the US began several centuries ago. The Appalachian Mountains (rising to 2,037 m or 6,684 ft) formed a barrier to westward expansion, but hardly in insurmountable one. The eastern US is also blessed with many navigable rivers, especially the Mississippi and tributaries such as the Ohio, Missouri, Platte, and Arkansas. The eastern US is also blessed with good rainfall.
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Western expansion in the US constantly outran organised government. This created a degree of chaos that lasted for a surprisingly long time. The Oklahoma Panhandle, for example, was “No Man’s Land” from 1850 until 1890 – not part of any state or territory. The western part of the Minnesota Territory had the same status between 1858 and 1861. In addition, some of the organised territories in the contiguous US (Arizona and New Mexico) did not become states until 1912.
One tool for dealing with this situation was the resurrection of a thousand-year old English law enforcement strategy: posse comitatus or “power of the county.” Law enforcement was provided by a sheriff, who was authorised to call on armed citizens as needed. Part of the drama of Western stories lies in the sheriff deciding when this was actually needed.
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In contrast to the US, Australia is significantly drier. The Great Dividing Range in the east is somewhat loftier than the Appalachians, with the highest point being Mount Kosciuszko (2,228 m or 7,310 ft). A significant part of the water falling on the west of the range winds up underground in the Great Artesian Basin, a vast bed of porous sandstone holding up to 64,900 cubic kilometres (15,600 cubic miles) of water, capped by an impermeable layer of rock. In places, the basin is 3 km (2 miles) deep. The basin was discovered in 1878, and only after that date did cattle stations or sheep stations in certain parts of the country become feasible, thanks to water from deep bores.
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Politically, the Australian situation was quite different from the US as well. The entire continent east of 135°E was initially part of the British colony of New South Wales, and by 1829 all of the continent had been claimed. Colonial boundaries shifted several times before Federation in 1901 (and the Northern Territory was transferred to federal control in 1911), but the US situation of unorganised territory was nonexistent.
Law enforcement in Australia was initially military, and early police forces were composed of military personnel. In 1853, Victoria was the first colony to merge law enforcement into one colonial police force. However, law enforcement was never decentralised, as it was in the US.
The vast size and relatively small population of Australia meant that there was plenty for law enforcement to do, of course. Stage coaches and gold miners were robbed, and what Americans call “rustling” also took place. In 1870, a daring theft of around 800 head of cattle took place at Bowen Downs Station in Queensland. Harry Redford and four accomplices overlanded the stock to outback South Australia, where the brands would not be recognised (a distance of about 1,300 km or 800 miles). Employees of Bowen Downs successfully tracked the herd, but Redford was acquitted by a working-class jury who didn’t much mind rich graziers being robbed.
The Western genre tells stories of human drama and resourcefulness on the frontier, and in that it resembles the science fiction genre. But to a large extent the Western genre is also a celebration of the land. To quote one of my favourite contemporary short stories (a Christmas story, actually), from novelist Elisabeth Grace Foley:
“A million diamonds glinted in the smooth, untouched white curve of snow in the basin, struck out by the sun that pierced the bright silver-white sky. The bitter wind whisked across it, kicking up little powdery swirls. Cal Rayburn turned up the collar of his sourdough coat with one hand, hunching his shoulders a little so the collar half covered his ears. He squinted at the blinding-bright landscape, and one side of his cold-numbed lips twisted back a little in a half-smile.” – Elisabeth Grace Foley, “The Bird of Dawning”
Australians may have lost contact with the land to a greater extent than Americans have, so that the genre of Australian colonial stories has largely faded away. Australia was formed as a collection of colonies with coastal capitals (and with the national capital only 100 km or 60 miles inland). That, together with the dryness of the interior, facilitated a drift to the cities, so that 70% of the population now lives in the 8 capitals.
In contrast, the US has many landlocked states which seem to retain a greater connection to the land. The state flag of Kansas, to pick just one state, seems to tell an entire story, including Indians hunting bison on the Great Plains, a steamboat on one of the navigable rivers, a settler ploughing his field, and a wagon train heading west. There is scope for all kinds of literature and cinema right there (as Laura Ingalls Wilder, Louis L’Amour, Howard Hawks, John Sturges, Clint Eastwood, and many others have shown). Let us hope that people will keep telling those stories.