History, geography, and the Western genre

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.


Fairy tale retellings


Little Red Riding Hood, as depicted by Gustave Doré (1883)

A few years ago, I blogged about fairy tales. “About once every hundred years some wiseacre gets up and tries to banish the fairy tale,” C.S. Lewis wrote in 1952, and Richard Dawkins had done exactly that.

Fairy tales are stories that have stood the test of time, and that means they have power. That power can be harnessed to teach science to children, but I don’t want to talk about that today; I want to talk about fairy tale retellings, which have become popular again in recent years.

It seems that Einstein did not say “If you want your children to be intelligent, read them fairy tales” – but fairy tales do develop the imagination and speak to the human heart. And retellings keep fairy tales fresh.

Fairy tales are generally classified as fantasy, and most retold fairy tales fall within that genre too. Among my favourites are the dream-like novels of Patricia A. McKillip, including In the Forests of Serre (2003), which incorporates Slavic tales of Baba Yaga and the Firebird. In fact, pretty much everything that Patricia A. McKillip has written is superb.


“This Mortal Mountain” (1967), a novelette by Roger_Zelazny, collected in The Doors of His Face, the Lamps of His Mouth (1971) and This Mortal Mountain (2009)

Fairy tales can be retold as science fiction too. After all, “any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” In “This Mortal Mountain” (1967), Roger Zelazny mashes together Sleeping Beauty (or “Doornroosje” as I first learned to call it) with Dante’s Purgatorio, in a story of mountain-climbing on a distant planet: “‘A forty-mile-high mountain,’ I finally said, ‘is not a mountain. It is a world all by itself, which some dumb deity forgot to throw into orbit.’ … I looked back at the gray and lavender slopes and followed them upward once more again, until all color drained away, until the silhouette was black and jagged and the top still nowhere in sight, until my eyes stung and burned behind their protective glasses; and I saw clouds bumping up against that invincible outline, like icebergs in the sky, and I heard the howling of the retreating winds which had essayed to measure its grandeur with swiftness and, of course, had failed.”

The spell described in this novelette is purely technological, but yet the story reduces me to tears every time I read it: “The planes of her pale, high cheeks, wide forehead, small chin corresponded in an unsettling fashion with certain simple theorems which comprise the geometry of my heart.”

The Lunar Chronicles, which I have not read, are a series of young adult science fiction fairy tale retellings, so the science fiction spin still exists.

Many fairy tales were originally intended to be scary. The terror of walking through a wolf-infested forest armed with, at most, a knife for protection is something that is difficult to imagine today, when Canis lupus is so much less common in the wild than it used to be. Deliberately swimming in shark-infested waters is perhaps the closest modern equivalent. Added to the wolves, bears, trolls, and giants, fairy tales also frequently have supernatural threats. In Faerie Tale (1988), Raymond E. Feist retells some Irish mythology as the straight horror it was perhaps once meant to be.

Fairy tales can also be retold with great success as Westerns. As with science fiction retellings, the frontier elements of danger and of the unknown help to set the scene. A particularly good example is The Mountain of the Wolf (2016), in which Elisabeth Grace Foley retells Little Red Riding Hood (or “Roodkapje” as I first learned to call it), but with a believable motivation for Red Riding Hood’s presence in the danger zone (I grew up with a Dutch children’s game that acted out the story; Red Riding Hood’s motivation in the original tale always struck me as confused).

Finally, fairy tales can be twisted. The outcome may be altered; the hero may become the villain; the beautiful dragon may be rescued from a ravening princess. This can become very dark, bordering on horror, or it may be light comic fantasy. And amusing recent example of the latter is The Reluctant Godfather (2017), a retelling of Cinderella by Allison Tebo in which the fairy godmother is (a) male and (b) totally uninterested in helping Cinderella out. In the movie world, Hoodwinked! is a well-known example of the twisted fairy tale in its comic form.

So there you have it. How do you take your fairy tales: black, or with cream and sugar?


The demise of the Western?

I recently came across a discussion on the demise of the Western genre. Where did all the great Western novels and movies go?

But has there actually been a demise? For data, I turned to rottentomatoes.com, who have a list of the top 66 Western films, based on movie critic reviews. Their list is headed by The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948), The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly (1966), High Noon (1952), The Searchers (1956), Once Upon a Time in the West (1968), True Grit (2010), The Wild Bunch (1969), A Fistful of Dollars (1964), Unforgiven (1992), and Sweetgrass (2009).

This histogram shows an increasing number of Western films over time:

But this is not the full story. Being based on movie reviews, the list is biased toward recent films, plus some “greats” of the past. In the histogram, colour shows film rating, with dark colours indicating higher ratings. Many of the recent films are clearly mediocre. Plotting the top 20 films tells a clearer story – there are about 2 good Western films each decade (except for the 80’s), with a peak of 8 during the 60’s:

The 60’s peak contains 3 Sergio Leone films, being composed of The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly (1966), Once Upon a Time in the West (1968), The Wild Bunch (1969), A Fistful of Dollars (1964), The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962), the original True Grit (1969), The Magnificent Seven (1960), and Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969). Perhaps that was a golden age for the genre.