Posts Tagged ‘The West’

Presented by Carlos Canizales, University of Texas at San Antonio, and Gilles Goulu, University of Angers at France


What can make a location iconic within the region of a country is how the place influences the importance of its role from its human and environmental history. The aspects of the region influences the ideas of how people think about the environment that marks the importance of conserving and preserving the resources of the nation, as well as evoking part of its historical preference. Yellowstone National Park is no exception of such aspect. Since it discovery, the American people established Yellowstone region a National Park for numerous reasons, but the aspects of the park is was made this place so iconic. People from around the world became so attracted to the beauty of the wilderness at Yellowstone National Park and become one of the famous national parks to visit. Not only this national park is iconic for its beauty of the landscape, but also for its human history upon discoveries and imageries.

Although many travelers discovered the Yellowstone Valley in the early 1800s, many documented discoveries and expeditions occurred between 1869 and 1872. These expeditions involved people traveling to the region and came back to the eastern states with “engravings, sketches, paintings, photographs, and lithographs” that provided the “medium for the recording, translation, and construction of knowledge about the American West”.[1] One of the examples of paintings that illustrate Yellowstone National Park is Thomas Moran’s The Grand Canon of the Yellowstone, published in 1872 by the U.S Department of the Interior Museum. His painting was positively reviewed by editorials in the U.S, especially by Gilder who described it as “the most remarkable work of art which has been in this country for a long time.”[2] He described his painting that contains “the startling character of the geological forms, the brilliant colors, the manifold planes of distance presented by the view”[3]. Similar paintings that were published at the U.S Department of Interior Museum from the 1870s like Moran’s clearly amazed many Americans that motivated them to visit the region and preserve the historical landmark for other people who wish to see it. This tells us that many people wanted to see the attraction of the waterfalls, forests, geysers, and other features from the beautiful landscape. Because of its geographical features, it helped defined the meaning of the American West as having attracting landscapes that brings people from across the world together to enjoy seeing such beautiful scenery.


The Bison

Many Americans thought that the bison serve as a secondary iconic aspect for Yellowstone National Park that defines the American West. History tells us that Native Americans who settled in these areas thousand of years ago used bison as their resource, which “provided food, clothing, fuel, tools, shelter, and spiritual value.”[4] When American settlers traveled west, the bison were once popular for hunting sports in the 1800s. Since then, these animals “became a marketable commodity and great numbers were killed so their hides could be exported to the eastern United States and Europe.”[5] When Yellowstone became a national park, Congress established their goals “to preserve cultural and natural resources, and bison became a symbol of this ideal.”[6] So the bison that occupied in the Yellowstone Valley region served an important role of preserving the natural landscape and their species because they represent the historical discovery of the great geographical location in the American West. United States wanted to show to the world that preserving and protecting the endangered animals is just as important as preserving and protecting their historical landmark that recognizes the nation.



I would like to thank my french colleague from the University of Angers at France, Gilles Goulu, for us working together on this blog post about Icons of The West, and Dr. Clinton for giving us this great opportunity during our Spring semester. We hope that this educational findings can make you visit Yellowstone National Park and learn more about its historical origins with your family and friends.


[1] John, Gareth E. 2007. Yellowstone as “landscape idea”: Thomas moran and the pictorial practices of gilded-age western exploration. Journal of Cultural Geography 24 (2): 9.

[2] John, Gareth E. 2007. Yellowstone as “landscape idea”: Thomas moran and the pictorial practices of gilded-age western exploration. Journal of Cultural Geography 24 (2): 2.

[3] John, Gareth E. 2007. Yellowstone as “landscape idea”: Thomas moran and the pictorial practices of gilded-age western exploration. Journal of Cultural Geography 24 (2): 2.

[4] White, P. J., Rick L. Wallen, and David E. Hallac, eds. “Yellowstone Bison: Conserving an American Icon in Modern Society.” Yellowstone Association, 2015, 132.

[5] White, P. J., Rick L. Wallen, and David E. Hallac, eds. “Yellowstone Bison: Conserving an American Icon in Modern Society.” Yellowstone Association, 2015, 135.

[6] White, P. J., Rick L. Wallen, and David E. Hallac, eds. “Yellowstone Bison: Conserving an American Icon in Modern Society.” Yellowstone Association, 2015, 135.


John, Gareth E. 2007. Yellowstone as “landscape idea”: Thomas moran and the pictorial practices of gilded-age western exploration. Journal of Cultural Geography 24 (2): 1-29.

White, P. J., Rick L. Wallen, and David E. Hallac, eds. “Yellowstone Bison: Conserving an American Icon in Modern Society.” Yellowstone Association, 2015, 1-265.

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Having never actually watched Crossroads, I took the opportunity to relive the glory days that were the early 00’s while visiting the concept of the American road. Crossroads typifies a classic American road trip movie as a symbol for America. Three best friends, Lucy, Kit and Mimi, lose touch over the years until a road trip after their high school graduation promises to reunite them through achieving their childhood dreams. Ironically, the realization of the ladies’ dreams is found in California and Arizona, in the West, making it once again an opening for opportunity. Just as the journey to the old West was filled with danger, Crossroads is as well, but in the form of car trouble and destitution. The girls had to overcome the dangers of travel using cooperation to reach their destination and ultimately fulfill their American dreams.

After their travels, the girls were then faced with the danger of their dreams. Lucy dreamt of reconnecting with her estranged mother who left her as a three year old. Her mother rejected her, calling her a mistake. Kit dreamt of getting married, only to find that her fiancé was a cheater and rapist. Mimi dreamt of leaving their small hometown in Georgia, and traveling the world, but having been raped and impregnated, she had to rethink her dream to travel. After falling down a flight of stairs, and miscarrying, however, she now had the freedom to continue her travels, and had successfully left her hometown. Mimi is the only one whose dream came true, albeit in a horrible fashion.

All three girls went through traumatic events while trying to accomplish their dreams. In the end, those dreams shifted through the experience they gathered on the road, and while in the West. Their road trip transformation about the transition from girls to women mirrors the transition into Americans experienced by the pioneers. Much like other road trip movies, Crossroads presents the American road as a place full of opportunity, leading to the West, to follow your dreams, and to experience life-changing danger.

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Winchester ’73 provides numerous characters by which viewers can watch and analyze the what the country thought about masculinity. I chose to look at Steve, a cowardly man whose interactions with Lola give a blatant comment on how to not be a man.

Winchester ’73 was produced in 1950, which places it just five years after World War II. The war created rather concrete roles for males, mainly that above all else, that women are meant to be protected. This notion could both be taken literally, a man protecting his wife, or somewhat figurative as a man protecting the country, which is often dubbed as “she.” In this particular film, Steve consistently falls short in terms of protecting Lola. First, Steve apparently has no money–He mentions that Lola has money and that he needs to get some of his own. The lack of income shows that Steve is incapable of financially supporting Lola, which is supposed to be a “mans” job.  When the two are ambushed by Native Americans, Steve leaves the wagon and scurries away on his own horse to “find help.” He deliberately leaves Lola to fend for herself instead of staying and protecting her. He then rides back to retrieve her after finding a small camp, but the look that Lola gives to him upon his return spoke to her unhappiness.

Once at the camp, Lola gets off the wagon and hugs the leader of the camp and kisses him while thanking him for saving her life. Steve looks distraught when she says this, which shows that he knows he messed up. A little while later, when the Native American attack is imminent, Steve tells Lola he doesn’t want her to get hurt in the fight. She responds with another look, as if to say “you didn’t seem to care about my well being when I was alone on the wagon.”

When Lin arrives, he takes an interest in Lola’s protection and security. He goes out of his way to make her bed and make sure she is comfortable. Steve, on the other hand, only made himself a drink and didn’t even ask Lola if she needed anything. The next morning before the attack, Lin gives Lola a gun, which shows that he is actively thinking about her safety.

As we have spoke about in class, all things done in film are deliberate. Therefore, it is important to analyze what happens to Steve as a result of his actions. Steve’s outcome is rather bleak, meaning that he ends up getting shot and killed a little while after the Native American attack. This is the producers way of saying “Hey, if you do not protect your woman, you might at well be dead.” Steve’s outcome symbolizes the greater American ideal about masculinity, that protecting the woman is vitally important, and if that job is not done, one has failed as a male.

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man who shot liberty valance

The West is an iconic image that tells a mythical story of American exceptionalism. According to Frederick Jackson Turner, the West, or the frontier, reflects the essence of what America means without Europe’s influence. Western films are a powerful medium that reassert the connection between the United States and the West. The film The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance reflects two common themes associated with America and the West: the tension between civilization and savagery and the importance of myth.

Like most American icons, the frontier is riddled with contradictions. One ever-present contradiction is the tension between civilization and savagery. People traveled to the West to escape their conventional lives and regain a sense of individualism. However, there was still a desire to bring law and order to the wild and lawless West. This strain between leaving society and rebuilding in a new place is seen in the film when Jimmy Stewart’s character Ransom Stoddard arrives in the West. Stoddard, a lawyer, heads west looking for adventure. Stoddard gets more than he bargained for when he is stopped by Liberty Valance, a dangerous outlaw. This first meeting between Stoddard and Valance represents the collision of civilization and savagery. Valance rips up Stoddard’s law book and says “I’ll teach you law. Western law!” Throughout the movie, Stoddard is adamant that the law, not guns, should hold townspeople accountable. He is shocked when Valance and Tom Doniphon almost come to blows in the tavern. Stoddard scoffs when Doniphon tells him he should have a gun, and he teaches many citizens to read and write, while writing on the board “education is the basis of law and order”. The townspeople seem to revere Stoddard for being intelligent and for helping to educate them. But, later in the film it is revealed that Stoddard has been learning to use a gun in case he needs to protect himself against Valance. In the end, the shot of a gun is what stops Valance, not law and order. The tension between civilization and savagery can clearly be seen, because while people eventually value features of a civilized society, violence also seems necessary to survive.

The Western myth also plays a significant role in this film. The frontier is often thought of as exemplifying qualities that represent America, like freedom, opportunity, and struggle. The West gains power as an icon not because it does necessarily reflect exactly what it means to be an American, but because Americans imagine that it does. To some extent, it does not matter what is true about the West; what matters is what people believe to be true. This distinction can be seen in the movie, when Stoddard admits that it was actually Doniphon who shot Liberty Valance. Mr. Scott, the newspaper, decides he will not tell anyone what he has learned, and he tells Stoddard: “This is the west, sir. When the legend becomes fact, print the legend”. Mr. Scott’s comment displays how powerful a myth can be. People believe that Stoddard shot Valance, and he has achieved great success as a politician because of it. Most of the West consists of myths and legends, and these images are incredibly influential.

The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance portrays the West as a place of contradiction and myth. The Western is an extremely popular movie genre, presumably because the films capture the iconic image of the West, which for many people embodies what America means. Ransom Stoddard represents the clash between civilization and society and the role that legend plays in the West.

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Winchester ’73 was made in the 1950s, a time when men were mostly at work then returning home to their families at night. This movie clearly shows that to be a man one must partake in violence or at least forcibly take something of value. This can be seen even in the opening scene of the film where we are shown young boys and older men staring at this new and great Winchester gun. This shows that guns are desirable and that once a boy has a gun, through purchase or skill, he then becomes a man. We also see this use of a violent skill with the hero of the movie, Lin, who wins the prized gun in a sharpshooting contest. This movie also makes the viewer side with whoever has the most skills in violence, which also in this case is Lin.

There were many characters who did not live until the end of the movie for they lacked such gunfighting or skills in violence. One character was Steve. Steve, who already seemed cowardly and lacking in masculinity when he ran away from the Indians, almost did not have a choice in fighting Waco. Steve needed to prove his masculinity by standing up for his woman, Lola.  Because Steve was killed, it is clear that he did not have enough gunfighting skills or masculinity traits to move further in this movie.

The other note about masculinity in this movie is shown through the very obvious villain in the movie, Dutch Henry. It’s curious that both Lin and Dutch Henry are seen being very masculine through their acts of violence, but that only dutch Henry’s acts are seen as bad, even though we do not know what he did until the very end of the movie. I believe that this is because we see Lin fighting for justice, protecting those around him, and only harming those who get in the way of justice. This movie tells that to me a man, one must be skilled in violent acts but only use partake in those acts if necessary.

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In 1962, the traditional Western was dying. In just a few years, Clint Eastwood would become one of the silver screen’s biggest stars and lead the genre in a drastically different direction. Caught in between the era of High Noon and The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly, director John Ford selected two of Hollywood’s great aging stars, Jimmy Stewart and John Wayne, to shroud the classic Western in a mist of myth and mystery in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance.

The entire basis of the film could essentially be condensed into one quote from newspaper editor Maxwell Scott at the film’s conclusion. As he crumples Senator Stoddard’s account of the shooting of Liberty Valance, he states, “This is the West, sir. When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.” In other words, the West is not defined by cold hard facts, but by mythic tales of heroes and vigilantes. This quote is not only applicable to Rance Stoddard’s account of the truth behind who shot Liberty Valance, but also to the entire canon of the Western genre which came before Ford’s film. At the end of the film, Stoddard is not remembered for instilling education in Shinbone or even for working towards establishing its statehood. Instead, he is remembered for the act of shooting Liberty Valance, even though he openly admits that this is not true. At the final scene of the film, a train conductor tells Rance, “Nothing’s too good for the man who shot Liberty Valance,” ending the film on the slightly pessimistic note of erroneous praise of false idols. Furthermore, musician Gene Pitney’s immortalization of Ford’s film in his song of the same name clearly plays off of this idea that Rance was the man who shot Valance and this makes him “the bravest man of all.” Pitney’s song further illustrates how truth dies in the West (and the genre of the Western), but myths spread rapidly. In the twilight of his career, Ford openly acknowledges that the most popular film genre of his lifetime was nothing but a glorification of fallacious myths and falsehoods. At this interesting moment in 1962 near the demise of the Western genre, Ford reduces the entire genre to nothing but myth and fantasy.

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One of the most prevalent idioms that exists about America is the notion of an ‘American Dream’. Usually this means a couple of things: the chance for a better life, the opportunity to reinvent one self for a more successful existence, the idea of upward social mobility.  This ideology is seen to play out time and time again throughout America’s history from Pilgrims fleeing persecution in the 17th Century to the mass immigration that followed in the late 19th Century. This ideology is not without its contradictions however, as shown (albeit indirectly) in the painting, titled American Progress.

Another example of the so called American Dream playing out is the frontier era of the country, The American West is a source of much romanticizing and mythology for the country. The images  and cultural ideas from the West, which acted as a quintessential example of the American Dream, pervade to this day. Cowboys and Indians. The popularity of the Western both here and over seas (such as the Italian Spaghetti Westerns).  From the Homefront Act to the Gold Rush to the ever popular ghost towns in the West, this is true. The above painting, American Progress is from 1872 which is one of the most commonly discussed images when the concept of Manifest Destiny is discussed. Manifest Destiny, the supposed divine right/command to expand Westward, was seen as another manifestation of the American Dream.

This also exposes the contradictions within America. Manifest Destiny is one of the most infamous examples of American Imperialism. The painting shows this concept in a positive light. The left side of the frames is showing Native Americans run off into the darkness. The story of what actually  happened to the Native Americans is very often brushed over or not discussed period. The fact that there is more fiction than truth about the ‘Wild West’ that pervade to this day is another example (a lesser extreme) of an inherent contradiction within this country. The American Dream is an idea, maybe not founded in reality, but in the popular conception of reality.

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