WolfmanOz at the Movies #41

Revisionist Westerns

During the 1960s at the height of the Vietnam War, a new sub-genre within the Western genre was starting to take hold i.e. the Revisionist Western.

What was now becoming increasingly mainstream within Westerns was a new view that subverted the old myths, romances and traditions that had stood the genre for so long, especially notable in the films of old-timer John Ford. In particular we saw a change in emphasis in the way Native Americans were depicted in that they were no longer seen as stock villains or the enemy of the settlers and/or the US cavalry.

There had been earlier films which showed Native Americans being portrayed sympathetically, most noticeably with Broken Arrow in 1950, but by the mid-to-late 60s films depicted sympathy towards Native Americans started to become the dominant theme with Westerns being released back then.

A particular favourite of mine is Martin Ritt’s Hombre, released in 1967. Here the protagonist, John Russell, an Apache-raised white man encounters much prejudice after he returns to for his inheritance and then find himself on a stagecoach where again he is ostracised until the stagecoach is robbed and the occupants are now dependent on him to save them from the harsh rigours of the terrain they are now in.

Russell is no noble savage, in fact, at times he is rather unsympathetic in his treatment and attitude toward others, but he remains a compelling character, especially in the hands of Paul Newman who gives a superb performance.

Other Revisionist Westerns featuring a change in attitude towards Native Americans in the late 60s/early 70s include Soldier Blue, Ulzana’s Raid, Chato’s Land, but another unique film released during this time was Arthur Penn’s Little Big Man.

This 1970 film encompassed a number of genres including comedy, satire, drama and adventure as it told the life story of a white man who was raised by members of the Cheyenne nation during the 19th century.

Told in flashback to a historian by the 121 year-old protagonist, who claims to have been a captive of the Cheyenne, a gunslinger, an associate of Wild Bill Hickok, a scout for General George Armstrong Custer, and the sole white survivor of the Battle of Little Bighorn.

All the while the viewer is left uneasy that what we are seeing is a story told by what could be by an unreliable narrator.

By the end of the 20th century, the Revisionist Western had now become the dominant theme of Westerns, especially with the enormous critical and box-office success of Kevin Costner’s Dances With Wolves.

What do Cats think ?

Enjoy.

27 thoughts on “WolfmanOz at the Movies #41”

  1. Hombre – cracker – as the only migrant in the street the attitudes towards Hombre I can appreciate- that was back then.
    I have moved on and have a better understanding of the world.
    Little Big Man – I have a question mark – I think it’s modern day mirror is Forest Gump (did not appreciate this film at all) for the Indian tribes.
    Man Called Horse – have not seen it in decades but I recall it being a reasonable film. Especially with Mr Harris hanging by his skin from the heights of the big tee pee.
    Man Called Horse showed a bit more of what Indian life was like.
    The revisionist western – Clint Eastwoods -Unforgiven. I can understand all of it.
    Historically, man’s adventure in seeking the corners of the world at a time where if you told someone you lived in the next suburb you were told to get out now.
    Indian society – I don’t know – reading some books and the initial English settlors/migrants went in with the idea of trading with the Indians than taking over them.


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  2. I did actually like Little Big Man and Dances With Wolves. Revisionism in Westerns wasn’t a bad thing, since they were getting staid and formulaic. But they gave birth to Star Wars so I forgive them. I miss John Wayne though.

    My favourite ultimate revisionist Western is Wild Wild West with Kevin Kline, Kenneth Branagh and Will Smith. I doubt you could revisionize more revisionistically than that one! It was fun, unlike the woke rubbish we’re currently seeing from Hollywood.


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  3. I enjoyed Dances With Wolves too, chiefly (sic!) due to the excellent performances by the native American actors, especially Graham Greene. When all is said and done, movies must entertain or charm us; failing that, any movie with “a message” just becomes a ponderous lecture.

    For anyone wanting to delve deeper into the Indian wars, Peter Cozzens’s ‘The Earth is Weeping’ gets to the history behind the myths.


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  4. Native American society was traditionally extraordinarily brutal.
    It was common to torture captured males to death as slowly as possible and in the most horrendous ways, not to gain information but simply for the “fun” of it. All females and children who survived a raid were of course made slaves (seems to be forgotten in the present slave narrative in the USA).
    It was always survival of the fittest and red in tooth and claw. The revisionist movies have increasingly gone down the Noble Savage and then the Victim path. So, no, not a great fan of these movies for those “political” reasons and their exploitation in the woke narrative.


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  5. The trend extended into TV Westerns as well.

    There was a series in the 1960s called Broken Arrow about a tribal chief and the local Indian Agent, who was the US government representative. They were frequently at loggerheads because of the rash or hostile actions of whites (mainly settlers and soldiers) and their native equivalents (firebrand young braves or troublemakers from other tribes.)

    As you point out, the black and white goodies v baddies model was worn threadbare, and the addition of some nuance improved both the quality and the believability of Westerns.


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  6. Clint Eastwood’s UnForgiven is one of the great Western films of all time.

    The John Wayne/ John Ford Westerns were masterpieces of cinema photography, but the storylines were formulaic and predictable, with one exception, The Searchers.

    Both Wayne and Ford were heavily criticised at the time for the racism and violence in that film, but it was one of Ford’s greatest and set the tone for later revisionist Westerns.

    The Western is a film genre that seems to go on forever, subtly changing shape, but eternally popular.


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  7. I prefer the old style where the Indians were portrayed as baddies and savages, because to the American settler, that’s exactly what they were. In that sense, they are realistic portrayals. That being said, I do love some of the revisionist westerns. Hombre is one of my favourites for sure. Richard Boone plays the baddie with such menace.

    The one’s I don’t like are the ones like Dances With Wolves, which make the Indians out as innocent victims (from my decades old recollection). Victims, yes, but innocent? You’ve got to be kidding me.


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  8. Westerns had a big cultural impact, even in Australia. I have a photo of me and my sister in Annie Oakley style outfits when we were 8-10 years old. Red, with fringing and hats, and, of course, guns. That would have been in the mid 1960s.

    It would be ‘inappropriate’ (how I hate that word) now, although neither of us has ever shot anyone in the suceeding half a century plus.


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  9. It doesn’t matter what the project, revisionism wherever it occurs is essentially counter-propaganda attempting to overturn the facts of history.

    Given what we now know about Hollywood and the liberals who have run the place for nearly 100 years, revisionist Westerns are just attempts to hide or distort the truth.

    Monty will be along shortly to carry water for the revisionists. Useful idiots are so predictable.


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  10. Westerns had a big cultural impact, even in Australia. I have a photo of me and my sister in Annie Oakley style outfits

    We must be of a similar age.
    My clear memories of that time include a stagecoach (an old outdoor table) and multiple injuns riding around it in circles (our dog), while I defended it with my trusty Remington rifle with bullets that never ran out.
    Goodies and baddies. It was ever thus.
    Thanks johanna and Wolfman for jogging the old grey cells.


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  11. As a 13 yo boy I thought Little Big Man was great, I liked that it humanised the Indians and did not portray them in the cliched fashion of old Westerns. I especially liked the scene where one night he was called to service all of the squaws in the big teepee, on account of the menfolk being lost or away in raiding parties.

    Later I read Allan Eckerts semi factual novel, Tecumseh, which while being sympathetic to the Plains Indians, put some focus on the incredible cruelty of the warriors, and worse cruelty of the squaws, toward captives who were not enslaved. The knowledge of that cruelty underpinned the racial prejudices of the settlers towards “the savages”.


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  12. I think one of the Mad Magazine satirical takes on Dances with Wolves had a girl they referred to as Dances With Bikers. And the one on Little Big Man had a reflection on the insinuation of a gay indian into the plot. After the orgy scene Little Big Man was made to say “that one was a real animal!”


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  13. What?! No mention of F Troop?

    Banff-f-f-f. I learned today that there’re 104 episodes of The Wild Wild West, which was a 1965 science fiction western mashup TV series. Sounds fascinating, and if it went for 4 seasons it must’ve been not too bad. F Troop only went two seasons, also starting in 1965. I wonder if it exists on the internet?


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  14. of The Wild Wild West, which was a 1965 science fiction western mashup TV series. Sounds fascinating, and if it went for 4 seasons it must’ve been not too bad.

    It also mashed up the espionage genre and had a lot of comedy in it as well.

    I have dim memories that it was great.


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  15. You can get F Troop on iTunes.

    The searchers is an awesome Indian western.
    Dances with wolves is an irritating noble savage tale that was completely ripped off by Avatar. And James Cameron is doing it again with a sequel.


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  16. F all this. The American Indians are / were no more native than anyone else born in the US. This is actual revisionism which sucks big time….

    Same deal in Oz with the Aborigines, who just like the American Indians are originally from Asia and were not “created in situ” by God: the notion believed by most folk prior to Darwin (and others) setting them straight.

    The Indian tribes were often the most barbarous cut-throats imaginable> F them all! There never was a first nation in Nth America before the US of A.

    Second nation: Canada.


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  17. But give me the Magnificent Seven any time. Great Actors everyone.

    Classic.

    But it didn’t do all that well when released in the US.

    In the end, the young gun Chico chooses to settle down as a farmer & Chris concedes that while the villagers won “gunfighters always lose.” With that, it was a revisionist take on the old West.


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