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 ?