“This is the West, sir,” a newspaper reporter tells the attorney and politician Ranse Stoddard (James Stewart) in John Ford’s 1962 Western The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance. “When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.”
With The Western: An Epic in Art and Film, the Denver Art Museum and the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts aim to reconcile the truth and mythology of the American West’s depiction in popular culture. The monumental exhibit is an immersive visual treat that connects and provides context to a century-plus of paintings, movies, sculptures, photographs and other paraphernalia. But the curators often seem content to lean on legend.
The clever Sergio Leone display, a circular room walled in by three monitors that break down The Good, the Bad and the Ugly’s famous climax from its trio of perspectives, also serves as the exhibition’s approximate apex. By the time I stepped into the midst of the showdown, I felt The Western’s organizers hesitated to pull the trigger on opportunities to explore the conflicting roles and portrayal of women, to address the attitudes toward and depiction of Native Americans, and to confront the role of Western art and cinema in America’s gun fetishization.
And then I read the following text:
“Leone also reinvented the Western hero in the figure of the ultra-cool Clint Eastwood, ‘the man with no name,’ who was as lawless as John Wayne was moral.”
Insert record scratch.
Having recently seen the incisive documentary I Am Not Your Negro, author James Baldwin’s caustic assessment of Hollywood in general and the Western genre in particular still rang with clarity in my head. In the movie, as in a segment of the The Western exhibition, we see a scene from John Ford’s Stagecoach—the first film he shot in Monument Valley—in which Wayne and company combat marauding Indians; as in other Westerns of the era, Stagecoach casts Native Americans as blood-thirsty savages and spins excitement and entertainment from their slaughter, from genocide.
Like Baldwin, I watched a lot of Wayne’s Westerns growing up. And like Baldwin, I usually found Wayne’s characters to be racist (The Searchers), sexist (Tall in the Saddle), self-important blowhards who take what they want when they want without regard for others (Red River). I Am Not Your Negro quotes Baldwin’s 1972 book No Name in the Street: “A black man who sees the world the way John Wayne, for example, sees it would not be an eccentric patriot, but a raving maniac.”
Baldwin demands we consider those archetypal Western “heroes” from a different perspective: “I despised and feared those heroes because they did take vengeance into their own hands. They thought vengeance was theirs to take, and yes, I understood that. My countrymen were my enemy.”
The Western, at times, feels like it wants to nudge you into that frame of mind but then pulls away so as not to distract from how much fun it is (as if entertainment and contemplation must be mutually exclusive). The show is most successful in conveying how artists in varying mediums influenced and borrowed from one another, advancing their respective art forms while shaping society’s image of the West. A display dedicated to Ford, for example, demonstrates how the filmmaker’s affection for and knowledge of Western art shaped his own work. Ford built scenes around paintings by Frederic Remington and Charles Schreyvogel, conscious of how those artists used space and perspective within a frame and steered action toward the foreground (and, in turn, toward the viewer); on a few occasions, he sought to emulate their color palettes.
The Western spotlights The Searchers (1956), which many believe is Ford’s best film and is certainly his most painterly. The Searchers also exemplifies the most troubling aspects inherent in so much Western art: Native Americans as aggressors, women as subservient objects prone to kidnap, and miscegenation as something so evil that death is a preferable alternative. The exhibit barely acknowledges these aspects, though its accompanying book, Once Upon a Time…The Western, devotes more depth to race and gender (yet the scholars behind the text remain maddeningly reverential of Wayne and downplay the racial attitudes in The Searchers and other Ford films as character texture).
That The Western fires a few blanks makes it no less enjoyable; it is, perhaps, impossibly ambitious. And its overall presentation deftly enhances the show’s texture: Note the background materials; the typography; and the visual devices that open the exhibit, provide transitions and send you off into the sunset (if not, alas, a more civilized world).
The Western indeed evokes the legends of the American West. I just wish it was a little better at provoking us to consider the facts.
The Western is on display at the Denver Art Museum through Sept. 10. The Montreal Museum of Fine Arts will host the exhibition from Oct. 14, 2017, through Jan. 28, 2018.