Monthly Archives: January 2015

Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid–Iconic of the West by Sarah Klein

Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid is unique in that the iconic movie is based Butch-Cassidy-and-the-Sundance-Kid-Robert-Redford-and-Paul-Newmanoff of the true story of outlaws Butch Cassidy, born George LaRoy Parker, and the Sundance Kid, born Harry Longbaugh. I had the good fortune of watching PBS’ documentary on the men just a few weeks ago. Brilliant timing. The film chronicles the history fairly accurately, but as one might expect, glosses over their very beginnings and perhaps the less exciting parts of their lives.

Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid captures a snapshot of American history in a thrilling and telling way. Condensing their story into a film just under two hours required the film to work over time inferring and bringing to life what life was like in the late 1800s Wild West. The film begins in sepia tone, looking aged and brown, as one might imagine the West to look–antiqued. The browns of the wood-built Western town and the dirt roads blend with the sepia tone to create a perfect depiction of a stereotypical frontier town. The film opens with Butch and Sundance smoking, drinking and gambling in a saloon, emblematic of Wild West happenings. Within the first few moments, a horse is seen pulling a wagon and Butch and Sundance look like the quintessential cowboys of the era.

Throughout the film, iconic images of the West are included, such as steam powered trains traveling across vast open space, huge bank vaults, debauchery in saloons and brothels, train robbing, riding horseback through a476b0502fa2cb3d92600329cbe3bbd8open fields with canyons in the background, a Marshall urging townspeople to take action against the outlaws, and a chase scene on horses, just to name a few. Due to these images, and the panoramic scenes of the land, obviously the West, it is quite apparent that this film is indeed a Western.

The primary themes from the film include outlaws/bandits and the idea of making one’s own in a rather lawless world. Perhaps the iconicity of the West lies in the idea of it, and that it represents a way of life akin to Butch and Sundance’s where they live for ultimate freedom and adventure. The epitome of the West nowadays is Las Vegas, where one goes to lose their inhibitions, win money, have fun and go wild. Freedom. Americans have always yearned to make it on their own, from rags to riches, the American Dream, and all of those images associated with obtaining success through hard work on American soil. The West is no different–it represents the attitude that adventure and freedom lies beyond our hometowns, that success and riches is obtainable on one’s own terms.

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The American West: Glorified, Capable, and Adaptable by Nicole Thomas

The Western Film I chose to watch was Once Upon a Time in the West.  This A13galZ0-yL._SL1500_movie was made in 1968, and it is set in a made up-town somewhere in Utah called “Flagstone.” It was filmed in a studio in Italy and in the Spanish desert. The overall theme of this film adheres to what most, if not all of America, believes to be stereotypical of the American West. We drew many of these same themes on the back of our maps in class on Monday. The idea of the American West was created to glorify the American people, especially white American men.  And most of these ideas have made their way into popular icons and themes created by the media through film.

First, I want to discuss the setting. The movie poster really does say it all. The movie is set in the frontier. The land is barren, harsh, and the town of Flagstone is very much isolated. It is equipped with all of the fantastic structures and furnishings that popular culture believes the west should have such as saloons, train stations, and old dusty wooden houses. The setting describes the life of the American Frontier. There are horses, railroads, covered wagons, and dirt roads. Everything that we believe to be “the west.”  The American West is dirty and wild, and in order to survive Americans had to adapt to the wilderness, or die, which makes us a strong and powerful people (maybe/maybe not).

Next, I want to discuss the characters. The characters of this western exhibit certain roles and icons of the “American West” including the role of men, women, and Indians. There are four main characters: three men and one woman. First, there’s Frank, played by Henry Fonda. Frank is a notorious murdering, gang-leading cowboy. Frank is the villain. Then there are the two hero figures, Cheyenne (Jason Robards) and Harmonica (Charles Bronson). Cheyenne is a bandit who has been wrongly accused of committing Frank’s crimes, and of course, he wants Frank dead. Harmonica is a mysterious, sharp shooting, stranger who speaks little and frequently plays sad songs on the harmonica. He also wants Frank dead. The lives of the men in this movie are quite glorified and fantastic.

Then there’s Jill or Mrs. McBain (Claudia Cardinale) who is the only female role in the film. Unsurprisingly, she is a beautiful buxom ex-prostitute who married one of her clients for his money. She plays a helpless role in the film. She ends up getting taken advantage of by Frank, and the only reason she’s alive is because Cheyenne and Harmonica protect her from harm. Remarkably, throughout the movie there are also African American and Native American slaves as well.

This brings me to my point of the idea of the American West being the ideal world for white American men. The idea of the American West avoids all of the contradictory parts of history such as Native American enslavement (driving them out of their lands) and Women’s rights. In this film, and many other western films, the Native Americans and the women are more than happy to be slaves to white men, and everyone seems pretty ok with it.

Much like Betsy Ross, I think the idea of the American West is kept alive because it is made to seem simple, easy, and entertaining.  The idea of good vs. evil, cowboys vs. Indians, and the “final frontier” is entertaining to America, and to the world. I think the reasoning behind the idea of the West makes sense, because although it isn’t really historically accurate, it seems to make America…well… American. In avoiding certain parts of history that make us look bad, through the media and through movies like Once Upon a Time in the West we can bring the image of the America we want everyone in the world to have, which I think is the idea of a durable, adaptable, and capable people.


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Shane: Manliness and Independence by Lea Millio

In a random selection, I chose to watch the Western film Shane. I have never taken the opportunity to watch a Western film but I had some idea about what I was going to see in this movie.  The first scene was exactly what I expected to see: mountains, horses, a big blue sky, and a cowboy.

To shortly w-shanesummarize the film: The cowboy, Shane, is wandering through the West on his horse as he comes across a family living on the homestead.  Shane befriends the family, especially the little boy, Joey. Joey thinks Shane is invincible and is mesmerized by him. However, Shane is very mysterious and the father of the family, Joe, is reluctant to trust him. There are also some subtle feelings between Shane and Joe’s wife, Marian.  The movie includes classic Western scenes of saloon fighting and drinking just as I had expected it would. The family that Shane meets is struggling to keep hold of their “claim” (land) along with other people on the homestead. A greedy man named Ryker claims that Joe is on his land and he has come to take it back. One by one, other families on the homestead leave their land but Joe is determined to stay.  Ryker recruits a notorious gunman, Jack Wilson, to help him fight off the people on “his land”.  Joe plans to fight Ryker and Wilson but Shane’s inner cowboy and previous gunfighting experience surfaces as he knocks out Joe and goes to fight Ryker and Wilson. Shane ends up killing Wilson in a saloon shootout.  To Joey’s disappointment and Marian’s relief, Shane rides off just as any true cowboy would too.  w-shane-9

Two themes that I found most prevalent in Shane, are manliness andindependence.  There are two instances in the film when Shane is asked to leave the saloon because he is not fit to drink with the men.  It is obvious that the Western men pride themselves on their “manliness.”  I’m assuming that most of them have built their homes and started their families out west.  This also fits in with the theme of independence.  The men on the homestead want to be independent and keep their “claim” without being controlled by land barons.  Also, Shane is very independent. He enters this story alone, and leaves alone.

Significant images and icons I identified were horses, guns, mountains, saloons, whiskey, cowboy attire including hats, and wagons.  All of these images are consistent throughout the film and are what I would describe as classic Western images.

Because I can identify these images as “classic Western” images, I stand by my opinion that the West is an icon. I already knew what to expect before I watched this film and I think that says something about the West being an American icon.  The West has its own style and iconic images that the majority of people across the United States and elsewhere could identify.

Picture Sources:

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Hondo and the 1950s Western Hero by Deja Sloan

hondo-movie-poster-1954-1020258317After watching the 1953 adventure film Hondo, I can safely say it follows the pattern of many American Western films, and heavily reinforces to the idea of the overall icon of the “West.” The movie shows the adventures of a very mysterious, very masculine, cowboy/outlaw/gunman, Hondo Lane (played by John Wayne), who develops an unlikely relationship with a New Mexican housewife (Mrs. Lowe) and her young son. The movie deals with themes such as masculine bravery, territory, ways of life, and surprisingly, love.

All of Hondo’s heroism is accredited to his sheer bravery and unapologetic boss attitude. He travels alone accompanied by his dog Sam (Man’s best friend) and is not afraid to stand up to any man—White or Native. Another sub theme in the movie was death, which comes close to Hondo almost every scene. This, accompanied by his leather-ish shirt, handkerchief, rugged appearance, and extensive knowledge on Apache culture and gun use, makes him the epitome of the stereotypical Cowboy contemporary society that has come to associate with the old west. (That and Hondo’s ability to take shots of straight whiskey and win a saloon fight against three other men without breaking a sweat). The movie also emphasizes how the Apache value bravery as well, so much so that they spare the life of a young boy who shot at one of their own because he was protecting his mother.

The protection of one’s territory is also a huge theme in the movie. In this case, Mrs. Lowe represents the All American family protecting its home with a gun when she first meets Hondo. The Native Americans are trying to protect what is left of their land (reservation) from white people, and Hondo represents the West in general as he is brave, wild, and doesn’t have a territory of his own, but protects whoever he needs to as a “good” cowboy. There are a number of lengthy war scenes in the movie that begin over a dispute of territory and who it belongs to. This tension over ownership of land also feeds into the idea of the “American West” as they depict it being extremely iHondo22mportant, and worth dying for.

Another re-occurring theme that caught my attention over the course of the film was the idea of a “Way of life.” Hondo, who is a loner is very anti-social, and chooses to travel alone and make up his own rules. Mrs. Lowe stays quiet about her husband’s affairs, even when she’s aware of all of his unfaithfulness in order to protect her son in a cloud of oblivion. There is also a scene in the movie where Hondo refuses to let Mrs. Lowe feed his dog because “He’s independent…that’s the way to be.”  Even the Apaches are given a moral standard of how to live bravely, and reward whites for living up to it

Surprisingly, the theme of love also made its way into the film a number of times. In the beginning of the film, Mrs. Lowe is depicted as a loving mother that will do anything to protect her son, and is faithfully awaiting the return of her husband. Later on, the Apaches develop so much love for her son that they almost demand she remarry so he has a father to look up to. And in the end, of course, Honda and Mrs. Lowe end up together, as an unlikely couple with a strong tough man capable of protecting a weak, beautiful, delicate, young woman.

These themes are known across many western films, and perfectly fit the iconic “Western” image so many of us have. Images of “savage” Indians with colorful face paint, dark reddish skin, long hair and “tribal yelling” are some of the stereotypes used to depict the Indians in the film. The image of a strong American family and complete male dominance are also used to depict other iconic images associated with the west. What makes this film American is its sense of pride over “heroes” such as Hondo and the “Perfect” American family. What makes this film western is its open backdrop, shoot-outs, Indian slaughter, and a brave cowboy who gets the girl.


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Disney and John Henry – by Kelsey Miranda

Walt Disney Pictures created an animated short depicting the life of American jh1legend John Henry.  The cartoon tells a story of two freed slaves John Henry and his wife Polly Ann on the search for work and a new home during Reconstruction. John Henry finds a crew of exhausted workers who are having trouble completing the railroad’s deadline.  The railroad company has a contract with the workers; if they complete their deadline on time the workers are entitled to 50 acres of land.  John Henry gets right to work but workers become fearful when a steam-powered drill comes to finish the job. The laborers contracts will be broken if the steam-powered drill proves to be more efficient. This part of the film dealt with the anxiety workers had during this time that industries would replace manpower with machines. In Nelson’s reading this anxiety propelled labor unions and the communist party to use pictures of John Henry to represent Black laborers.

In the film American hero John Henry will not let his crew lose their land due to the machine, which results in a competition between John Henry and the steam-powered drill.  Whoever gets the most work done by sundown wins the competition. John Henry with two hammers beats the machine; the workers and his wife Polly Ann were given the land that they were promised in their contract. Unfortunately, John Henry loses his life due to exhaustion and the movie ends with Polly Ann telling this story to her and John’s son. In the film, Disney recreated versions of the worker songs about John Henry, which showed the icon’s lasting power in American Folk music.

In the readingJH2s by Scott Reynolds Nelson stated music teachers taught rhythm using John Henry folk songs during the 1950’s and later. He was also written about in many children books but was not discussed in other disciplines due to the association with the communist party.  This Disney short was a part of a compilation called American Legends and the addition of the John Henry short was only released recently compared to the other shorts that were released in the 1950s. This displayed the controversy that surrounded the icon but his popularity continued through children stories, music, and movies.  John Henry has had a strong lasting power in American society and is one of the greatest African American heroes.

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John Henry and The Walking Dead – by Alexander Matthew Cabrey

I’m a fan of the show and graphic novel The Walking Dead, and there is a walking-dead-comic-con-2013-banner-tyreese-hammercharacter who appears in the both who harkens back to some ideas of John Henry. The character is Tyreese, a burly African American man who brandishes his weapon of choice: the hammer.

His character in the comic and show are somewhat different but have very similar characteristics. He is a strong and reliable in moments of danger. I’ve inclhan image of Tyreese from the show (played by Chad Coleman, who I think looks a bit like a John Henry figure).

I’ve also included an image of the Tyreese character portrayed in the comic, who I find to be very similar to some of the John Henry images we viewed in class. I would compare him to some of the images created by the Gellert brothers during the 1930s for posters.

Within both forms of The Walking Dead (TWD), Walking_Dead_Tyreese_SpecialTyreese has a moment where the audience/readers expect him to perish. John Henry’s death at the end of his legend is unexpected.  In TWD the audience is led to believe Tyreese has died while saving the rest of the group.  But eventually we learn of his survival.  Looking at Tyreese, I find he has some connections to John Henry and the legend then I had noticed before.

Shifting gears to the Nelson piece, I think they connect well to Tyreese’s image. Nelson points out how the John Henry image is used, almost repurposed, to fit a group’s agenda or position. American Communist Party used him as a way to bring in African American members into the Party in the 1930s.  And since then  his image has changed more and more.  Nelson even attempts to make a connection to some of the original superheroes.

I feel the John Henry image and idea has created a basis for many African American protagonists that you might find in any media. The John Henry image is a strong, hard-working individual who may not choose to be in his current situation but proves his effort by persevering through impossible odds—only to die later. Perhaps we’ll find that Tyreese fits the John Henry story even more closely once we learn his fate.

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John Henry Irons and the LA Riots – by Alison M. McCarron

John Henry Irons is the full name of the DC Comics superhero Steel. In this illustration, Steel is depicted in his iron suit of armor carrying the iconic sledgehammer. On his right arm is a weapon that shoots out large metal spikes, similar to the ones John Henry laid as railroad tracks. Just as in the Benton illustration found in Scott Nelson’s book, Steel is depicted as larger-than-life, with exaggerated musculature that still fits proportionally with the rest of his body. The red cape is reminiscent of Superman and Captain America, the first superheroes designed overtly with the John Henry in mind.

steelIn searching for my image, I learned a bit about the character of John Henry Irons from the DC Comics. In the DC Comics world, there are many multiverses in which the characters exist. In the universe I have researched, Steel replaces Superman upon his death. Steel has no true superhuman skills, like the ability to fly or regenerate after being injured; he is simply an extremely large, strong, man with amazing athletic ability, much like the man upon which he is based. Steel is a skilled craftsman, and he crafted his steel uniform and weaponry himself. According to his backstory, his great-grandfather had worked with the original steel-driving John Henry, and he was likely named after the hero.[1]  While the superhero is not outright political, his backstory does liken him to Henry.  Irons was raised by his grandparents, two prominent members of the Civil Rights Movement in the 1950s and 60s. This speaks to the how the image of John Henry was used by union organizers and the Black Power movement as a tool to illustrate problems in the South during this period and with race relations throughout the country.

However, DC Comics includes women in their version of John Henry legend, while Nelson explains the difficulties the Communist Party had in including women in their work, and points out that the Party seemed to devalue the contributions of women to the worker’s movement (Nelson 159). However, within the story of Steel, women are an important part of the story. Irons’ niece, Natasha, is prominently featured in the plot, as an intelligent student who worked at one point for a U.S. Senator. The role of Steel is even passed on to Natasha when he becomes injured.

During WWII, John Henry was used as an American icon to combat the racialization of America and find “a common nationalism that transcended race,” distancing the country from German Nazis and the Japanese (Nelson 163). Interestingly, the character of John Henry Steel was introduced in The Adventures of Superman #500 in June 1993. This was similarly a time of extreme racial tension in the United States. The Los Angeles Riots following the Rodney King verdict occurred in late April and early May of 1992, and the federal grand jury trial of the officers ended in April of 1993. Perhaps the introduction of this ingenious, powerful, black superhero, was an attempt by artists and writers to do, in the name of nationalism, as the generation before them did, to quell or simply obscure racial unrest.

[1] Andrivet, Sébastien Alexandre. “Steel – Man of Steel – DC Comics – John Henry Irons.” Write Ups. Ed. Joshua D. Marqua. N.p., n.d. Web. 22 Jan. 2015. <>.

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A Darker John Henry – by Alisha Evelissa Rivera

The John Henry I found appears in issues 3 and 4 of “DC: The New Frontier” John_Henry_New_Frontiercreated by Darwyn Cooke. When I first looked at the picture, I noticed that like the other forms of art observed in the Nelson readings, the John Henry depicted in this picture carries with him the strength and hammer that is synonymous with in his name and story. Also, like many superheroes drawn for comic books, John Henry is imaged as “a balloon-muscled strongman” to emphasis his power and strength (Nelson 161).

However, unlike the many other recreations of John Henry, Cook’s Henry is created to look like a menacing character. The combination of the black mask on his head, with a rope around his neck, and the lyrics to those specific lyrics to his ballad, is unsettling. This picture looks like the opposite of the Communist/Black Power/American hero that Nelson talks about in his book. In fact, he looks like the villain of this piece. In order to understand this intensity, the picture forced me to read more on the comic book character version of John Henry.

I found out that in “The New Frontier” he isn’t introduced as John Henry at first. Actually, his name was initially John Wilson. In this version of the John Henry tale, John Wilson is a respectable man and a veteran of the Korean War. After returning home, he became a steel worker. Things changed when the Ku Klux Klan murdered his entire family while also lynching him.

Having survived his lynching, John Wilson avenges his family by using his signature hammer and by changing his name to John Henry. The only words that fill the page of the comic come from the song, and provide the background while he terrorizes the Klan.  He does this for three months before falling over and dying himself. There are two ways of reading this: either John Wilson is the reimagining of the John Henry story or John Wilson, having been presumably brought up on the John Henry story took up his identity, much like V took Guy Fawkes’s identity in V for Vendetta. I believe that legend of John Henry exists and is known within the DC Universe, and so the legend that a man strong enough to drill further and faster than a steam drill would be known. Much like the Communist Party used Henry as the poster child for hard work of a human verses the work done by machine (Nelson 152), Wilson is using the “strong, determined” version of Henry to strike fear into Klan.

Whichever way you view it, this John Henry leans closer towards the image of John Henry that was used to entice a “new kind of multiracial America” (Nelson 164).  By snuffing out the Klan with his hammer, he is simultaneously striking down the injustices created by racism.

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Welcome to American Icons

Welcome to American Icons.  In this class, we’ll be writing every week about the icons we examine.  Here, I will share the best blog entries from class, the articles, and web mentions of these icons that we come across, and we’ll start a discussion about the work and meaning of Icons in the United States and beyond.