The Western has long captivated audiences in theatres. A quick search on Netflix will pull up 30-some-odd films, of which, half are made within the past 10 years. What does this mean? It means the Western and the West itself is still marketable and still intrigues people.
So, what is it about the West that continues to enthrall? As stories are passed down from generation to generation the myth of the west is perpetuated in national consciousness and has become the United States of America’s embodiment of the “Conquest and Transformation of the Unknown” familiar story (Stoeltje 240). To perpetuate these storylines, three distinct themes can be utilized and mixed for desired effect as folklorist Beverly Stoeltje points out: the Rational, Romantic, and Reactionary.
Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid is a cornerstone piece in the world of Westerns. Released in 1969, the film would go onto be ranked 49th on the American Film Institute’s 100 Years… 100 Movies list (IMDB). Based on the real life exploits of two bandits, the story covers a wide range of themes, images, and icons. Let’s break a few down here:
The Frontier: Red hills, sparse vegetation, horses and cattle: the area inspires, it awes, and it overwhelms. The movie switches between gorgeous shots of vistas and gorges to small towns with dust fluffing around. American’s great outdoors is something well-known, especially as one of the largest countries in the world. Its range of environments is almost unparalleled due to its unique situation on the planet. The wide-open plains portrayed in the film evoke a sense of freedom and possibility, both typically associated with the United States of America to some. By producing this film in 1969, the film studios are employing the ‘Romantic’ modern myth theme: nostalgia for another time (Stoetlje 242).
The future: The first glimpse of the future is when a travelling salesman attempts to make a sale of the ‘way of the future’ bicycle. Butch decides to partake in this future, but ultimate decides to dispose of it before running to Bolivia. The ‘future’ also pops up in the form of the various trains used throughout the film. In this sense, Butch and the filmmakers are portraying the Reactionary approach to the film (Stoeltje 243). Butch is concerned with the status quo and remaining the same. When the boys meet Sheriff Bledsoe and he confirms this sentiment: “It’s over, don’t you get that? Your time is over and you’re gonna die bloody, and all you can do is choose where.” The way of the bandit and outlaw is coming to an end in the late 1890s, and Butch and Sundance are on the outs.
The ‘new’ Frontier: Just as Stoeltje asserts that American’s applied their Frontier Myth to the space-program, Butch and Sundance apply the Frontier Myth to Bolivia (240). They believe Bolivia to be the next big step, and once they’ve had their fill in South America, the film ends with the boys saying Australia could be next (though in reality, the boys died in Bolivia, the movie carefully omits that part). By believing in the future (even though that future may be similar to their present) Butch and Sundance are fulfilling the Rationalist approach to mythbuilding.
The ‘second’-citizens: Ah yes, in typical old American fashion, the film chooses to provide some stereotypical representations of the underrepresented. The use of a prodigious Indian tracker named Lord Baltimore, the blundering and seemingly slow Spanish-Bolivians, and the fawning female. Sure Etta joins the boys on their quest to Bolivia, but not before she agrees to sew their socks and cook their food!
The West will continue to inspire and intrigue people through cinema and television. So, what is the West really? The West is the embodiment of the American Myth of possibility: the idea of grasping more, of conquering the elements and the system. Through employing various modern myth themes, the filmmakers are able to transport the viewer into their idealized version of the West.
Stoeltje, Beverly J. “Make the Frontier Myth: Folklore Process in a Modern Nation”. Western Folklore 46.4 (October 1987) JSTOR