The myth of the American frontier and what it meant to Americans in the twentieth century is the subject of Wesleyan University Professor Richard Slotkin’s course Western Movies: Myth, Ideology, and Genre (iTunes).
Slotkin, a well known author and culture critic, gave this course in early 2008 just before his retirement. Check it out — this is a master teacher at the top of his form, weaving themes from history, cultural theory and literature into the discussion of Western movies made during their heyday from 1939 to 1974.
This course on iTunes includes 18 lectures from his course, and appears to start partway through this semester. The first lecture available discusses the 1939 film Dodge City, which uses the familiar motif of the stranger who cleans up a rotten Western town and makes it safe for women and children.
Slotkin explains how the myth of the frontier in this movie reflects a vision of current events. In 1939 Americans had lived through almost a decade of economic depression, which many saw as the result of unregulated commerce gone amok. In the rotten Western town of the title, forces of unregulated commerce have allowed a gangster-like figure to take over the town.
The Errol Flynn character rides into town and like Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal, introduces order and defeats the corrupt, self dealing gangsters. Oh, and he also gets the girl.
Slotkin also talks about the ways the film plays with gender roles, and lets us laugh (just a little bit) at the way the hero patronizes the heroine when he suggests that her proper place is in the home sewing on buttons, and not working at a newspaper.
I was so impressed with Slotkin’s first lecture, I clicked over to Amazon and rented the film so I could better follow his discussion. Yes, the film is old-fashioned and corny, and I probably would not have bothered to see it without Slotkin’s encouragement. But I’m glad I did because of the light it sheds on American culture.