Masculinities in American Western Films

A Hyper-Linear History

by Emma Hamilton (Author)
Monographs XII, 280 Pages


The «Western» embodies many of the stereotypes of masculinity: rugged, independent men in cowboy hats roam the barren landscapes of the American West, resolving conflicts with guns and tough talk. Where did these cowboys come from? What historical trends led to their emergence on screen?
This book explores the relationship between the Western, film and historical representation and the ways in which masculine gender performance is itself historical. It posits a new interpretation of how history functions on film, termed hyper-linear history. Hyper-linear history creates the possibility of seeing film as a vehicle that makes the past immediately explicit and relevant, rendering historical understandings complex.
The study offers a fresh exploration of American Western films made in the 1950s and 1960s, arguing that many Westerns of this period rely on the post-Civil War on-screen past to make sense of the tumultuous experiences of the period, to various effect. The films especially tap into the ways in which national economic, political, technological and social changes impact the performance of hegemonic masculinities. These films provide insight into the ways in which masculinities are performed and gender crises are expressed, explored and resolved.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author(s)/editor(s)
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Contents
  • List of Figures
  • Acknowledgements
  • Introduction
  • Chapter 1 Gender, History and the West
  • Chapter 2 ‘He’s not a man! He’s a sack of money!’: Corporatism and the Male Breadwinner
  • Chapter 3 ‘Back home they think I’m very strange. I’m a feminist’: Re-Evaluating the Feminine Other
  • Chapter 4 ‘You’re the party done all the suffering’: Representing Stereotypes of Native Americans in the ‘Pro-Indian’ Western Cycle
  • Chapter 5 ‘A pistol don’t make a man’: Technology and Masculine Gender Performances
  • Chapter 6 ‘Who are those guys?’: Understanding American Intervention in the ‘South of the Border’ Western
  • Chapter 7 ‘As unmarked as their place in history’: Black Westerns, an Alternative History of Masculinities?
  • Conclusion
  • Filmography
  • Bibliography
  • Index

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Figure 1 Howard Kemp (Jimmy Stewart) awakening in hysteria in The Naked Spur.

Figure 2 Amy Kane (Grace Kelly) and Helen Ramirez (Katy Jurado), planning to leave town together in High Noon.

Figure 3 Jessica Drummond (Barbara Stanwyck) is a woman with a whip in Forty Guns.

Figure 4 Rachel Zachary (Audrey Hepburn) struggling with the discovery of her Native American heritage in The Unforgiven.

Figure 5 Randolph Scott as Steve Farrell, the travelling gun salesman, in Colt .45. The iconography of the crossed Colt .45s is consistent throughout the film.

Figure 6 The death of Mapache (Emilio Fernandez) in the final apocalyptic massacre in The Wild Bunch. The vivid demonstration of violence through film techniques such as slow motion and inter-cutting, and the use of new technology such as squibs, were revolutionary.

Figure 7 The iconic finale of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, with the title characters played by Paul Newman and Robert Redford, captured freeze-framed, guns drawn against certain death.

Figure 8 Harry Belafonte plays against his sex symbol typecasting as the hustling ‘Preacher’ in Buck and the Preacher.

| xi →


The writing of this book has been facilitated by the support of staff at the University of Newcastle, Australia. Colleagues within the School of Humanities and Social Science and the English Language and Foundation Studies Centre were (and are) generous in their mentorship and support of me as an educator and emerging scholar and were endlessly patient in their discussions of this and other projects, which was very much appreciated! I would especially like to thank Associate Professor Josephine May whose contributions to this volume have improved it immeasurably. I am grateful to bask in her presence. I would also like to thank my family and friends for their love and support. I would especially like to acknowledge my parents, to whom this book is dedicated: my father, Mark, a lover of cowboy flicks (especially The Magnificent Seven), whom I hope to meet again on the trail; and my beautiful mother, Maree, who is still riding alongside and thankfully shared her love of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid with me many, many years ago.

| 1 →


No historian can fail to acknowledge the enormous and transformative potential modern audiovisual media may have on the conceptualization and communication of historical ideas. Nor can historians ignore that film raises important, perhaps discipline re-defining, questions regarding what history is and how it is validly transmitted. Indeed, the way in which the filmic medium is approached by historians today will directly impact the histories we write tomorrow and the continued relevance of the discipline beyond the academic sphere. Certainly, central in the debate over the uses of film in telling history are pedagogical concerns regarding the increasing use of film as an educational tool. This debate critiques the capacity of cinema to carry an adequate information load, to prioritize historical content, and to engage skills of critical analysis in classrooms where time, expertise and individualized attention may be lacking. For some, it can be disturbing that not only do historical films feature as popular adult entertainment that doubles as historical education but, more importantly, that the future guardians of the past, children, are increasingly educated about history through the use of film.1 The historical film clearly cuts very close to the bone for historians: practically, theoretically and emotionally.

I began to grapple with the implications of historical film on our ideas of history while conducting a study of the iconic Western, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (George Roy Hill, 1969), a film which won four Oscars and enjoyed enormous box-office success. The film, based on actual characters and events, follows the two bandits of the title, Butch (Paul Newman), the brains, and the Sundance Kid (Robert Redford), the gunslinger, through their bumbling criminal career, which culminates with their exile in Bolivia. The film finishes with the pair captured freeze-framed, guns drawn against ← 1 | 2 → the certain death of the surrounding police force. Although the focus of my research is the ways in which gender is historicized in Western films, concepts of historical time became critical to the analysis. How is history constructed in the Western? Can a film only be historical if based on ‘real’ events and ‘real’ events? How is the past connected to the present? What role does the gendered representation of the iconic cowboy have in communicating historical ideas? What happens when the lights go down and we are left alone with these images on the screen?

To make sense of these questions I noted the perspective of foremost film historian Robert A. Rosenstone, who has attempted to apply postmodern theory to film. Unlike previous scholars who examined the possibility for historical films to actually convey the historical past, or who examine historical films in terms of what we can learn about the production context, Rosenstone suggests that a ‘good’ historical film inevitably and anachronistically intermingles elements of past and present, in the process complicating, indeed delineating, the traditional linear narrative structures of history: ‘they render the world as multiple, complex and indeterminate, rather than as a series of self-enclosed, neat, linear stories.’2 But Butch Cassidy may be seen to construct a more complex exemplary relationship between the represented historical past and the present of the viewer. In this film important historical cues are given that make the past immediately connected with, and relevant to, the contemporary issues surrounding the viewer context. In doing so, rather than delineate time into separate and disjointed historical moments, Butch Cassidy actually provides a sense of time as being hyper-linear.3 That is, film acts to facilitate a temporal ‘jump’ from the audience’s own time (the time of filmic release), back ← 2 | 3 → to an earlier temporal period for the purpose of establishing an exemplary link between the past and the present. In so doing, film makes explicit, obvious and immediate the links between past action and present reality, for the purpose of illustrating historical continuity and/or discontinuity between both temporalities. Westerns may be seen as a prime vehicle to facilitate this process as they are inherently historical and deeply rooted in ideological conceptualizations of both the self and nation. Moreover, because the symbols and motifs of the Western are instantly recognizable, they provide a constant and unchanging territory that easily facilitates the leap from one temporal location to another.

This book undertakes a two-fold analysis inspired by the questions and concerns about history and film first prompted by this analysis of Butch Cassidy. Firstly, it explores, at the theoretical level, the way in which history functions on film. Specifically, a paradigm for understanding the historical film, termed ‘hyper-linearity’, is offered. This paradigm suggests that, rather than the historical film acting to reflect the issues surrounding its production context or as an opportunity to represent the past ‘as it was’, the historical film creates deliberate temporal links between the represented historical past and the present reality of the audience. In so doing the past assumes particular and explicit relevance to the present, and a specific relationship between the two time periods is created.4 This relationship is one that is ‘hyper-linear’ in nature, where the actions of the past are accentuated and seen as immediate, obvious and directly relevant to making sense of the present, to the point where this relationship can at times be causal in nature. Further, this relationship is maintained through ← 3 | 4 → the discarding of events that, although historically relevant, disrupt the viability of this hyper-linear relationship and this goes towards accounting for the filmic ‘gaps’ in historical representation; that is, events or perspectives that, although historically relevant, are ignored by the filmmaker. The viability of ‘hyper-linearity’ as an approach to the historical film, including how it functions within a film, and the implications this approach has in relation to audience understandings of history, will be the primary focus of this volume. In exploring the theoretical nature of history on film, a greater insight should be provided both into how film functions in an historical manner, and also into how historians can effectively use film in a way that encourages positive pedagogical outcomes.

In Westerns, the hyper-linear function can illustrate three main relationships between the filmic past and the production context, which can create a new historical understanding for the audience. The first relationship that may be constructed is positive continuity, in which the past is represented in such a way as to illustrate a positive, socially reaffirming connection with the present, which encourages the audience to feel comfortable in their heritage and to use this as inspiration to construct a meaningful future. This positive continuity is seen in The Magnificent Seven (John Sturges, 1960) for example, where a group of men with specialized skills undertake foreign interventionism and, in this setting, rediscover and assert their dominant hegemonic masculinities. This film connects past American interventionism in South America with then contemporary interventionism in South America and South East Asia in a positive light, reaffirming American ideology and identity and the patriarchal hierarchy that underpins it.

The second relationship is discontinuity, whereby we are shown that, although the past and present may have certain parallels, these will not and should not continue, and the audience is therefore encouraged to shape the future in a different way. Usually such films show the beginnings of this divergent transformation in them and the audience is provided with the illusion that through watching they have effected change. An example of this is the 1972 Sidney Poitier film Buck and the Preacher, which provided a representation of the African American voice in the West and connected this to Civil Rights issues and the emerging ‘Blaxploitation’ genre. ← 4 | 5 →

The third relationship is the more ambiguous notion of negative continuity. Here, there are parallels between the past and the present, which is undesirable, yet it is also seemingly unavoidable, as any avenue to effect real change is unclear. These films are underlined by the embedded nature of structures and protagonists who are unable to change or effectively combat them. This can be demonstrated obviously in films that explicitly address racial discrimination or class inequality. In Butch Cassidy, this negative continuity is not shown but embodied in the characters through their gender representation. This film uses, at the most fundamental level, the manifestation of undesirable and destructive masculinities as a symbol for structural mechanisms that allow for the perpetuation (and repetition) of negative historical experiences. Thus negative and destructive gender forms come to embody the ideological and structural continuity in American society that has allowed the continuation of negative and destructive actions, from frontier settlement to the Vietnam War. This film illustrates both the place of gender as a distinct organizing category and, more than this, the role of gendered behaviour and patriarchal institutions as, cyclically, a symptom and driver of detrimental continuities of national policy and character. In this way personal gender construction, broader concepts of national identity, and historical continuity are inescapably linked and mutually (negatively) reinforcing concepts.

The other and inter-connected intention of this volume is to link gender representation and historical analysis using as evidence Western films produced in the period of the 1950s and 1960s. This connection between the representations of gender, the functioning of history, and the Western, are linked and mutually beneficial areas of analysis for a number of reasons. Westerns broadly may be seen as the most significant American film style and even as far more than a film style but as the expression and re-evaluation of American national values and identity founded in the frontier experience.5 As such, and due to its longevity, the Western provides an integral link between changing perceptions of the past and the way in which these perceptions intimately relate to the contemporary construction ← 5 | 6 → of national and personal identities in the United States. Central to building this connection, however, is not the props, or even the setting, it is the man. The gender representation of the central male protagonist, instantly recognizable, subsequently commodified and often imitated, is the central expression of history in the Western films, where his conduct comes to represent an historical past, a national type and value structure, and works as the open gateway by which the American audience connects the past with their present. Using an interdisciplinary approach and highlighting the relationship between gender construction and historical representation in the Western genre shows not only the way in which gender norms are historically contingent, a point both illustrated by and insulated within Hollywood structures; but, more than this, it also shows the way in which the construction of gender at the private level relates intimately with the maintenance of broader social institutions and national forms of identity at the public level.

This study focuses on the 1950s and 1960s for a number of reasons. It derives from the hypothesis that these interdisciplinary links can most distinctly be made at a time when the Western film, gender and history were potently interlinked. Moreover, the Westerns of this period are under-analysed in the manner conceptualized here. Specifically, while scholarly interest has increasingly been piqued by the so-called ‘remasculinization’ of America following the Vietnam War, especially during the 1980s, this study aims to examine the prior decades as the period of American ‘demasculinization’. Evidence for this demasculinization is reflected in Western films of the 1950s and 1960s and this, in turn, affects concepts of history and the relationship between history and then-contemporary national identity and institutional structures. It is important to acknowledge here that the decade of the 1970s is sidelined in both this work and other works on remasculinization. The reason that this period has not received extensive attention here is that, whilst the 1950s and 1960s are seen as a period of demasculinization, and the 1980s a time of concerted remasculinization, the 1970s are perceived as a period of transition between these two states, where films such as Taxi Driver (Martin Scorsese, 1976) and The Deer Hunter (Michael Cimino, 1978) began to reintroduce the Vietnam veteran into the American domestic context and grapple with the implications this ← 6 | 7 → reintegration would have on American identity and gender. This reintegration would ultimately be resolved in the remasculinized images of the veteran (and broader American masculinity) most commonly associated with the Rambo franchise (Ted Kotcheff, 1982; George Cosmatos, 1985; Peter MacDonald, 1988).

The concept of ‘remasculinization’ is particularly associated with Susan Jeffords’ The Remasculinization of America: Gender and the Vietnam War in which the author argued that cultural artefacts of the 1980s, including television, film, and other representations associated with the Vietnam War, put forward a ‘masculine point of view.’ As distinct from ‘masculinity’ and ‘men’, this ‘masculine point of view’ was seen by Jeffords to be an ideal, hegemonic masculine standard that, although unattainable, allowed for male identification with individual characteristics and the overarching system of dominance it portrays. This acted to reinvigorate traditional forms of American national identity founded in patriarchal power structures and the maintenance of strict gender difference.6 Thus, in Jeffords’ analysis, representation, individual gender identity and broader national identity and policy are inherently linked and mutually constructive factors. Jeffords’ work acts here as a reference point: if such a remasculinization occurred in film representations inter alia as she claims, then there must have been a prior process of demasculinization. This volume seeks to explore if and how demasculinization occurs, and what its implications are for historical understandings of identity.


XII, 280
ISBN (Softcover)
Publication date
2016 (August)
history on film representation of masculinities Western film genre
Oxford, Bern, Berlin, Bruxelles, Frankfurt am Main, New York, Wien, 2016. XII, 280 pp., 4 coloured ill., 4 b/w ill.

Biographical notes

Emma Hamilton (Author)

Emma Hamilton is a lecturer in the humanities and history in the English Language and Foundation Studies Centre at the University of Newcastle, Australia. Her research interests include representation studies, especially in relation to issues of historical methodology; gender, sexuality, age and race across time and place; modern American and Australian histories; and gender studies. She is also a passionate open access educator dedicated to widening participation programs, facilitating greater equity in tertiary education and working to find better ways to communicate historical ideas in the classroom.


Title: Masculinities in American Western Films
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