The Old West: Myth, Character, and Reinvention

Apr 1–May 1, 2009


William Wellman, Joel McRea, and editor James B. Clark on the set of Buffalo Bill. 1944. USA. Directed by William A. Wellman. © Twentieth Century Fox

A national epic is a story that illuminates (and invents) a people’s prevailing history and national identity, giving a sense of essential connection across different epochs. The Italians have The Divine Comedy; the Finns consider the epic poem Kalevala a national symbol; and for Hindus across the Indian subcontinent, the Mahabharata remains a cultural touchstone. No single work can be said to capture the United States in the same way, but the idea of the Old West may come the closest. This series presents a fascinating selection of films from the collection, spanning 1894 to 1995, that represent the myth of the Old West, America’s unofficial national epic.

Embodying the American ideal of rugged individualism, Old West icons were (according to author Larry McMurtry) America’s first superstars. Buffalo Bill Cody, Annie Oakley, Wild Bill Hickok, Calamity Jane, and others created their own characters, their evolving myths fueled by fervent interest on the part of a mass audience; as such, they were the precursors to such Hollywood transformations as Norma Jean Baker’s metamorphosis into Marilyn Monroe, or Marion Morrison into John Wayne. The films in this exhibition demonstrate how cinematic representations of the Old West both create and adapt to our national mythology, and how cinema—specifically Hollywood, that ultimate destination in the new American West—glorifies this reinvention. All films are from the U.S.

Organized by Rajendra Roy, The Celest Bartos Chief Curator of Film, and Anne Morra, Assistant Curator, Department of Film.


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