Wild virtual west

On the internet, myths and source-based historical accounts can form fruitful alliances

In many comments on the terrorist attacks of 11. September, it was noted positively that the u.S. Had not reacted blindly in wild west fashion. In other respects, however, there are parallels to the "wild west". This is illustrated particularly dramatically by the general george a. Custer home page, which greets visitors with the words "we will never forget" and a photograph of the ruins of the world trade center.

Custer’s name is associated with the memory of the most sensitive defeat of the u.S. Army in the war against the native americans. A complete regiment under his command was killed on 25. July 1876 killed by outnumbered sioux at the battle of little bighorn.

Wild virtual west

George armstrong custer with his indian scouts

When news of the massacre reached washington at the time, the hardliners, as usual, called for massive troop deployments to wipe out the enemy completely. The more moderate forces, on the other hand, pointed to previous u.S. Policies as the deeper cause of the carnage. The spiral of violence that would inevitably follow, they warned, would cost millions of dollars and would in no way advance civilization, "auber by the destruction of the uncivilized". The arguments sound familiar and up-to-date.

What was reported in the "new york times" was rather discreetly alluded to at the time, the indian photographer edward s. Curtis, who visited the battlefield 31 years later, expressed it more clearly: before the bloody confrontation at little bighorn occurred, the united states government had broken treaties made with native americans. Their rights did not seem to pay much after it became known that gold had been found in the territories granted to them. After the expiration of an ultimatum that was virtually impossible to meet, they were considered enemies. Indian affairs became a matter for the military. This tactical approach to human rights, ultimately subordinated to material and political interests, also sounds familiar and timely.

The wild west continues to be a source of identity for the u.S. However, the memory of this important period, which until now has been largely shaped by film, is now increasingly kept alive via the internet. There have been shifts in emphasis: native americans and people of black skin color are much more strongly represented on the world wide web than in western cinema. While only a few films have been produced about african-american units in the u.S. Military ("glory", usa 1989, directed by edward zwick), there are numerous sites on the internet about these buffalo soldiers.

wild virtual west

Red cloud, chief of the oglala lakota

However, the categories according to which the memory is arranged on the internet are largely predicated by the film. Many websites are dedicated to the heroes of the wild west known from the movies: sioux chief tatanka yotanka, better known as sitting bull, victor over general custer at the little bighorn, has his homepage as well as the famous u.S. Marshall wyatt earp or his counterpart in the racket at the ok corral, the clantons – interestingly, this website, created by a descendant of the clantons, the actor terry ike clanton, is set to music from an italo-western: "the good, the bad, and the ugly". Apparently, the european view of the history of the american west is now being taken more seriously by americans as well.

Other outlaws, such as billy the kid, are not missing, nor are the typical western motifs: many sites deal with the building of the railroad, others with the covered wagons on which the settlers transported their possessions along the various overland routes, such as the oregon trail or the santa fe trail.

Because of this clear pragmatization by the film, the question arises as to the validity of the memory stored in this way. Because the western is not usually considered to have any historical competence. It is often said that it tells more about the time in which it was made than about the time in which the action takes place. A prime example of this is the film "high noon" (usa 1952, director: fred zinnemann), which can be interpreted as a reflex of the mccarthy-ara with its sniff of opinion because of its emphasis on civil courage. But this pragmatization by the respective present is not only valid for the film, but also for historical research in general. In this respect, the sentence can be turned against itself: it tells more about prejudices against the medium of film than about its actual possibilities in the representation of historical themes.

Especially with regard to the media reconstruction of the past, the western is a special genre. For here, for the first time, a definable historical period found its way directly into the audiovisual memory. When david ward griffith made the film "birth of a nation" when he filmed about the american civil war (1861-65), he didn’t have to read history books, but was able to talk to survivors of the war. This is all the more true for the years following the civil war, up to the closing of the settlement frontier ("frontier") in the 1890s, a period in which many westerns are set: the oral memory was transmitted directly, without a detour through the written record, in multimedia form.

Exactly this seems to be blamed on the western, when again and again its "mythical structure" is emphasized – whereby implicitly the assertion of an inferiority against the scientific-analytical historiography shimmers through. But myth, as the preferred collective memory of oral cultures, is inferior to written memory only in terms of storage capacity. Oral cultures have to consider very carefully which experiences they pass on to the following generations and in which form. While in written cultures everything, even the smallest detail, can first be put down on paper and preserved – with the risk of rapid obscurity – myth must condense historical experience at the expense of detail.

With film, for the first time, the possibility arose to transfer the clarity of mythical narration into a permanently storable medium. The oral memory overcame its capacity limits and was able to bring its strengths fully into play.

Of course, the connection did not succeed overnight. If you want to appreciate the potential of the western to represent american history, you must not overlook the evolution of the genre. Individual films may be historically inadequate, but the genre as a whole is nothing other than an argument about history: just as in academic historiography, there are representations of the past that are contradicted by other representations. It already begins in the silent film era.

Paradoxically, it is tom mix, a former cowboy, who is pushing the consolidation of mythical elements in his films, while stage actor william s. Hart makes it his declared goal to show cowboy life as it really was. Gradually, historical research is becoming more and more important for western productions.

A character like the gunslinger, for example, has to be motivated much more fundamentally today than in the past. In the beginning, the question of who pulls faster and pushes better could still pass as a kind of sporting competition. In the course of time, however, questions about the livelihood and the clients of the master shooters increasingly came to the fore. The shining hero of the past became more and more a tragic figure, a pawn of more powerful interests. Steve mcqueen as the title character in "tom horn" (usa 1979, director: william wiard) is brought to the gallows by the rich ranchers for whom he hunts small bandits, because he has become too inconvenient.

Other portrayals of historical figures such as wyatt earp in lawrence kasdan’s film of the same name (usa 1994, with kevin costner) or apache chief geronimo in "geronimo" (usa 1994, directed by walter hill) do not get by without careful research. The western has left a lasting, but not necessarily detrimental, imprint on the memory of the settlement of the american west.

This anchoring of the myths in the handed-down, critically sifted sources, which the film has already largely accomplished, now takes on a new quality on the internet. Because here the user can now access the reports of contemporary witnesses and read how they experienced billy the kid, the first railroads or the battle of little bighorn. It is an exciting development that is far from complete: the synthesis of oral and written tradition into a new, truly multimedia representation of history.

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