The Psychology of the Western: How the American Psyche Plays Out on Screen. By William Indick.
Jefferson, NC: McFarland, September 2008. Cloth: ISBN 978-0786434602, $35. 223 pages.
Review by John T. “Jack” Becker, Texas Tech University
Maybe this book should be titled The Psychologies of the Western, as William Indick leaves no psychological disorder portrayed in westerns unanalyzed. But this quibble aside, fans of Western movies will enjoy this book by Indick, who is an associate professor of psychology at Dowling College in Oakdale, New York. He is the author of two other books on psychology and cinema.
Westerns are considered reflections of the American spirit, America’s myths played out on film. Starting with the Great Train Robbery, (1903) one of the first real feature films ever made, and continuing to 3:10 to Yuma (2007), Indick analyzes films for their hidden meanings and what they tell us about the American Psyche. Over 4,000 movies are considered Westerns, about half B-pictures or serials; between 1926 and 1967 half of all American movies made were Westerns.
The Golden Age of Westerns was the 1950s and this is the decade Indick mines for most of his material. He contends the 1950s, when Westerns developed characters and situations that lent the movies to psychological interpretation. At this time, Westerns became darker, more conflicted, and shaded with torment and internal conflict; thus the psychological Western was born (2).
Indick answers two questions with The Psychology of the Western: what exactly is “psychological” about a Western, and what are the psychological aspects of the genre as a whole? To answer these questions, Indick compared westerns to the Old Testament and Greek Tragedies, and compared Western heroes and villains to their Greek and Old Testament counterparts. He studied films for their Oedipal complexes and other psychological traumas.
Like many other Western movie enthusiasts, Indick states that just as Europe had its knights riding across the landscape of medieval Europe, the US had its cowboys riding across the West, both ready to administer justice as they saw fit (23). Like the knights of old, cowboys were basically loners. But, similar to the frontier they rode, cowboys became a mixture of civilization and savagery, and the ensuing conflict became the overriding theme of all Westerns. It plays out in the often violent competition between the opposing groups: Indians and settlers, settlers and ranchers, outlaws and law men, outlaws and town folk, women and men, and Westerners versus Easterners (as depicted as bankers, railroad men, and other exploiters of western resources).
Two directors of Westerns get special scrutiny in The Psychology of the Western, Anthony Mann and John Ford. Mann is considered, by Indick, as the originator of the “psychological Western.” After “graduating” from B-Westerns he made a series of dark or “adult westerns” in the 1950s. His heroes are socially marginalized, often neurotic, and had something from their past to hide (116). Mann’s favorite actor was James Stewart, who worked with Mann in five Westerns including Winchester ’73 (1950) and The Man from Laramie (1954). D. H. Lawrence said of Americans, “The essential American soul is hard, isolate, stoic, and a killer.” Watching Anthony Mann’s movies would prove Lawrence correct.
What James Stewart did for Anthony Mann’s Westerns, John Wayne (and perhaps Monument Valley) did for John Ford. Of the ten Westerns given extensive treatment by Indick that were directed by Ford, seven had Wayne as the leading man. Scenes of Monument Valley appear in at least five of the films, with nearby locations (such as Moab, Utah) accounting for several others. Indick treats Drums Along the Mohawk (1939) as a Western directed by Ford, as he does Northwest Passage (1940). One could argue that these movies take place in what was once the West (proto-West), but purists would usually not put them on any list of movie Westerns.
William Indick’s study is accessible, interesting, and insightful. It is part reference and part (a big part) entertainment. His psychology is entreating and thought-provoking.
updated 5:24 PM