Westerns and Technology, Part 1

Nicholas Chennault ~ October 15, 2014

Westerns, Technology and Manifest Destiny

Beginning in the 1920s, only a generation after historian Frederick Jackson Turner had pronounced the frontier closed, the westward movement of the nation and its accompanying development of technology found their way into the movies in epic form.  After all, there were still people living who could remember the joining of the transcontinental railroad at Promontory, Utah, in 1869.  To most of them, the concurrent triumphs of 19th-century technology and westward movement of the population represented the fulfillment of the nation’s Manifest Destiny, a phrase used in its politics since at least the 1840s.


Many of those making the movies had family who could remember participating in what the movies depicted.  One of the reasons director James Cruze was drawn to the story of westward expansion in The Covered Wagon (1923) was that he was the son of Mormon immigrants and had grown up on such stories.  The next year, John Ford told the story of the railroad in The Iron Horse, another epic of the silent era.  Both were great successes at the box office, and as the movies grew, so did the productions depicting western expansion and technology.

The most obvious such technology was the railroad, but other expansion-related technologies and businesses found their way into the movies:  the telegraph, Wells Fargo, the Pony Express and such.  The course of expansion was seldom smooth, and westerns tended to show expansion as an unmitigated good thing, representing progress.  Of course, trains no sooner entered new parts of the country than they found themselves the object of attention from outlaws.  Jesse James made a large part of his reputation robbing trains, and one of the first notable American-made movies was Edwin Porter’s 1903 The Great Train Robbery, which is better known today than just about any other movie of its time.  And it is used in The Grey Fox as an inspiration to former stagecoach bandit Bill Miner as he tries to figure out what’s next for him in his outlaw career.


In general railroad builders were seen as admirable, and the troubleshooters who solved problems and dealt with Indians and outlaws were the heroes of westerns, representing the forces of good and progress (Joel McCrea in Union Pacific, Randolph Scott in Western Union, Alan Ladd in Whispering Smith, James Stewart in Night Passage, etc.).  That lasted through the 1950s.  The last large-scale triumphalist view of railroads in a western was probably in 1962, in How the West Was Won, with George Peppard as the railroad builder and troubleshooter.

As the decades passed, the post–World War II generation (the Baby Boomers) began to question authority and the motives of those who had been in charge of businesses and technologies during the westward movement.  Big business came to be seen an a tool for villainy, and in westerns, those in charge of the railroads began to be depicted as greedy and corrupt, beginning in the late 1960s with such movies as Sergio Leone’s magnum opus Once Upon a Time in the West.  Nefarious railroads and their tactics out west had long been present in such literary works as Frank Norris’ The Octopus.  But that view became more common in westerns in the 1970s.


By our time, 150 years after the completion of the transcontinental railroad, those who built and operated railroads in the west are routinely depicted as downright conspiratorial, despising individual rights and subverting government.  The evil railroad baron has become a cliché, like the moustache-twirling, top-hatted villains of the early serials.  For a recent example, see Tom Wilkinson in 2013’s The Lone Ranger.

The development of another technology—the use of computer-generated graphics in films—has meant that such flamboyant disasters as train crashes have also become much more common in movies, including westerns.  When Cecil B. DeMille, who seemed to love train crashes, had two of them in his 1939 epic Union Pacific, he could only do that with a huge budget for his time.  Now, if a train shows up as a significant element in a western, it is likely to be wrecked before the movie is done.  The recent The Lone Ranger broke DeMille’s record with three train wrecks, all computer-generated.

Interestingly, the railroads’ drive westward has recently become the setting for one of the very few current westerns on television in recent years, with Hell on Wheels, beginning in 2011.  There have been three seasons so far, and it continues


By the 1960s, there was a new sort of western in which a significant element of the story was the passing of the old west (Ride the High Country, The Shootist, Big Jake, etc.) and the obsolescence of the lone man with a gun as his own law.  In these, even newer technologies appeared: automobiles, motorcycles, and fancier guns, for example.  And with the popularity of steampunk as a genre in literature and movies, elements of steampunk technology have crept into more fanciful westerns (The Wild Wild West, Jonah Hex and Cowboys & Aliens, for example).

This is the first of two posts on technology and westerns.  In our next post, see more extensive lists of movies with technological themes, most involving railroads and railroading.

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