JoAnn Conrad


The American Western, a popular film genre from the earliest days of cinema well into the 1960s, has been linked to the story of America more insistently than any other genre. Set in the American West, that most mythic of spaces, conventional wisdom has these films embodying “the spirit, the struggle and the demise of the new frontier” (American Film Institute) even as the concepts of American “spirit” and of the “frontier” are taken for granted and thus seemingly self-evident. This article is a revisitation of the so-called Golden Age of the Western2—roughly 1946 to 1962—a period in which moviegoing3 as well as the production of Westerns peaked,4 with both dropping offf precipitously by the 1960s. This Golden Age coincided with major social and cultural shifts in the United States, and this project takes the particular convergences of history in America in the postwar period as significant influences on the nature and reception of the Western. It integrates cultural events and phenomena of the 1950s in America with an understanding of the ways in which the Western shaped and appealed to the popular imagination in order to better understand how Westerns made sense in the post–World War II period. The ubiquity of the Western during this time and its normalized rendering of a very particular narrative of America that was projected onto a mythic past interpellated viewers into a contemporary consumerist ideology while developing a Western version of the Family Romance that was consistent with economic, social, and political goals of configuring the nuclear family as the bulwark against the insecurities of the age. The Westerns of the 1950s, in their representation of the American story and values provided the model for how to be an American, which, in the 1950s, was to be a consumer for whom the market was the “final frontier.”