How the West Was White: A Review

I have recently been in the mood for old Western movies. Yesterday, while looking through the DVD collection at the public library, I found 1962’s How the West Was Won and decided to check it out. I had watched the movie about ten years ago, but all I remembered from it were the two highly conspicuous Cinerama lines (if you’ve seen the movie, you know what I’m talking about) and the almost unidentifiable John Wayne’s ten-minute performance as General William Tecumseh Sherman (which is comparable to his almost laughable three-minute performance as the Centurion in another 1960s epic, The Greatest Story Ever Told).

While much about How the West Was Won is praiseworthy–the cinematography, for example, or the climatic “shoot-out-on-a-moving-train” sequence, or the killer orchestral theme–the film could never be made today, 46 years after its initial release.

“Why?” you ask.

The answer may or may not be obvious, but I have my reasons for making such a claim–none of which I hope you dismissively construe as petty political correctness.
As the title suggests, the film is about the outcome of a conflict. The West was a battleground to be won–and the film makes it all too clear that the white man won it. Had Native Americans made this film, however, it would have been called How the West Was Lost. But Native Americans don’t really play much of a part in this film, aside from the occasional attack on a wagon train. In many ways, in fact, they are displaced by (or incorporated into) the more politically safe notion that the white settlers of the West were in conflict with a savage land, not a savage people. In doing so, the filmmakers are able to tell their story of White American supremacy without stepping on too many minority toes. Such a story, of course, is hard to tell these days, which is why How the West is Won is such a fascinating film. It is a snapshot of White American hubris before the Vietnam War and the Civil Rights movement significantly undermined it.

Yes, that’s right: How the West Was Won is a celebration of White American hubris. It unabashedly perpetuates the myth that America is great because it is essentially white. In doing so, it disregards the significant contributions (and indignities) of American “Others.”

The film’s theme song, recorded with heroic fervor by the Ken Darby Singers, does a fine job of setting this myth to music. I reprint it here in full:

They came with Bible fist and gun
And they fought until the job was done
The winning of the West
Promised land the land of plenty rich in gold
Here came dreamers with Bible fist and gun
Bound for land across the plains their wagons rolled
Hell bent for leather that’s how the West was won
Stride by stride they tamed the savage prairie land
Nothing stopped them no wind nor rain nor sun
Side by side these pioneers from every land
All pulled together that’s how the West was won

And they sang of the day when they would rest their boots
In a land where the still waters flow
Where the dreams of a man and wife could put down roots
And their love and the seeds of love would grow (And grow and grow)

Dream by dream they built a nation from this land
Forged in freedom for every mother’s son
Here it is the beautiful the promised land
We won’t forget them and how the West was won
It goes without saying, perhaps, that any story of the American West that comes at it from a “Bible fist and gun” angle is going to have problems. The song’s (and film’s) claim, for example, that the (presumably) white settlers “built a nation from this land/Forged in freedom for every mother’s son” is one of its chief ironies. Freedom, of course, is what the West symbolizes in the film, yet it has very little to say about the freedom for the mother’s sons who aren’t white. The Chinese barely make an appearance in the film, for example, and occasionally you see (or hear) a European immigrant or two, but none of these characters occupies a prominent role in forging any freedom. What is more, African Americans are entirely absent from this film, despite the considerable role they played as cowboys and railroad workers. For these groups, the West really did represent (and occasionally was) a Promised Land of freedom, but you don’t learn that from How the West Was Won. In the film, the West is White.

White and Protestant, that is. After all, where are the Mormons in this film? Last time I checked, the Mormons played a significant role in Western colonization. Like much that comes out of Hollywood, however, How the West Was Won is Cali-centric. It establishes California as the embodiment of White Western Success, while completely by-passing the Utah Territory’s role in making the west more accessible for white settlement. The filmmakers’ reasons for this omission, no doubt, is that the inhabitants of the lovely Deseret did not mesh well with their thesis. How could the bizarre nineteenth-century Mormons embody the rugged White American Spirit, when they seemed to occupy a place on the fringe of American society and mores?

Well, they couldn’t. That’s why Mormons were tossed aside, along with the Chinese, European immigrants, and African Americans.

The film, of course, is not entirely conscienceless. Zeb Rawlings and Jethro Stuart, two of the film’s main character, show rare sympathies for the Native Americans they are helping to displace. Rawlings, for example, argues frequently with Mike King, an unfeeling railroad builder, about King’s persistent violations of Native American treaties. Indeed, the film’s segment on the railroad is its best attempt to show the consequences of “winning” the West. In a visually powerful scene, for instance, the Native Americans force a buffalo stampede directly through the railroader’s camp, causing the deaths of several women and children. After the stampede, Rawlings accuses King of provoking the attack by breaking his promises to the local Arapaho. King, a white man, is the undisputed bad guy in the scene,while the Native Americans come off as simply reactionary victims. Ultimately, however, Rawlings and Stuart are all too complicit with white America’s irresponsible expansionism to really provide the film a meaningful conscience. And worse, the film seem to suggest that the likes of King are a necessary evil in the fulfillment of Manifest Destiny.

So, is How the West Was Won worth your time? It is, as long as you don’t buy into its racist message. At its best, the film shows us how the white American majority chose to represent its history at the pinnacle of its power. In a sense, then, the film is a cinematic relic of white America’s high water mark. Within a decade of its release, the Civil Rights movement and Vietnam War would change the way America viewed itself. Films like How the West Was Won are casualties of such change, and revisionary tales like Dances With Wolves are beneficiaries.

Interestingly, though, TNT produced a remake of sorts of How the West Was Won in the guise of the miniseries Into the West. In many ways, the miniseries corrected the mistake of the earlier film. Native American, for example, occupy a much more central place in this retelling of the history of the American West. Nevertheless, Into the West ultimately tells a white man’s story. The mythology of white American, it seems, is still winning in the West.
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4 thoughts on “How the West Was White: A Review”

  1. This is a very interesting review. I have often been fascinated by the various race relations around the United States. According to my Sociology text book, before the “New World” and the United States, there was no such thing as race. Many sociologists argue that race was only developed as a means to help explain an extremely unfair, but highly profitable slave trade. It just so happened that all of the slaves tended to be black. This made it very easy to develop the defense for slavery in view of enlightenment thinking that everyone was created equal. I would like to see this film.

  2. You are right. They could not remake this film in this day and age unles they made some drastic changes. The taming of the west is really more of a melting pot story – victory for some and great loss for others.

  3. I think this gets at the heart of why we really know so little about history. The winner ALWAYS writes the history books portraying themselves as the moral victor. It has been that way since the beginning and my guess is that it will always be that way. However, there are some authors who try to express the perspective of the oposing side, such as in Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee. It will be neat to one day learn what really happened in the world. Until then we are stuck reading and viewing what authors and film makers choose to produce, which are inherently biased to their own perspectives.

  4. Loved this post!Wouldn’t it be great to hear the Iraqis’ viewpoint of what’s going in their world right now? How about the people of Tibet? Or even better… what would our enemies, the Taliban and Al Queda have to say about the world, their lives, war, and who’s winning. Could be pretty interesting. I’m always fascinated by reading two opposing sides of a story. Everyone has their own perception or tradition of what reality is.

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