Before the Endless Miles of Wind and Sand and Empty Far Off Sky: Deserts in Hollywood’s Silent Era
Mericle, Robyn Rene
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When Robert Smithson donned a cowboy hat and boots in the classic 1968 film Mono Lake, he revealed how deeply the mythic imagery of the Hollywood Western has penetrated widespread attitudes towards the West. Scholars including Richard Slotkin and Kevin Brownlow have traced the development of the Hollywood Western into the iconic post-WWII blueprint, first clearly articulated by John Ford’s 1939 film Stagecoach and later taken up by television shows like Gunsmoke and Bonanza. But there has been relatively little scholarly discussion of early films that, although marketed as Westerns, presented a radically different approach. These films explored the specific ecologies of Western spaces and featured women, Native Americans, and even animals in prominent roles. This dissertation analyzes three silent films from the 1920s, using them as case studies that articulate broader impulses and trends found throughout many films of the era. Chapter One focuses on Buster Keaton’s Go West (1925), a Western satire in which Keaton works on an Arizona cattle ranch and develops a sincere friendship with a cow. The Wind (1928), directed by Swedish director Victor Sjostrom and starring Lillian Gish, is the subject of the second chapter, which explores the ways that Sjostrom’s reduction of the landscape and his denial of pleasurable vision critiques and undermines the Manifest Destiny narrative. The third chapter looks at Redskin (1929), a film which sympathetically depicted Native American characters struggling with the early twentieth century boarding school experience and explored questions of indigenous assimilation into Euro-American culture. The methodology for analyzing these films is based in visual and cultural studies, and takes a broadly intersectional approach, allowing the films themselves to guide the choice of questions needed to investigate and analyze their representations of the desert landscape. Ultimately, this dissertation aims to help dismantle the dominance of mythic visions of the postwar Western, and open up new ways to relate to the West as a diverse set of ecologies with its own particular history.