You’ll see lots and lots of cowboy hats in The Reel West, the new Eiteljorg exhibition that explores morality, diversity, and identity in the Western film genre. You’ll also see costumes, posters, props, and film clips dating from the silent film era to Netflix.
The exhibit uses these items to engage us in a conversation about how our understanding of the West in shaped by Hollywood.
There are some jarring juxtapositions in this exhibit. You can view, for example, the trailer for Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained followed a moment later by the trailer for Phantom Menace, the singing cowboy movie from 1935 starring Gene Autry.
You’ll also see the checkerboard shirt that John Wayne wore in The Searchers (1956) alongside the blue one Kevin Costner wore in Dances with Wolves (1991).
In The Searchers trailer—speaking of jarring juxtapositions—you’ll see Comanches (Plains Indians) on horseback in Navajo Country.
“A lot of John Ford Westerns have sort of amalgamations of native cultures,” says curator Johanna Blume. “There are a lot of inaccuracies, not the least of which is that the main [native character] is played by a white guy. That’s something we explore in more detail in the exhibit as well, that sort of misrepresentation and whitewashing.”
Blume also finds Dances with Wolves problematic—although there’s much that she admires about it.
“It’s one of the first examples where native people are really complex characters with complex cultures and their own backstories and their own language,” explains Blume. “But at the same time, it’s still Kevin Costner’s story. He becomes this white savior who has to rescue the Lakota and save them from the encroaching violence of the U.S. military. Unfortunately, that’s a problem that we’re still seeing in a lot of Westerns. It’s still rare to see a Western story where you see native characters who are central to the story.”
The B-Westerns first made by Hollywood in the early 20th century weren’t known for their accurate depictions of life on the frontier.
“These B-Westerns were being produced at just an incredible rate,” says Blume. “Some of these guys were making a couple of movies a week. When you think of the timeline of a movie today—it takes years to make a movie—it seems incredible.”
The lines were often blurred between the the early B-movie actors and the characters they played, according to Blume.
“A lot of them would just dress in this fancy Western wear just on a day-to-day basis,” she says. “That’s how they looked.They often played characters that shared their names [like] Ken Maynard.”
Out of the B-Western came the rise of the singing cowboys. Gene Autry and Roy Rogers were most prominent among them. Rogers—who has a display case dedicated to him in this exhibition—appeared in more than 100 films and on his own radio and television show.
The exhibit also deals with the advent of television in the 1950s and the rise of shows such as Bonanza, Gunsmoke, and The Annie Oakley Show.
The rise of television had its effect on Hollywood cinema.
“Why go to a movie when you could watch a Western from the comfort of your own home every night of the week?” Blume asks.
The exhibition shows how the counterculture was reflected in the Western genre and the rise of the revisionist Western.
“You start to see more of the antihero protagonist who’s not really a good guy but still the one you’re seeing from that character’s perspective,” says Blume. “And it’s interesting [with the] west as a setting during the rise of the revisionist Western too because it’s no longer just a place of opportunity and redemption.”
The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly (1966), starring Clint Eastwood, is exemplified here as an example of a revisionist western. (Shot in Spain with an Italian crew, this film became the most famous of the so-called Spaghetti Westerns.)
There’s also space in this exhibition to consider the representation of Blacks, women, and Asian communities in the Western genre.
And while Blume was able to find and include clothes worn by Black actors wore for the exhibit—the cowboy hat Danny Glover wore in Buffalo Soldiers for example—she wasn’t able to find any for Asian actors.
“Chinese and Japanese communities have been really important in the history of the West, but I wasn’t able to find any objects to represent that,” says Blume. “I think that’s telling about how little representation there’s been in film.”
Also included are the shirts that Jake Gyllenhaal and Heath Ledger wore in Brokeback Mountain (2005), the first Hollywood movie to take a significant look at LGBTQ issues in the Western genre.
The exhibition also devotes significant space to recent productions—both in television and on the big screen—that have been more inclusive in their approaches toward diversity than, say, your typical John Wayne vehicle.
But there’s still room for improvement, according to Blume.
“One that’s coming out that I’m excited about is called The Good Time Girls,” says Blume. “It exists currently as a short film, and they’re expanding it into a feature film. I’ll be curious to see how it changes because the central characters in the short film are still white women. But there are background characters who are women of color, and it will be interesting to see if they have a more significant role in the feature film.”