This article was published online on April 19, 2021.
I grew up in San Diego, which resembles the backdrop of High Noon or Unforgiven not at all but is extremely west, geographically speaking. Maybe this is what disposed me to feel that the Western as a film genre was trite and foolish, dangerously sentimental about horizons and stoicism and men shooting each other for no good reason. I know these are fighting words. But the notion of the western frontier offering limitless opportunity to colonize—framed as limitless freedom, resources, and promise of transformation—is less attractive when you are raised at its terminus. “San Diego is the extreme southwest town of the United States; and since our real westward expansion has come to a standstill, it has become a veritable jumping-off place,” Edmund Wilson wrote in a 1931 essay about the strangely high rate of suicides in the city at that time.
You seem to see the last blind feeble futile effervescence of the great burst of the American adventure. Here this people, so long told to “go West” to escape from poverty, ill health, maladjustment, industrialism and oppression, discover that, having come West, their problems and diseases still remain and that there is no further to go.
Wilson describes San Diego as the place where manifest destiny, the animating dream of the Western, curdles; here the endless land ends and there are no more American horizons on which to pin hopes or ambition—only high, unstable cliffs at the ocean’s edge to hurl yourself off.
I love where I am from, and I love the landscapes of the American West in general—and so I am skeptical of the mythos of the American West, which has often been used as an excuse to annihilate the land itself, and the people living on it. Almost a decade ago, I drove from San Diego up to Owens Valley, in Inyo County, which was where many classic Westerns of the 20th century, including Hopalong Cassidy, Westward Ho, and the original Lone Ranger film, were shot. (The proprietor of the motel I stayed in proudly told me that his grandmother had been John Wayne’s local girl of choice.) In the early 1900s, California drained Owens Lake to supply water to Los Angeles, so thoroughly desiccating the area’s lush environment that it became a giant dust bowl. Arsenic-laced dust storms howled through. This reality—people romancing the land while laying waste to it—soured me on the Western, which seemed to ennoble or obscure that devastation. This paradox “is the West yesterday, today, and forever,” the historian Bernard DeVoto wrote in his 1947 essay “The West Against Itself,” which took aim at industries, like mining, that depended on the area’s natural resources while plundering them. “It is the Western mind stripped to the basic split. The West as its own worst enemy. The West committing suicide.”