Briscoe Exhibit Looks At ‘70s, ‘80s-Era Westerns Through Historical Lens
For a guy who earns his spurs today writing about westerns, Andrew Patrick Nelson wasn’t a fan as a young boy.
“I grew up in the superhero and science fiction-saturated popular culture of the ‘80s and ‘90s,” Nelson explains. “Westerns weren’t something I really encountered until I started studying film in college. And once I started watching them, I just became hooked.”
Nelson’s writing on westerns concentrates on the time period following the classic era, which was defined by stoic riders, noble sheriffs, outlaws, and one-sided portrayals of Native Americans. By the 1960s, a new generation of filmmakers and stars turned Hollywood on its head following the collapse of the studio system, and audiences hungered for more complex storylines and portrayals of the frontier.
“Still In The Saddle: A New History of the Hollywood Western” is the title of Nelson’s book about the Hollywood western of the 1970s and 1980s, and it’s also the focus of this summer’s exhibition at the Briscoe Western Art Museum. Briscoe CEO Michael Duchemin invited Nelson, Associate Professor of Film Studies at the University of Utah, to curate the show.
“He impressed me as the best and the brightest of all the young western film scholars,” Duchemin notes.
The exhibit features a recreation of a 1970s-era theater screening scenes from classic films, complete with fresh popcorn, and includes rare costumes worn by actors like John Wayne, and original film posters for dozens of films including “Pale Rider,” “True Grit” (both versions), “Little Big Man,” “The Wild Bunch,” “Silverado,” “Posse,” “Bad Girls,” and “Unforgiven.” Both Duchemin and Nelson say these films reflect the times they were made.
“The films provide a kind of a fantasy escapist environment where society could work through and work out cultural issues that were difficult to address head on,” Duchemin says.
“One argument that I try to make,” explains Nelson,” is that [the] western in the 1960s, ‘70s, and ‘80s is more or less doing what they’ve always done, which is revising itself, telling similar stories in light of contemporary events. So it’s really less that the western changed, than our perspective on the western changed. Certain events led us to see the western through a certain lens.”
“The Vietnam war, the civil rights movement, all the assassinations, Watergate, you know, on and on. The oil crisis, the Iran hostage situation, all of those things ultimately end up getting reflected in the films,” agrees Duchemin.
There’s also the fashion of the times that is reflected onscreen as well—even in the “old west.” No one would mistake Robert Redford’s corduroy jacket in “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid” as being authentic, nor would the hairstyles or flared pants be period correct. But that’s part of the fun, says Nelson.
“Art is based in history, but it’s an interpretation of history through contemporary sensibilities,” Nelson says. “[These films] are not trying to tell us the truth. They’re trying to make sense of it through a combination of history and myth. And that’s how they should be seen and enjoyed.”
“Still in the Saddle” runs through September 6 at the Briscoe Western Art Museum. An accompanying Sunday afternoon film series finds curator Andrew Patrick Nelson introducing a different film each month, and hosting a Q&A session following the screening. The next film, "Little Big Man," screens on Father's Day. Details are at https://www.briscoemuseum.org/film-series/
Hear the full-length interview with Andrew Patrick Nelson in the audio player below.