Place images of the American West in Western films



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Kansas State University


Hollywood Westerns have informed popular images of the American West for well over a century. This study of cultural, cinematic, regional, and historical geography examines place imagery in the Western. Echoing Blake’s (1995) examination of the novels of Zane Grey, the research questions analyze one hundred major Westerns to identify (1) the spatial settings (where the plot of the Western transpires), (2) the temporal settings (what date[s] in history the Western takes place), and (3) the filming locations. The results of these three questions illuminate significant place images of the West and the geography of the Western. I selected a filmography of one hundred major Westerns based upon twenty different Western film credentials. My content analysis involved multiple viewings of each Western and cross-referencing film content like narrative titles, American Indian homelands, fort names, and tombstone dates with scholarly and popular publications. The Western spatially favors Apachería, the Borderlands and Mexico, and the High Plains rather than the Pacific Northwest. Also, California serves more as a destination than a spatial setting. Temporally, the heart of the Western beats during the 1870s and 1880s, but it also lives well into the twentieth century. The five major filming location clusters are the Los Angeles / Hollywood area and its studio backlots, Old Tucson Studios and southeastern Arizona, the Alabama Hills in California, Monument Valley in Utah and Arizona, and the Santa Fe region in New Mexico. The filming locations spotlight majestic mountain backgrounds, impressive rock formations, dangerous deserts, sweeping plains, and place-less urban backlots. The quintessential Western is spatially set in southeastern Arizona in the 1880s and is filmed in Monument Valley. Utilizing Meinig’s (1965) Core-Domain-Sphere concept, the genre’s place-image core resides in southeastern Arizona. The Western domain includes the Borderlands, High Plains, Sierra Nevada, Slickrock Country, and central New Mexico. The sphere of Western imagery extends outward to Los Angeles, Dodge City, Mexico, Canada, and Spain. Following Wright (2014), the Western’s typical boundaries are the Missouri Breaks (north), Indian Territory (east), the Borderlands (south) and gold mining in the Sierra Nevada (west).



Place imagery, American West, Film geography, Western film

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Doctor of Philosophy


Department of Geography

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Kevin S. Blake; Jeffrey S. Smith