Perhaps the two most iconic western films of the 1950s, The Searchers (1956) and Shane (1953), have invited a variety of critical readings, most of which highlight conflicts between the side of right (aligned with the hero) and that of a misguided antagonist (American Indiansi and corporate ranchers, respectively), as well as between civilization and savagery. The homesteaders conquer their enemies in both films, with the help of a hero who seems to embody elements of both a civilized and savage world. In both films the hero must return to a savage wilderness because he sees himself as unfit for the (better) civilized world. What is missing from these readings, however, is a closer look at the historical context behind the dramatic narratives that drive the films and their heroes. The real battle in these films, and in many western films, is not between the little guy and the big guy or even between civilization and savagery. Instead, these films draw on environmental battles that are ongoing and potentially devastating for what we think of as the American West. We argue that western films like these call for environmental readings based in ecological dichotomies that break down when read in relation to the historical and cultural contexts of the films and their settings.
In The Searchers, for example, numerous scenes call for an explicit eco-critical reading: The first occurs early in the film when Ethan (John Wayne) and a posse of Texas Rangers take off after some cattle stolen by what they think are Caddo or Kiowa Indians. After riding through the majestic landscapes of Monument Valley, Ethan and the rest of the newly deputized Texas Rangers find the cattle forty miles away from the ranches from which they were stolen, deliberately killed with Comanche lances, slaughtered but not eaten for food. Another scene highlights a third flashback during Laurie’s (Vera Miles) reading of Martin’s (Jeffrey Hunter) one letter. In the flashback, Martin and Ethan approach a snow-covered area where buffalo are gathered. Ethan shoots one of the buffalo, causing the rest to stampede. Then he goes into a passionate frenzy, shooting wildly at the herd. His senseless slaughter of the buffalo is intended to starve and deprive the Indians of food. Marty protests the deliberate killings to deny food to the Indians but Ethan doesn’t listen: “At least they won’t feed any Comanches this winter.” Ethan’s proclamation parallels earlier tactics of Scar (Henry Brandon), the chief of the tribe that slaughters Ethan’s family, when he kills homesteaders’ cattle to lure the white men away from the ranch. This parallel complicates any attempts to distinguish American Indians from white settlers; it also reinforces an anti-environmental message, seemingly shared by both cultures, that valorizes death and destruction not for food or survival, but for revenge.
In Shane, the conflict is not between white settlers and American Indians, but between white homestead-ers and white ranchers. Here the conflict is skewed against the open range and in favor of raising cattle, as well as grain and vegetables, in fenced-in enclosures, because this method is deemed better for the cattle, the agriculture that sustains them, and the environment. Joe Starrett (Van Heflin), the chief home- steader in the film, tells Shane (Alan Ladd):
In case you wanted to know, that’s Ryker’s (Emile Meyer) spread all over there. He thinks the whole world belongs to him. The old-timers can’t see it yet, but runnin’ cattle on an open range can’t go on. It takes too much space for too little results. Those herds aren’t any good. They’re all horns and bone. Cattle that is bred for meat and fenced in and fed right, that’s the thing.
When I came to this country, you weren’t much older than your boy. We had rough times. Meand other men that are mostly dead now. I got a bad shoulder yet from a Cheyenne arrow head.We made this country, we found it and we made it, with blood and empty bellies. Cattle we brought in were hazed off by Indians and rustlers. They don’t bother you much any more because we handled ‘em. We made a safe range out of this. Some of us died doing it, but we made it. Then people move in who never had to rawhide it through the old days.
But Ryker also resents the environmental consequences of the homesteaders’ presence:
“They fence off my range and fence me off from water. Some of them plough ditches, take out irrigation water. So the creek runs dry sometimes and I gotta move my stock because of it. And you say we have no right to the range. The men that did the work and ran the risks have no rights?”
Both Starrett and Ryker believe they have the right to the land not only because they’ve earned it—either through hard work or law—butalso because their methods coincide best with the landscape, and they preserve the land as well as fattening the cattle. Each of these examples rests on conflicting views of how best to address the wilderness. By focusing on environmental issues discussed in traditional western films, however, we can read western films through an eco-critical lens and make the history behind the environmental debates found in western films transparent. The binaries represented in these films typically blur when examined more closely,and such blurring demonstrates the complexity of environmental history and environmental degradation.