The End of Victory Culture ?
When victory culture and the western died, and there is no need to reiterate the painful details of its death. In short, the ugly reality of the ever-increasing violence in modern American society helped muffle the last dying breathes of victory culture. The appeal of the genre which had sanctified gunplay and promoted racism. The waning of American power in the world, especially considering the Vietnam war, which in turn made a mockery of long cherished national concepts of invincibility and righteousness and the Western was a casualty of the accompanying cultural fallout. The western, in fact, became too commonplace. Every channel on American televisions had westerns on primetime that the genre had become too traditional and unable to capture younger audiences. And according to Michael Coyne the western will never come back. Coyne argues “The [new] western might occasionally incorporate modern political themes as subplots but, in all probability would not lastingly accommodate feminism, Black rights, and gay rights within the genre.” The western was also replaced by the police thriller, the road trip movie, and most importantly the science fiction epics. The generation that grew up during victory culture turned to a different frontier space in the last four decades of the twentieth century. Planet of the Apes (1968) took astronauts to a new world, and the U.S.S. Enterprise journeyed through the “final frontier” in Star Trek (1966-1969) on primetime television. And in 1975, George Lucas signed on with Twentieth Century Fox to produce a space film that (he reassured his wife) “ten-year-old boys would love”, this film would later become the pop culture phenomenon Star Wars. America had moved on, the western was not important to American nationalism.
September 11th, 2001
Victory culture would return all but briefly in the twenty-first century. On September 11, 2001, al-Qaeda terrorist hijacked four passenger jets with box cutters and mace. The terrorist destroyed two monuments of American might and part of a third, killing over 3,000 people. Just like sixty years before a president, this time George W. Bush, had to address a shaken nation. In his address, President Bush told Americans that “we stand together to win against terrorism.” Within a few days of the attack words and promises of ultimate triumph and victory would enter not only President Bush’s vocabulary, but the nation’s own narrative. The president’s approach to the attack would be effective, as Hollywood would answer the call (as usual) and tap into Americans nationalism and fears. Action films new villains were unspecified middle eastern men, while other films invoked America’s past military victories to remind American audiences. Hollywood released several war films in the immediate aftermath of September 11th, among them We Were Soldiers ( March 2002), Behind Enemy Lines (November 2001) and Black Hawk Down (December 2001) were rushed into theaters ahead of schedule once studio executives seen that post attack national mood would be receptive to war films, rather than averse to them. Tom Engelhardt states in his assessment of victory culture post-September 11th was a fragile creature that could not find a phenomenon like the western genre. The popular culture atmosphere that emerged from September 11th was convoluted, superhero movies like the X-men series, and shows like Sex and the City found new popularities, while other genres floundered. This form of victory culture would quickly fade as the media and politicians began to question the Bush administrations motives and the war in Iraq. In many ways this new form of victory culture was only a mere phantom of post-World War era and its partner the western.
Film and television was the great popular art form of a century in which the United States had dominated. Victory culture helped cement the western into American identity and vice versa. American nationalism which can be traced back to Europeans’ first notions of America, and was fostered by French philosophers, and American historians like Frederick Jackson Turner who preached of American uniqueness. This form of nationalism was bolstered by Hollywood and the western genre. After the attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, Hollywood used victory culture to make the western a pop culture juggernaut in both film and television. Film director John Ford sustained victory culture in his films including My Darling Clementine, Fort Apache and The Searchers. While on television, shows like The Lone Ranger and Bonanza promoted victory culture in the most noticeable ways. Both television and film westerns cultivated and nourished victory culture, and preached its declarations. The western genre promoted story lines that highlighted white men, notably bachelorhood and brotherhood. These visual mediums festered ideas of racism and gendered stereotypes. While chiefly Native Americans, other minorities as well, were restricted to roles that were subservient to white men. Women, specifically were simply ignored or used as a plot devices. Above all, westerns served to separate white American audiences from the other (the other was everchanging) and create a dichotomy of “us” vs. “them” The Western helped create a national myth that was victory culture, in which American grit, loyalty, manliness, patriotism, and victory was not only achievable but both a past and present truth.