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2023 Summer Reading Challenge: Showdown (1980) John H. Lenihan



Showdown: Confronting Modern America in the Western Film (1980) John H. Lenihan

University of Illinois Press

Paperback, 214 pages

Includes acknowledgments, introduction, bibliography of films (1939-1978), bibliography of printed works and interviews, index, and photos

ISBN 978-0-252012549


Right up front Lenihan states that his purpose in writing Showdown is “to demonstrate its (the Western’s) relation to major political, intellectual, and social issues and trends since World War II and, in turn, to suggest some of the assumptions, concerns, and attitudes of the society that has rendered this genre so popular.”


If that sounds a little too academic, it’s really not. There’s often something important to be learned from Westerns, and even the people watching them during their heyday (generally the 1940s and ‘50s) knew what they liked and what they didn’t. Why they did or didn’t like them may have had something to do with the politics and/or worldview of the film as well as those of the viewer.


 

The Western was (and remains; it’s not dead) a genre that celebrates resolve, strength of character, and freedom. Audiences can look at those films in admiration of their heroes and their fortitude. Most of us don’t want violence to have a place in our society, but we must recognize that it took violence to settle the frontier. The question is “Where does the frontier end?” And by implication we might further ask, “Where do our values end?”


Lenihan looks at several films that are not only fine examples of entertainment, but also speak to the problems we as a nation were trying to solve at the time: the Korean War, the Cold War, and the Vietnam War. In what ways does a Western’s protagonist represent or trample the needs and values of our country? What about when those needs and values are disputed or divided? Is High Noon (1952) about a man’s courage or a town’s failings? Do Rio Grande (1950) and Only the Valiant (1951) seem to advocate for tolerating or destroying assailants? Do Arrowhead (1953) and Drum Beat (1954) appear to look upon their humanitarian characters with contempt? The Command (1954) features a physician (Guy Madison) forced to take lives rather than heal them. How do we deal with that? Westerns often present no easy answers.


Showdown further examines Westerns with chapters on racial attitudes, postwar alienation, society in the 1950s (complacent or plaintive?), and antiestablishment Westerns. Published in 1980, potential readers may think the book (and, by association, the Western itself) too dated with nothing to say about the times we live in now. Yet part of the book’s strength lies in its closeness to the the eras it examines. The reactions of audiences to the films discussed was not that far removed from the book’s publication. Remember that the book appeared just five years after the Vietnam War. While that short amount of time may not give us much room to reflect, it also touches on nerves that were still raw.

Showdown is at its strongest when Lenihan examines the 1950s, particularly looking at films that weren’t that well received when they were released. One such film, The Gunfighter (1950), opened the doors for other Westerns examining the dark side of individualism and justice. Veteran gunfighter Jimmy Ringo (Gregory Peck) has a target on his back every day of his life, confronted by ambitious wannabes, when all he really wants to do is to reconnect with his family. How do we live in such a community that not only allows for but promotes such constant one-upmanship?


Other films examine the connection between the hero and the community. If the hero needs redeeming, does the community need it as well? When does conformity become dangerous? What if a town is unworthy of its hero? That last question is just one of many addressed by High Noon (1952), which receives significant attention in the book.


In many ways, Showdown is a very brief overview of its subtitle: Confronting Modern America in the Western Film. With only 176 pages of text, Lenihan does not have enough space to explore these films or their themes in great detail, yet that was also not his intention. Although the book was published over 40 years ago, we are still confronting many of its issues, but doing so from a greater distance. There’s certainly value in reading Showdown, but the discussion clearly cannot stop here, not with so many excellent Westerns (large-screen and small) made since 1980 available now. Yet Showdown gives Western fans plenty to chew on.


This review is part of the 2023 Summer Reading Classic Film Book Challenge. You can (and should!) sign up here and be a part of the challenge, telling others about the classic film books you're reading, and getting suggestions for your own reading. Enjoy!



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