Great Plains Studies, Center for


Date of this Version



Great Plains Quarterly 33:1 (Winter 2013)


© 2013 Center for Great Plains Studies, University of Nebraska-Lincoln


Is there any image from Hollywood cinema more iconic than a lone cowboy riding across a Western landscape? While much has been written about such themes as individualism, empire, and landscape in Hollywood Westerns, until recently scholars have ignored the central trope underlying all others in these films—the ecological relationship between humans and their environment. The Western, as Robin Murray and Joseph Heumann explain, both masks and unmasks this trope by dramatizing and oversimplifying ecological issues while mythologizing the cowboy’s relationship with the land. In this comprehensive study, the authors build on their previous work on popular cinema and animated films by approaching the Western from a postmodern, ecocentric perspective. They contend that such an approach can help scholars move beyond the essentialist, a historical conceptions of nature often espoused by nature writers and philosophers.

This approach can illuminate the real-world ecological and environmental justice concerns underlying cinematic texts. Each chapter thus combines textual analysis with environmental science and history to deconstruct Hollywood Westerns that portray such issues as mining, water rights, and the oil boom. Chapter 1, for example, analyzes the battle over free-range and fenced ranching as depicted in Shane (1953) and Sea of Grass (1947). Shane foregrounds the need for fencing to protect homesteaders and the environment from being trampled upon by corporate ranchers. Sea of Grass invokes images of the Dust Bowl to argue for a free-range approach. The authors analyze this debate not only in terms of the historical periods depicted in the films but also in relation to scientific understandings at the time of their production, thus providing a model for future scholars in addressing issues like the debate between factory and organic meat production.