I first read Jon Tuska’s study of the Hollywood Western in 1989 while traveling for the U.S. Air Force through the Pacific. I recall that it was a great alternative to the many hours of boredom flying from one base to another from Hawaii to Korea. Having just reread this book, my earlier positive recollections of it were only partially confirmed. The American West in Film: Critical Approaches to the Western is an intriguing analysis of the Western, its structure, and its location in the culture of America. It is, however, quite dated after nearly 25 years since its first appearance. And Tuska is ever the combative discussant in this book. He takes issue with many other writers, especially film critics, and finds fault with their discussions.
The book is divided into four major parts. The first is an analysis of the narrative structure of westerns, which I have found better discussed in other works. He spends time here disparaging John Cawelti’s The Six Gun Mystique (1984), and his academic analysis of the Western as a representation of the larger American society. Tuska also spends considerable time on individual directors in part 2 of this book. Using an auteur approach, even though the analytical term bothers him a bit, he focuses on the messages and ideas contained in the films of John Ford, Howard Hawks, Anthony Mann, and Sam Peckinpah. In each he finds differences and similarities. Third, Tuska turns his attention to the depictions of legendary figures associated with the American West. These include Billy the Kid—the first framing of work later published in Tuska’s Billy the Kid: His Life and Legend (1994)—Wyatt Earp, and Gen. Custer. It also includes Jesse James, whom I don’t really consider a western legend since he operated in the Midwest between the end of the Civil War and the 1880s, but I suppose there is a relationship. In his last section Tuska takes on the characterization of women and Native Americans in western films, emphasizing the wide delta between depictions on film and reality.
There is much to praise in this book, but its combative nature and some obvious pedantry make it a bit unnerving and a less than fully satisfying work. Getting past that, however, will serve the reader well in helping to understand what was happening in Western film analysis in the 1980s.