‘Americanism in action’ : the 1920s epic western and Hollywood historical cinema
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This study examines the emergence of epic Western filmmaking in the late silent era. Identified by vocal Hollywood proponents and critics of filmdom morality alike as the most laudable use for the increasingly ubiquitous motion picture, titles such as The Covered Wagon (1923), The Iron Horse (1924), The Pony Express (1925), and The Vanishing American (1925) were hailed for not only the rare ‘authenticity’ they brought to reconstructing America’s constructive nineteenth-century frontier period but the edifying, Americanising ends their doing so could serve. Projecting historical episodes foundational to the nation’s self-image before audiences from across linguistic and cultural divides, they demonstrated, in an apparently unprecedented fashion, a singular social purpose for Hollywood. And yet, scant attention has since been paid to the films of this important cycle, whether in terms of their remarkable initial popularity or their precipitous subsequent fall from popular grace. This study intervenes here by examining an overlooked cultural phenomenon that pro-cinema advocates of the era consistently placed at the centre of their Hollywood-boosting arguments. Among early film writers and theorists, these epic Westerns were recognised as a new type of distinctly American history, enlarged by cinema’s medium-specific reach to provide the ‘melting pot’s’ diverse filmgoers with inspiring, unifying lessons in the very ‘making’ of their nation. Combining close analyses of their historiographical articulations with readings of their production and reception, this study investigates how their emergence responded to and informed discourses far beyond those traditionally associated with the genre. By tying the nation’s most pervasive form of mass entertainment to publicised aspirations to enlighten and educate the public, studios moved frontier-historical filmmaking to the heart of the period’s most pressing debates around Hollywood: as a social influence; as an Americanising force for national unity; and, even, as a harbinger of world harmony.
Thesis, PhD Doctor of Philosophy
Embargo Date: 2025-10-07
Embargo Reason: Thesis restricted in accordance with University regulations. Print and electronic copy restricted until 7th October 2025
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