As far as film genres go it's hard to find another that exceeds the racism, chauvinism and brutality displayed in westerns. The very material upon which westerns are based is an historical era characterized by one of the world's most massive genocides, the colonization of a half continent, and the theft of even more lands from a "mongrelized" nation, Mexico. Virtually every western flick produced before the 1970s is seething with anti-Mexican and anti-Indian racism, reflecting the reality of the day, and by the day I mean both the 19th Century frontier, and 20th Century US mediascape. Plots are built around the irrational "depravities" of the sub-races as they rampage across the "wilderness" attacking peaceful and industrious settlers. Virtually every early western is about the white man's attempts to defend his women and community against the "savage" red-skinned humanoids who heed no laws or honor.
Later westerns turned the mirror on the white man to some extent, showing that evil also lurked in the master race of colonizers. He was the black-hat villain, and as if to certify his criminal insanity he often consorted with dark Indians and especially mixed-race Mexicans. The heroes remained the same, the tall white-hat gunslinger. Sure there's a lot of variations and even quite a few exceptions to the rule. More than a few westerns were built around the anti-hero persona of men like Clint Eastwood. But the genre's overall narrative from its earliest days, with films like The Big Trail, has been about white civilization's survival in a savage wilderness, and the justness of manifest destiny in American history.
That archetype cowboy John Wayne explained the naturalness of this narrative best in his infamous 1971 Playboy interview: "I don'tfeel we did wrong in taking this great country away from them, if that's whatyou're asking. Our so-called stealing of this country from them was just amatter of survival. There were great numbers of people who needed new land, andthe Indians were selfishly trying to keep it for themselves." Wayne would know. He starred in dozens upon dozens of westerns, more than any actor before or since. In 1974 Wayne was inducted into the Hall of Great Western Performers of the National Cowboy and Western Heritage Museum.
Other westerns go so far as to depict "good" Indians, but then isn't the very notion of a good Indian predicated on the notion that they're supposed to be bad? And even when Indians and blacks are depicted as human beings, and even when the plot goes so far as to show them as victims of grave injustice, a major problem for Hollywood has remained. Most westerns continue to fixate on the white man, on his desires, tribulations, and quest for honor. Dances With Wolves was the high point of this tendency. Then came the Sci-Fi that was still in many important respects a western, Avatar. Avatar had all the trappings, from a colonization mission, to a mining venture, to the Marine Corps, to the nobel savage indigenous race and their deep spiritual connections to the earth. To top it off the white man got to go native, screw an Indian girl, and redeem himself and his race in the process. It was such an over-the-top western narrative that even David Brooks demolished it as a "White Messiah Fable," in which "natives can either have their history shaped by cruel imperialists or benevolent ones, but either way, they are going to be supporting actors in our journey to self-admiration."
This gets right at the biggest problem with these revisions of the western. Try as they might to give Indians, Blacks, Asians and other races positive roles in stories of the West, Hollywood has spun tales of pure fiction, so much so that the truth of the past is lost to the sensitivities of liberal guilt. We've ended up, therefore, with the older Westerns that depict the reality of white racism and brutality in all its disturbing psychopathy, through a false tale of bravery in the face of attack, and the newer revisionist Westerns that in trying to give non-whites positive roles have completely drained reality from the pictures by not dealing with the white man's overwhelming thirst for blood and empire.
The first category of westerns, the early canon, is based on racist lies. It depicts Indians and others as savage animals that must be put down by white defenders. But at least the racism of the narrative is apparent. This obvious white racism can't fly anymore among a mass audience, and so as the racial attitudes of whites have morphed, so has their ultimately racist narrative about themselves and the Other.
The second narrative, the new racialism, may be worse because it masks the deeply racist reality of what happened with a fictive storyline that is about whites overcoming racism to ally themselves with Indians, Blacks, Mexicans, whoever, to fight for some greater good. This is not what happened in the West. In the process the story that really needs to be told and retold, the story of what went down as the US Army, state militias, and posses of settlers systematically destroyed a thousand nations during the stampede to California, the story of what the West really is, how it deformed white men's souls and led to genocide and the extension of slavery, has been left untold.
Is this because Hollywood simply can't produce a film that isn't led by white people, a film in which the main character and the narrative aren't based in white experiences? And why can't Hollywood? Why wouldn't a film shot from the perspective of an Indian do well at the box office? Why must a white person always find their way into native skin to create mass appeal? What does this say about the American people today? What racial desires and fears lie in the white heart and mind?
Whatever the cause, the fact is that mainstream film has leap frogged over reality to tell tales of racial cooperation in the old west. This is what Cowboys and Aliens seems to be about on some level.
Here's the basic plot. Aliens come to earth to and attack a white settler gold mining town in Arizona. (The town happens to be named Absolution, the theological word for the forgiveness experienced after sacrament and reconciliation, which under Catholicism all results in the washing away of sins -- I'll let you read whatever you like into this.) The aliens call themselves "the Caste," and like many evil extraterrestrials are bent on conquering other planets in the same imperialistic fashion that Euro-Americans actually did set out with in the Fifteenth Century. It's a funny name for the aliens given the racial undertones of the film. The sociologist Gunnar Myrdal once used the word caste to describe Blacks in America, eschewing "race" because of its biologistic connotations which as a scientist he was eager to refute. Like many things woven into the plots of Hollywood's blockbusters there probably wasn't much of any deep thought put to this, however.
Anyway, feuding as they are amongst themselves the humans have trouble fighting back against the Caste. Eventually however the whites band together with none other than the Chiricahua Apache Indians to defend planet earth. The main character, Jake Lonergan, a white man played by Daniel Craig, drinks a magic Indian potion and recalls where the aliens are hidden in their grounded mother-ship - thanks magical Indian medicine man! It's assured that in any film in which the white man allies himself with Indians (or Asians, Africans, etc.) there will be a grave illness or some seemingly insurmountable impasse that can only be solved through the use of the red man's magical herbs and access to the spirit world, forces often summoned up from a dipped gourd or a hit off the old peace pipe.
After getting high and seeing things, Lonergan and company saddle up. A great battle ensues in which all the trite and cliche reversals of fortune, bravery, sacrifices, and final triumphs occur. If you've seen a Hollywood action flick you know the basic formula -- lots of explosions, shouting, jumping, flying horses and alien weaponry grafted onto bows and arrows, etc.
The humans eventually win. And in a plot twist proving they're not only not racist, but in fact they're not even speciesist or terrestrialist, producer Steven Spielberg, director Jon Favreau, and the eight other producers/screenwriters (all of whom are white men, surprise?) include this plot twist: Ella Swensen, a beautiful woman inexplicably traveling alone through Arizona's shit-lands and drafted in the battle to fight the aliens turns out to be an alien herself, although of a different alien race (or is it caste?) also battling against the intruders. She dies to save them all. Sorry if I spoiled things for you.
The end, happy end. But what after? Well if it's science fiction then we're supposed to suspend our disbelief and follow the what-ifs as far as they go. But after the aliens are vanquished there's still the question of the Chiricahua Apache, the Indian nation that up until very recently in Hollywood was naturally given the role of the alien force that could not be reasoned with, that could only be dealt with through violence. In Cowboys and Aliens the Apache just helped the white man save planet earth, so maybe in this fantasy realm everyone signs a big peace treaty and it's all good.
Back to reality. From their first encounters with the pale-faced, bearded military men and miners "exploring" their homelands, the Apache were subjected to murderous intentions. The Apaches resisted colonization and ruination of their homelands by the Mexican and later American militaries and were more successful in fending of invasion than most other tribes. It wasn't until the US realized the vast wealth of minerals, gold, silver and other precious metals under the Southwest that the intention to exterminate the Apache nation was firmed. This campaign of genocide began in the mining camps where the empire's most depraved petit capitalists, criminals, and get-rich-quickers turned their pistols and ropes on the Apache they encountered. Kidnapping and torture were commonplace, as was rape. The Apache bravely resisted.
After their removal the homelands of the Apache were subsequently turned into vast strip mines for copper and other materials when the US Army noted recoverable deposits. Corporations like Phelps Dodge eventually pulled billions of dollars worth of copper ore from the Apache nation's homeland, mostly from open pits that have left scars in the earth visible from space.
Perhaps the real aliens see these tears in the earth, and wonder what they are? No Hollywood narrative yet exist to explain it.