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John Wayne meets Rambo: Expert explores changing Western films

Richard Etulain says the traditional western was blown apart in the '60s
by: Jonathan House, WESTERN FILM — An author with a doctorate in Western history, Richard Etulain travels the state of Oregon giving presentations on “The Magic West on Film.”

TUALATIN - Richard Etulain, an expert in Western history, argues that the Western film is not dead.

Films continue to capture the rustic scenery of the West with deserts, small towns and adventures. The people and faces have changed from John Wayne to Clint Eastwood to Heath Ledger.

Instead of bad guys wearing black hats or sheriffs riding in on white horses, the heroes and now heroines wear gray hats. The heroes' actions aren't allways praiseworthy. Heroes use violence and profanity not like the famed cowboys of the classic Western. Instead, today's Western heroes have been transformed into something else - part John Wayne and part Rambo.

But transformed or not, Westerns are still alive, says Etulain.

'The Western has changed with the cultural current,' Etulain noted. 'But it doesn't mean that the Western will die.'

For the third consecutive year, Etulain has traveled the state of Oregon giving his 'The Magic West on Film' presentation as part of the Oregon Council for the Humanities' Chautauqua Presentations. Wednesday he visited the Tualatin Heritage Center.

His presentation focused on the changing images of heroes and treatment of Native Americans and women in Western films over the last 100 years.

Etulain has published 45 nonfiction books on the American West in his career. His latest, 'Beyond the Missouri: The Story of the American West,' came out just three weeks ago. He has a Ph.D. in Western history from the University of Oregon and a passion for the West.

But even Etulain gets a little stumped on what seems to be an easy question - what is the definition of a Western film?

'Brokeback Mountain,' 'Thelma and Louise' and 'Blazing Saddles' all fit his description of a Western. They take place in the West.

But he admits that some, if not most people, would argue against the label for all the three movies listed above. The story lines, the time settings and even the aspect of comedy can deter people from identifying a movie as a Western.

Etulain said the traditional Western and its heroes are dead.

'At the end of the '60s, we blew apart the traditional western,' Etulain said.

The John Wayne, John Ford and Gary Cooper pictures have long been replaced with the likes of Clint Eastwood's more vicious characters. But as Etulain tries to explain in his presentations, the Western film continues to thrive.

From Etulain's collection of Western films, the Tualatin Heritage Center will show five classic Westerns during the month of September.

Center Director Larry McClure noted that 'some of the films are black and white. And for kids, that'll be a new thing.'

At a Glance

The Tualatin Heritage Center, 8700 S.W. Sweek Drive, will be showing classic Western films on the center's big screen. Scheduled for free showings are 'Stagecoach' Sept. 12, 'High Noon' Sept. 13, 'Shane' Sept. 19, 'Geronimo' Sept. 21 and 'The Searchers' Sept. 26. All the films will begin at 7 p.m.