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Exhibit looks at how Hollywood Westerns shape perceptions of American identity

by | | Feb 15, 2018

The Reel West headline

Worldwide, people often formed their first impressions of the West and of America not from visiting its vast landscapes but from seeing tales of the West flicker onscreen.

A romanticized and fictional version of the West galloped across movie screens and on televisions, thrilling audiences while portraying a violent and often simplistic version of American life in the frontier era, with spurs jingling and showdowns at high noon. After a century of Hollywood Western films and decades of Western TV shows, the storylines have become more complex and nuanced. And while fans now are as likely to watch by streaming video, the power of Westerns to create perceptions of the American West is undiminished.

To explore the role of Hollywood in shaping American ideas of morality, diversity and national identity, the Eiteljorg Museum will take a deep dive into the Western genre through its next featured exhibit: The Reel West. Opening March 3, The Reel West explores the historic, artistic and cultural significance of Western films and TV shows. Film costumes, props, paintings, movie posters and images from the early silent Westerns and mid-20th century classics up through today all are represented.

Included in the interesting things you will see in The Reel West are:

• A mask, hat, costume, gun belt and scarf worn by The Lone Ranger, actor Clayton Moore

• A full costume worn by Hailee Steinfeld as Mattie Ross in the Coen Brothers’ 2010 remake of True Grit

• Two hats worn by Clint Eastwood, on his early 1960s TV show Rawhide and years later in his 1985 film Pale Rider

• Western hats or other costume items worn on camera by Western performers from several eras, including John Wayne, Tom Mix, Gene Autry, Roy Rogers, Dale Evans, James Arness, the cast members of Bonanza, plus Sam Elliott, Anjelica Huston, Catherine Zeta-Jones, Jamie Foxx and many others

• Interactive technology including touchscreens that museum-goers can use to watch clips from Westerns and to explore in greater detail the themes of morality, diversity and identity that Westerns portray

• A small movie theater showing clips from film trailers of well-known Western movies

• Hands-on interactives for all ages.

Among the Western films highlighted in The Reel West is director John Ford’s 1956 epic The Searchers, starring John Wayne and Natalie Wood. Though films of that so-called “classic” era certainly could be entertaining with good-versus-evil storylines, they often overlooked and distorted the roles of women, Native Americans, African Americans, Latino and LGBTQ communities in the actual West. As audiences and cultural sensibilities changed, Hollywood Westerns evolved over time; so the exhibit also looks at important historical and recent Western films that better convey the West’s diversity, some more realistically, some satirically or ironically, some combining elements of other film genres, such as science fiction.

Cast, The Searchers, Lilly, Full Permissions

“We are thrilled to present The Reel West, as this yearlong exhibit has multigenerational appeal to casual movie fans, serious film buffs, Baby Boomers who remember iconic Westerns and younger people new to the genre,” Eiteljorg President and CEO John Vanausdall said. “Many special programming events are scheduled during the run of the exhibit where guests can learn more about how these films were made, thus enhancing their appreciation, understanding and enjoyment of Westerns.”

Developed by Johanna M. Blume, the Eiteljorg’s associate curator of Western art, history and culture, The Reel West has been several years in the making. The exhibit includes art works from the museum’s collections, but Eiteljorg staff also traveled the nation to confer with other museums, collectors and studio archives that loaned costumes, objects and props for the exhibit.

The Reel West, presented by Oxford Financial Group, LTD and sponsored by Ice Miller LLP, The Sunrise Foundation, Barnes & Thornburg LLP, the Indiana-polis Colts, Nordstrom, Frank N. and Patricia L. Owings and other sponsors, continues through Feb. 3, 2019 in the special exhibit gallery, and is included with regular museum admission.

Original Westworld, Alamy, Promotion non-paid use, Exhibit Permissions


A year of fascinating, fun programming for The Reel West

The Reel West will kick off with a special opening reception Friday evening March 2. For information and reservations, contact Mary Whistler at 317.275.1316 or mwhistler@eiteljorg.com.

Eiteljorg partner IMAX Theater will hold screenings of Western films throughout the exhibition. Tickets to an IMAX Western include Eiteljorg Museum admission. Check www.eiteljorg.org for details of film screenings.

Here are other programming events in connection with The Reel West, all at the Eiteljorg unless otherwise noted:

• Curator’s Choice talk, Women in Westerns: A sneak peek at The Reel West exhibition with Johanna M. Blume, noon March 2

• Presentation by award-winning Dances with Wolves costume designer Cathy Smith, 1 p.m. March 3

• Screenings of the silent films An Eastern Westerner and Safety Last! accompanied by the Indianapolis Chamber Orchestra, March 10 and March 11, at the Schrott Center for the Arts. Tickets available on the ICO website, www.icomusic.org

• Lecture and gallery tour with Dr. Sue Matheson, Western film scholar, focused on art works that influenced John Ford films, 1 p.m. March 31

• Presentation by Emmy Award-winning writer and co-producer of Into the West, Kirk Ellis, 1 p.m. April 7

• Trivia night, chuckwagon grub, movie screenings and much more.

More events are being added all the time; please visit www.eiteljorg.org for the latest details.

Image Captions:

Promotional artwork of Yul Brynner in Westworld, 1973
Photo 12 / Alamy Stock Photo

Cast in The Searchers, 1956
Image courtesy Lilly Library, Indiana University, Bloomington, Indiana

 

This article originally appeared in the February 2018 issue of Storyteller magazine. 

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