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The little train robbery / Thomas A. Edison, Inc. 1905.

[Detail] The little train robbery / Thomas A. Edison, Inc. 1905

Historical Analysis and Interpretation: The American West

During the nineteenth century, popular entertainment such as dime novels and stage plays established the Western genre while blurring the line between fact and fiction. For example, William Cody was a soldier, hunter, and Indian scout whose exploits were celebrated and exaggerated in Ned Buntline's Buffalo Bill dime novels. In 1872, Cody first portrayed Buffalo Bill on stage. He successfully adopted the public persona for future performances and later wrote his own dime novels and an autobiography about frontier life. He also established "Buffalo Bill's Wild West" in 1883.

This troupe of cowboys, Native Americans, and other performers dramatized frontier life for audiences across the United States and Europe with skill-demonstrations and reenactments of buffalo hunts, armed conflicts, and traditional dances. A search on the term, wild west, yields films such as Buffalo Bill's Wild West Parade, Native American performances of the Buffalo Dance and the Sioux Ghost Dance and skill-demonstrations such as a cowboy riding a bucking bronco and sharpshooter Annie Oakley firing at targets in Edison's New Jersey studio.

  • How do the performances of Buffalo Bill's troupe depict life in the West?
  • How do you think that audiences might have responded to the performers in Buffalo Bill's Wild West?
  • How did Buffalo Bill's Wild West compare to other popular stage entertainments of the era such as vaudeville?
  • How did the skills and feats of performers such as Annie Oakley and Native American dancers compare to their counterparts on the vaudeville stage?
  • How did the performers in Buffalo Bill's Wild West compare to performers featured in the foreign village of the Pan-American Exposition of 1901?
  • What does the employment of real Native Americans and cowboys contribute to these shows?
  • How does the contemporary appeal of the Western genre in books, film, and television compare to the appeal of the Buffalo Bill's Wild West?

The traditions of the Western genre continued in early films such as The Great Train Robbery (1903), which Edison's motion picture catalog describes as the "faithful duplication of the genuine 'Hold Ups' made famous by various outlaw bands in the far West." In one of the most famous scenes from the movie, an outlaw fires his gun directly at the camera. Edison's catalog explains that the image can be used at the projectionist's discretion at either the beginning or the end of the film for dramatic effect.

  • What elements of the West was this film trying to dramatize? Do you think that this is an accurate depiction of frontier life?
  • How does this film compare to contemporary Westerns?
  • What do you think are the enduring elements of the Western genre?
  • Why do you think that Westerns have been popular for more than a century?

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