Monday, June 1, 2015

Musical Monday - Magnificent Seven Theme by Elmer Bernstein

The Magnificent Seven is my favorite Western. It has one of the best scores ever made for any movie, and, in my opinion, the best score for a Western ever made. The music by Elmer Bernstein manages to evoke the sweeping scale of the mythic West without seeming over the top. I believe that The Magnificent Seven is also the best movie Western ever made, but fleshing out that opinion is a matter for another day. What I am interested in considering right now is the Western as American mythology, and how it is connected to so much of Science Fiction and Fantasy.

I don't think there is any doubt that the most pervasive myth in the American consciousness is the Western. Just the concept of the Western itself is mythologized - rugged individualists carving their fortunes out of the untamed wilderness, heroic lawmen and gunfighters righting wrongs when no one else could, noble savages trying to preserve their way of life against the duplicity of a dishonest invading power, and so on and so forth. And all of them have at least a kernel of truth, but most are wildly distorted. Those rugged individualists almost all relied upon government largesse such as the various Homestead Acts or the subsidized construction of railroads to seed their endeavors. Most gunfighters were more interested in publicity than actual righting of wrongs, and many "lawmen" operated on both sides of the law for personal profit - even the famed gunfight at the O.K. corral was the result of a mostly political feud centered on money. But it is the myth that endures in the American mind, and shapes vast swathes of our current fiction.

One might ask how this connects with science fiction and fantasy. I will suggest that large portions of American authored fiction in those genres is merely a transposition of the mythology of the American West to another location. There are obvious examples, such as Firefly, which is quite self-consciously a Western in space, or Star Trek, which although it was slightly inaccurate to call it "Wagon Train in space", did lean heavily on the idea of brave explorers trying to tame and settle a hostile frontier - even including episodes such as Spectre of the Gun reenacting the gunfight at the O.K. corral, and The Paradise Syndrome, featuring native Americans on an alien planet. But the influence of the Western on science fiction is often slightly more subtle - there are dozens of stories involving exploring alien planets that seem to do little more than switch out ray-guns and space suits for six-shooters and cowboy hats. Edgar Rice Burroughs' classic Barsoom series even starts with its central hero traveling to Mars as a result of Native American magic, whereupon he finds a planet that seems in places to be populated by thinly disguised analogies to the denizens of the American West.

The tropes of the Western has invaded fantasy as well, although not quite so obviously. But one area where the Western has had its most noticeable influence is in role-playing games such as Dungeons & Dragons, where the stories almost always draw heavily upon Western tropes. How many adventurers have been offered money to rid a frontier village of troublesome bandits or marauding orcs? How often have adventurers been hired to help guard a caravan as it wends its way through hostile territory? Compare the structure of most role-playing campaigns - adventurers with superior abilities in a semi-lawless area solving problems for those around them. While the trappings used in most role-playing games are swords and magic (or almost as often spaceships and lasers), the tropes used in most adventures and campaigns owe more to the American Western than anything else.

Previous Musical Monday: We Are Growing by Margaret Singana
Subsequent Musical Monday: Elastic Heart by Sia Furler

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