Review of Split Screen Nation: Moving Images of the American West and South

Reviewed by James Altman, University of Nevada, Las Vegas

 

Split Screen Nation: Moving Images of the American West and South. By Susan Courtney.

Oxford University Press, 2017. 978-0190459970. 329 pp.

 

Susan Courtney is a noted scholar of numerous aspects of American film culture. In Split Screen Nation: Moving Images of the American West and South, she examines the underlying ideologies, preconceptions, misconceptions, and mythos that combined, during the Cold War, to give “The Screen South,” and “The Screen West” enduring cinematic reputations. As Courtney reckons, “The Screen South,” is inexorably encumbered by its antebellum past, simultaneously ashamed of it, and nostalgic for it. “The Screen West,” by contrast, in having, essentially, no meaningful past, waits eternally empty, open, and pliable. Her scholarly goal is not to venerate, or to denigrate the screen depiction of either region. Rather, this thought-provoking study wishes to unravel why these “screen regions” are depicted as they are, how they influenced popular culture in their time, and how, and why, they continue to resonate in popular culture today.

The book contains four chapters. Each, ostensibly, focuses either on one of the “screen regions,” some aspect of interplay between them, like the function of Southern characters in westerns, and/or the role of local and national landmarks in mythmaking. Practically speaking, however, insights and observations recur and coalesce freely between chapters like a film montage. At every turn, new, unexpected, connections and divergences between the Southern Gothic, Westerns, the Civil Rights Era, The Cold War, propaganda, and mass entertainment reveal themselves. From acclaimed adaptations of Tennessee Williams plays, to Cowboy heroes like John Wayne and Tex Ritter, to home movies and publicly produced “informational” pieces promoting everything from bus tourism, to the necessity of learning first-aid, Split Screen Nation: Moving Images of the American West and South draws together not only the myriad themes present in Cold War era film, but provides much useful insight on some of its perspective on wider American popular culture then and now.

The first scenes in the montage, and expertly analyzed, are provided by travelogues sponsored by companies like Ford and Greyhound. Films like America for Me! and Freedom Highway encourage Americans to see the whole of the country by bus or automobile caravan. They contain a cross-section of typical middle-class white America at the time with characters representing blatant regional stereotypes, such as the timid New England schoolteacher, the brash Texas cowboy, and the wide-eyed Midwestern farm boy. All are zealously patriotic, or become so after coaxing from their fellow travelers. These films typically make virtually no mention of minorities, or of the changing face of America. They are, in effect, a sort of “squeaky clean” picture of what Middle America thought of itself. Feature-length home movies, notably Family Camping, add to the “Leave It to Beaver” motif, celebrating the nation’s landmarks, such as the Lincoln Memorial, while consciously avoiding the Deep South, and the struggle for civil rights. While insightfully analyzing each film, Courtney asks us to consider why patriotism and mythmaking appear so inexorably intertwined, and what that means for any society, in any era.

As the focus shifts to “The Screen South,” Gone with the Wind, A Streetcar Named Desire, and Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, receive much enthralling discussion, not only for their cinematic achievements, but also for their role in marking the South the ultimate repository of America’s transgressions, racial and otherwise. For Courtney, Hollywood’s characterization of Southerners as uber-racist, sexually perverse, mentally unstable, and savagely violent, allows the rest of the nation to imagine itself, comparatively, blameless. Strangely, To Kill A Mockingbird, receives little mention, beyond the idea that it is, somehow, “much less blatantly Southern” than the others mentioned here. Moreover, no explanation of, or evidence for, this supposed “difference” is presented.

“The Screen West,” by contrast, comes across as a, virtual, lump of clay, waiting for rugged pioneers to sculpt it in a way more racially mono-cultural, more individualistic, more patriotic and, thus, more “American” than “The Screen South” could ever be. Westerns like “The Big Trail,” “Stagecoach,” “Rio Bravo,” and “Big Jake” endlessly showcase the Cowboy hero’s triumph over an unforgiving landscape devoid of civilization, hostile natives, and unscrupulous Southerners seething over the Old Confederacy’s defeat.

Those interested in the evolution of film, filmmaking, and onscreen storytelling will find Split Screen Nation: Moving Images of the American West and South a treat to read. Those interested in film’s ability to shape cultural attitudes will also find the book intriguing.

 

 

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