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Patrick Adamson (University of St Andrews), "Transnationalism and the Transcontinental Railroad: Exporting the Silent Epic Western”


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Patrick Adamson (University of St Andrews), "Transnationalism and the Transcontinental Railroad: Exporting the Silent Epic Western”

The Covered Wagon (1923) has long been regarded as a landmark in the development of both the western genre and the historical film. Paramount’s epic, along with the cycle of large-form westerns which followed it, garnered unprecedented acclaim from filmmakers, film critics, and social commentators alike for being first ‘authentic’ visualization of the Frontier heritage by which many contemporary thinkers defined American identity.

Existing scholarship attributes this resonance almost entirely to Hollywood studios’ successful ‘exploitation’ of contemporary nationalistic sentiment. However, as this paper contends, the motion picture’s historical West was not wholly built for any one nation: studios also openly cultivated this cycle as a testament to cinema’s universalizing, if culturally imperialistic, potential as the ‘Esperanto of the eye’.

Examined here are the adaptive strategies which supported these universalizing pretensions, how export versions of The Covered Wagon and successful followers – specifically John Ford’s The Iron Horse (1924) – were ‘put across’ abroad as at once ‘American’ and also polyglot and transnational: context specific re-editing; elaborate ‘exploitation’ campaigns contiguous with those of the emergent documentary; and staged ‘educational’ prologues. Enriched by reworking and reframing within globalized historical trajectories these national epics came to be regarded also as global films, enjoying new lives and afterlives transcendent of sovereign and generic boundaries.


 

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