HIST 4401A: The West in Myth and Film
Fall 2023 

Instructor: Prof. Mark Anderson

This course explores America’s creation narrative, its so-termed frontier myth and its expression in Hollywood film. The myth casts the settler nation’s birth as the result of a kind of magical process, the outcome of continuous settler invasion and occupation of the ever-expanding western hinterlands. According to the myth, European males went off the frontier, were stripped of all culture, and then reborn in a kind of frontier Eden. It that sounds awfully Christian, that’s because it was (and is). And it is also all wrong—but empirical history is not the boss of myth, which makes it all the more fascinating. The course proceeds at the rate of one film per week, plus your careful reading of four books. We’ll unpack the myth, consider its origins, then assess how various movies engage this material.

Together we will explore the substance of the glue that holds nations together, with a particular focus on the United States. Additionally, you will learn to employ various techniques of film analysis. You will never watch a film the same way after this class!

Class Format: We meet weekly once for three hours. This is a seminar class, so please note that you are expected to contribute verbally to in-class discussions. If you are shy (like me), please don’t worry about it. There are lots of ways to work around it.

Aims and Goals: At the very least, you will come out of the course with a much better understanding of how and why nations are created, with a particular focus on the United States. Moreover, you will enhance your understanding of why America behaves as it does in the world. Finally, you will hone your ability to think critically about film in a historical context.

Assessment: You will have to write three papers, one of which will serve as a final exam. Basically, your task in each case is to explore one of the films in the course informed at least in part by course readings and discussion.   

Texts:  Frederick Jackson Turner, The Significance of the Frontier in American History; Edgar Rice Burroughs, Tarzan of the Apes; Zane Grey, Riders of the Purple Sage; Arthur Asa Berger, Media Analysis Techniques. These books have been ordered through the bookstore but please feel free to procure them in any way you like.

Questions? Just let me know: mark.anderson@carleton.ca