Guest curator Andrew Patrick Nelson has focused on western movies dating from 1969 through the 1980s.
Return with us now to those thrilling days of yesteryear — specifically, 1969 through the early 1980s — as the Briscoe Museum of Western Art in San Antonio presents Still in the Saddle: A New History of the Hollywood Western, an impressively ambitious and inclusive exhibition dedicated to western films released during what most critics, scholars and movie buffs view as a transitional period for American cinema — and for America itself.
Set to run through Sept. 6, the exhibit — which encompasses everything from vintage movie posters to costumes worn by cast members in notable films to screenings of classic westerns — has been facilitated with the help of guest curator Dr. Andrew Patrick Nelson, a historian of American cinema and culture, film programmer, museum curator and media commentator. Nelson is Chair of the Department of Film and Media Arts and Associate Professor of Film Studies at the University of Utah, the author and editor of numerous books and essays on Western cinema — including Still in the Saddle: The Hollywood Western, 1969-1980, and Contemporary Westerns: Film and Television Since 1990 — and co-host (with screenwriter and journalist Matthew Chernov) of the podcast How the West was ‘Cast.
But wait, there’s more: Nelson also has appeared in television series on History Channel and Fox News Channel, regularly lectures about western movies and history at venues around the world, and serves on the Board of Directors of the John Wayne Birthplace and Museum.
The Briscoe Museum exhibition “allows everyone to literally walk through the history of the western in this dynamic period,” Nelson says. “With classics of the genre like Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, The Wild Bunch and True Grit, the era is remembered quite fondly by fans. By looking closely at this period, you not only come to appreciate just how vibrant and exciting the western was at this moment, but you also gain new perspective on what American culture was like at that time. It also helps you to better understand what has happened to the western over the past 30 to 40 years, providing a new perspective on what the western is and has become.”
Throughout the run of Still in the Saddle, the Briscoe Museum will screen several films highlighted in the exhibit: Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (May 30), Little Big Man (June 20), True Grit (July 18), The Long Riders (Aug. 22), and The Shootist (Sept. 5).
Costumes featured include items worn and used by John Wayne in the movies Chisum, The Cowboys and The Undefeated, on loan from the John Wayne Birthplace and Museum.
To spotlight these and other significant films, the exhibition has transformed an area of the Briscoe into a 1960s movie theater. Almost 60 vintage original movie posters, as well as movie costumes and dozens of authentic lobby cards, will set the scene as the exhibition places the movies in the context of then-current events, including the turbulent 1960s. Display screens throughout the exhibition feature film clips illustrating representative moments of the genre to showcase the history and artistry of the western. Costumes featured include items worn and used by John Wayne in the movies Chisum, The Cowboys and The Undefeated, on loan from the John Wayne Birthplace and Museum.
And yes: That is movie theater popcorn you smell as you enjoy the exhibit.
The exhibition flows through five sections, with movie posters, film stills and clip reels showcased in each. “The Western in 1969” sets the stage, giving an overview of the societal change that was going on outside of the theater doors to provide a perspective of that time. Using the term “Indians On Screen and Off,” the exhibition addresses one of the most contentious aspects of the western, its treatment of Native Americans. As stated in a Briscoe Museum press release: “While some 1950s westerns included sympathetic Native American characters, by the late 1960s a growing awareness of Native American issues led to more concerted efforts by filmmakers to portray indigenous peoples with greater sensitivity and complexity.”
“Heroes in Changing Times” spotlights how westerns showcased frontier heroes. During the 1970s, those portrayals shifted from the white-hat stereotypes that loomed large on movie screens for decades to more complex and sometimes unflattering depictions. “The Duke” focuses on John Wayne, the iconic actor whose close association with the western is cemented in popular imagination. Still in the Saddle closes with a look at the western as a genre that continued to thrive long after the 1980s, with movies like Dances with Wolves and Unforgiven scoring box office success, critical acclaim — and Academy Awards.
We enjoyed a wide-ranging Zoom discussion with Dr. Andrew Patrick Nelson this week about and beyond Still in the Saddle: A New History of the Hollywood Western.