Genre Markers in TNT Westerns

Because TNT Westerns' core audience consists of genre fans, the network takes great pains to identify its movies through publicity, promotional trailers, and press kits. This study found six genre markers used by the network to attract its audience.

The first genre marker is basing its Westerns on the works of well-known Western writers. Many of TNT's movies are adaptations of popular novels written by Louis L'Amour, Zane Grey, and Elmore Leonard. TNT has even produced a cable film adaptation of the literary work that initially presented the archetypal Western hero—Owen Wister's novel The Virginian (1902). Of course, the practice of adapting and producing Westerns from earlier publications is hardly a new one. The Virginian was adapted to film first in 1929 and again in 1946: it later became a long-running television series, which aired from 1962 to 1971 (Brooks and Marsh 831-32). Turner Productions, through its promotional campaigns, communicates that its Westerns are true adaptations of these popular stories, for example, that it is presenting the first "faithful" adaptation ofWister's classic novel ("TNT: The Virginian').

Tom Selleck, in an interview, expresses the anxiety he felt producing a television adaptation of Crossfire Trail, a popular novel by Louis L'Amour, "a very dear and close friend." Selleck states that, though L'Amour passed away many years ago, he has "left behind some ump-teen-dozen-million fans all around the world that hold a keen interest in who-does-what to the revered author's work." The actor-producer says he also experienced pressure from the author's family, which is dedicated to preserving and protecting his memory. "Because, as you know, the L'Amour family doesn't exactly release this stuff to just anybody," notes Selleck (Fogarty, "Selleck and Westerns").

Another genre marker is that the network's productions feature a familiar Western cast. The two most prolific leading actors in TNT Westerns are Tom Selleck and Sam Elliot. Selleck's long-standing association with Turner Productions has led to three Westerns for the network: Last Stand at Saber River, Crossfire Trail, and Monte Walsh. Elliot has starred in Conagher, The Desperate Trail (1995), and You Know My Name (1999). Both actors also served as executive producers of their films.

A third generic sign employed by the network is to emphasize the genre's close association with American history and with familiar western symbolism. Indeed, the influential frontier thesis of Frederick Jackson Turner argues that the development of American democracy, its novel attitudes, and its social institutions are inextricably linked to the country's westward expansion (Turner 1-22). Henry Nash Smith points out that underscoring Turner's notions and the movement and cultivation of the West is the "myth of the garden," the idea of a place of continuous "rebirth, a regeneration, a rejuvenation of man and society constantly recurring where civilization came into contact with the wilderness along the frontier" (253). Historically, the Western is set at a critical moment in the formation of America as a nation, "namely at that point when savagery and lawlessness are in decline before the advancing wave of law and order, but are still strong enough to pose a local and momentarily significant challenge" (Cawelti 65). This moment reflects a deep-seated, ideological tension in American culture between the desires for unfettered individualism and for the values associated with a developing community. The fictional world of the Western provides a narrative space by which audiences can contemplate the passing of the frontier and the transition to social and cultural structures linked to the present (Cawelti 100). This domain provides a rich cross section of character types (e.g., farmer, banker, schoolmarm, prostitute) that can easily be revived within modern stories that represent ongoing social and ideological struggles taking place in contemporary American society (Cook 65).

TNT's Westerns are placed within the historical period most closely associated with the genre—the period between 1865 and the 1890s. There are, of course, a few exceptions, such as The Good Old Boys and You Know My Name, both of which take place in the early part of the twentieth century, but the mythology and character of the Old West resonate throughout these films' stories. In You Know My Name, for example, Bill Tilghman (Sam Elliot), a retired lawman who had captured many legendary outlaws, is called upon once again to wear a badge to rid a rowdy 1920s Oklahoma town of Jazz Age criminals. Several of the network's Westerns feature characters and narratives based on actual historical persons and events in the West, such as Bill Tilghman (1854-1924), Brigham Young (1801-1877) in Avenging Angel, and Sam Houston (1793-1863) and the Alamo in Two for Texas (1998).

Mimi White argues that from television docudramas to made-for-TV movies, television relies on history as a programming "hook" to bring in audiences and validate their viewing experiences (282-84). Verisimilitude to historical events adds dramatic intensity to both fictional and nonfictional programs; in this way, history serves as a prime legitimator for audiences to invest their viewing time. Historical references are often present in the network's promotional trailers. TNT also offers educational links for teachers and students, along with historical time lines giving perspective on the period, on many of its promotional Web sites.7

A fourth genre sign is the use of western scenery in TNT productions. John Cawelti asserts that "the western landscape is uniquely adaptable to certain kinds of strong contrasts of light and shadow characteristic of an arid climate together with the topographical contrasts of plain and mountain, rocky outcrops and flat deserts, steep bare canyons and forested plateaus" (70). The openness of the terrain, coupled with its topographic contrasts, visually expresses the thematic conflicts "between man and nature, and wilderness and civilization"

(Cawelti 69-70). In recent productions, the genre has come to be centered on the isolated town, ranch, or fort surrounded by a great expanse of open prairie or desert with weak ties back to civilization. The territory is a rough place, with a harsh terrain and climate, where an individual must possess and master skills to survive. Jane Tompkins asserts that the Western hero not only has these requisite skills but also reflects the toughness and hardness of this land in his very physicality and austere demeanor (69-87). To capture and express this scenery, TNT Westerns are shot on location in the High Plains, mountains, and desert regions of the western United States and Canada. The fifth genre marker is that TNT's Western narratives tend to be centered on the actions of a rugged, individualistic male protagonist. He is a man who lives close to death and whose moral character is best expressed through violent action against lawless antagonists. The heroic but violent nature of the Western hero is best expressed in a TNT promotional for its Crossfire Trail: "A hero is measured by the enemies he makes." Even when he works as a lawman, a rancher, a cowboy, or a mercenary, he appears to be a man with plenty of leisure time on his hands—which makes it easier for him to be drawn into local conflicts or to help a woman or a less powerful ally (Warshow 471-73). In Crossfire Trail, for example, Selleck plays a restless wanderer bound by a promise to look after a dying friend's widow and ranch. Harris, in Riders of the Purple Sage, plays a mysterious gunman who helps a proud homesteader maintain her ranch against the threats of hostile neighbors.

Sometimes, more than one protagonist is involved in the conflict. In Two for Texas, a pair of escaped convicts who join Sam Houston's Texas Volunteer Army to hide from authorities suddenly find themselves in the Battle of San Jacinto facing Santa Anna's army. Although TNT's heroes have rougher edges than the classic Western hero, the protagonists follow the outlines laid down by Robert Warshow. Warshow describes the hero as essentially a loner with a touch of melancholy, which derives not from his temperament but from his recognition that life is inevitably solemn. This hero is chivalrous in combat, fighting for justice and order and, most important, to preserve his sense of honor (Warshow 470-74). TNT Westerns, for the most part, present a traditional, hard-edged, mythic hero rather than the ironic, self-conscious hero who began to emerge in film and television Westerns from the late 1950s to the 1970s (Maverick [1957-1962], Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid [1969]). Neither are they part of the historical revisionism of the period since the late 1960s (Little Big Man [1970], Buffalo Bill and the Indians [1976], Dances with

Harris Riders The Purple Sage
Jim Lassiter (Ed Harris) rides to the rescue in Riders of the Purple Sage.

Wolves [1990]). Despite the presence of a few strong-willed women in these films, TNT Westerns tend to reinforce traditional notions of masculinity.

The sixth generic marker is the iconography, including horses, cattle, six-guns, Winchester rifles, barrooms, cowboy boots, and wide-brimmed hats, which crowds the promotional press kits and materials for these films. For instance, Selleck, in the pictorial promotional for Last Stand at Saber River, points a six-gun directly toward the camera, while dressed in classic frontier garb ("Last Stand").8 The picture not only communicates that the film is a Western but also hints at the violent nature of the film's "last stand." In a promotional still for Buffalo Soldiers (1997), Danny Glover is seen from a heroic, low camera angle, dressed as a Union soldier with a revolver in hand and framed by a set of clouds ("TNT: Buffalo Soldiers"). This image functions to place the film and the buffalo soldiers within the context of a heroic frontier legend.

Clothing is a crucial genre element in TNT Westerns. The hero, outlaw, and Native American are dressed in a more distinctive and utilitarian manner than the townspeople, who wear the standard street clothing (e.g., suits, long dresses) of the nineteenth century. The cowboy character typically wears practical clothing to mark his adaptation to nature, which usually includes

"his cowboy's boots, tight-fitting pants or chaps, his heavy shirt and bandana, his gun and finally his ten-gallon hat" (Cawelti 72). Turner Productions relies heavily on these complex sets of iconic codes to structure and make its fictional and nonfictional Western characters accessible and credible to its audience.

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