Western film: Law, Literature & Film

Bob Herzberg

Hang ’em high : law and disorder in western films and literature

McFarland & Company, Inc., Publishers, Jefferson, North Carolina ; London, 2013, 264 pp.

ISBN: 9780786468386

For more than a century the Western film has proven to be an enduring genre. At the dawn of the 20th century, in the same years that The Great Train Robbery begat a film genre, Owen Wister wrote The Virginian, which began a new literary genre. From the beginning, both literature and film would usually perpetuate the myth of the Old West as a place where justice always triumphed and all concerned (except the villains) pursued the Law. The facts, however, reflect abuses of due process: lynch mobs and hired gunslingers rather than lawmen regularly pursued lawbreakers; vengeance rather than justice was often employed; and even in courts of law justice didn’t always prevail. Some films and novels bucked this trend, however. This book discusses the many Western films as well as the novels they are based on, that illustrate distortions of the law in the Old West and the many ways, most of them marked by vengeance, in which its characters pursued justice. The author has used correspondence from studio files, letters from the Production Code office, newspaper and magazine reviews, passages from the novels to analyze not only the filmmakers’ intentions but also how the films, contrary to reality, became a showcase of America as it promoted the principles of due process, trial by jury, and innocence before proven guilty.


1. Mistrials: 1929-1939-the depression, the talkies and manipulation of the law in the old west

2. International hangmen: 1940-1949-war in the present and totalitarian behavior in the old west

3. Chaos: 1950-1955-the cold war, huac, and mob rule in the old west.

4. Badge toters: 1956-1959-reafþrming the rule of law in the old west.

5. Deadly force: 1960-1969-riding the vengeance trail as war breaks out at home and abroad

6. Bloodbath: 1970-1976-vietnam, race riots and abuse of the law in the old west.

7. Reload: 1977-1992-american cynicism and revisionist western history.

8. Back trail: 1993-2012. The last nineteen years.

Bob Herzberg, playwright and author, is a member of the Dramatists Guild and the Western Writers of America.

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