Turning a Quantrill's raider into a Western Robin Hood is a political statement in itself. The insistence that the South was all about small government or such drivel is the same kind of thing. Demanding that people have to forthrightly state they are racist seems so excessive as to border on the disingenuous.
Even so, that's a long way from supporting the earlier contentions that Westerns were doomed by their outmoded racial views.
The subtext of Jesse James is there. Nobody from New York or Massachusetts or even Ohio gets to be the Western Robin Hood and that's no accident.
A "Western Robin Hood" story accounts for only a small percentage of Western movies. The James gang has just as often been depicted as genuine "bad guys," often very charismatic, but clearly on the wrong side. Far more influential for Western movies were the examples of lawmen like Wyatt Earp and Pat Garrett, who promoted their stories tirelessly in their lifetimes, even in Hollywood in Earp's case. Usually the stories, even if based on real characters, were so fictionalized the the average moviegoer would have little or no idea of the politics originally involved.
Here are the top 15 most commercially successful Westerns according to George Lucas's Blockbusting
, Alex B. Block, ed.
1. Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid
2. Duel in the Sun
3. How the West Was Won
4. Dances with Wolves
6. The Outlaw
9. The Alamo
10. Jesse James
11. True Grit
12. The Covered Wagon
13. Red River
14. Little Big Man
15. Vera Cruz
I can find little "racist" content in that list. Numbers 3 and 12 have stereotypical Indian fighting, but even the silent Covered Wagon
has scenes showing the Indians are fighting for their way of life. Numbers 4 and 14 are emphatically pro-Native American, and 7 and 8 have strongly positive black and Native American characters, respectively. The rest, race plays little or no part. As for Robin Hood stories, the 1939 Jesse James
is indeed one example, but it is fictionalized and leaves James brothers' Civil War origins out completely. In the movie they are pushed into crime by corrupt land-grabbers.
The reason that TV Westerns outlasted movie Westerns is simple: It was the same thing continued elsewhere. The B-picture Western, which could be produced on an industrial scale by Hollywood, shifted to television just as viewers switched from going to the pictures and seeing serials, newsreels, B- and A-features to getting most of their entertainment at home and only going to the movies for big features. The well-established system for mass-producing Westerns was a natural fit for TV and played a big part in shifting the center of the television industry from New York to California. There were still feature film Westerns made in Hollywood, but the genre was not nearly as dominant as on TV. And the reason they died out on TV was also simple: There were too many and people tired of them, and the new field of demographic research showed that younger viewers preferred sitcoms and detective shows.