Patty Limerick: Interviewed by the NYT Magazine

As a professor of American history at the University of Colorado at Boulder and the chairwoman of the school’s Center of the American West, what do you make of the flurry of new films that revisit Jesse James and the town of Yuma and the empty space of the desert landscape?

Just as we had an upsurge in difficult westerns when we were struggling with Vietnam, now we’re struggling with Iraq, and so we are having the same upsurge.

Right. Westernsare useful in wartime because they bolster myths about American virility and strength. Do you think westerns make men feel more competent?

Whenever American men of power experience anxiety, they want to go see a western, and they want to see a western where the man peacocks and parades around and everyone says, “Isn’t he something?”

Any other theories on the pop revival of the Old West?

I think popular enthusiasm for a particular genre of movies might be random. Especially if these films are things of violence without a particular point, then I would say the western has just given us a chance to do a thing that people like to do: they like to slow down and look at car crashes on the road.

So a western film, to you, is just an aestheticized car wreck?

One way we remind ourselves that we’re alive is by seeing other people’s lives suddenly and dramatically end.

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