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Susan Kollin, Captivating Westerns: The Middle East in the American West

Alessandra Magrin

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1Susan Kollin, Captivating Westerns: The Middle East in the American West

2Lincoln, NE: University of Nebraska Press, 2015. Pp. 294; ISBN 978 0 8032 2699 9.

3Alessandra Magrin

4Susan Kollin’s ambitious monograph on the exchanges between the American West and the Middle East in popular culture opens with a fundamental observation: that the Western was “never merely national, but always transnational and global” (35). By overcoming the impasse of a field bound to national narratives for too long, this concept truly unlocks the potential for countless new perspectives on Western scholarship. In this respect, Kollin’s book represents an admirable effort in leading the way forward. In Captivating Westerns, Kollin sees the Western genre as transcending national boundaries from the very beginning. Drawing theoretically from Richard Francaviglia, Neil Campbell and Christine Bold—among the most important ones—Kollin traces the origins of the Western back to captivity narratives, which she reconnects with its transnational origins from the East. The book then carefully assesses Middle Eastern sources and references in 19th century Western literature. Spanning the works of Mark Twain, Owen Wister, Frank Whittaker, Teddy Roosevelt, Frederick Remington, and delving into the influence of Moorish-Spanish horse culture (which arrived in the US via Mexico), Kollin unearths a network of shaping connections between the Orient and the ‘Western creational myths’ engineered by the architects of the ‘Frontier Club’—to use Christine Bold’s fitting expression.

5In the second chapter, Kollin shifts this discourse to the 20th century through a close reading of Willa Cather’s works, situating the celebrated Western author in the “tradition of American Orientalism that emerged out of a popular wave of Egyptomania” (74). The American Southwest equated to an Orient to Cather, Kollins argues, “the desert spaces and cultural ruins of the region were often viewed as New World analogs of ruins in the ancient Middle East…. The Southwest in turn became a landscape of exotic otherness and intrigue…” (75). In Death Comes for the Archbishop, Kollin notes how such Orientalizing ideas about otherness—of landscapes, religions and Indigenous peoples—helped to foster an American strain of the orientalist discourse culminating in the trope of the “Arab-as-Indian.” At the same time, Kollin intercepts traces of another Western-Middle Eastern contamination: the construction of the “cowboy-as-Arab.” Such Oriental elements, Kollin maintains, played a determining influence in American culture, problematizing the “quintessential Americanness” of Western icons such as the cowboy. In this chapter, Kollin’s evocative and compelling analysis offers strong proof that the narratives of American Exceptionalism, particularly in its Western declinations, rest on inherently shaky foundations.

6In the third chapter, the trope of the “cowboy-as-Arab” re-appears in Kollin’s exploration of the connections between Hollywood Westerns and the Middle East. The films Hidalgo (2004) and Annie Get your Gun (1950) are brought into conversation with discourses of civilization, savagery, and national identity belonging to the tradition initiated by Buffalo Bill’s Wild West. Of all the chapters, this is perhaps the one in which the cogency of Kollin’s writing dims. A sounder engagement with the rich scholarship on World Fairs, Wild West shows, and ideas of nation and ethnicity, would have helped to better situate the place the Orient occupied in the national imagination. Equally, a deeper historical contextualization would have been beneficial to disprove some factual inaccuracies (i.e. the Arab performer George Hamid claiming Annie Oakley had taught him English, when, in reality, she had left Buffalo Bill’s show several years before Hamid even joined the company), which Kollin takes for granted as evidence for her thesis. In the chapter analyzing the musical Oklahoma! (1943) Kollin’s argument sometimes becomes engulfed in lengthy commentary and storyline digressions, which can prove distracting from the core reasoning. Yet, the focus picks up again in the latter part of the chapter, when she examines the figures of the Syrian and Persian peddlers. Here, Kollin illuminates on the contested notions of whiteness at play within American society, exposing the ambivalent and shifting racial status of these immigrant groups, which is ultimately reflected in the representation of the Middle Eastern character in Rodgers and Hammerstein’s musical. “In reaching across regional, national, and global terrain for its settings, characters and conflicts,” Kollin cleverly concludes, “the Western…has also relied on various Easts in its development, resolving certain racial conflicts only to repress and elide the existence of others” (143). The last two chapters concentrate on Westerns in the aftermath of 9/11 and the subsequent U.S. occupation of Middle Eastern regions. Kollin recognizes a revisionist narrative in 21st century Westerns, which, she argues, is apt at questioning the dialectic of “cowboy diplomacy” which justifies America’s aggressive foreign policy. She explains that “in recent Westerns savagery…becomes located within the rescuers themselves...” (149), and invokes in her discussion Paul Haggis’s In the Valley of Elah (2007) and Kathryn Bigelow’s The Hurt Locker (2008) as examples of critical interpretations of American missions in the Middle East. These movies, Kollin argues, follow a conventional Western dynamic which is based on the conflict between savagery and civilization. At the same time, she maintains, they challenge and undermine this same narrative. Ultimately, Kollin looks at the way the Western has also become a vehicle for Middle Eastern audiences to convey criticism of American foreign policy. Often, Westerns reach these global audiences in a mediated form, most commonly through the Spaghetti Westerns, which through the inversion of the moral codes of the classic Westerns carried an intrinsic critique of America. Under the light of this extensive and well-argued evidence, Kollin’s overarching thesis that the Western is fluid, ubiquitous, and no longer understood as a quintessentially American genre speaks most powerfully. Overall, the book is a goldmine of Middle Eastern references in Westerns, offering at the same time a useful interpretive key to access the Western outside canonical texts and contexts. Despite suffering from an occasionally unbalanced analysis and a limited historical grounding, the cogency of its thesis and the sound engagement with literary and cultural theory renders Captivating Westerns a valuable addition to literary scholarship, cultural studies, and American studies.

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Alessandra Magrin, “Susan Kollin, Captivating Westerns: The Middle East in the American WestEuropean journal of American studies [Online], Reviews 2019-3, Online since 23 October 2019, connection on 24 July 2021. URL:

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Alessandra Magrin

Alessandra Magrin, University of Strathclyde, Glasgow

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