Whenever we talk about the story of the Wild West, I like to think of it as just that: a story. I think when it comes to history, just as much if not more can be learned from the way we remember it as opposed to what actually happened. Take the 50s for example—if you google images of 1950s America, you’ll see happy teens laughing over milkshakes in their favorite diner, or a family in front of their lovely home with its white picket fence. You don’t see the racism, the sexism, or the wars in those smiling people’s faces. But by looking at the way we remember the 50s, we can find another, more hidden, story underneath.
To me, this same rule can be applied to the story of the Wild West, only tenfold. That story is one we’ve heard time and time again, in about a thousand different reiterations, all with the same characters we’ve become far too familiar with. But for right now, I’d like to focus on one of my favorite retellings of the mythos of the Wild West—and oddly enough a great one to look back through an academic lens—the third movie in the Back to the Future trilogy.
In this installment in the franchise, Marty McFly must travel back to the year 1885 to save his beloved Doc from an untimely dueling accident ending in his death. The movie is chalked full of good old western comedy fun, from saloon duels to nighttime festivals with square dances and more gun fights galore. We even end the movie with a duel in the street at high noon. Overall, the movie depicts a version of the Wild West we’ve seen in every stereotypical western movie to date, but with a comedic twist that brings a lighter, more entertaining vibe to the entire thing.
That being said, this lighter tone doesn’t take away the fact that the movie itself highlights the same archetypes of people we are used to seeing in the Wild West throughout all its storytelling depictions. Marty McFly is very much the archetype of the cowboy, with his headstrong nature and his sometimes toxic masculinity when it comes to people calling him “chicken.” Together, he and the Doc also come across a clear “damsel in distress” in Clara, the movie’s main love interest. We first meet her as she’s being almost hurtled off a cliff, unable to control her horse drawn wagon, but thankfully our heroes sweep in just in time to save her from an impending doom. The whole scene with them running after her on horseback and getting there just in time is ridiculous when you think about it, but it makes for an exciting and tension filled moment in the movie regardless.
And for me, this is where an interesting commentary on our world’s history is able to be drawn. The Back to the Future franchise deals heavily in archetypes, ranging from Marty McFly’s everyman archetype to the Doc being the eccentric outsider of society with a quirky job and a dog named Einstein to fit his personality. However, each movie takes place in different time periods. The first takes place in the 50s, the second takes place in 2015, and the third takes place in the 1880s, whereas the 1980s continue to be our grounding time period throughout the series. Each of these movies, despite their very different time periods in which they’re set, have almost identical storylines. This is done purposefully by the writers to both bring a familiarity to the story playing out before the audience, but also—if I may read into it a bit more—to reveal something about our history as a whole.
In each of these time periods there is a Marty McFly; in each of these time periods there is a bully character—a straight up bully in the 50s, all the way to an outlaw criminal in the Wild West—and in each of these time periods there is a damsel in distress that our everyman has to protect. Despite how different these time periods may be, the archetypes of people in them are easily transferable among them all. And for me, this is because of the mythos of the Wild West and the way we have used the storytelling abilities we first used on Dime Novels and Western movies to journey from then to now. The way stories are told has remained very much the same, and for that reason the three Back to the Future movies are also told in very similar formats, nearly swapping out stereotypical elements of other time periods when it’s convenient.
Personally, I don’t think this is a bad thing. In fact, I think it’s one of the reasons why we can read stories from so long ago and still find things to relate to in them. Human beings have a wonderfully bizarre way of compartmentalizing their fellow people, and when it comes to storytelling this compartmentalization is oddly convenient. It allows for people to relate despite time periods or borders to whatever story is being told. And with all the talk of finding the “you” in history’s greater narrative, I think looking at the similarities between time periods is a potentially one way to get closer to being able to do that.