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The Cowboy's Hat: Metaphor and Imagery in Cinema

jhercher's picture

James Hercher

Evolution in Literature

Dalke & Grobstein

Webpaper #3






The Adaptation of Character Traits in Cinema




            I’ve spent a lot of time recently, as a part of my thesis work, researching the early years of cinema.  It took decades for the majority of critics to accept film as an academic pursuit (although it took far longer for things like evolution and gravity to catch on), but once it did I think it opened up a lot of really interesting new ways to think about critical analysis.  For instance, in literature a genre establishes a set of rules and guidelines that help authors reach their audience.  Take the hard-boiled detective genre; if an author wanted to have a character that embodied all the character traits of previous hard-boiled detectives, grittiness, coolness, loneliness, etc., they could just depict a detective alone in an apartment or office with a glass of whiskey.  There are generic attributes and scenes that guide how the reader, who has seen the same things in previous literature, should envision a character.  In literature authors tap into these well-worn images because they are shortcuts to establishing a character without going through all the trouble of actually providing evidence and exposition.  In cinema the same thing must be achieved visually.  This has led to some images being embedded in the public consciousness almost without our realizing it. 

            One example that everyone has seen a lot of is the image of a hat, specifically a cowboy’s hat.  What we think of now as “the cowboy hat” was essentially a construction of cigarette marketing campaigns and Western films.  A more accurate representation would probably have been a larger straw construction typical of the Mexican-American ranchers in the southwest.  But that was discarded in favor of another, “cooler” hat, which could be worn during fast horseback chase scenes.  The point, though, is that this image of the hat functions in much the same way that literary genre stereotypes do.  It is a way to give a character certain personality traits without actually having to show them.  Eventually it became impossible to have a cowboy who shares all the prototypical cowboy traits, such as bravery, resourcefulness, knowledge of nature and the frontier life, without wearing the hat.  It is telling that when directors started making cowboy films that consciously turned away from stereotypical aspects of the Western genre, notably in “McCabe & Mrs. Miller,” the protagonist started to wear a different kind of hat.[1]  The cowboy hat became so wrapped up in these character traits that it became impossible to separate them, despite the fact that they share only a meager superficial connection. 

            Further proof of this connection can be seen in the ongoing significance the hat plays in Hollywood films.  One example that sticks out is Indiana Jones.  Indiana Jones has an ethical code and character traits that clearly harkens back to the age of western cowboys.  The cowboy is generally portrayed on horseback, and fights against the rising tide of technology, often represented by the spread of the railroad through the western frontier.  The same is true of Indiana Jones, who fights off a Nazi tank while riding a horse in “The Last Crusade.”  He shares the cowboy’s distance from and violent conflict with people in positions of authority, such as police or employers.  And this is a fact that Steven Spielberg and George Lucas were well aware of.  In the first Indiana Jones film, “Raiders of the Lost Ark,” the opening scene puts a tremendous degree of importance on Indiana’s hat.  In one iconic scene, during a near-death race to flee a booby-trapped cave, he stops, risking being crushed by a falling stone door, in order to grab his fallen cowboy hat.  That connection between Indiana Jones and his hat is being used, whether viewers know it or not, to help construct our image of his character.  Indiana Jones is a cowboy in a contemporary environment, and an easy way to show that to a viewer is just to stick a cowboy hat on his head.  Wearing a large-brimmed felt or straw hat in the real world has no bearing on one’s bravery or resilience, but in films that connection is very real. 

            I see a parallel in this way between literature and cinema.  To go back to the railroad, trains became a standard literary trope during the industrial revolution.  The railroad was embedded with cultural significance and metaphors.  This makes perfect sense since the expansion of the railroad presents a perfect example of the widening chasm between the “natural” world and the “human” world.  In Middlemarch, the introduction of the railroad as a plot device midway through the novel represents far more than just an issue of whether farm lands will be lost, since everyone reading it intuitively understands that the incoming railroad is symbolic of the sweeping progress and technology that will be gripping (strangling?) the nation. 

            This is all representative, I think, of how humans tend to view the world.  We see in certain things for more than just what they are, but for what they mean.  In “Adaptation,” a film that ponders thoughts along this line, Kaufman merges orchids and humans.  At the orchid show Nicholas Cage’s character, Charlie, blends people and orchids, saying some orchids look like southern beauty queens, others like gymnasts, and so on.  The point is that people have a fascinating capacity for saturating images with metaphors.  In American cinema, there has been a bizarre connection between a protagonist who represents the adventurous American and the image of a hat.  It reminds me that the most malleable force on Earth is the human mind because of its ability to inject objects and ideas with metaphors.  This is, I believe, why the greatest thinkers, people like Einstein, Darwin and Shakespeare, were all masters of metaphor and analogy.    

[1] In this image, Robert Alman, the actor playing McCabe, is a cowboy who wears a hat more reminiscent of the bowler: