Westerns as a movie genre have become unpopular. Cowboys were once popular in movies and television shows. One reason for the decline of the Western movie genre is the negative portrayal of Indians, who were usually portrayed as savages attacking stagecoaches, forts, and wagon trains.
For many decades, some Indian actors made a living by falling off horses and playing dead. Indians in the Western movies were often portrayed as implacable enemies who were socially and culturally outside of the advancing Western expansion of American civilization, democracy, and modernity. The negative portrayal of the savage Indian went out of style as politically incorrect.
However, Indians disappointed contemporary moviemakers and audiences. A happy ending to the story of the civilization of the West was not the formation of healthy American Indian nations with self-government within their traditional territories. Rather, the happy ending would have been the assimilation of American Indians into American democracy. Indian citizens living happily within a multicultural multiracial democracy as equals would have been the ending of the civilization of the West. However, the Indians disappointed and did not play out the hoped for pattern of modernization and incorporation into American civilization. It is not that Indians in general reject U.S. citizenship, but the story of Indian cultural and political autonomy does not conform with the vision of Manifest Destiny or modernization. The continuity of unassimilated Indian nations was not part of the American public’s general vision of the future. Therefore, moviemakers abandoned the theme of contemporary reservation Indians altogether.
Captain James T. Kirk and Commander Spock, played by William Shatner and Leonard Nimoy, pictured here in The Original Series.
The role that Indians used to play in Western movies turned to more compliant imagery in the form of otherworld aliens. One place to see the working of American Manifest Destiny is through movie depictions of otherness in the Star Trek series. In the early series, the spaceship Enterprise was staffed by an international and multiracial crew, who were accepted citizens of earth’s democratic government called the Federation. There were no American Indians playing crew members, but in the Next Generation series there was an American Indian crew member, a sign of acceptance and inclusion within Earth’s world federation government.
Space is the final frontier, now instead of meeting Indians, the crew of the Starship Enterprise meets otherworldly aliens. Spock is the one otherworldly alien serving in the Enterprise crew. He represents the inclusion of Vulcans into the now multi-worldly Federation. Spock and his fellow Vulcans are good aliens, since they have joined the Federation and take up the task of civilizing the rest of hostile aliens in the universe. The task will not be done until all otherworldly aliens join the Federation in democracy and civilization. The later Star Trek series sees incorporation of once hostile alien races into the Enterprise crew, but infinitely more hostile aliens to battle, civilize, and include within the ever-expanding Federation.
Other major science fiction movie series show similar patterns. Stars Wars portrays battles between a coalition of alien races who will join and uphold the Republic against the aliens who would want to destroy the Republic and dominate the alien and human races in non-democratic and less civilized ways.
A scene from the movie “Starship Troopers,” in which Earth is at war with an alien race in the distant future.
If you are a fan of the famed movie dramatization of an Indian attack at Fort Apache, there is a remake of the same themes about a unified and civilized Earth fighting against alien forces in several Starship Troopers movies. This time the aliens are very large bugs. There is a recent genre of cowboys and alien science fiction and even some movies. Cowboys are no longer depicted as fighting against Indians, but are now battling otherworldly and hostile aliens. Indians have given way to otherworldly aliens as savage aggressors and objects that need civilization and inclusion. The cultural goal of subjection, civilization, and incorporations of aliens (read Indians) continues to be played out in movies in ways that have not been achieved in history.