The red carpet points West this summer as the Briscoe Western Art Museum premiers its new special exhibition, Still in the Saddle: A New History of the Hollywood Western. The exhibition tells the dramatic story of the Hollywood Western from the late 1960s through the 1980s, set against the social unrest, political turmoil, economic uncertainty and generational change of that time. While competing cinematic visions of the Old West vied for Americans’ attention versus the popular culture of the day, the Western remained as rich and entertaining as at any time in its history. “True Grit,” “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid,” “The Wild Bunch,” “Little Big Man,” and “The Outlaw Josey Wales” are just a few of the classic Western films highlighted in this exciting new exhibition organized by the Briscoe.
“Western film is a vibrant and moving form of Western art, in addition to fine art, literature, music, and film signific art forms that share stories of the West. Film — and Western films in particular — are a place where artists have played with and dramatized different scenarios and dealt with complex concerns that were paramount in present-day society,” explains Michael Duchemin, Ph.D., President and CEO of the Briscoe Western Art Museum. “Through experimentation with the cinematic West, directors hold a mirror up to society that encourages viewers to evaluate their perceived past and consider their present. These films reveal much about the attitudes and opinions of the people who made and watched the films in the 1970s. The history lessons and context these films provide are still important in our world today.”
Still in the Saddle: A New History of the Hollywood Western was curated by the Briscoe with guest curator Dr. Andrew Patrick Nelson, a historian of American cinema and culture, film programmer, museum curator and media commentator. Nelson is Chair of the Department of Film and Media Arts and Associate Professor of Film Studies at the University of Utah, as well as the author and editor of numerous books and essays on Western cinema, including “Still in the Saddle: The Hollywood Western, 1969-1980,” and “Contemporary Westerns: Film and Television since 1990,” He has appeared in television series on History Channel and Fox News Channel, co-hosts the Western movie podcast “How the West Was Cast,” and regularly lectures about Western movies and history at venues around the world. Nelson also serves on the Board of Directors of the John Wayne Birthplace and Museum.
“The exhibition allows everyone to literally walk through the history of the Western in this dynamic period. With classics of the genre like “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid,” “The Wild Bunch,” and “True Grit,” the era is remembered quite fondly by fans. By looking closely at this period, you not only come to appreciate just how vibrant and exciting the Western was at this moment, but you also gain a new perspective on what American culture was like at that time. It also helps better understand what has happened to the Western over the past 30 to 40 years, providing a new perspective on what the Western is and has become,” explains Nelson.
Sneak Peek: Behind the Velvet Ropes of Still in the Saddle
To spotlight the films, the exhibition transforms the Briscoe into a 1960s movie theater.
Guests will be immersed in Western cinema, walking a red carpet and going behind the velvet ropes to step back in time and see the films as they were viewed then. Almost 60 vintage original movie posters, as well as movie costumes and dozens of authentic lobby cards, will set the scene as the exhibition places the movies in the context of then-current events, including the turbulent 1960s. Bringing the films to life, display screens throughout the exhibition feature film clips illustrating representative moments of the genre to showcase the history and artistry of the Western. Costumes featured include items worn and used by John Wayne in the movies “Chisum,” “The Cowboys,” and “The Undefeated” on loan from the John Wayne Birthplace & Museum. And yes, that is movie theater popcorn you smell as you enjoy the exhibit.
The exhibition flows through five sections, with movie posters, film stills and clip reels showcased in each. “The Western in 1969” sets the stage, giving an overview of the societal change that was going on outside the theater doors to provide a perspective of that time. Using the term “Indians On Screen and Off,” the exhibition addresses one of the most contentious aspects of the Western, its treatment of Native Americans. While some 1950s Westerns included sympathetic Native American characters, by the late 1960s, a growing awareness of Native American issues led to more concerted efforts by filmmakers to portray indigenous peoples with greater sensitivity and complexity.
“Heroes in Changing Times” spotlights how Westerns showcased frontier heroes. During the 1970s, those portrayals shifted from the typical guns blazing, valiant outnumbered heroes saving the day to often-unflattering depictions. “The Duke” focuses on John Wayne, the iconic actor whose close association with the Western is cemented in popular imagination. Still in the Saddle closes with a look at rather than dying out in the 1980s, the Western transformed from a popular genre to a prestigious one, with movies like “Dances with Wolves” and “Unforgiven” scoring both box office and critical acclaim.
To accompany Still in the Saddle, the Briscoe is offering a slate of events that bring the exhibition to life. Events and programming include an opening preview party, a curator’s talk and meet and greet, and the kick-off of the Briscoe’s popular Summer Film Series. Dedicated to films included in Still in the Saddle, the film series is an opportunity to experience the films in their full glory and gain a deeper perspective on the exhibition.
The Briscoe’s Summer Film Series kicks off with “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid” on Sunday, May 30, then offers movie aficionados something to enjoy throughout the summer. The series features an iconic film on the third Sunday of each summer month, with 1970’s “Little Big Man” on Sunday, June 20, “True Grit” on July 18, and “The Long Riders” on August 22. “The Shootist” will close out the summer on Sept. 5. Guest curator Andrew Patrick Nelson will introduce each movie and explain how it relates to Still in the Saddle. Each film is free for members and $10 for future members, or enjoy both general admission to the Briscoe and the film for $12. Briscoe Summer Cinema passes include three films for $25 or enjoy all five films for $50 and receive an individual museum membership, granting you unlimited access to the Briscoe’s exhibitions and programming throughout the year. Tickets may be purchased online, while Summer Cinema passes are available by calling 210.299.4499.
The museum’s virtual book club will focus on titles that have become blockbuster movies, including “True Grit” by Charles Portis and “Blood Meridian” by Cormack McCarthy. There is no charge to participate in the book club.
Bringing the West to Downtown San Antonio
An oasis of Western beauty on the banks of the River Walk, the McNutt Sculpture Garden and the museum grounds feature 32 sculptures portraying various aspects of Western life. The museum’s beautifully restored historic home inside the former San Antonio Public Library building features 14 galleries, with special exhibitions, events and a fantastic museum store, providing art, culture, history and entertainment. Museum hours, parking and admission details are available online. Per the latest CDC guidelines, vaccinated guests are welcome to enjoy the museum and Jack Guenther Pavilion without a mask. The Briscoe respectfully requests all non-vaccinated guests wear face coverings.
About The Briscoe Western Art Museum: Preserving and presenting the art, history and culture of the American West through engaging exhibitions, educational programs and public events reflective of the region’s rich traditions and shared heritage, the Briscoe Western Art Museum is located on the San Antonio RiverWalk at 210 W. Market Street in the beautifully restored 1930s former San Antonio Public Library building. Named in honor of the late Texas Gov. Dolph Briscoe Jr. and his wife, Janey Slaughter Briscoe, the museum includes the three-story Jack Guenther Pavilion, used for event rentals and programs, and the outdoor McNutt Sculpture Garden. Follow the Briscoe on social media, @BriscoeMuseum.