The Wild West: The Mythical Cowboy and Social Theory


Will Wright

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  • Core Cultural Icons

    SERIES EDITOR: George Ritzer, Professor of Sociology, University of Maryland – College Park

    Core Cultural Icons aims to combine theoretical and practical analysis. The series, edited by the author of The McDonaldization of Society, George Ritzer, focuses on key icons in contemporary consumer culture and analyzes them using the latest cultural theories. In this way, the series seeks to further our understanding of contemporary culture and to make theoretical issues more accessible to students who complain that theory is often too forbidding or daunting. Core Cultural Icons offers a route map for understanding contemporary culture and the leading cultural theories of today.


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    As part of a series on cultural icons and social theory, this book was encouraged by George Ritzer, the academic editor of the series, and Chris Rojek, the series editor at Sage Ltd. I am particularly indebted to Chris Rojek, who as a friend, a sociologist, and an editor has given me valuable support and comments. Many friends read various stages of this book and provided careful criticisms: Vine Deloria, Jr, Ian Gomme, Steven Kaplan, Jane Eblen Keller, Boyd Littrell, Carl Pletsch, William Sheidley, Ron Thorn, Alexandra Todd. The book has also benefited from many recurring discussions concerning myth, society, and theory with these and other friends: Stanley Aronowitz, Carrie Baldwin, Carol Clover, Gary Means, Brian O'Brien. Finally, I am most indebted to Dianne Brooks for her insights, intelligence, and endurance. She read and improved many versions, and the support of her and many others helped the following book to take shape.

  • Conclusion: The Wild Individualist West

    Individualism and Tradition

    The practices of market individualism dominate our modern world – science, technology, industry, innovation, competition, the rule of law, private property. Most of the nations of the world today trade in a global market. The assumptions of individualism characterize this market, assumptions that tend to undermine lingering traditional values. The basic assumptions are that individuals are rational, autonomous, and self-interested. They should have equality before the law and the freedom to maximize their private property. Innovation in the pursuit of profit should be encouraged even if it disrupts established social relations and authority. Social standing and respect should be based strictly on market success (individual merit), not on sacred tradition, government protection, or class privilege. A commitment to individualism should replace a commitment to tradition, and the more a nation accepts the market, the better it will be at industry. Market relations will tend to sweep away a traditional sense of unity, but they will also tend to lead to industrial prosperity and thus to greater economic independence in the new global market.

    Japan, however, might seem to be a counterexample. It is often seen as a market success and also as quite traditional. Japan's market success, however, is also often seen as threatened by its traditions. Those traditions, in the view of many Japanese, discourage competition and innovation and harm the Japanese economy. Many executives and officials, then, seek to stimulate the Japanese economy by encouraging individualism and discouraging tradition. They want to direct Japanese workers more toward private self-interest and less toward group acceptance. Hitachi is one of many Japanese corporations that are trying to promote individualism, according to Ginny Parker of the Associated Press: ‘The major Japanese appliance maker Hitachi is doing away with three staples of Japan's straitlaced corporate world. The goal? To promote individuality.’ Hitachi is no longer requiring ‘somber suits and ties’, ‘addressing superiors by their formal titles’ (‘use personal names instead’), or ‘morning calisthenics’.

    Hitachi reasons that allowing its employees to wear casual clothes will bring out their personality and stimulate creativity. And that, the thinking goes, will lead to new ideas about how to improve the company. ‘The emphasis is on respect for the individual,’ [a company representative] said. ‘We want to give employees … freedom to make their own judgments.’ … It's a big change in a corporate culture that long has preferred – and often demanded – a docile, faceless conformity from its workers. (Parker, 1999: 3C)

    According to this article, Hitachi has suffered economically because of its inflexible structure, its commitment to tradition. Other companies have had similar problems, and all are trying similar strategies to encourage individualism.

    America is the most successful and dominant market nation at the beginning of the twenty-first century. It is also the market nation most committed to individualism. More than any other market nation, America was constructed on individualist ideas. America had no traditional past, and most of the people who built America were escaping from a traditional past. The market nations of Europe and Asia, in contrast, have all had long traditional pasts. In general, then, these market nations still have some commitments to traditional values that temper their market individualism. Many of these nations, like Japan, seek to become more individualistic for the sake of market success. Most, however, are happy to remain less individualistic than America. They want to retain some traditional concerns for the general social welfare. They do not want to emulate America's commitment to pure private self-interest.

    This means that most market nations in the modern world have a stronger traditional sense than America of shared social values and mutual responsibilities. Most market nations, as a result, provide stronger social protections than America for workers, the sick, the elderly, and the unemployed. These nations – France, Germany, England, Japan, Sweden, among others – are more willing to constrain individualism to provide a social safety net, while America is more willing to embrace individualism and provide less social help. America, however, tends to remain the most successful market nation.

    America may be more successful because it is more individualistic. But America also tends to be more callous, divided, violent. America is far less supportive than other market nations of unions, health care, and welfare and far more characterized by crime, distrust, and indifference. This is a problem for American society, and it reflects a problem in market theory. Market relations must be based on private self-interests, but those relations also need, in order to be civil, a unifying sense of social morality, a shared commitment to honor. The original market vision, the vision of Locke and Smith, assumed that private self-interests would support a shared morality. This civil market vision, however, assumed agrarian equality, and the market soon led to industrial class inequality. In this industrial context, as the early individualists and the social theorists agreed, private self-interests will tend to lead to oppression and division, not to decency and unity. America is the market nation most committed to individualism, in the sense of private self-interests, and it also seems to be the most uncivil.

    Some market nations encourage more individualism as a way to increase success, while America, the most successful market nation, often tries to encourage tradition to temper excessive individualism. Many politicians and commentators in America worry about a loss of morality, and they often recommend more government efforts to enforce more traditional values. They want, for example, more official support for religion in schools as well as for family values (less legal support for gays, lesbians, and abortions). There has also been in recent years a general corporate effort in America to reduce individualism in the workplace by organizing workers in teams. The point of this effort, borrowed from Japan, has been to decrease worker self-interest and encourage more corporate loyalty. According to the theory of team organization, efficiency and quality will be improved and corporate culture will be enhanced. In effect, some American companies have tried to reduce individualism while some Japanese companies have tried to increase individualism. Individualism, however, is deeply entrenched in America, and most of America's effort at teams has been more style than substance. As The New York Times reported in 1998, using a Wild West metaphor:

    One can forgive many employees if they don't buy the teamwork pitch … for all the talk of the need for team players, … this is the age of the celebrity C.E.O. – the lone ranger who can ride into any troubled company and turn things around, reaping outsized rewards compared with the ‘team’ that helps him. (Bryant, 1998: 6 (4))

    America represents the individualistic side of a basic market tension, a tension between morality and individualism. The unity of the group is always in conflict with the freedom of the individual. In the above New York Times article, historian James T. Kloppenberg comments on American society: ‘There is a central tension, of hardy individualism and the sense that we're all in it together … And it can't be resolved’ (Bryant, 1998: 6 (4)).

    The Market Myth of Origin

    The cowboy is the symbol of market individualism in America and around the world. He represents freedom and equality, but he also represents the idea that market freedom and equality can lead to a good society, a civil society. The cowboy, then, also represents a commitment to honor and decency, a commitment to honesty and trust. He emerges from the wilderness to create market society, and his vision of civility is defined by an open frontier. This is the mythical frontier between wilderness and community, and it reflects a theoretical frontier between Nature and society, between the State of Nature and the social contract. It is the frontier between complete ‘natural’ freedom and rational market freedom, between wilderness purity and private property, between savagery and civilization. The cowboy is a wandering stranger with no traditional rank or lineage. He is the equal of everyone and respectful of everyone, but he is also a ‘natural’ aristocrat because of his individual ability. He crosses the frontier to build the market, but his honor and freedom depend on the frontier and civility requires his honor and freedom.

    The image of the cowboy permeates market culture and particularly American culture. This image is obvious in Westerns, but it also permeates major American novels as Leslie Fiedler has shown. Fiedler analyzes famous novels – Moby Dick, The Sun Also Rises, Huckleberry Finn, among others – and none of these novels, apparently, are about the Wild West. However:

    It is possible to regard these classic works … as Westerns. Despite certain superficial differences, they are, indeed, all closely related to the pulp stories, the comic-books, movies, and TV shows, in which the cowhand and his sidekick ride in silent communion through a wilderness of sagebrush, rocks, and tumbleweed. (1966: 355)

    Robert B. Ray makes a similar point about classic American films, including The Philadelphia Story, Gone With the Wind, Casablanca, On the Waterfront, The Godfather: ‘Many of Classic Hollywood's genre movies, like many of the most important American novels, were thinly camouflaged Westerns’ (1985: 75). According to Ray, virtually all American popular films revolve around the ‘the traditional American mythology’ of the open frontier. In this mythology, the frontier reconciles ‘the opposition of natural man versus civilized man’ (1985: 59), the values of individualism and the values of social order.

    Grounded in a frontier mythology … the pure Western reassured its audience about the permanent availability of both sets of values … It had once been possible to have either the wilderness and its freedom or the community and its security, but, except for a brief moment that had really existed only in American mythology, it had never been possible to have both. (1985: 75, 243)

    The Western is the market myth of origin and its imagery pervades market culture, the imagery of the lonesome cowboy and the wild frontier. It endorses market freedom, equal opportunity, private property, limited government, and constant expansion. It also endorses violence as a necessity of freedom, legitimate resistance to government, the need for an endless frontier, the need for wilderness purity, and white male superiority. It assumes that market freedom (maximizing property) is compatible with market equality (equal opportunity). It also assumes that individual inequality (some are richer than others) is compatible with market equality as long as that inequality does not become class privilege. Further, it assumes that constant expansion will always be compatible with wilderness purity, and that a commitment to individual equality is compatible with racial and sexual inequality.

    All of these assumptions and endorsements are inherent in market theory, and all of them require the image of an open frontier. In particular, these assumptions and endorsements are based on a market of independent agrarians. This is implicit in legitimating market theory and it is simply made explicit in the market myth of origin. On an open frontier all market individuals can become owner-workers. Class monopolies cannot exist, so everyone can be structurally equal. The invisible hand will work, so government can remain limited. Freedom is compatible with equality, and morality is compatible with self-interest. Nature is endlessly abundant, so expansion is compatible with wilderness. Sexual inequality is necessary, so morality will temper self-interest, men can always feel successful, and children will be protected. Racial inequality is necessary, so whites can see wilderness everywhere, land infested only by savages.

    When the frontier closes, however, this cowboy market vision begins to collapse. Real equal opportunity will no longer exist, so class monopolies will arise. Freedom will not be compatible with equality, and morality will not be compatible with self-interest. Cynicism and indifference will result, oppression and corruption – the mythical urban East. This is what Smith, Jefferson, and Turner feared and what Marx, Weber, and Durkheim saw. Marx recommended revolution and Weber simply despaired. Durkheim argued, along with Keynes and the liberals, that government could maintain the best aspects of the market – individualism, innovation, criticism – by restricting market freedom and supporting equal opportunity. This would mean that government would have to encourage constant new ‘frontiers’, ‘frontiers’ of equal opportunity, and if this were possible the market might be civil even in a context of industry. One aspect of the original frontier, however, might be irreplaceable, the aspect of abundant nature. If the environment is limited, then market expansion will degrade the future. The market can only work and hope to be civil if ‘frontiers’ of opportunity are available. If all ‘frontiers’ must come to an end because of a fragile environment, the legitimating market vision can no longer make much sense.

    The Disruptive Cowboy

    The image of the frontier is crucial to market individualism. It offers relief from tradition and government, that is, it offers freedom and equality. This market version of the frontier, however, is not the only version. Another version of the frontier is described by Tom R. Sullivan in Cowboys and Caudillos: Frontier Ideology of the Americas. Sullivan analyzes Westerns written in Mexico and Latin America. These Latin Westerns are immensely popular in their own countries, but they are set in North America, the American Wild West. They tell stories of frontier heroism, just like American Westerns, but they portray a different kind of frontier and a different kind of hero.

    They focus on the image of a caudillo, ‘a local or regional strong man’, as opposed to the image of a cowboy. The caudillo is a dominant authority on a threatening, disruptive frontier. The cowboy, in contrast, is an equal individual on a promising, enabling frontier. The equal cowboy sees the frontier as a place of social hope, while the dominant caudillo sees the frontier as a place of social danger. From the Latin perspective the frontier should be avoided and fenced off; the community or the hacienda should be enclosed in walls. The frontier is ‘a brutal place where the weak are devoured by the strong, and where justice must be imposed (and reimposed) through forceful action by representatives of legal and traditional authority from far off centers of power’ (Sullivan, 1990: 31). In these stories the social focus is inward toward family, duty, and stability, not outward toward profit, opportunity, and change. The caudillo represents traditional order and the frontier represents a threat to that order. The cowboy, in contrast, rejects traditional order. He seeks to build civil freedom and equality from wild frontier opportunity:

    Latin Americans like popular narratives that inculcate a sense of distrust concerning frontiers … [They] look toward the center, not toward the hinterlands, for civilizing power … In Anglo America … they imagined a frontiersman, later to become a cowboy, as a nomadic man of violence … venturing ever into land which he would pacify in order to make way for liberty, democracy, and the colonies. (1990: 159–160)

    As Sullivan suggests, the concept of the ‘frontier’ does not necessarily imply individualist values. It may imply, as it does in Latin America, values that oppose individualism. The market version of the frontier, however, reflects individualist values. Indeed, it is probably the central cultural image that captures and symbolizes individualism. The discovery of the American wilderness supported the ideas of individualism, but the experience of the American frontier did not generate individualism. The ideas of individualism, rather, generated the market idea of an open frontier, the idea of the American frontier. The market needed a promising image of a ‘natural’ but civil society. This society had to stay close to Nature, the Nature of freedom and equality, so it would not become too organized, too committed to privilege and duty. This was the frontier required by individualism, the frontier that resisted authority. The cowboy always had to ride away or settle down. He could never become a powerful, dominant authority, a caudillo.

    The cowboy must defy authority as an autonomous individual. He represents the market need for entrepreneurs, for innovation, criticism, change. He endorses limited government on the open frontier. Government should only provide order and otherwise maximize market freedom. The cowboy can be free with honor on the open frontier, but he can only be defiant and disruptive in the modern industrial city. Our urban action hero must always resist established authority, the rigidity and injustice of bureaucracy. He breaks the rules and ignores orders, but only his defiant individualism can defeat the villains or save the world. He is usually denounced as a ‘cowboy’ by his bureaucratic superiors. Clint Eastwood's character, Dirty Harry, is condemned for his ‘cowboy’ tactics, and so is Bruce Willis, who plays a policeman in Die Hard. The pilot in Top Gun (1986), played by Tom Cruise, constantly breaks the rules and has the call sign ‘Maverick’. In Armageddon, Bruce Willis and his drilling crew are dismissed as ‘space cowboys’ by soldiers, astronauts, and bureaucrats. In each case, however, only these ‘cowboy’ heroes can defeat the villains or save the world.

    The image of the defiant ‘cowboy’ is also common in business and journalism. It is used to suggest an anti-bureaucrat, someone who breaks the rules, takes risks, and gets things done regardless of proper procedures. In the context of business, this is an innovator or entrepreneur. Such a ‘cowboy’ individualist can sometimes be quite successful in the market and sometimes quite destructive. The market always needs innovators and entrepreneurs, but it also always needs bureaucracy and stability. Innovation always leads to disruption and instability while bureaucracy always leads to certainty and accountability. In an article in The Economist the image of the ‘cowboy’ suggests market change:

    Timeshare-holiday operators have a cowboy image. But life on the wild frontier has produced the most innovative marketing in the travel industry … The future of the whole travel industry may lie with quick-on-the-draw market-makers on what used to be cowboy territory. (‘Timeshare holidays…’ 1996: 53–54)

    However, when John Scully was brought in to rescue Apple Computers, he made the company more bureaucratic: ‘The heroic style – the lone cowboy on horseback – is not the figure we worship at Apple anymore’ (Kanter, 1989: 51).

    As Rosabeth Moss Kanter has said, ‘The cowboy strains limits, but the corporation manager has to establish limits’ (1989, 360). The ‘cowboy’ disrupts bureaucracy, and the industrial market runs on bureaucracy. The ‘cowboy’ is individualist freedom and equality, and bureaucracy is rules and hierarchy. Bureaucracy increases industrial efficiency but it degrades the civil vision. The bureaucrat is a necessary market character, necessary for industrial organization. And the ‘cowboy’ is also a necessary character, necessary for industrial vitality, necessary for freedom.

    The bureaucrat runs the industrial market, but the ‘cowboy’ legitimates that market, even as he often disrupts it. The market needs rules and hierarchy, acceptance and submission, but it also needs criticism and innovation, disruption and change. It needs bureaucratic obedience but also private self-interest. Before the rational market, virtually all societies – traditional societies – only needed acceptance and submission, rules and obedience. The market still needs these as all societies do, but the market also needs, more uniquely, criticism, innovation, and self-interest. In other words, the market always needs a ‘cowboy’ just as it always needs a bureaucrat. The ‘cowboy’ is the individual who makes industry possible and bureaucracy necessary, but he hates cities and bureaucracy. The ‘cowboy’ built the industrial city, but he built it with individualist freedom, and that vision of freedom requires an open frontier.

    Market culture developed frontier stories to reflect individualist values, and these stories became the market myth of origin, the myth of the Wild West. The cowboy in the mythical West is a central market character, but he has always appeared more clearly in culture than he ever has in theory. The image of the cowboy reflects the market need for an open frontier, and this need for a frontier has also appeared much more clearly in culture than it ever has in theory. The cowboy myth illustrates most individualist assumptions, and many of those assumptions were always left out of the theory. So the myth can help us to understand the ideas of individualism and the problems of market society. The original vision of the market, the vision the myth portrays, was not a vision of urban industry, and many of the original values of the market are threatened by urban industry. Our theories can help us understand the issues of market industry, but the cowboy myth can help us understand legitimating market values. The assumptions of the market may no longer make much sense, but the image of the mythical West can still seem to make sense, as Joyce Carol Oates has remarked:

    As the actual lived lives of most Americans become even more complex and fractured and, in a sense, more generic and impersonal, we yearn for ‘authentic’ experiences, if only in fantasy. The West still beckons seductively as our region of myth and the testing ground of what remains of the American spirit. (1999: 32)

    The ‘cowboy’ embodies the proud individualism of civil market society, the individualism of freedom and equality. He also embodies the sordid individualism of violence as freedom, white male superiority, and environmental abuse. He dramatizes market individualism in all its various dimensions, and some of those dimensions, he suggests, imply oppression and injustice. He tells us what we want to hear about a free and equal life, life on the open frontier. And he also tells us, particularly in the urban action film, that the modern industrial market is incompatible with a free and equal life. He always rides tall in the saddle across the wilderness frontier, and as he does he explains individualism in terms of the Wild West.


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    Film and Television Index

    • Television Shows
    • The Big Valley (1965–69) 55
    • Bonanza (1959–1973) 55
    • Star Trek (1966–1969) 75, 136
    • The Virginian (1962–1971) 55
    • Films
    • A Civil Action (1998) 122
    • A Man Alone (1955) 157
    • A Man Called Horse (1970) 171
    • Angel and the Badman (1947) 58
    • Apache (1954) 122, 171
    • Armageddon (1998) 22, 122, 192
    • Arrowhead (1953) 58, 157, 171
    • Blade Runner (1982) 23
    • Blood on the Moon (1948) 22, 58, 121, 157
    • Boom Town (1940) 154
    • Broken Arrow (1950) 122, 171
    • Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969) 22, 58, 139, 185
    • Casablanca (1942) 189
    • Chisum (1970) 55
    • Clear and Present Danger (1994) 22, 76, 122
    • Dallas (1950) 32, 58, 76
    • Dances With Wolves (1990) 22, 139, 171
    • Death Wish (1974) 22
    • Destry Rides Again (1939) 76, 121, 157, 185
    • Dick Tracy (1990) 154
    • Die Hard (1988) 22
    • Dirty Harry (1971) 22, 122
    • Dodge City (1939) 22, 76, 139, 157
    • Drum Beat (1954) 122
    • Drums Along the Mohawk (1939) 171
    • Duel at Diablo (1966) 58, 121
    • Duel in the Sun (1946) 155, 157
    • The Eiger Sanction (1975) 22
    • El Paso (1949) 76, 121, 157
    • Enemy of the State (1998) 76, 122
    • Eraser (1996) 22, 76
    • The Far Country (1955) 22, 32, 58, 76, 121, 157
    • Fatal Attraction (1987) 154
    • Firecreek (1968) 121, 157
    • First Blood (1982) 22, 23
    • Flaming Feather (1951) 157
    • The Formula (1980) 76
    • Fort Apache (1948) 122, 139
    • The Godfather (1972) 189
    • Gone With the Wind (1939) 153, 155, 189
    • The Graduate (1967) 154
    • Gun Glory (1957) 157
    • Heaven's Gate (1980) 105, 185
    • High Noon (1952) 58, 157
    • How the West Was Won (1962) 122
    • The Indian Fighter (1955) 58
    • Jesse James (1939) 105
    • Joe Kidd (1972) 22, 58, 105, 122
    • Johnny Guitar (1954) 157
    • Jubal (1956) 157, 185
    • L.A. Confidential (1997) 23
    • The Last of the Mohicans (1992) 58
    • The Last Wagon (1956) 58, 171
    • Leave Her to Heaven (1945) 154
    • Lonely Are the Brave185
    • Lonely Are the Brave58
    • Lonely Are the Brave (1962) 22, 58, 185
    • The Magnificent Seven (1960) 22, 58, 139, 185
    • The Man Who Loved Cat Dancing (1973) 155, 157
    • Man Without a Star (1955) 22, 32, 58, 105, 139, 185
    • The Marathon Man (1976) 76
    • McLintock (1963) 55, 155, 157
    • Mercury Rising (1998) 76
    • The Missouri Breaks (1976) 76
    • My Darling Clementine (1946) 76, 139
    • The Naked Spur (1953) 157
    • The Net (1995) 122
    • Northwest Mounted Police (1940) 58
    • On the Waterfront (1954) 155, 189
    • Once Upon a Time in the West (1968) 105
    • The Outlaw Josey Wales (1976) 22, 58, 76, 121, 122, 139
    • Pale Rider (1985) 32, 58
    • The Philadelphia Story (1940) 189
    • Posse (1975) 76
    • The Professionals (1966) 22, 58, 76, 121, 139, 185
    • The Quiet Man (1952) 155
    • Ramrod (1947) 76, 157
    • Rancho Notorious (1952) 157
    • Red Mountain (1951) 155, 157
    • Red River (1948) 121, 122, 171
    • Rio Lobo (1977) 58, 76
    • Rocky (1976) 155
    • Rough Night in Jericho (1967) 58, 76
    • Rules of Engagement (2000) 122
    • Run of the Arrow (1957) 139, 171
    • Saddle the Wind (1958) 55
    • San Antonio (1945) 22
    • The Scalphunters (1968) 58
    • The Searchers (1956) 121, 139, 171
    • Shalako (1968) 58, 139, 171
    • Shane (1953) 32, 58, 76, 105, 121, 139, 157, 185
    • The Sheepman (1958) 22, 58, 105, 121
    • The Siege (1998) 122
    • Silverado (1985) 32, 58, 76, 105, 139, 185
    • Smoke Signal (1955) 58
    • The Sons of Katie Elder (1965) 76
    • The Spoilers (1942) 122, 139
    • Stagecoach (1939) 58, 121, 139, 157, 171
    • The Stalking Moon (1969) 121
    • Tall in the Saddle (1944) 22, 32, 139, 155, 157
    • Tall Man Riding (1955) 58, 139, 157
    • The Tall Men (1955) 58, 121
    • The Terminator (1984) 22
    • Three Days of the Condor (1975) 76
    • The Tin Star (1957) 76, 121
    • Top Gun (1986) 192
    • Total Recall (1990) 76
    • Two Rode Together (1961) 121
    • Unconquered (1947) 58
    • The Unforgiven (1960) 171
    • Unforgiven (1992) 22
    • Valdez Is Coming (1971) 157
    • Vera Cruz (1954) 58, 139, 157
    • The Violent Men (1955) 22, 32, 58, 76, 105, 157, 185
    • War of the Wildcats (1943) 22, 32, 58, 121, 139
    • Warlock (1959) 121, 157
    • Waterhole #3 (1967) 155, 157
    • The Westerner (1940) 32, 58, 76, 105, 139, 157, 185
    • White Feather (1955) 171
    • The Wild Bunch (1969) 22, 58, 76, 121, 139, 185
    • Winchester73 (1950) 58, 171
    • The X Files (1998) 76
    • Yellow Sky (1948) 58, 121, 155, 157

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