Robert Redford is known all over the world as one of the biggest movie stars of Hollywood cinema since the 1970s, after the success of films like Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969) and The Sting (1973), where he was paired with Paul Newman, The Way We Were (1973) with Barbra Streisand and All the President’s Men (1976) with Dustin Hoffmann.  He continued to be a bankable star in the 1980s, in films like The Natural (1984) with Glenn Close and Out of Africa (1985) with Meryl Streep, and the 1990s in Indecent Proposal (1992) with Demi Moore and Up Close and Personal (1996) with Michelle Pfeiffer, until the present, in Spy Games (2001) with Brad Pitt.
As soon as he gained power in the industry, Redford began to produce his own films, such as The Candidate (1972) by Michael Ritchie and All the President’s Men (1976) by Alan Pakula, then to direct, starting with Ordinary People (1980) which earned him an Oscar as Best Director, continuing with The Milagro Beanfield War (1986), A River Runs Through It (1992), Quiz Show (1994), The Horse Whisperer (1998) and The Legend of Bagger Vance (2000).
Redford is a strong supporter of independent films, since founding the Sundance Institute in 1981 and the Sundance Film Festival in 1985, an event that has become increasingly important in bringing to the attention of the public interesting films from Sex, Lies and Videotape (1989) to Little Miss Sunshine (2006).  He has been extremely vocal in his environmental activism since the 1970s and recently in his opposition to the Bush administration’s policies.
Redford’s contributions to the history of cinema and his iconic status in American culture make him a worthy subject for a critical study.  For this book I have chosen to outline how Redford’s work can be interpreted as emblematic of the best values of the American West, in a time when the legacy of violence born on the frontier has come under question.
The unique American mythology of the West was spread all over the world through cinema and television, particularly since the 1950s, after the US military involvement during World War II.  “No genre has retained more continuous popularity than the Western; nor is any genre more involved with fundamental American beliefs about individualism and social progress.  Many American and European film scholars have approached the Western as a peculiarly American cultural form.”  Every generation of filmmakers has employed the familiar themes of the Western to express their concerns about the present; Redford began his film career by portraying some flawed western heroes in counter-culture Westerns of the late 1960s that questioned American ideals during the Vietnam War.
He played a dangerous but charming outlaw in the buddy film Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969) written by William Goldman and directed by George Roy Hill, which made him famous.  He was a sheriff chasing a fugitive Indian in Tell Them Willie Boy is Here (1968) written and directed by Abraham Polonsky and a laconic mountain man challenged by Indian braves in Jeremiah Johnson (1972) directed by Sydney Pollack.  Fascinated by the lifestyle of the outlaws as true representatives of the western free spirit, he accepted an offer from National Geographic to take a trip on horseback retracing their steps through Montana, Utah and Arizona, and wrote the text for the picture book The Outlaw Trail (1978).  He then played a rodeo cowboy in The Electric Horseman (1979) with Jane Fonda, which is not strictly a Western–director Sydney Pollack calls it a romantic comedy–but deals with the connection between a cowboy and his horse as a symbol of the individual freedom that has been lost in a modern society dominated by greed and an invasive media.  Redford would explore a similar subject, the spiritual centeredness of a Montana rancher with a gift for talking to horses, in his film as a director, The Horse Whisperer (1998).  Recently he played an older, embittered rancher looking for forgiveness in An Unfinished Life (2005) directed by Lasse Hallström.
Through these different portrayals of iconic western characters on the big screen, Redford has become a physical representative of the enduring values of the real American West, in more subversive ways than the traditional western heroes of classical cinema.  He accomplished this in part by embracing the spiritual values of the indigenous American Indian culture.  He demonstrated his interest in the plight of modern Indians by producing several films based on the novels by Tony Hillerman, from The Dark Wind (1990) to A Thief of Time (2004), and the documentary about Leonard Peltier, Incident at Oglala (1992).
The creation of the Sundance ski resort and the Sundance Institute proved Redford’s commitment to preserve the natural beauty of the American West, which would inspire his environmental activism.  His second film as director, The Milagro Beanfield War (1986), celebrated the victory of Southwest farmers who cultivate the land against greedy developers who exploit the land.  A River Runs through It (1992) illustrated his nostalgia for the unspoiled western landscape and the mystical relationship between man and nature in 1920s Montana.  Other films Redford directed don’t have to do specifically with the West, but are considered here because they deal with essential elements of the American character, such as the disillusionment with American ideals in Quiz Show (1994) and the mythology of sports in The Legend of Bagger Vance (2000).


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