The Western Film
O lost, and by the wind grieved, ghost, come back again.
Thomas Wolfe : Look Homeward, Angel
Perhaps the draw of a good Western is its ability to point towards the unknown, and thus to plumb a truth of the human condition. The use of supernatural elements in Western films can be deeply haunting, and the truly great Westerns endeavour to place in question the archetypal forces of Good and Evil, and to portray the effort to continue to search for one’s place, often against apparently insurmountable odds.
One of the most striking sequences of all Westerns is to be found in Clint Eastwood’s Pale Rider (1985). The title is a reference to the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, wherein the rider of a pale horse represents Death. The main character, the Preacher, is an “out-and-out ghost” as described by Eastwood (who also portrayed him). We first meet him as he descends from on-high mountain country, accompanied by words from the 23rd Psalm, called out by a young girl as she buries her slain dog in a forest. When we next glimpse the Preacher, he is cast in the imagery of St. George, astride a pale horse on the edge of town. He is the supernatural anti-hero, apparently sent to help the small miners and farmers in their hour of need. The classic western Shane (1953) was an inspiration to Eastwood’s telling of Pale Rider, and he extends the earlier film’s use of subtle supernatural elements in both setting and plot. Each film ends with the mysterious stranger, the outsider, riding away alone, into the unknown.
The Western film genre portrays the range of human emotions set within a society that is often without ‘man made’ law, yet cast around codes of honour, justice and archetypes. With films such as The Furies (1950) and High Noon (1952), psychological dramas evocative of ancient Greek myths were established as part and parcel of the genre. High Noon, perhaps the greatest Western ever made, was directed by Fred Zinnemann, and starred the physically pained and ravaged Gary Cooper (who was actually ill at the time) as the Marshall abandoned by all the townspeople to face the outlaws. The film can be seen as a morality play about the issues confronting America, particularly the persecution of the film industry by Senator McCarthy and the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC).
It is a wilderness West to which the searcher gravitates, seeking a life that is freer to grow up straight and become oneself, opportunities that are no longer found “back East”. The frontier also attracts the criminal and the outlaw, and, as writers and directors used the genre for exploration, the black and white, good and bad of earlier Westerns gradually gave way to many shades of grey. One has only to watch how John Ford directs John Wayne in three films-as the Ringo Kid in Stagecoach (1939), the paternal captain Nathan in She Wore a Yellow Ribbon (1949), and Ethan Edwards in The Searchers (1956)_-to witness this deepening of characterization and plot. Wayne’s simple form of character in Stagecoach has become in _The Searchers a wandering, moody, dark, obsessive misfit. He is shown at the end of the film turning away from a home and family; he is alone and in a way as cursed as the buried Comanche, into whose dead eyes he had earlier fired bullets, so that the Indian would have to ‘wander forever between the winds’-doomed to spiritual homelessness.
In Unforgiven (1992), the mingling of right and wrong, in both the retired gunslinger William Munny (Clint Eastwood), who tried to go straight, and the sheriff, Little Bill Daggett (Gene Hackman), is even more striking. They have similar backgrounds: both men are shaped from the same mould (and as Alan Ladd states in Shane – ‘A man has to be what he is; you cant break the mould. I tried it- it didn’t work for me’). It is a movie where the seasonal chill of the mountainous landscape outlives the characters, caught as they are by accident and by fate. Who are the good and who are the bad? The Sheriff, in order to uphold the law, whips a man to death; the Outlaw, outraged by such a brutal killing of his old friend, Ned Logan (Morgan Freeman), turns to merciless vengeance. It is the badly wounded Little Bill Daggett who, in the harsh, death-strewn, storm-shrouded denouement, says, ‘I don’t deserve to die like this – I was building a house.’ William Munny replies, ‘Deserve has nothing to do with it.’ Daggett counters, ‘I’ll see you in hell William Munny.’ The tension of the night scene is stretched into the scarred and unforgiving face of Munny who replies, ‘Yeah’. Evocative of the apocalyptic, the outlaw departs the rain-mudded town on a pale horse and it seems that, as Alexander Pope wrote, “…universal Darkness covers all.” In the final scene, the storm has abated, and the music is guitar gentle. Even the sky (is it dawn or sunset?) appears to offer redemptive peace. There is the humble house; clothes hung out to dry; a lone tree stroked by wind; a man standing by the grave of his wife. As we watch both the clothes and the man fade and, ghostlike, disappear, the rest of the scene remains to stir us to question our time-framed existence.
Films of the Western genre were set in the western United States during the late 1850’s to the end of the “Indian Wars” in the early 1890’s. However, both the setting and period have a certain elasticity, for the Western also incorporates the American Civil War and settings east of the Mississippi. It also crosses borders into Canada, Mexico, Australia, and, in the case of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969), Bolivia. The influence of the Western can be felt outside of its era in such films as Easy Rider(1969) and The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada (2005). In Easy Rider, motorbikes supplant horses; gun violence and bigotry is meshed in circadian Southern heat, and New Orleans becomes the visited Wild West town. Three Burials draws upon the imagery and music of the Texas Mexican border, a film imbued with friendship, revenge, atonement and forgiveness. Though set in the modern era, the carriage of the film is almost entirely of the Western genre.
Although some attempts at capturing Western flavour had been made prior to 1900 (particularly with the short kinetoscopes of the 1890’s) it is The Great Train Robbery (1903), starring Broncho Billy Anderson, which can be said to be the first proper Western. The film, directed by Edwin S. Porter, was a remarkable effort. It established Anderson as the movie screen’s first cowboy star, and he went on to make several hundred western movie shorts. Porter made over 100 films between 1901 and 1908. His work is often seen as a precursor to W. B Griffith’s Birth of a Nation (1915), having established the structure and codes of cinematic language and classic film making.
The Western genre itself has sub-genres. ‘Revisionist Westerns’ such as Great Northfield Minnesota Raid (1972), The Long Riders (1980), Little Big Man (1970), stripped away romanticism, revealing the harsh, often brutal realities of life on the frontier. Its B-movies were the ‘Singing Cowboy Westerns’, many of which were produced throughout the 1930’s and 1940’s, making stars of Gene Autry, Tex Ritters, and Roy Rodgers. ‘Epic Westerns’ included Once Upon a Time in the West (1968) and The Searchers. The ‘Spaghetti Western’ emerged in Italy during the 1960’s and 1970’s. Some of the best, made by Sergio Leone, were A Fistful of Dollars (1964), For a Few Dollars More (1965), and The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly (1966). In these movies, Clint Eastwood, the “Man-with-No-Name” character, embodies some of the archetypical qualities of the movie cowboy: toughness, self-reliance, quietness, skill with a gun; however, unlike the original archetype often portrayed by actors such as John Wayne and Randolph Scott, Eastwood’s characters portray moral ambiguity. The ‘Comedy Westerns’ included Way Out West (1937), starring Laurel and Hardy, Destry Rides Again (1939) with Marlene Dietrich and James Stewart, The Paleface (1948), with Bob Hope playing a cowardly dentist ‘Painless’ Peter Potter, and Jane Russell as Calamity Jane. As the Western film genre began to disperse and decline, comedy in films such as Support Your Local Sheriff (1969), Mel Brooks’ Blazing Saddles (1974) and Alen Cox’s Straight to Hell (1987) devolved into parody, and in a way were announcing the end of a once dominant genre.
A strong influence upon Westerns in the 1960’s was the Japanese samurai films of Akira Kurosawa. The Magnificent Seven (1960) was a remake of Kurosawa’s Shichinin no Samurai (The Seven Samurai 1954), and both a Fistful of Dollars (1964) and Last Man Standing (1966) were remakes of Yojimbo (1961). Kurosawa was himself deeply influenced by the work of John Ford, who in turn learned his trade as a director of early Universal Studios silent Westerns. An offshoot of the genre is the ‘Post-Apocalyptic’ Western, in which, following some form of major catastrophe, what remains of society is trying to survive and rebuild in a setting similar to the 19th century frontier. Good examples of these are The Postman (1997), and the Mad Max Series (1979–1985) featuring Mel Gibson.
It may be argued that Sam Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch (1969) marked something of an apotheosis and an end. The tale of The Wild Bunch is set in 1913 and told from the point of view of nine outlaws who are bound by friendship and honour but hounded by bounty hunters. The film shows that the Old West is coming to an end, and so it was fitting that the film included such old stalwarts as Robert Ryan, William Holding, and Ernest Borgnine. Both Ryan and Borgnine acted with Lee Marvin and Spencer Tracey in Bad Day at Black Rock (1955), a drama that contained many features of the classic Western. Tom Horn (1980) and The Shootist (1976) play out the death of the gunfighter. Monte Walsh (1970) examines what happened to redundant cowboys when their skills are superseded by technology. Walsh, played by Lee Marvin, turns down a job as a circus entertainer, adding that “I’m not gonna spit on my old life.” In The Ballad Of Cable Hogue (1970), the hero Cable, played by Jason Robards, dies under the wheels of a ‘new fangled automobile’. The death of the West, however, was not simply figurative. The 1970’s and 1980’s saw the passing of many of the directors and actors that were associated with the genre, including John Ford, Howard Hawks, Jacques Tourneur, Raoul Walsh King Vidor, and John Wayne. After the failure of Heaven’s Gate (1980) at the box office, Hollywood turned away from the Western.
If today the Western has all but disappeared from the screens, it is in part the result of both a shift in the genre itself and also in American society. Just as Bob Dylan took up the songs of Arlo Guthrie, science fiction films such as George Lucas’s Star Wars (1977–2002, I–VI) and Sci-fi television series such as Star Trek (1996–2002) borrowed extensively from the elements and conventions of the Western. Peter Hyam’s Outland (1981) is an adaptation of High Noon to interstellar space. Since the 1970’s the frontier for audiences has become outer space and maybe it is symbolic that the year The Wild Bunch was released coincided with American astronauts setting foot on the moon. Perhaps it could be said that the Western has not after all vanished, but moved to the new open spaces beyond the earth itself, or returned with a different view to old territory, with examples of Dead Man (1995) with Johnny Depp, as accountant William Blake. encountering a strange Indian named “Nobody”, Ang Lee’s Brokeback Mountain (2005), and Wim Wenders’ Don’t Come Knocking (2005).
Ten Recommended Western Films:
The Good, The Bad and The Ugly
Ride The High Country
The Treasure of the Sierra Madre
Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada
I enjoyed reading the article about Westerns. It happened that I watched four recently: two old-fashioned ones, and then two in a distinctly different style.
The Comancheros and another early John Wayne whose name I have already forgotten are not memorable, but do illustrate some conventions of old Westerns. The women, however improbably, are always perfectly made up, coiffeured and dressed. And they are by the way as the real action is between men,while the whore with the heart of gold (who never gets the man) and the boring pretty heroine are not the point. The fisticuffs are not realistic at all. After a long fight, each blow of which would at least have winded a man and laid him out at once for quite some time, the men get up with hardly a pretence that anything much happened. In one of the films I watched the Yankees and the Confederate loyalists all set to, the women are distraught and cannot understand such fighting, but the men (boys?) are just having a bit of fun. A further convention is that the sidekicks (and the Indians) who get killed on the way are expendable (though there may be a tear for an heroic loyal goody)- only the final showdown between hero and villain counts.
How different it became later is especially clear in Clint Eastwood’s Unforgiven. Now the women are a crucial part of the story, look genuinely dishevelled or wounded, and the violence is realistic- sickeningly so. Still, doesn’t the archetypal showdown have to be between two mysterious figures? We never know who the hero is and why he is what he is- the loner who rides in from somewhere, his past unknown, and who- we can be sure- will ride off, not knowing where to. He has his own destiny. The villain is also mysterious- the hired gunman fated to play that role (Jack Palance in Shane ), or the incomprehensibly callous killer (Henry Fonda in Once Upon a time in the West ). The hired killer in another Clint Eastwood movie, Pale Rider , just isn’t menacing enough- he is not an embodiment of denial.
Why the need for “realism”? Are we so out of touch with our emotions and desires that we cannot understand what characters are feeling unless there is overt sex and violence?
See also Wyatt Earp et Al