“The essential American soul is hard, isolate, stoic, and a killer. It has never yet melted.” –D.H. Lawrence, 1920s.
“This is the west, sir. When legend becomes fact, print the legend.”
–John Ford’s The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance
Paramount Pictures, 1962.
“America has contributed two great art forms to world culture: jazz music and the western.”
–attributed to Clint Eastwood, early 1990s.
Around the time Clint Eastwood was doing publicity for his 1992 western Unforgiven, his somewhat reductive quote about jazz music and westerns began making the rounds. Now, I despise pretty much all jazz music (a bunch of instruments playing different songs at the same time, with drums that sound like shoes in a dryer), but I love westerns with an unseemly passion, and I have to agree with Clint that they are a uniquely American form of cinematic expression. Our historical background provides bottomless fodder for an art form that, like rock and roll, has been declared “dead” many times through the decades, but keeps hanging on. And we are all the more blessed for it.
Between the end of the Civil War (1865) and the year when the U.S. Census Bureau declared the American frontier “closed” (1890), was a relatively brief period of time that cast a huge shadow over the American character. The raw, primitive America of Daniel Boone and James Fenimore Cooper smashed up against the modern, materialistic America of John Rockefeller and Upton Sinclair. The two halves of the American Dream began an ugly grappling match – freedom & rugged individuality vs. wealth & community – which continues to this day, but much further below the surface. In those 25 or so years at the end of the 1800s, the naked savageness of this fight was very much on display, and the negative extremes of both sides had free reign. “Rugged individuality” often expressed itself in brutality and lawlessness, and “wealth” often expressed itself in a level of exploitation and greed far surpassing even today’s levels. When these two titanic forces clashed (or even circled each other warily) in such a tiny sliver of time, a modern mythology was created almost overnight.
The “Old West” began mythologizing itself before it was even over. The cheap pulp fiction about the exploits of such figures such as Wild Bill Hickock, Wyatt Earp, and Jesse James flew off the shelves during a time when the men themselves were still at the height of their careers. So many of the stock characters and situations (white-hatted good guys, showdowns at high noon) we see in westerns — usually bad ones — have their roots in the dime store fiction that was eagerly devoured by readers of the previous century.
A good western does not merely present us with the mythology, but attempts to answer why we’re attracted to that mythology in the first place through the actions of its characters. A good western is not merely a historical costume drama, but is a reflection of the era in which it was made. (For instance, the westerns of the 1940s and 50s emphasized duty and sacrifice, the westerns of the 1960s and 70s tended to be cynical and anti-authority, the westerns of the 1990s and 2000s explored the nature of violence and fame.) A good western gives us a glimpse into a funhouse mirror, showing an exaggerated reflection of all of our best and worst qualities.
So successful was the western form in terms of storytelling, it has dominated audio-visual media since its inception. The very first narrative film was a western, The Great Train Robbery (1903). Early television was packed with them, peaking in 1959, when 26 (Jesus Christ!) prime-time shows were westerns. The culture was so saturated with them, that an inevitable burn-out and backlash ensued, and continues to this day. Westerns tend to be perceived by modern audiences as a sort of lifeless, History Channel learning experience or a chance for B-grade pretty boy actors to dress up as cowboys for a glitzy cliché-fest. Because, sadly, that’s what many modern westerns have been. Because they are so easy to do poorly. As director James Mangold (3:10 To Yuma) stated, “Most directors are so excited to be doing a western, they forget to tell a compelling story.” You can put all the trappings on the screen, put everyone in hats and shootin’ irons, but if the story does not tap that wellspring of American mythology, if the characters don’t live and breathe, the western falls flat. Further degrading the form are films that use this epic mythology as a merely a flashy backdrop for a conventionally dull story (e.g., Far And Away or Dances With Wolves).
“Traditional” westerns were often simple morality tales – and often dismissed as dated and hokey by modern audiences. But when done well, such as John Ford’s My Darling Clementine (1946) or the pinnacle of traditional westerns, Howard Hawks’ Rio Bravo (1959), traditional westerns speak a pure emotional truth often absent from other genre films of the era. Clementine is all about denying your own desires for the greater good, Rio Bravo is a profoundly moving tale of second chances and trusting your friends in times of crisis. Traditional values, yes. But never cheesy. Awesome.
More interesting to most modern audiences are the “revisionist” westerns, where traditional western elements are stood on their head. The moral ambiguity always present in the real Old West is emphasized. Complex “anti-heroes” make choices that often run counter to the traditional values Americans supposedly espouse. All of the five main characters in Walter Hill’s The Long Riders (1980) would have been portrayed as “bad guys” in earlier westerns, but here we see them as sympathetic, existing within their own peculiar code. Similarly, in Clint Eastwood’s Unforgiven (1992), the hero is actually a villain (Eastwood’s character William Munny, who has “killed women and children [and] everything that walked or crawled…”), attempting to do the “right” thing: avenge violence with yet more violence, until the whole thing is ultimately meaningless. People do not face death stoically in Unforgiven, but screaming and crying and pissing themselves, and the ending suggests there is no larger morality at play in people’s existence.
As any middle school literature teacher will tell you, the heart of every story is Conflict. The basic conflict of a western is almost always the same: primitive/obsolete way of life confronting sociological or technological change, reflecting the rapid changes of the era in which they’re set. The parameters of that conflict, though, are large, and can encompass any number of themes and ideas. Most westerns paint with a large brush, using big themes like violence & greed (obviously), loyalty, obsession, honor. Of course, other films explore these themes frequently and compellingly as well. What gives westerns the edge in my mind?
Kurosawa’s justly acclaimed Seven Samurai was re-made as the western The Magnificent Seven (1960), and the story immediately breathed with new life because of its look and feel. The staginess and stiff mannerisms of Kuorsawa’s epic somehow breathed easier, and took on new naturalism when transplanted to the cinematic west. The visual language of the cinematic west could make your eyes water: John Ford’s use of the natural red sandstone pillars in Monument Valley. The sun-baked, nightmarish vistas of Sergio Leone’s “spaghetti westerns,” meant to represent the American southwest, but really shot in southern Spain. The scudding clouds and waving wheat photographed in loving detail by cinematographer Roger Deakins for last year’s The Assassination Of Jesse James By The Coward Robert Ford. Visuals so striking they spill messily into your other senses: the smell of horses, dust, and lamp oil hover in your nose, the taste of whiskey, beans, and cornbread float over your tongue. Leather reins in your gloved hands. The heaviness of an Army Colt on your hip. It is fantasy. Otherworldly, yet so clearly of our world. It is beautiful.