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Winter 2008, Volume 24.2


RE-READING THE WESTERN

read-ing [from ME reden, to explain, hence to read] _ vt. 1 to get the meaning of; 2 to understand the nature, significance, or thinking of; 3 to interpret or understand; 4 to apply oneself to; study.

 

Western Redux

In a recent film issue of the New York Times Magazine, Deborah Solomon questioned noted historian of the American West Patty Limerick about the recent flurry of new Westerns: 3:10 to Yuma, The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, and the HBO series Deadwood.

 

Just as we had an upsurge in difficult westerns when we were struggling with Vietnam, now we’re struggling with Iraq, and so we are having the same upsurge….Whenever American men of power experience anxiety, they want to go see a western, and they want to see a western where the man peacocks and parades around and everyone says, "Isn’t he something?"…

I think popular enthusiasm for a particular genre of movies might be random. Especially if these films are things of violence without a particular point, then I would say the western has just given us a chance to do a thing that people like to do: they like to slow down and look at car crashes on the road….

Western history does have bravery and heroism in it, but it’s all mixed up with selfishness and brutality. No one is going to make a film about the 500,000 abandoned mines in the West—and that may be too small a number—a symbol of the legacy of environmental damage. No one is going to make a movie about cholera afflicting people on the Overland Trail, or the smallpox epidemics among Indians….

Source: Deborah Solomon,"Cowgirl Blues," New York Times Magazine, 11 November 2007, http://www.nytimes.com.

 

How the Western was Won

In that same issue of the New York Times Magazine, film critic A. O. Scott commented on how hard the western has been to kill.

 

In 1991, for example, the critic J. Hoberman published a thorough and persuasive essay called "How the Western Was Lost," documenting the waning of a once-vigorous form. That same year, however, Kevin Costner’s Dances With Wolves won the Oscars for Best Picture and Best Director, a feat Clint Eastwood’s Unforgiven would match two years later. But Hoberman surely had a point. The movie western had retreated from its position as a quintessential and vital form of American storytelling, undone by the same cultural tumult that had put paid to other manifestations of midcentury consensus. The newer westerns, the ones made since Vietnam, were either revivalist or revisionist, seeking to bury the old myths or to exhume them.

And yet the very content of those myths was always, to some degree, their own passing. From the beginning, the western has been saturated with nostalgia, mourning and the sorrowful reckoning of lost things and times past. The sun has been setting for as long as anyone can remember. The official death of the West, after all, was virtually synchronous with the birth of the movies….

The mythology of the West and the new medium of movies were made for each other, but the marriage between them may have had, at least at first, as much to do with technological and geographical serendipity as it did with any deeper cultural affinity. As motion-picture technology developed in the last decades of the 19th century—1895 is accepted as the official birth date, in Paris and New Jersey, of cinema as we more or less know it—its progenitors needed, above all, large moving objects to take pictures of. Like, say, horses and trains. Horses hold a special place in the pioneering motion studies of Eadweard Muybridge; among the first publicly projected films was the LumiPre Brothers’ Arrival of a Train at La Ciotat. Mash them up—combine the iron horse with its flesh-and-blood analogue—and you might get something like The Great Train Robbery, directed by Edwin S. Porter, which appeared in 1903 and which is often cited as the first movie western….

It is hardly coincidental that… the industry’s center of gravity shifted toward California. The topography of greater Los Angeles, a parched and underdeveloped railroad depot at the time of the 1890 census, turned out to be ideally well suited to stories of gunslingers and cowpokes. There were—and still are—plenty of buttes, arroyos and dusty trails in, for instance, Griffith Park, which lies within the city limits and is a short excursion from the studio lots. In places like Burbank and Malibu, the studios built ranches and ready-made ghost towns, whose saloons and feed stores were in nearly constant use from the silent era well into the age of television.

And, of course, the more ambitious filmmakers ranged farther, to Utah and Arizona, to Monument Valley and the high Sierras. And just as the gunfights, fisticuffs and chases on horseback fed the audience’s appetite for action, so did the vistas of mountains and desert satisfy a desire for grandeur and sublimity. This was especially true in the 1950s, when the screen widened, the images shifted from black and white to color and westerns enjoyed not only popularity but a measure of prestige. But even before Technicolor and CinemaScope expanded the visual horizons of the western—developments that, in the view of some critics, spelled the end of the genre’s classical phase—it had established itself as a powerful and adaptable kind of landscape film….

The archetypal western hero is a complicated figure, and the world he inhabits is a place of flux and contradiction. At the end, the stranger rides off into the wilderness, since the civilization he has helped to save holds no permanent place for him. His departure is also a promise of return, both for the star who plays him—John Wayne, Randolph Scott, Clint Eastwood—and, more profoundly, for the archetype he embodies, an archetype much older than the movies. This solitary, self-sufficient, often morally ambiguous figure—a man of violence with a shadowy background and a haunted look in his eyes—can trace his literary parentage back to Leatherstocking, the peripatetic hero of James Fenimore Cooper’s novels of 18th-century frontier adventure.…

In the classic westerns, which take place on the other side of the Continental Divide, in the wake of the divisive agony of the Civil War, the story repeats itself again and again. The railroad is coming; the Indians are being driven off and decimated; the new sheriff is cleaning up the town; the open range is being parceled out, fenced in and sold off. The bearers of civilization and its discontents arrive in ever greater numbers: mothers and children, bankers and lawyers, senators, land speculators and movie producers. The western is thus both conservative and progressive, mourning the passing of that older, rougher, simpler society even as it acknowledges the inevitability of the new one….

[T]he western has not so much died as fragmented: the solitary man of action remains a staple of, well, action movies; the romance of the past is projected back onto the 20th century rather than the one before; the villains and heroes come from the world of urban crime rather than the hinterland. Meanwhile, the western itself is no longer the quintessential American genre but rather a global style, feeding an endless cross-pollination of genres and motifs. In postwar Japan, the cowboy turned into a samurai, who lent some of his attitudes to Leone’s spaghetti heroes. And these days, six-guns, horses and tales of honor, vengeance and righteous bloodletting flourish in places as far-flung as Poland (with Piotr Uklanski’s ultraviolent Summer Love), Thailand (Wisit Sasanatieng’s delirious Tears of the Black Tiger) and Australia (John Hillcoat’s Proposition).

And yet at the same time back home, the West survives as an endless repository of stories and images, and the western may be reverting, curiously enough, from noun to adjective. The landscape is still there, more precious and fragile than ever, and always ready to lend its sublimity to film. The Texas borderlands of Joel and Ethan Coen’s No Country for Old Men, adapted from Cormac McCarthy’s novel; the Wyoming of Ang Lee’s Brokeback Mountain; the prairies, jagged canyons and Alaskan peaks of Sean Penn’s Into the Wild—none of these films are, strictly speaking, westerns, but they are all unmistakably Western. A Western noir, a Western weepie, a Western road picture….

This is not only because of their locations but also because there is something in those vistas, and the way human figures stand out against them, that almost effortlessly evokes the history and mythology we know from all those other, older movies. And so with the frontier a distant memory, its former territory studded with sprawl suburbs and tourist ranches, we’re still scanning the horizon, waiting for that stranger to ride back into town.

Source: A. O. Scott, "How the Western Was Won," New York Times Magazine, 11 November 2007, http://www.nytimes.com.

 

Western Loot

According to Time magazine, the five westerns which have grossed the most money (in 2007 dollars) are:

  1. Butch Cassidy and The Sundance Kid, 1969, $464,270,700. Newman + Redford = buddy star power.

  2. Duel in the Sun, 1946, $335,714,400. Psychological epic from David O. Selznick: call it "Gone With the West."

  3. Dances with Wolves, 1990, $287,541,400. Indian-friendly oater helped star director Costner dance with Oscar.

  4. Unforgiven, 1992, $160,489,500. Another Oscar winner; Eastwood debunks the western hero myth.

  5. The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, 1966, $137,631,700. Clint in Leone’s grand opera of betrayal.

Source: "Top 5 Grossing Westerns," Time, 170 (1 October 2007): 76; EBSCO Host http://web.ebscohost.com.

 

The Searchers belongs to the Whites, not the Indians

In a recent issue of Cineaste, Christopher Sharrett offers a reappraisal of John Ford’s The Searchers.

 

John Ford’s 1956 Western The Searchers is among the most canonized works of film history, frequently placed near Citizen Kane, Rules of the Game, Tokyo Story, and other celebrated works on the top ten lists of international film critics. It is widely regarded as the quintessential masterpiece of a director whose output was formidable and respected. Ford’s stylistic accomplishments are sustained and innovative (within the bounds of a conservative esthetic). No less than Orson Welles paid homage to Ford, claiming he watched Stagecoach repeatedly before preparing Citizen Kane…. The influence of The Searchers is evident: it has been cited or its themes incorporated in some very good films (Scorsese’s Taxi Driver) and rubbish (Walter Hill’s Streets of Fire). It is often seen as an archetype, although its story of journey and recovery has deep roots in myth and folklore dating to antiquity. With all of this, it strikes me that the steady celebration of the film has until very recently largely prevented its serious critical appraisal….

The first scenes establish the frontier hero as a racist, thief, mercenary, possible psychopath, and, perhaps most important, a man in love with his brother’s wife. In some very understated images, we catch loving glances between Ethan and Martha, and Martha gently caressing Ethan’s coat as he prepares to join a party of Texas Rangers in pursuit of marauding Comanches. This issue is crucial to the film, revealing Ford’s biblical moralism and the limits of his vision….

One runs the risk of being anti-intellectual in approaching The Searchers. Obviously many important films deal in suggestion or the outright abstract, some putting a big interpretive burden on the audience. The opening small gestures of The Searchers inform us that we are not quite in the same narrative realm as, say, Fort Apache. Yet Ford isn’t Antonioni, BuZuel, or Haneke. His narrative style is quite straightforward, his approach among the more 'classical' of the old Hollywood system (one can argue that he helped invent aspects of classical genre conventions). So moments that might be crucial to understanding this film can also indicate Ford isn't sure what he has on his mind….

The Searchers derives less from the journey narratives of ancient literature than from Captivity and Rescue stories of American myth. In his book Regeneration through Violence, Richard Slotkin describes a marble tableau by sculptor Horatio Greenough, commissioned in 1838 for the Capitol. The sculpture, entitled the "Rescue Group," depicts Daniel Boone protecting a woman and child from a tomahawk-wielding, near-naked Indian. The notion of white women threatened with capture—and sexual assault—from the racial Other is deeply entrenched in the American psyche, finding expression in a variety of forms, such as the Gus sequence of Birth of a Nation, where a white woman chooses death rather than face sexual contamination from a crazed black man. The incidents of Indians capturing whites during the nineteenth century were rather minuscule in relation to the systematic program of genocide by the U.S. government against that Native population, beginning before the formal inception of the nation, continuing in earnest with the 1830 Indian Removal Bill of Andrew Jackson, yet tales of Indian crimes against whites saturate Westerns….

The basic assumption of The Searchers (and virtually all of his Westerns, with the exception of The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, where the issue is irrelevant, and Cheyenne Autumn) is that Indians, not whites, are the source of a problem, nasty hero or no. We still have very tired shots revealing rows of Indians on a ridge line with no good on their minds. Although Chief Scar (played by a white actor—always the standard when a minority character has a significant role) is supposed to be Ethan’s double (or his "Id" according to some writers, which seems to me to depersonalize the character further and defame the culture he is supposed to represent), angry over the loss of two sons, he is as undeveloped as all of the film’s Indian characters. There is nothing wrong with the convention of the doppelgänger, provided the double has significance—can this really be said of Scar? Scar could well be a projection of white anxieties, but if so he comes perilously close to being the reverse of the benevolent African-American characters who give whites their powers, show the white community its potential, or sacrifice themselves on whites’ behalf, a territory Krin Gabbard has charted very well in his book White Magic. Overall, The Searchers belongs to the whites, not the Indians….

The Searchers is complex and intriguing at many moments, but it is also an inconsistent and sometimes silly film, and an often morally outrageous one. Needless to say, it is nevertheless a work whose place in film history is more than secure. My hope is that it will continue to be a daunting challenge, rather than merely dismissed by contemporary and future audiences for whom its concerns are judged dull and passé—Ford’s recognition of America’s racist foundations seems more honest and honorable than supposedly hip (and infinitely more contrived) gestures on the topic such as Crash and American History X.

Source: Christopher Sharrett, "Through a Door Darkly: A Reappraisal of John Ford’s The Searchers," Cineaste, 31 (Fall 2006): 4-8. Academic Search Premier, http://web.ebscohost.com/

 

Gunsmoke versus Deadwood

One of the final issues of American Heritage magazine compares Deadwood, the only Western on television today, with Gunsmoke, the most popular TV Western ever.

 

Gunsmoke, which made its debut in 1955, is the longest-running dramatic series in television history. Deadwood debuted nearly 50 years later and is now in its third season, the only Western on TV….

Gunsmoke began the era of so-called adult Westerns and outlasted all of them; with its ferocious language and raw depiction of frontier sexuality, Deadwood has redefined the "adult" Western.

Both Gunsmoke and Deadwood utilized numerous directors, some of whom are famous for Western feature films. Sam Peckinpah, who would go on to make The Wild Bunch and Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid, piloted some of the first episodes of Gunsmoke; Walter Hill, a Peckinpah disciple and the director of Geronimo and the Jesse James film The Long Riders, made the first episode of Deadwood.

Both series are set in legendary frontier towns. Dodge City, Kansas, began as a rowdy camp for buffalo hunters and became the quintessential Western cattle-shipping center—"Queen of the Cowtowns," as it was known in its glory days. Deadwood, South Dakota, was one of the West’s wildest gold-mining camps. Their heydays came at roughly the same time, from around 1876 to the end of the decade. Both, for a short period, were practically outside the realm of legal authority, Dodge because of the enormous influx of cowherds that often overwhelmed the local police force, Deadwood because it was, for a while, an illegal town built on Indian land beyond the reach of U.S. authority….

At first glance, the sanitized Dodge City of Gunsmoke lies light-years away from Deadwood, which almost seems in comparison like a circle in Dante’s Inferno. But a closer look shows they have much in common. Gunsmoke began as a radio series and was much earthier at its inception: Miss Kitty, the proprietor of the Long Branch Saloon (played on TV by Amanda Blake), was easily identified as a brothel owner, and Doc (Milburn Stone in the TV series) was a cynical alcoholic, much like Brad Dourifs hardboiled Doc Cochran on Deadwood. The Western historian Jeff Morey, historical adviser for the movie Tombstone and a frequent consultant for the History Channel, sees other connections: "Both series are about the evolution of moral chaos into order. We don’t remember Gunsmoke that way because in the show’s later years, those issues were pretty much settled, but in its own day, and in its own way, Gunsmoke was as bold as Deadwood."

Morey sees another similarity: "Both Gunsmoke and Deadwood are acclaimed because of their writing. For a show about the Old West to be authentic, it has to make clear that there was a hardcore Victorian morality struggling against the anarchy of vice and violence, and that is best expressed through the quality of the scripts. Gunsmoke and Deadwood are probably the two best-written Westerns in the history of television."

Source: A.B., "Dodge vs. Deadwood, " American Heritage, 57 (July 2006):54. Academic Search Premier, http://web.ebscohost.com.

 

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