Every time a new western comes out of that ranch we call 'Hollywood,' especially a real good one, like the Coen's True Grit, fans and critics start in on how nice it is to see cowboys again. Viewed with 21st century eyes, a fine new western, is like say, an old pal turning up, after persistent rumours that the Old Dawg died long ago, after years of neglect and too much abuse for being, well, useless and out of touch with what most folks have been doing.
What follows are short notes on a handful of western conventions that never died. Its modest aim is to revise a few persistent critical clichés about the western. For starters, 'the western' is as much an idea of cinema as it is a genre. Fact is, the western is as old as the movies. It is as American as Jazz, but it's always been transnational; the French and Germans had their own western heroes from the silent era. The evolution of the western depended on its reworking by non-Americans. In the '50s, US directors were influenced by Japanese jidaigeki films about wandering ronin (masterless samurai; 'gunslinger' in western parlance), as much as they were entranced by their own (film) history and cultural identity. In turn, the makers of the jidaigeki films saw a 'kinship' between their own social myths and the outlaw/gunman tales of say, Shane (George Stevens, 1953). (See Akira Kurosawa's The Seven Samurai, 1954,and Kenji Mizoguchi's Ugetsu, 1953.)
"You wish to see the frontier?” “Yes, sir. Before it's gone." – Dances with Wolves (1990)
For hundreds of years Europe has long had a Western pop 'culture'. In books, paintings, songs and pulp fiction the West is a paradise populated by 'noble' natives and brave frontiersman, but one defiled by a great and merciless empire. In the '60s, some time after the US western had peaked, German producers began adapting the hugely popular 19th century stories of novelist Karl May; the first Der Schatz im Silbersee (Harald Reinl, 1962) was so successful, it spawned another 17 films before 1968. (See Winnetou the Warrior, 1964, and Among Vultures, 1965.) This was an important theme in US/Euro silent westerns too. An important variation on this theme is the Outdated Outlaw; with the coming of civilisation ends a lifestyle and a code. In Sam Peckinpah's Ride the High Country (1959) and The Wild Bunch (1969), the West is dead. The sad and bloody mood of these films was a big influence on spaghetti/Euro westerns and several generations of US films to come.
"There's no living with a killin' right or wrong…there's no going back." – Shane (1953)
The Good Bad Man, as opposed to the flat out psychotic stone cold killer, goes back to the early days of the western. He can restore order, but his own moral code trumps 'duty' most always. He's an agent of positive social change, but he won't take the credit. In John Ford's Stagecoach (1939), John Wayne's Ringo has a sense of justice that chimes with the greater good, and in this romanticised cowboy, Ford makes sure that his brutality is without true consequence – a pure expression of individualism. By the time Eastwood's Man with No Name squinted into the camera for Sergio Leone's Italian western A Fistful of Dollars in 1964, the gunfighter had turned cynical; all he wants to do is exploit corruption. The 'cowboys' of the East, the samurai, almost always have to pay. (See Mizoguchi's The Loyal 47 Ronin, 1942.)
"Tombstone…[it's] got the biggest graveyard west of the Rockies." – My Darling Clemintine (1946)
One version of this plot goes… corrupt forces menace civilisation (in the form of a remote outpost). A gunslinger warrior emerges as if in answer to the collective prayers of the townsfolk. A big body count is assured. It's one of the great western plots. (See My Darling Clementine, 1946, and Shane, 1953.) Importantly, by social convention, the cowboy hero cannot enter the new order he helped to create; he has blood on his hands. Kurosawa used this plot in rough outline for The Seven Samurai, Yojimbo (1961) and Sanjuro (1962), but the deeper social themes of these films were indigenous to Japanese experience. When Kurosawa saw The Seven Samurai remade as The Magnificent Seven (John Sturges, 1960) he remarked how very American it was! This plot is often reformed into sci-fi: Outland (Peter Hyams, 1981), Mad Max 2 (1982) and The Postman (Kevin Costner, 1997) are just a few. Modifications to the plot include situations where the entire town is crooked (as in many spaghetti westerns, especially directed by Leone, and Sergio Corbucci) and Robert Aldrich's post-WWII set Bad Day at Black Rock (1955) in which it's the actual townsfolk that need reforming.
"Deserve's got nothin' to do with it" – Unforgiven (1992, pictured)
By the '50s, the cowboy/outlaw wanted payback; somebody had killed his wife, sometimes his whole family. He was bitter, angry, volatile. The cowboy was transformed into the classic '50s Hollywood screen hero; neurotic, worried about himself and his place in the world. He was out for himself and didn't care who knew it. In pictures like Anthony Mann's Winchester '73 (1950) and The Naked Spur (1953), nice guy Jimmy Stewart spat venom and wept with rage. Randolph Scott is ravaged with guilt in Budd Boetticher's superb Seven Men from Now (1956). Even John Wayne went crazy in The Searchers (John Ford, 1956). After Indians kidnap his niece, we don't know whether Wayne's Ethan, a racist murderer, will save her or kill her, since she's now a Chieftain's squaw! This version of the revenge plot was riffed-on, parodied and deconstructed in a huge posse of spaghetti westerns.
“You fit a lot of the descriptions” – The Searchers (1956)
Scorned as racist, sexist, and essentially right-wing, the celebratory theology of the genre by the '70s was killed off only to be reborn as the no-nonsense urban cop, the vigilante solider, or the ex-con who wants to go straight. Meanwhile east of the west, the Western was a way to decode, deconstruct and politicise a gargantuan myth. Jean Bastia's Dynamite Jack, a send up of westerns made in Camargue in 1962, was 're-voiced' by comics Fellag and Allalou and turned into a satire on Algerian politics in 1996. In a rejoinder to the cowboy myth, French exploited the sex appeal of Brigitte Bardot and Claudia Cardinale as cowgirls in The Legend of Frenchie King (Christian-Jaque, 1971). In 2007, director Takashi Miike from Japan released Sukiyaki Western Django, a post-modern trip that parodied several generations of westerns.
Like filmmaker Wim Wenders said, “The Americans have colonised our sub-conscious.” Now, it's everyone else's turn.