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The Western


The western may be a broader church than people often imagine, but it nevertheless remains a place of worship, perhaps the most reverent of genres in the solemnity of its landscapes, the religious invocations over the frequently buried, in the relative chasteness of many a western hero (in Red River, The Searchers and The Man who Shot Liberty Valance John Wayne seems to remain celibate throughout), and of course the moral system that is seen as vital to the classic western.  In contrast, film noir plays on light and shadow, the profane, the libidinous and the morally grey. Paul Schrader justifiably noticed in noir a despair in the American psyche in his essay ‘Notes in Film Noir’: “By 1949 American movies were in the throes of their deepest and most creative funk. Never before had films dared to take such a harsh uncomplimentary look at American life…”  Andre Bazin writing of the western up until 1953, though, reckoned that though the western “had been and will again be subjected to influences from the outside – for instance, the crime novel, the detective story, of the social problems of the day… it is important for us to marvel at the western’s capacity to resist them as to deplore these passing moments of contamination.” Bazin could still talk in the ‘Evolution of the western’ of the “Manichean world” of the genre.

However, what can be noted even in westerns that came before the Sergio Leone spaghetti westerns and the revisionist works of the late sixties and early seventies by Arthur Penn, Sam Peckinpah and others, was a moral authoritativeness that nevertheless contained within it a degree of ethical ambiguity. The potentially heroic Tom Dunson in Red River verges on the insane as he tries to get his men to work impossible hours, on impossibly small amounts of food, during a long cattle trail. It is his assistant Matt Garth who functions as the reality principle here as he justifiably leads a mutiny against this western Blyth, and does so not only to save the men, nor even only the cattle (that belong to Dunson), but probably also to protect Dunson’s own mental well being. By the end of the film Dunson might not quite be able to see the error of his ways, but he can at least acknowledge his fondness for Matt, his adopted son. By implication he can also see that there are new ways for things to be done, and Matt knows how to do them.

Equally, in John Ford’s My Darling Clementine, Doc Holliday would seem to be the trigger happy trouble maker coming into Tombstone, but the film presents him as a conflicted character, someone who demands as much respect as contempt, and a man who can see reason when certain moments demand it.  Our loyalties aren’t unequivocally with Wyatt Earp, and the manner in which Clementine’s feelings for Holliday gravitate towards the lovelorn Earp indicates a woman who is aware that there are values in both men. Doc Holliday may initially be presented as a man with a loose trigger with anyone who has too loose a tongue, but he’s also a dying figure with a haunted past; not simply the villain with a death wish.

John Ford’s The Man who Shot Liberty Valance, made in 1964, eighteen years after My Darling Clementine, might seem like a step back if we think of the undeniably villainous behaviour of Lee Marvin’s titular character. But the dynamic conflict in Ford’s film lies elsewhere, between the morally sound gunman played by John Wayne, and the lawyer caught in the town, James Stewart. Should it be the rule of law or the rule of the gun that dictates how society should develop? The film proposes a combination of the two as the truth behind who, finally, killed Valance is of less importance next to the mythological need for the people to believe it was the lawyer over the gunman, an epochal shift from the rule of the gun giving way to the rule of the law, even if the gun is required to register this shift.

In between making My Darling Clementine and The Man who Shot Liberty Valance, Ford made what many see as his finest western: The Searchers. Once again we have the aggressive giving way to the passive, the rule of the gun giving way to the rule of civilization. Here Ethan Edwards searches for his niece kidnapped years before by Indians. The irony here is that though Ethan looks like he will kill her when he finds her because she is no longer civilized enough for white society, at the end of the film Debbie will be incorporated into house and hearth, while Ethan will remain outside: clearly with more of the barbarian in him than Debbie. He might fret over how Debbie has become part of the Comanches, but nobody perhaps is more Indian than Ethan. He might be wary of a nephew who is one-eighth native American, and Debbie’s inculcation in Comanche values after she is kidnapped, but Ethan is the one who knows the mind of the Comanches. As Robert Pippin in Hollywood Westerns and American Myth proposes, “the chief Indian character Scar [who steals Debbie], sometimes seems another part of Ethan’s character.”

These are hardly classical westerns devoid of complexity, so it might be a bit unfair to insist that the newer directors like Leone, Penn and Peckinpah were revising conservative perspectives.  Perhaps it is more useful to say that where Leone and other Italian filmmakers pushed the western into the absurdly iconographic, a number of American filmmakers in the sixties and seventies wanted to push towards verisimilitude. It is as though many traditional westerns were awed by the legend no matter if they also wanted to question it. Wayne remains iconographically reverent, while other actors like Henry Fonda (in My Darling Clementine) and James Stewart (in The Man who Shot Liberty Valance) are the moral compasses by which we navigate the journey towards a new age. In Leone westerns the notion of a goody has little meaning, and it is more a question of the least bad. The heroic is still present, but it is as much a question of moody style as moral substance, and Leone is interested less in a moral to be delivered, than a mode of being to be offered. Clint Eastwood’s Man with No Name in A Fistful of Dollars, A Few Dollars More and The Good the Bad and The Ugly encapsulates well Leone’s interest in abstraction, while the early scenes in Once Upon a Time the West shows his fascination with style. As he extends the sequence of a train arriving and emphasises the sense of quiet against the occasional sound, so Leone play up filmic form over the necessity of content. Like Quentin Tarantino, Leone is a filmmaker who likes to tease the audience with the formal properties of the medium: as if to say that we are watching not a re-enactment of a real world, but the careful elaboration of an artificial one. Even the moments of horror can come with the formally self-reflexive – evident when Henry Fonda’s characters shoots a young boy and his screams are cut to an audio match of the train’s whistle leading us into the next scene. In the scene shortly before this moment, before Henry Fonda and his gang arrive at the family homestead, Leone edits for maximum tension. In a series of shots between the father, mother and child, all standing around a table outside, Leone is concerned less with their spatial organisation than their filmic one. This is Eisensteinian editing, where the rhythm of the shot is more significant than spatial orientation. As Leone cuts between the three characters, he shows us in a series of matching head gestures between the characters, a rhythmic sense of foreboding not unlike the closing sequence in Penn’s Bonnie and Clyde, made the previous year in 1967, but with Leone offering far more filmic self-reflexivity. To get a sense of Leone’s sense of formal wryness, one can usefully compare Once Upon a Time in the West’s opening sequence with High Noon’s. Like Leone’s film, High Noon opens on the baddies coming into town, here seeking vengeance, but where director Fred Zinnemann briskly presents the characters arriving, and who we will soon discover want revenge on the sheriff who put one of the gang into prison, Leone lingers over the details. Where Zinnemann offers a wordless opening sequence but with a song’s lyrics on the soundtrack, Leone emphasises the sounds of silence.  The buzzing of a fly, the distant sound of the train, the drop of water hitting a hat. Leone gives to the western an audio-attentiveness more common to the horror film or the sci-fi. Equally, where Zinnemann presents us with homogenised evil which is merely the flipside of Cooper’s good sheriff, Leone wants to individualise. In his previous film, the titular The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, there might not have been a great deal to choose from between the three characters as Leone closed the gap between heroism and villainy, but he attended to the idiosyncrasy of the bad and the ugly with far more scrutiny than we were used to.

Peckinpah, Penn, Aldrich and others may have been as formally innovative as Leone, perhaps more so in Peckinpah and Penn’s case, but they were also interested in questioning the myths rather than hyperbolizing them. The brilliantly edited opening scene in Pat Garrett and Billy The Kid, and the equally well edited sequence of the Wichita massacre in Little Big Man, show Peckinpah and Penn finding a form to reflect what they would see as harsh realities. In the scene in Pat Garrett… we have cross-cutting between a hen being blown away in 1881 to Pat Garrett’s demise many years later as he gets shot while riding in a carriage. It is as though Peckinpah wants the audience to see that realities were harsh in 1881 as the west was still wild, but it was equally harsh if a lot less wild in the early years of the twentieth century where, for all Pat Garrett’s compromises, he can be removed as a man out of his time. The difference between Pat and Billy is that while times may be changing in 1881, Billy refuses to. Times are again changing years later but Pat has already compromised, and his death lacks the heroism of Billy’s demise at the hand of his old friend Garrett. Peckinpah is interested in muddy, psychological reality, where the self is constantly endangered by its own compromises as readily as outside forces. The best one can do, the least false consciousness one can possess, is to accept that the world is a cruel environment in which illusion and delusion threaten if one assumes a cosiness not actually present. (It’s a theme also available in Robert Altman’s brilliantly idiosyncratic take on the west, McCabe and Mrs Miller.) If Pat Garrett opens with the casual blasting away of hens; at the beginning of The Wild Bunch ants crawl all over a scorpion: both undeniably obvious metaphors for Peckinpah-esque cruel realities.

Arthur Penn debuted with a film that was seen as new type of western, and Tom Milne in Time Out aptly referred to the central character in The Left Handed Gun as Billy the mixed up Kid. Here, Penn casts a young Paul Newman, and concentrates on the Method moodiness of youth. It was released two years after The Searchers, but the film would look back at Montgomery Clift’s Method subtlety in 1948’s Red River, and towards Brando’s own directorial debut One Eyed Jacks in the early sixties. It was as if Red River, though, couldn’t quite focus on Clift’s character because his role was to play morally righteous, almost saintly, next to John Wayne’s sadist, where Newman and of course Brando could work much more with inexplicable self-absorption. Nevertheless all three actors – Clift, Newman and Brando – brought something to the western that made the genre more internally focused than would usually be the case. Perhaps if such actors had made the western their genre, we would have had this psychological realism more obviously throughout the fifties and sixties, where the morose was often found in other films; in the noir, of course, in the melodrama, in play adaptations like Cat on a Hot Tin Roof.

But would that have been to contaminate the western, to borrow Bazin’s phrase, where Leone simply exaggerated its characteristics, and Peckinpah and co. tried to excavate the truth behind the myth, arriving perhaps not at any fundamental truth about the west, but at least unpacking some of the myths attached to it? Was it not an attempt at combining elements of the classical western with the revisionist and the hyperbolized that led to Unforgiven being so well-received when it came out in 1990? Few actors more than Clint Eastwood could contain the sensibility of the western, and it isn’t too much of an exaggeration to say that two actors – John Wayne and Clint Eastwood – have between them incorporated its history. Both actors have also to varying degrees and in different ways problematised the genre, and while neither actor could ever have fitted smoothly into the more radical revisionism of a Penn or a Peckinpah, each could at least question the genre in which they were working. We’ve noticed this in the Hawks/Ford westerns invoked that Wayne starred in, and much the same is true of a number of Eastwood westerns where the moral world of the western is tempered by the small detail that these are figures who survive through killing other men.

Where Wayne’s face often suggested a droll acceptance of this fact in the face of others who benefitted from the law of the gun whilst being too squeamish to do the killings themselves, or even acknowledge the fact, Eastwood’s face went that bit further. His famously sadistic wince often hinted at the pleasurable high of taking out another man.  While in Shane the eponymous figure kills with an air of reluctant necessity, and in High Noon Gary Cooper does exactly what a man had gotta do as sheriff of a small town, Eastwood’s quiet enthusiasm for the task gave an amoral edge to his work that made him less a representative of general values (as Wayne often was), than a man who likes a challenge.

In Unforgiven, Eastwood picks up various aspects of his other roles to play a retired killer. He is the mysterious stranger coming into town out of High Plains Drifter, and the man writing wrongs out of the urban western Coogan’s Bluff, but it is not so much the deliberate referencing of other films here (and which perhaps works more generally when films are working less with a viewer’s self-reflexive awareness but their sub-conscious rememberings), than that Eastwood functions as a western icon, second only to John Wayne as a thespian signifier of the genre. When Stanley Kauffmann attacks the film quite rightly and quite strongly for some of the weaknesses in the script. Kauffmann notes in his New Republic review that Eastwood’s character has no problem taking out the five men in the saloon at the end even though he has “earlier shown to have lost his marksmanship”. Kauffmann also observes that his character is paid to kill off characters who have committed a crime much less heinous than the one he was told about, as “Munny [Eastwood] hears a greatly exaggerated story of the whore’s disfigurement, and he further exaggerates it in retelling, yet when he sees the woman herself, he makes no comment about how he has been misled.” Dave Kehr writing on the film in Chicago Tribune ignores such script problems and focuses instead on the Eastwood image, noting that “working with Leone, Eastwood developed a fiercely retentive acting style”, and that Eastwood has never played “the traditional idealized western hero, as epitomised by the Gary Cooper character in High Noon”. Kehr is much more attuned to the Eastwood image than Kauffmann, and he seems to watch the film noticing not its script weaknesses but its iconographic strength: much of the review is given over to looking at Eastwood’s earlier roles. Now, a Cooper figure would have surely questioned what he was doing when he sees that the stories about the young whore’s disfigurement was exaggerated, but Eastwood’s figure has been surely the most ineluctable of western heroes, the most given to the inevitable will of the deed over the moral purpose behind it.

Eastwood consequently and yet paradoxically has become a traditional western hero, but this is because our expectations of the west now incorporate a much harsher and morally ambiguous genre than when Bazin was writing about the western. Eastwood may even be the last great, western star, suggesting also that the western is itself a star very much on the wane. Sixty years ago the badge of the sheriff was one of the iconic images in cinema; now it seems to have gone the way of Gary Cooper’s at the end of High Noon: thrown away and left in the dust. It is still a reverent genre, but perhaps some will be offering the burial rites over it that we have seen so often reserved for various characters in the films.


©Tony McKibbin