Thursday, 26 July 2012

Manufacturing the West: Some Interesting Revisionist Westerns

Monument Valley, where many John Ford westerns were filmed

The western was once a popular genre, and reached its apotheosis at a time when the United States could claim to be the most powerful country in the world. For Americans, the western personified what they themselves claimed to be, a country of heroic and rugged individuals who  had successfully conquered the wilderness by using the virtues of European civilisation they believed their ancestors had left long behind. This is supposedly what made the settlers of the frontier so unique.  The importance of the frontier in the American mind is attributable to the work of Frederick Jackson Turner, a nineteenth century historian. Enlightenment thinking was fused with a restless psychological reading of American character that emphasised the  Victorian virtues of hard work, economic prosperity and the rigid outlinings of class and gender.  In the guise of entertainment, Hollywood presented to the  world a genre which purported to celebrate the rise of America  and her economic domination of the world stage, especially in the decades leading up to 1939. 

Historian Frederick Jackson Turner
 By August 1945 however, the war seemed to be a hollow victory, and the prospect of another breaking out a distinct possibility.  American confidence took a turn for the worse, and the western became more of an elegy to past glories, rather than an acclamation of what was current, or possible.

Political correctness assisted in the decline of the western as an instrument of, if not propaganda, then at least a respectable way for Hollywood to make a profit. The sparse scenery of the west was populated only by white males; Indians were the enemy and women kept house whilst they waited for their cowboy husbands to return home from the range. In post-Vietnam America for example, audiences were disturbed by images of heroism that seemed to be no longer heroic. Instead, they seemed bullying, misogynistic and a blatant attack on the rights of other people. 

There is that moment for every viewer in “The Searchers”, when it dawns that what John Wayne wants to do when he finds his lost niece, is not to rescue her from her Indian captives, but instead to kill her as  punishment for betraying her race. Our hearts sink. We become concerned, but finally resigned and then relieved, as  Wayne relents, and decides to spare her. It’s a moment that transmogrifies the entire genre and sends it off into another direction. Manifest destiny is only achieved at the expense of others not defined as ‘us.’ The frontier is no longer boundless when there are others who were there first, and define themselves as part of that land, and how that land belongs to ‘them’ and not to ‘us’. The  notion of purity of race, most prevalent in nineteenth century European thought, begins to smack of repressed Freudian sexuality as  the white man attempts to tame nature by pre-supposing that other races and peoples are too weak to  stand in his way.

The most famous western star of them all, John  Wayne
Ironically, the ethos of the western frontier embraces certain beliefs that  political correctness professes to denounce: a deeply embedded embrace of conformity, alongside the hope that a certain belief system will hopefully make people treat each other with something vaguely labelled as ‘respect’. This is actually a brand of fatalistic populism which shuns difference, and encourages outsiderism toward those not included in a narrow-minded definition of who exactly is meant to be part of the status quo. A deep distrust and intolerance of others who do not appear to share the beliefs of the majority. A so-called tolerance of rogue opinion and unconventional behaviour so long as it is demonised, and labelled as anything from merely anti-social and unhelpful,  to bordering on pathological or psychotic. The purpose is to encourage hostility  towards enlightenment, or deliberate attempts at intellectual life or thought within the confines of an untutored empathy with order. (1)

The “wild” west, as it was known was filled with iconic characters and outlaws who thumbed their noses at authority, like Billy the Kid, Wild Bill Hickock and Buffalo Bill. Alongside this championing of the underdog there is also a parallel sub-text of the urge for revenge,  and the forcible retention of civil order by the acceptance of violence as a mandatory form of justice. How close this may be  to historical reality is open to question, and in the words of director John Ford, “when there’s a choice between reality and legend,  always print the legend”.  Despite its decline in popularity in recent times, the western in popular imagination still retains its power to nostalgically (and mistakenly) bring to mind a time when there was no indecisiveness.  That is, how the period of the rise of the American frontier was a simpler era, when moral imperatives and calls to action were easier to implement than they seem to be in the every-day  present of modern ideas of civilised negotiation and compromise.

Alan Ladd was the idol of kids in the fifties as Shane
Another irony seems to be how the western in its decline as a cultural imperative, actually increased in power when it turned in on itself and questioned the nature and purpose of the American frontier. How in the complex character studies within the work of Sam Peckinpah for instance, the idealism of the west as a unifying idea becomes corrupted by its dependence upon opportunism and an unrelenting oppression, leading to irrational outbreaks of violence. But Peckinpah comes after the four films I would like to discuss, which act unifyingly as a transitional instance of the western beginning to lost confidence in itself as either a narrative of relevance or device of truth-telling.

Gary Cooper man of the west
In Man of the West, Gary Cooper stars as an ex-gun-slinger forced to confront his past.  He is travelling on a train that is robbed. He gets left behind in the wilderness with two other passengers, but is actually in familiar territory, and falls back in with the leader of his former gang, killer Doc Tobin, played by Lee J Cobb. Tobin is a Lear-like patriarch who has seen better days. He attempts to reinstate Cooper back into the gang, but Cooper will not abide by his rules any longer and after five years of living an upright life, secretly despises Tobin, but has to consider the situation of the other two people who have accompanied him.  Cooper’s innate goodness is used to perfection as he is  cast as almost an innocent man who refuses to succumb to the evil of his previous existence. His reticence to commit any kind of violence is contrasted to the cut-throat Tobin and his gang who systematically kill anything and anyone who stand in their way, which they rationalise as purely a matter of survival. In this film, the use of violence as a means of justice in the old west is scrutinised and found wanting. As in High Noon, Cooper is the hero precisely because he hardly appears to be the gun-slinging type. The film appears to be brutal, but it’s not so much what the viewer sees, as to what he is put through by director Anthony Mann. The violence is not shattering but only feels that way because of the tension that the director creates between the characters. Mann seems to be critical of the notion that violence should be seen an acceptable fact of the wild west, especially when it is primarily directed at the weak who are unable to stand up for themselves.

In The Unforgiven Burt Lancaster, Audrey Hepburn and Lillian Gish star as a family living in the west, eking out a living as farmers. Gish, as their mother knows the secret of her daughter’s race, since she adopted her as a baby. When Lancaster leaves the homestead on business, Hepburn comes across an itinerant crazy man on a horse who seems to know who she is and where she came from.  Indian raids are common and the family’s neighbours fear the Indians and show them no mercy.  When it’s revealed that Hepburn is not in fact Gish’s natural-born daughter, the family is reviled by their neighbours and left to defend themselves against a deadly Kiowa raid.  As directed by John Huston, The Unforgiven attempts to make a statement against racial prejudice as it must have been practised by the ‘folks’ of the new frontier. The family’s fellow homesteaders are transformed from loveable yokels into dangerous, hate-spewing racists when Hepburn’s true identity is revealed.  The fact that it’s been kept a secret for so long further exacerbates problems between family members as Hepburn and Lancaster heave a sigh of relief they are no longer related. This is not one of Huston’s better known films,  and apparently it was not one he was at all satisfied with, citing interference from the producers. But like Man of the West it attempts to redress certain issues like rogue justice and racial intolerance that the idealisation of the frontier left open to question.

Burt Lancaster again stars in Vera Cruz, a western directed by Robert Aldrich, which also stars Gary Cooper in another of his reluctant hero roles.  Both ride to Mexico as the Mexicans are attempting to rid themselves of the Habsburg emperor Maximilian, who hires both men to take a cache of gold to the port of Vera Cruz. This is a gun-toting action adventure that could collapse if put under too much scrutiny. However, it is interesting in that it takes on the issue, if obliquely, of European imperialism in the Americas. The American heroes, whilst not exactly idealistic freedom-fighters come to sympathise with the plight of the Mexicans and by the conclusion of the film, are somewhat less myopic about American exceptionalism and the myth of the new frontier.

Whilst The Magnificent Seven may not immediately come to mind when discussing revisionist westerns, I think that it is a good example. It presents itself as a straightforward action adventure, which I guess it is. But in its portrayal of the hopelessness of the Mexican villagers who desperately need the Seven to defend them, director John Sturges is definitely wearing his heart on his sleeve, whatever the colour of his heart may be. The heroism and idealism The Magnificent Seven portrays does not come from some rote recitation of the virtues of the new frontier. Rather it seems very heartfelt, that Americans can come riding to assistance over the border when it is most needed. In that respect whilst not overly critical of anything in particular, the film seems to have an honest regard for its Mexican characters and is not patronising toward them. Whilst the notion of America coming to the rescue seems almost child-like today, this does not detract from the entertainment value of the film, nor its efforts to maybe put to rest the more morally unsettling notions about American imperialism, and settler mentality. The Seven can leave with a clear conscience: their mission is accomplished and their honour is untarnished by anything resembling compromise. Whilst hardly intellectually challenging, the film is an honest and heartfelt testament to the pure idea of the virtues of the American frontier, frozen in time before it turned ugly, and had to be revised in the first place.  

(1) See David Thomson's essay on  cracker barrel philosopher Will Rogers, who helped define what the West meant to Americans in the Great Depression, Biographical Dictionary of Film, London, 2002, p. 751.

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