Essay: A Mild History of the ‘Western’

Your everyday cinema-goer has accrued such extensive knowledge of the cinema and its iconography that he/she can easily distinguish one ‘type’ of film from another: It is through the repetition of icons and images that gave birth to the Genre Film.   Characterising films into genres has been commonplace and so widespread for so long that it is rarely even thought about, except among film academics or movie aficionados.

As Hollywood became organised and began making pictures en masse, it became clear that characterising a movie into genres helped the studios to market and cater to the tastes of its audience.  As explained by Abrams et al: “Classification of films into genres helped the industry to organise production and marketing in terms of making use of available and suitable props, locations, actors and production staff, as well as promoting films as being a particular type.  Audiences in turn used the marketing description of films as a guide to what to expect”.

Once a studio found its niche, they increased production of the genre that served them best; MGM became known for Musicals and Universal made Horror, where as Warner Bros excelled with gritty and more social commentary Gangster films, and later Film Noir.  The audience’s identification of each genre is down to a bombardment and repetition of images and even though many of the themes and sub-texts of a particular genre may change and evolve over time, the conventions and iconography have so powerfully imprinted themselves upon the mind of the audience that even decades after its popularity wanes they can still recognise and categorise a film quite accurately.

One genre is a near perfect example of the evolution of cinema and of the genre film; that is the Western.  Westerns have long since passed the popularity of the 40s and 50s when Hollywood studios made thousands of them, but such is their effect on modern day culture that around the world that cowboy boots walk the pavements and checked shirts with Levis adorn glossy pages of fashion magazines.

In Hollywood, Westerns have a history nearly as long as cinema and have frequently been part-and-parcel of its artistic and technological advancements.   In 1903 Edwin S. Porter made The Great Train Robbery, argued by John Saunders as “one of the first narrative films of any kind.” It was filmed on three reels rather than just one (which was the standard at the time). It was also the starting point of a regular feature of western style films, i.e. based upon actual event and people, albeit usually with varying degrees of sensationalism.  However, such is the nature of the development of many genres, at the time The Great Train Robbery was considered a Crime/Chase movie rather than a Western. The United States already had a preoccupation with tales of outlaws and bandits popularised in the many pulp-style Dime Novels and newspapers.  It seems natural that the stories the United States and Hollywood wanted to see on the Big Screen was that of the Old West and the infamous gunfights and robberies that were so widely read.  For example, Jesse James had long been a cult celebrity figure during his lifetime and an even bigger legend after his death, largely because of his representation in these novels.  (As of the end of 2008, the James Boys have been depicted on screen no less than 32 times).

Probably the most iconic image in Westerns (and arguably cinema itself) is that of the Cowboy.   Yet, even without his presence on screen, Westerns still have a look and sound that is identifiable; the open plains, camp fires, tumbleweed, horses, pre-20th century towns with wooden sidewalks [sic].  Still, it is the cowboy that fascinates; and to understand his nature and his effect is to understand the genre.  The cowboy can be recognised by audiences all over the world through costume alone, and can also deconstruct character meaning and morality.  Cumming and Ribeiro cited in You Are What You Wear: The Role of Western Costume in Film claimed that “personal adornment is one of the most immediate forms of communication”.

During the wedding scene in the beginning of Zinnemann’s High Noon (1954), Kane (Cary Grant) is dressed in a dark suit with waistcoat, he is clean and smart with a small Sherriff’s Star on his waistcoat, Amy (Grace Kelly) is dressed in white lace dress and bonnet and together they have the air of respectability.  The guests, who are the town’s powerful and respected, are all in similar dress.  Contrast this with the three men at the train station, waiting until 12 o’clock to arrive to inflict death upon Kane, dressed in more functional and less grand clothing.  This has already separated into roles, the functions and in part the morality of each character.

The study of individuality, masculinity and morally is manifested through the cowboy’s use of violence.  In much the same way as violence is analysed in film noir and Gangster films, the society depicted in Westerns uses it to solve many of its problems, either via the protagonist individually or through organised groups: this essentially divides violence into lawful and unlawful actions, i.e. acceptable/necessary violence by lawmen verses disruptive/anarchic violence dished out by the outlaws.  Studying Film expresses this idea using Schlatz’s theory of violence and “social order/determinate space” and says, “Typically such films have a narrative that contains a male hero whose individual actions involve the use of violence to resolve conflicts in society.  A key theme in such films is lawlessness, and the problems developed within the narrative are ultimately resolved by the protagonist who creates or restores order by the end of the film.”

Although classical narrative is standard in early Westerns, as the genre entered the 50s and 60s cinema saw slightly more apologetic and morally ambiguous films being released, such as Broken Arrow (Delmer Davis. 1950) and The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (John Ford, 1962). Two examples of this intellectual shift can be seen in High Noon and The Searchers (John Ford, 1956). Many film critics consider High Noon to be an allegory of the 50s political situations, which was dominated by the McCarthy witch-hunts and US’s paranoia over the “Communist Invasion”.  Members of the film industry were being actively hunted by the House Un-American Activities and being blacklisted for their Communist associations (real and imaginary).

High Noon depicts two hours preceding the arrival of the noon train and with it a newly released Frank Millar (Ian MacDonald), an outlaw hell-bent on revenge against Kane on his last day as Sherriff, for putting him away.  Instead of fleeing with his new bride to start a new life, Kane remains to face Millar, despite Amy’s appeals.  He is bound by his own code of ethics to secure both his own and the town’s stability. The film itself shows little violence until the final scenes and instead follows Kane as he tries to rally support from the townsfolk. Described by John Wayne as “the most Un-American film I’ve seen in my whole life,” High Noon depicts the residents to be apathetic toward Kane’s impending conflict; a representation of American mentality that a right-winger such as Wayne would find an insult to the country’s national identity. (Carl Foreman, screenwriter for High Noon, was eventually blacklisted by HUAC and consequently moved to the UK, an achievement John Wayne claimed as largely his own . In fact, Howard Hawks and John Wayne would eventually make Rio Bravo (Howard Hawks, 1959), in which, under similar circumstances to High Noon, the townsfolk arm themselves and stand together; essentially an antithesis and more fitting representation of American unity –if American propaganda at the time is to be believed).

Despite obvious metaphors for the way the witch-hunts were being orchestrated and Hollywood’s lack of unity in taking care of its own, Westerns never really represented political climate as widely as, say, Science Fiction, which easily assimilated the fears of the political Right with movies about invasions by aliens and zombies, that could be more directly linked to the Communist paranoia felt by American.  Even so, Westerns had begun to be more cerebral and analytical than the simple Good vs. Bad.   Though some, like Peter Biskind in Seeing Is Believing: Or How Hollywood Taught Us To Stop Worrying And Love The 50s, would claim that the role of the Indian in Westerns had become an allegory for the Civil Rights Movement and Black-White relations. While this idea has significant merit, it seems that perhaps it may not be a unanimous explanation and is more a notion attached to the genre in retrospect given that “Cowboys and Indians” films had been a popular plot before the advent of the Civil-Rights movement.  Even so, a cultural shift had begun to occur and a more self-aware existentialist chord had begun to reverberate among film-makers.

John Ford’s The Searchers is a poignant example of the beginnings of this cultural shift. It effectively dramatises the rifts between ‘old’ America and ‘new’ and has a feeling of slow capitulation, at least in traditional narrative terms, of tradition values.   Shortly after the film begins, Ethan (John Wayne) enters the screen riding on horseback, silhouetted against the barren backdrop and framed within the shadowed doorway of the of his brother’s isolated household.  We learn that Ethan is a Confederate soldier returning home three years after the War and although he is greeted warmly as a hero, it is clear from the character interaction that there are underlying issues between Ethan and the rest of the family.  Ethan, though revered, is viewed as being and outsider in the family and out-of-touch.  His racist reaction to Martin (Jeffery Hunter) upon learning he‘s “1/8th Cherokee” is out of place creating an uncomfortable scene.  Ethan’s racism is compounded further in a scene where he shoots the eyes of a dead Indian because “with no eyes the warrior can’t enter the spirit world and must wander forever ‘between the winds.’”   Following the massacre of his only family by Comanches, Ethan sets out for revenge and to rescue his kidnapped nieces, Lucy and Debbie.  In the end of the film, Debbie is returned to the family, and the household, while Ethan is cast out into the barren landscape from which he came; left to wander ‘between the winds’.

What may be more pertinent is to view 50s and 60s cinema, and Westerns, as an interesting example of the changes that were taking place in terms of the values and expectations of the era’s audience.  With the birth of the ‘Teenager’ and the increasing popularity of foreign “Art” films, audiences seemed less inclined to accept the reactionary views of the Establishment and, although westerns were still popular, began to crave something different from tradition.

During the 60s, TV shows like Rawhide began to dominate and the Studios were able to make money renting out old sets.  Clint Eastwood became a bankable star and a new kind of Western emerged classified as the ‘Spaghetti’ Western. Named so because of its champion Sergio Leone’s Italian nationality, production was moved to the hills of Spain where films could be made cheaply but still retain the correct look.  By experimenting more with the use of editing and score, Leone produced a newer and more revolutionary style of filmmaking that saw the politics of the genre shift to the Left, appealing to modern intellectualism.  Worland and Countryman claim in their essay The New American Historiography and the Emergence of the New American Westerns that Eastwood’s ‘Man with No Name Shot’ ‘…helped explode the genre clichés in Sergio Leone’s Marxist anti-Westerns of the 60s…”.  Leone created some of the most highly regarded westerns of all time with A fistful of Dollars, For A Few Dollars More, and The Good, The Bad And The Ugly all of which frequently appear in Best Film polls.

In recent years cinema has seen various mini-surges in the popularity of The Western.  Films such as The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, Brokeback Mountain, and 3:10 to Yuma have harked back to the glory days when Westerns dominated Hollywood.   As shown, traditionally westerns have always been an interesting study in masculinity; actors of the likes of John Wayne typified the American ideology of what it means to be a man, though with slightly less focus, what it meant to be a woman at the time.  Still, while modern Westerns can viewed as post-classical/post-modern studies in gender roles, the masculine heart of the genre remains and film directors, though very much aware of the representation of men and women, don’t make the significant character changes that perhaps feminists would appreciate.

A recent example of post-modern male representation is Brokeback Mountain (Ang Lee. 2005).  Set against the conservative backdrop of Middle-America during the 60s it depicts a clandestine homosexual relationship between and the struggle in retaining their sense of masculinity in the face of severe prejudice.  What is significant about Brokeback Mountain is that it is the first “Western” to openly analyse a homosexual relationship as its main narrative; had a similar themed movie come out in the 50s or even the 60s, it is doubtful that would have received the Oscar nomination it eventually did.  Yet despite its’ popularity it seems that audiences will only respond to Westerns as a post-modernist vehicle for modern metaphors, using a genre that has so many predisposed ideologies that it makes for an easy target.  For this reason, new Westerns are to remain only sporadically popular with movie-goers; remaining as they were in their heyday; simple and nostalgic tributes to the romantic ideologies of the United States’s brief history.

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About craig shaw
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One Response to Essay: A Mild History of the ‘Western’

  1. Hayley says:

    Hi Craig, what a fantastic essay. I am currently trying to write an essay on the importance of iconography in genre studies and i am using western genre as my example. Pretty much you have said everything i want to way in words better than i could have ever thought of. Well done, a very clear and confident essay.

    Hayley

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