The western is one of the most important genres in the history of film. It reflects a nation’s ideological views. It provides some of the best escapism that the medium has to offer. And it has a deep-rooted role in the development of cinema itself.
Consider The Great Train Robbery (1903). It was produced at a time when the process of film-making was still a largely experimental experience. There were very little rules as to how to make a film. The medium was still in its infancy and, therefore, required a large amount of trial and error. Yet, the early filmmakers took an interest in its recent past. It took interest in the western.
You see, the western embodies the sense of being American folklore. It’s like the country’s historical literature. And, so, while Greece has The Iliad and China has The Romance of the Three Kingdoms, America has the western.
Like the classics of literature, the western has an endearing quality to it. The story of heroes, working towards a moral goal in a land that isn’t so moral reflects the human condition. We all want to see ourselves as being moral, but we struggle as we see the immorality all around us. And I think that the core of the western is something that still sits firmly within the cinematic experience today.
To understand this, we must first consider the western as a piece of history. A mirror of the periods the films were made. A critique of society, but also a representation of the people living within it. We must look at the genre as a piece of art.
Part One: The West Keeps Moving
When paying close attention to the western, we can see that there has always been a desire to paint a picture of societal values in the film’s contemporary period. We see portraits of outwardly bad men, who ultimately have hearts of gold. The cinematography heightens the sense of loneliness as we travel through the void in search of a reason to keep fighting. Similar to the practices of the Chinese historians of old, the past is used to discuss the present.
The essay says:
“The characters thought to be respectable turn out to be cowards and frauds, while the outcasts provide flashes of nobility.”
What we see here is a commentary on the nature of society in the late 1930s, hidden within the characters of the film. A general distrust towards those who appear respectable has a reflection of how divided America had become after the immense stresses of The Great Depression. A desire for a hero in the most unlikely of places implies desperation within the nation for someone to guide them to the light when it seems that there is no hand to reach for.
There is an otherness to the film. A feeling of being unable to tolerate even the slightest difference in people. A fear that boils down to a hatred of supposed savagery, as presented by the threat of the Native American’s in this film.
Perhaps this is an indication as to the strong conservatism that swept the nation going into the second world war. The division between people in a time when unity was needed the most.
When we jump forward a few years, there is another key film discussed in the essay that offers another example of social commentary. This film is High Noon (1952).
The plot centers around a lawman who marries and intends to move away from the town he has protected for many years to become a shopkeeper. Unfortunately, a psychotic killer is coming to town, reuniting with his gang at the train station.
As he sees what he must do, his pacifist wife threatens to leave him behind if he stays, but ultimately must abandon her morals as she shoots a gunman and helps the lawman kill the villain of the film.
As the cowardly townsfolk come out of hiding at the end of the film, the lawman throws his Marshal Star to the ground and leaves the town behind.
What is embedded here is a clear criticism of McCarthyism in the ’50s.
The essay goes on to say:
“This paralleled the historical incident of the early 50s’ House Committee on Un- American Activities’ witch-hunt for Communists in Hollywood, and indicted those who deserted their friends. High Noon is an anti-HUAC allegory.”
This message was clearly represented by the fact that the lawman was abandoned by the townspeople. However, he is being relied on to help them; a feeling expressed by the then black-listed screenwriter of the film. What this boils down to is a general distaste for the accusations thrown at the entertainment industry during this period. The message is more focused on a specific part of social activity but suggests a wider issue of the problems of The Red Scares during this period as accusations were thrown around without proper regard for evidence.
Dark Days in the West
To end this part, I want to briefly touch on the tonal shift and attitude towards westerns during the late ’60s through to the ’70s. The films become much more violent and have a stronger sense of moral ambiguity, rather than simpler moral lessons of the early years.
We see the birth of the anti-western in Robert Altman’s McCabe & Mrs. Miller (1971) and the rise of the anti-hero in Sergio Leone and Clint Eastwood’s films.
It appears as if these films were as sort after as they were because of the general cynicism in the country that was birthed during the Nixon administration. With scandals and a general distrust of authority, a need for a darker tone and ambiguity was treated as an anchor to the reality that American’s were facing during this period.
But what about now? Why is the western still so important today, even as it hides in the shadows? Find out in part two!
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