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Written by Marion Tusseau, University of Angers

The Western films came from the Western genre which can be applied to various arts, the first one being literature with some famous novels such as The Last of the Mohicans by James Fenimore. It became a cinema theme as soon as 1900 and the film The Great Train Robbery by Edwin S. Porter, which was released in 1903, is considered as the first Western film for setting the pattern of the Western genre. Thus, the films deal with the nineteenth and twentieth-century American Old West. They are often set at key moments in the construction of the USA as a country because they depict, in a way, the expansion of the frontier in the West, the famous conquest of the West and how Americans set there.

Westerns have specific characteristics such as typical settings in desolate and arid areas (desert, small dusty towns etc), but also typical characters like for example the cowboys, the Native Americans or the outlaws. In addition to those characteristics, there are other iconic elements like the accessories the protagonists wear (Stetson hats, spurs, Colts…) or stereotypical scenes such as the duel between gunfighters, a bank robbery or western treks. The main plot is generally a conflict between bad and good, a conflict involving order and justice against evil and anarchy. The hero is often a lonely man who has principles, who is a good gunfighter and who would stand alone against outlaws and bad guys to bring back peace and order.

Among the most famous directors of traditional Westerns there were John Ford, who made some great Westerns like Stagecoach (1939) or The Searchers (1959), and Howard Hawks who was the director of Red River (1948) and Rio Bravo (1959). Moreover, Westerns becoming more and more popular, a lot of “cowboy stars” were revealed thanks to their performance as for example Broncho Billy Anderson, William S. Hart, Tom Mix or John Wayne.

Westerns were very popular and one of the major Hollywood genres until the 1960s when the genre began to decline. Nevertheless a lot of subgenres of the traditional American Western films appeared, the most famous one being the Spaghetti Westerns. Even if those subgenres were a bit different, they tried to keep the spirit of the traditional ones by presenting almost the same characteristics and they still referred to the American Old West.

Consequently, Westerns are iconic because they emerged in the United States and they are related to it. The films deal with important moments and facts of the history of the construction of the USA such as the conquest of the West or the Civil War. Westerns are also illustrations of the greatness and of the immensity of the western territories and they show some of the most beautiful American landscapes. I think, they also represent the American desire for expansion and power. Thus, they belong to the history and to the culture of the U.S.A. since some of the Westerns’ characteristics can also be consider as symbols of the country.”

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brokeback-mountain

Set in a different era, Brokeback Mountain does not subscribe to the traditional Western but it does ascribe savagery and civilization to certain kinds of masculinity. Set in the 1960s, the very beginnings of Gay Liberation, Brokeback Mountain plays on the fears of homosexuality. The first sexual encounter between the men ends with each confirming their masculinity: “You know I ain’t queer.” “Me either.” “It’s a one time business.” Both men are ashamed because of the spector of traditional masculinity hovering over them.

The film expresses the savage and the civilized through each man’s life. Ennis most set on keeping his sexuality a secret,  protects his family, believes in being the sole supporter – his job is more important than his wife’s job, and sleeps with his wife regularly. He is a violent, stereotypical tough guy. As a result, Ennis’s life falls apart. As he clings to masculinity his family is destroyed through divorce – the ultimate destruction of family values. On the other hand, Jack, wanting to be open with his sexuality, prospers. Jack’s wife breaks gender roles as the breadwinner, and “fast girl” unlike Ennis’s good Christian wife. Jack is never seen sleeping with his wife and spends his marriage being berated by his father-in-law. Thanksgiving shows the men’s differences as Jack challenges his father-in-law in response to “want your boy to be a man?” His masculinity is represented as he finally carves the turkey. In contrast, Ennis uncomfortably watches his ex-wife’s new husband carve the turkey with an electric knife.

The fact that Jack’s parents know of his sexuality greatly contrasts Ennis’s violent reaction when confront by his ex-wife about his time with Jack. To the end, Ennis continues as the stubborn violent one, afraid of his sexuality – the savage. Jack wants nothing more than to be with Ennis, not afraid of his sexuality – the civilized one. The most poignant example of heterosexuals as savages and homosexuals as civilized is in the story Ennis tells. Two men lived together. One day, one of the men was found murdered, dragged around until his penis ripped off. The story foreshadows Jack’s death as he is later murdered for choosing to express his sexuality. Who is the true savage: the man brave enough to express who he is even if that is a homosexual – an outcast or the man who is afraid of homosexuality and conforms to the praise of traditional idea of masculinity despite its destructive nature?

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The Myth of the Cowboy

The Myth of the Cowboy

Thanks for the tip, Wendy McMahon.  A great and comprehensive piece on the West and the Cowboy from the Guardian by the legendary scholar Eric Hobsbawn.  Global American Icons, indeed.  Check it out.  

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butch-cassidy-and-the-sundance-kid-redford-and-new12

Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid takes a slightly different approach to masculinity in the West than your average Western. Instead of having our heroes be the typical macho outlaws, taking risks they know they can survive, the film portrays the heroes as being not so different from your average leads in an action comedy- bickering, almost clueless, and in much worse trouble than they can probably handle. One example of this is when Butch and Sundance are trying to escape from the lawmen looking to kill them, and they get stuck at the edge of a cliff. They have two choices- either attempt to shoot and kill the lawmen, or jump far down into the rapids below. Now, your typical Western hero might have either successfully shot and killed the pursuers, or dove down into the ravine, silently eluding those after instead. Here, the two heroes argue for a couple minutes, before Sundance makes a confession- he can’t swim. The two of them jump anyway, surviving, but as they’re pulled along the rapids, Sundance attempts to grab onto Butch, causing another argument between the two of them, even as they’re being pushed along a quickly moving ravine.

Another example of the film’s subversion of manliness comes when Butch and Sundance find the group of Bolivian bandits that have stolen the payroll from their now-former employer. When Sundance tries to make a plan to shoot the bandits, then Butch has a confession of his own- he’s never shot a man. The film gives us this great, supposedly dangerous myth of the West, and tells us that he’s never shot anyone. Not only that, the film has both men constantly learning new things about each other. Unlike someone such as The Man With No Name, both of the leads have full lives that they’re lead, something that always seems to surprise their partner in crime. It’s almost as though it’s gotten to the point they see each other as myths, and the realization that the other isn’t using their real name comes as a bit of shock. This big image of the manly myth is so powerful that one can forget that maybe one can forget what a normal, mortal human being they are.

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          On the surface, Django Unchained seems to be the ultra-violent gunshow that constitutes a modern version of a western.  However, while there are gun fights, blood, and cowboys aplenty, Tarantino’s film is a different beast entirely.  Rather than the good guy vs. bad guy scenario that serves as the basis for many movies, western or otherwise, the conflict in Django Unchained is somewhat more societal.  The story is paralleled to a classical German epic, the Nibelungenlied, no less.  Given the film’s non-traditional western film conventions, it is fitting that the fundamental characteristics of western films are just as non-traditional.

            Take for instance, the idea of the cowboy.  Generally, the hero of a western movie is a primarily white cowboy atop his trusty steed.  Such figures are largely absent in the film.  Instead, the two protagonists are a German bounty hunter (Dr. King Schultz) and an ex-slave (Django).  Both perform heroic, cowboy-esque duties in their own right, but without abiding by any of the preconceived notions of what a cowboy is according to numerous films before it.  Nearly everything we classify as a cowboy, as far as the physical aspects are concerned, are absent from the protagonists. But does that make them any less deserving of the pseudo-heroic title? The actions of the reimagined, atypical cowboys in the film are what allow it to be classified as a western epic.  The purity and persistence of the characters fighting against a variety of suppression for a damsel in distress sounds an awful lot like a traditional duty for a cowboy to perform.  There is no doubt that the two characters are the “good guys” in the film.

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