Posts Tagged ‘Western’

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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At the beginning of this film we are told “This is a story of the Winchester Rifle Model 1873 ‘The gun that won the West.’” I’m not trying to pick on the filmmakers here, but this story proves itself to be more a story of worth than pure skill as the title frame implies. Throughout the film, the Winchester changes hands half a dozen times, challenging the audience to determine whether its current owner is man enough to carry the ultimate symbol of masculinity.

Let’s just say the audience is let down more than a few times. We are encouraged to believe that the gun’s first owner is its rightful one. Not only by the decree of ownership, but because we have, within the first few minutes, seen glimpses of masculinity emulating from Lin McAdams. He strolls into town, gun on hip, but quickly surrenders it to the Sergeant. A display of lawfulness. And, by the time he has won the rifle, he has tipped the boy tying up his horse, stood up for the damsel in distress, and shown his skill in sharpshooting. He is, naturally, a man. But, when his gun is stolen it is revealed that this natural manhood is not so easy to come by.

It is first relinquished to Dutch Henry Brown, who, just by way of acquisition cannot be man enough. He has stolen the gun from McAdams, and a true man is lawful. Along the same lines is our distrust for the Winchester’s next owner, an Indian trader. Clearly, anyone who trades with the enemy isn’t worthy of carrying the staple of manhood. It is then lost to Young Bull. He, through the eyes of the white man, is not only less than an upstanding man; he is not really a man at all—a savage. It is assumed that he will hold the gun for next to no period of time; surely he will be defeated by the men who can really shoot. But, after that certainty occurs, it belongs to Steve, who may be less of a man than the Indian chief. Steve is not only broke, as he tells Lola, but fails to protect his woman. This utter failure to assert his manhood soon leaves him gun-less and lifeless. Outlaws soon come to take ownership of the gun. First, Waco Johnny Dean, who we perceive as just as worthless a man as Steve because of his treatment of Lola, and then Dutch Henry Brown again. We’ve already decided he’s no good. Clearly, these men are too preoccupied to assert themselves a true, worthy man.

Lin is anything but preoccupied. He has one goal: to vanquish Dutch Henry Brown. The others may have needed the gun to define themselves as “men,” but Lin does not. He has manhood radiating from him throughout the film. When he defeats Dutch, his manhood is only heightened by finally coming back into rightful possession of the Winchester ‘73. And we are relieved. The true man has got the gun.

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Sergio Leone’s 1968 film Once Upon a Time in the West is one of the most famous examples of the Spaghetti Western: a series of Italian movies focused on the American West. This phase of film lasted from the Sixties to the early Seventies. The film’s themes are about a nostalgia for the West before the frontier closes (in the Frederick Jackson Turner sense at least). One of the biggest components of the movie is the progress the railroad company is making, and the changing effect that this has on the landscape and the people in it.

A dichotomy that this film creates is between the kind of (white) people who are there before the railroad arrives, and the kind of people who arrive with the railroad. The first kind is characterized by three men: Frank (Henry Fonda), Cheyenne (Jason Robards) and an unammed drifter referred to by the other two as ‘Harmonica’ (Charles Bronson). They are toug, rugged men used to a life of violence and instability in the West. Their dress and coarse manner reflects this. They are prone to getting involved in gunfights. They are drifters wearing dusters and cowboy hats.

The other type is personified by the crippled character, Morton (Garbrielle Ferzetti). He is a business man, and arriving with the railroad. Morton dresses in a suit and tie.He makes a point to Frank that money is a more effective weapon than simply shooting people, a point that confuses Frank. Morton dies, but the train he is arriving on continues anyway symbolizing progress. The very last shot of the movie is of Jill (Claudia Cardinale) on her property interacting with the men working the railway as the progress of the train continues.

This movie is about the end of an era, a celebration of the rugged individualism myth that is so often seen as part of the West. The first scene of the movie features three rugged men waiting at a train station (establishing this relationship right away). They are there to meet and kill Harmonica, but he is a faster draw. Harmonica is a ghost like presence in the film, from the haunting harmonica leitmotif that follows him to his laconic nature to his tendency to just appear in certain situations. He is the only one out of the three main men to survive. He symbolizes almost the spirit of the west as Leone presents it. He ends the film by riding off, never to be seen again. Him leaving represents the aforementioned end of an era. Jill stays however, showing her adaptability as a character and showing that she can stay and survive in the new west because of this.

Beyond the themes of progress, nostalgia is a huge part of this film from the Monument Valley shots to the references to other famous westerns. This is another of Leone’s ways of showing nostalgia for the time period. There are references to Shane, Winchester ’73, Magnifecent Seven (also starring Bronson), 3:10 to Yuma, High Noon, The Searchers, and many, many more. As part of this, Leone wanted the three gunfighters to be played by Eli Wallach, Clint Eastwood, and Lee Van Cleef as a reference to his earlier work The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly. Having those three killed to start the film would also have sent the message within the first tn minutes of the film that this era of drifters and gunfighters is almost done.

Henry Fonda’s casting as the villian is another subversion, as he traditionally beloved played heroes, from Tom Joad, to Abraham Lincoln, to the lone juror in 12 Angry Men. His first action in this film is to murder an entire family

These factors, plus the cinematography and Ennio Morricone’s classic score, have many considering this one of the greatest films ever made.

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In class on Tuesday, we discussed that the American western movie genre was developed because of the rapid urbanization due to the industrial revolution. Americans needed an icon to look to for hope of a more exciting life than working in a factory. They needed the renewal of masculinity. Winchester ’73 illustrated this in a number of ways. Foremost, the entire movie revolved around a rifle, which I believe represents power and masculinity. Additionally, the presence of Lola throughout the film illustrates the idea that a woman needs a man to protect to her. However, the term man specifically means one with money and bravery. This is evident in Steve’s shortcomings. Another example of this statement can be seen in the very beginning of the film when Lin comes to Lola’s defense when he sees the Sheriff forcing her into a stagecoach.

In addition, this film also deliberately portrayed Native Americans in a negative light. The filmmakers did this to enforce the idea that the white man has more of a claim to the land than the Native Americans. This paints the Native Americans with a villain-like image because they fight back for what is rightfully their land. This image is conveyed through the multiple chases involving gunfire and violence. The particular scene that comes to mind is the one when Lamont meets the Native American buyers. When Lamont refuses to sell his rifle to the leader, Young Bull, he is robbed and scalped.

Finally, I found the fact that the shooting contest for the rifle takes place on the fourth of July, American Independence Day, to be quite interesting. Frederick Jackson Turner referred to the West as America absent of European control. Therefore, I do not think it was a coincidence this movie begins on the same day that became true. Winchester ‘73 was clearly created as an enticing advertisement of the West. This idea of a new beginning was much needed following WWII, which is reflected in the popularity of this movie.

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The uneasiness of the Cold War and the distrust that erupted surrounding the Red Scare in the late 1940s were evident in Fred Zinneman’s 1952 movie High Noon. The central conflict is presented immediately: a marshal awaits the arrival of the now-free man that he had sent away under a life in prison sentence and his three fellow avengers.

The Western movie begins with three of the four avengers coming through town on horse and with guns.   However, the film viewer is expected to consider this posse warily, as they wear scowls and all of the townspeople become increasingly uncomfortable at the sight of them.

Through several references and a couple of straightforward comments, we become aware that this small town of Hadleyville had recently been saved. The law had been established and “decent women” could now walk the street safely and raise families. The implication is that Frank Miller represented what was wrong with this town, but thankfully they had “the best” marshal, Kane, to get rid of Miler and for which to attribute this town’s turnaround.   Kane is well liked and married to a beautiful young woman whom he treats well. Kane even opts to stay and fight the bad guys as opposed to run off with his new wife; he is a strong, determined, law-abiding, and caring community man.

All of a sudden, the plot unnaturally spins around and Kane is an arrogant, two-timing, power hungry cop who can’t find anybody in the town to stand guard with him against Miller and friends who are arriving in an hour to kill him. The only way I see this making sense is that the writer wanted to show the complexity to the red scare. As unrest built in the late 1940’s, so many people got on board with McCarthy and the House Un-American Activities Committee. McCarthyism was the status quo. America wanted the communists punished, and we weren’t so worried about due process or facts. Then, as more evidence came out pointing to the large number of falsely imprisoned people and/or people imprisoned based on political group identification, people began to say hold on, America has lost its way, this isn’t okay, we don’t jail people for their political views. Many began back peddling; we had almost gone too far to be ‘civilized’ that we had compromised our foundation.   Enter Kane who had seemingly fallen out of praise incredibly quickly; he was laughed out of the bar for trying to stand up for his town that he had supposedly built. Kane was no longer the hero, and people did not want to be associated with him. His status was superficially elevated as we became obsessed with American communists, and then superficially devalued as we tried to start a new (old) page.

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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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I chose to watch The Good, the Bad and the Ugly because it is one of my favorite westerns ever, and it stars Clint Eastwood, who is probably my favorite actor. And I am quite sure that Clint Eastwood is an American icon in and of himself.

According to my research on the movie, it was actually considered a ‘spaghetti western’ when it first came out, and was generally looked down upon. The movie got terrible reviews for many, many years, but is now considered one of the greatest westerns, if not one of the greatest movies, of all time. It also considered by many to be what made Clint Eastwood into a household name, and thus into an American icon. I found that the director emphasized violence in the movie because he wanted to reinvigorate the original western genre, and honestly show how the American West was conquered by simple, violent men.

The Good, the Bad and the Ugly came out in 1966, in Italy at first, and was not released in the United States until December of 1967, and positioned as the third installment in the Dollars trilogy, after A Fistful of Dollars and For a Few Dollars More. I think one reason it did poorly in America was because it was a film made by foreigners, foreigners who happened to have been at war with the USA within most people’s recent lifetimes. With the Cold War going on, there was a general distrust and fear of foreigners, making the release that much more doomed to failure. And in the movie itself, one of the bad guys is portrayed as a dirty Mexican criminal, often referred to as ‘The Rat.’

Despite everything, the film eventually became a huge success, and catapulted Clint Eastwood into iconism. Clint Eastwood represents what I believe Americans thought the ideal man should be for the latter part of the 20th century; strong, silent, and caring and gentle towards women. All of these are themes we have discussed a class, and go towards making Eastwood an American icon.

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