The Frontier, Mythic Space, Violence, and Historicity in/of the Film Western

Violence Without Redemption/Regeneration

“America in the twentieth century has had to confront a number of profound and disturbing ambiguities about violence…beginning with the revolution which created the new nation and continuing through domestic and foreign wars of moralistic conquest and the violent subjugation of black people and Indians. To preserve our self-image it has been necessary to disguise the realities of these historical movements under the mask of moral purity and social redemption through violence…[In the Western along with many other modes of ideological practice, the ambiguities arising from the question of violence] created a need for a fictional pattern that would disguise the hero’s aggressive impulses while permitting them a full and legitimated indulgence…[or allows for] a moral and stylistic differentiation of the hero’s violence as legitimate and good, from that of the outlaws or savages…[It has been the same ambiguities of violence, however, that has often led the genre to a sophistication to an extent that it came to be taken serious in art house and scholarly circuits.] While it is true that the commitment to romantic entertainment and to the figure of a transcendent hero made it difficult to do so, the best Westerns always managed to suggest a more complex recognition of the ambiguities of violence than the formulaic fantasy of legitimated moralistic aggression.” (Cawelti, The Six-Gun Mystique Sequel, 55-6)

The Frontier Myth in Social Imagination and Transnational Perspective

“A historiography could be imagined which had in it not a drop of common empirical truth and yet could lay claim to the highest degree of objectivity…When the past speaks it always speaks as an oracle: only if you are an architect of the future and know the present will you understand it.”

Friedrich Nietzsche, “On the Uses and Disadvantages of History for Life,” in Untimely Meditations, trans R. J. Hollingdale (Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1991), 91, 94.

Nietzsche’s comment on historical imagination redirects our attention from the notion of factuality to the domain of what has been disqualified in the institutional (official and scientific) historiography but remains residual through marginalized forms of historical understanding in everyday life.  Notable here is something like a melodramatic representation of history or a valorization of style and detail over narrative and content, which, often leading to ellipses, disjunctions, and contradictions, proves excessive to the economy of textual closure (linearity and causality).   

“In his study of Clint Eastwood [Clint Eastwood: A Cultural Production (Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 1993), 19-26], Paul Smith addresses the ways in which the concept of the ‘real’ has now shifted from the earlier binary conflict between two notions of history, one real and the other fantasmatic, to a conception of a ‘cultural and social imaginary‘ that subsumes the division between the real and the fictional, allowing for a more flexible and less monolithic conception of genre…The notion of a social imaginary comes closer to redressing complaints about lack of historical accuracy in the popular cinema and in the western in particular, opening the way for rethinking notions of myth and ideology that are all-encompassing, abstract, dismissive of countermemory and useless for entertaining the historicity and heterogeneity of popular culture.”

Marcia Landy, “He Went Thataway: The Form and Style of Leone’s Italian Westerns” in The Western Reader, eds. Jim Kitses and Gregg Rickman (New York, Limelight Editions, 1998), 214; in Cinematic Uses of the Past (Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 83..

“As Appadurai rightly points out, ‘The world we live in today is characterized by a new role for the imagination in social life. To grasp this new role, we need to bring together: the old idea of images (in the Frankfurt School sense); the ideal of the imagined community (in Anderson’s sense); and the French idea of the imaginary (imaginaire), as a constructed landscape of collective aspirations.’ He then goes on to make the point that ‘The image, the imagined, the imaginary–these are all terms which direct us to something critical and new in global cultural processes; the imagination as a social practice. No longer mere fantasy (opium for the masses whose real work is elsewhere), no longer simple escape (from a world defined principally by more concrete purposes and structures), no longer elite pastime (thus not relevant to the lives of ordinary people), and no longer mere contemplation (irrelevant to new forms of desire and subjectivity), the imagination has become an organized field of social practices, a form of work (both in the sense of labour and cultural organized practice), and a form of negotiation between sites of agency (individuals) and globally defined fields of possibility.’ This framework of understanding would enable us to get to grips with the complex dynamics of global cultural economy.” Here, the Western in translation across territorial and cultural borders such as Sholay is a powerful metonym in that it foregrounds the tensions between cultural homogenization and heterogenization, and the convoluted interactions between economic, political, cultural, aesthetic forces that mark the flows and absorptions of transnational cultural economy.

Wimal Dissanayake and Malti Sahai, Sholay: A Cultural Reading (New Delhi: Wiley Eastern Ltd., 1992), 28-9; Arjun Appadurai, “Disjuncture and Difference in the Global Cultural Economy,” Public Culture 2:2, 1990, p. 4.

“Where the Westerner lives it is always about 1870–not the real 1870, either, or the real West–…The fact that he continues to hold our attention is evidence enough that, in his proper frame, he presents an image of personal nobility that is still real for us.” The West is the world where the Westerner fights above all else for his honor and dignity threatened by historical and social change: “The Westerner…,when an explanation is asked of him (usually by a woman), is likely to say that he does what he ‘has to do'”: hence, the ethos of “A man’s gotta do what a man’s gotta do”–“There’re some things a man just can’t run away from (John Ford’s Stagecoach),” “I’ve got to. That’s the whole thing (Fred Zinneman’s High Noon),” or “There’s some things a man can’t ride around (Boetticher’s The Tall T and Ride Lonesome).” It is not advantage or the right that the Westerner cherishes. “What he defends, at bottom, is the purity of his own image–in fact his honor.” Clearly, this image easily becomes ridiculous. The absoluteness of his virtue and the extraordinary character of his action represent little that an adult today can take seriously. No wonder, therefore, the foremost matrix of the Westerner becomes the immature or unsophisticated mind, the imagination of the children and the lowbrow–dime novels, pulp fictions, folktales, fairytales, comic books, popular films, and so on. No wonder, according to Christopher Frayling, Sergio Leone, who called himself a pupil of American Westerns, particularly John Ford’s, once defined his own works as “fairy tales for grown-ups.” (Sergio Leone: Once Upon a Time in Italy (London: Thames & Hudson, 2005), 15; Sergio Leone: Something To Do with Death (London: Faber & Faber, 2000), 10)

Robert Warshow, “Movie Chronicle: The Westerner” in The Western Reader ed. Jim Kitses and Gregg Rickman (New York: Limelight Editions, 1998), 38.

Even the sense of reality in more sophisticated Westerns often turns out little to do with historical facts. An introduction of realism renders the general tone of the Western dominated by ruggedness, shabbiness, darkness, emptiness, bleakness, and so on: “Once it has been discovered that the true theme of the Western movie is not the freedom and expansiveness of frontier life, but its limitations, its material bareness, the pressures of obligation, then even the landscape itself ceases to be quite the arena of free movement it once was, but becomes instead a great empty waste, cutting down more often than it exaggerates the stature of the horseman who rides across it…In The Gunfighter, [for instance,] most of the action takes place indoors, in a cheerless saloon where a tired ‘bad man’ (Gregory Peck) contemplates the waste of his life, to be senselessly killed at the end by a vicious youngster setting off on the same futile path.” The realist setting intended for a mature consciousness of limitation and unavoidable guilt, however, has little to do with historical accuracy. “The authenticity [here]…is only aesthetic…[And] that limitation is just what is needed…[That is, the film gives us the “feel that we are looking at a more ‘real’ West than the one the movies have accustomed us to–harder, duller, less romantic…these elements are not, in fact, a part of the film’s ‘realism,’ even though they come out of the real history of the West; they belong to the conventions of the form…The proper function of realism in the Western movie can only be to deepen the lines of that pattern [that is, the pattern where the gunfighter can do nothing but play out the drama of gunfight again and again until the time comes when it will be he who gets killed]…It is an art form for connoisseurs, where the spectator drives his pleasure from the appreciation of minor variations within the working out of a pre-established order…We do not want to see the same movie over and over again, only the same form [or the same pattern up to the point that the form itself explodes, until the form itself becomes broken]”

Robert Warshow, “Movie Chronicle: The Westerner” in The Western Reader ed. Jim Kitses and Gregg Rickman (New York: Limelight Editions, 1998), 40-2.

“[W]hen the impulse toward realism is extended into a ‘reinterpretation’ of the West as a developed society, drawing our eyes away from the hero if only to the extent of showing him as the one dominant figure in a complex social order, then the pattern is broken and the West itself begins to be uninteresting. If the ‘social problems’ of the frontier are to be the movie’s chief concern, there is no longer any point in re-examining these problems twenty times a year.” That is, the Western cannot help but being somewhere in between imagination and realism.

For instance, The Ox-Bow Incident and High Noon, where social problems of the frontier society such as lynching and social ills (cowardice, malice, irresponsibility, venality) are the major concern, are more like a social drama staged against the Western backdrop.

Robert Warshow, “Movie Chronicle: The Westerner” in The Western Reader ed. Jim Kitses and Gregg Rickman (New York: Limelight Editions, 1998), 42.

The Frontier as a Space of Mythic Violence and Historicity: Retrospect, Regression, Nostalgia, Return to the Origin. 

Richard Slotkin, Gunfighter Nation: The Myth of the Frontier in Twentieth-Century America (New York, Atheneum, 1992)

Slotkin’s stance toward the Frontier myth (summed up by John E. Cawelti in The Six-Gun Mystique Sequel, 144-145)

“[Roughly put,] Slotkin sees the influence of the myth as negative: in the seventeenth and eighteenth century its definition of cultural otherness as savagery was used to justify the expropriation of Native Americans and the enslavement of Africans. The same myth was adapted by the new industrial and national power elites of the later nineteenth century to celebrate the use of financial and military power against the working class and in the suppression of labor unrest. Finally, in the twentieth century, the myth of the frontier became a strong rhetorical resource for glorifying the global exercise of American power and the great shootout of the Cold War which eventuated in the tragedy of Vietnam.” However, Slotkin’s understanding of the Frontier myth is not monolithic. For him, the Western has been a battleground or a contact zone between two conflicting strands in the development of the Frontier myth: ‘progressive’ and ‘populist.’ Served to buttress the ideological assumptions and political aims of a corporate economy and a managerial politics, the progressive version of the Frontier myth reads the history of savage warfare and westward expansion as a Social Darwinian parable–‘Tragic as it may have been, the westward expansion was an inevitable part of human progress.’ On the other hand, the ‘populist’ version was more democratic in its uses of the myth in that its focus rested on individual freedom, decentralization, equality, and so on. Still, his final judgment seems to lean toward an acknowledgement that it was the progressive version that began to dominate the Western genre especially with the beginning of the Cold War era when the genre was adapted in one way or another to justify or celebrate America’s new role as the world sheriff and eventually helped shape the attitudes of the architects of the Vietnam War.

The West as a Mythic Space and History: The Frontier in the post-Frontier World

“[In the last decade of the nineteenth century] the Frontier…was becoming a set of symbols that constituted an explanation of history. Its significance as a mythic space began to outweigh its importance as a real place…For most Americans…the West became a landscape known through, and completely identified with, the fictions created about it” (61).

“[The last years of William Cody, Buffalo Bill] were marked by a seemingly endless cycle of “Farewell Performances” [of Wild West Show]. [Ensuing from the ultimate financial failure of the show, the long good-bye performances] reveal the extent to which the Myth of the Frontier had become independent of the historical reality that produced it.  In Cody’s farewell tours, that nostalgia for the ‘Old West’ that had been the basis of his first success gave way to a new form of the sentiment: a nostalgia not for the reality, but for the myth–not for the frontier itself, but for the lost glamour of Buffalo Bill’s Wild West” (87).

“[W]ith the closing of the frontier the distance between the public and the events of the old West increased. In the absence of direct experience the West became, for a time, a landscape of enchantment and myth, a land onto which Americans could project their hopes and dreams and deepest values” (John E. Cawelti, The Six-Gun Mystique Sequel, 87). 

John E. Cawelti, The Six-Gun Mystique Sequel (Bowling Green, OH: Popular Press, 1999)

“The Western story is set at a certain moment in the development of American civilization, namely at the point where savagery and lawlessness are in decline before the advancing wave of law and order, but are still strong enough to pose a local and momentarily significant challenge…The relatively brief stage in the social evolution of the West when outlaws or Indians posed s threat to the community’s stability has been erected into a timeless epic moment when heroic individual defenders of law and order stand poised against the threat of lawlessness or savagery…[Among the factors for this particular fixation of the epic moment is] the ideological tendency of Americans to see the Far West as the last stronghold of certain traditional values, as well as the peculiar attractiveness of the cowboy hero” (22-3).

The mythical West as a frontier setting, a potential locus for the epic conflict between civilization and wilderness is different from other colonial adventure stories: There are many stories involving adventures on the periphery of civilization. The remote peripheries in those colonial stories appear tempting and attractive in the beginning, but in the end remain threatening, subversive, and alien in that they undermine the hero’s commitment to civilization. Contrastingly, “the Western landscape can become the setting for a regenerated social order once the threat of lawlessness has been overcome” (25). In other words, traditional adventure stories are inbound (a journey for home), while the Western is outbound (a voyage from an old home to a new one).

“The romantic image of nature as a source of regeneration and rebirth became the myth of the frontier where civilized man once again encountered his savage and barbarian roots and after engaging in violence recovered the original potency that he had somehow lost in the development of civilization.” Central to the frontier as a place (setting or stage) for the myth of regeneration though violence are aristocratic heroes whose individual understanding of justice often comes into conflict with the established (63).

Regeneration Through Violence: The Return to the Frontier, the Mythic Space of Origins and the Childhood of a Modern National Civilization 

“The outlaw and detective genres of the dime novel began as representations of conflicting social imperatives…projected into a mythic space disconnected from the political culture of specific, embattled communities, in which the moral and political referents points are always generic and national rather than specific and local” (154).

“The peculiarities of the American version of [the Frontier myth] derived from our original condition as a settler-state, a colonial outpost of the European ‘metropolis.’ In America, all the political, social and economic transformations attendant on modernization began with outward movement, physical separation from the originating ‘metropolis.’ The Achievement of ‘progress’ was therefore inevitably associated with territorial expansion and colored by the experience, the politics, and the peculiar psychology of emigration…[In American mythopetic narratives] repeated cycles of separation and regressioin were necessary preludes to an improvement in life and fortune…Violence is central to both the historical development of the Frontier and its mythic representation…In each stage of its development [emerging from the conflicts between the western wilderness (new remote primitive space) and the European metropolises (old Europe stuck with authoritarian politics and class privilege)], the Myth of the Frontier relates the achievement of ‘progress’ to a particular form or scenario of violent action….[Despite many variations of the Frontier Myth,] in each case, the Myth represented the redemption of American spirit or fortune as something to be achieved by playing through a scenario of separation, temporary regression to a more primitive or ‘natural’ state, and regeneration through violence” (10-12).

“The American must cross the border into ‘Indian country’ and experience a ‘regression’ to a more primitive and natural condition of life so that the false values of the ‘metropolis’ can be purged and a new, purified social contract enacted [hence, the myths of regeneration through violence]” (14).

A fascination or obsession with violence (the use of force) → A return (regression) to a nascent stage of the modern nation-civilization, which is not a real past, but rather a mythic space of the past where the origin of the present is restaged.

“In reverting to his ‘origins,’ in recovering the energy of his ‘inner barbarian,’ the American goes back to the savagery of his own peculiar myth of origins–the Myth of the Frontier” (210).

The implications of the return to the mythic ground of the Frontier: “the core of the mythic narrative that traverses the mythic landscape is a tale of personal and social ‘regeneration through violence'” (352).  At the heart of the myth of regeneration through violence are heros colonizing the border, destroying what corresponds to the dark, and thereby establishing a new order.

“The organizing principle at the heart of each subdivision of Western genre-space [a mythic field for town taming, epic adventure (such as cattle drive, ranch building and railroad construction), the outlaw cult, and the cavalry legend] is the myth of regeneration through violence…Each [variation] has its own special ways of explaining or rationalizing the culminating shoot-out. But in general…[the Western in general] will find its moral and emotional resolution in a singular act of violence” (352).

At the core of a successful story of the regression to the origin is the need to reconcile the contradiction between anachronistically undemocratic values (aristocratic valor, epic-heroic action, sensual passion, intolerance) and democratic conditions. It therefore often appears to contain elements or forces heterogeneous and subversive to the political, economic and cultural conditions of modern society. Still the containment does not always lead to an intended outcome. When it encourages the reader to identify with the übermenschen at the center of the emergence of neo-aristocratic forces as the consummation of an adventurous insurgency, it invokes an escape from or rebellion against a metropolis based on Malthusian economics and oligarchic politics. “These insurgent passions [e.g., fantasies of erotic love across racial lines] and liberal impulses [uncurbed action of valor] can be enjoyed without suggesting that race-mixing and revolution are a ‘good thing.’ The adventures occur in a place outside history” and this ahistorical character serves to be a reservoir of untimely visions and values (211). Even when a race-mixing leads a rebellious character to a punishment in terms of narrative, passions and impulses of extraordinary figures set in a mythic time and space become a powerful source of pleasure to the audience.

Mass Culture and Mythic Space

Genre space is…mythic space: a pseudo-historial (or pesudo-real) setting that is powerfully associated with stories and concerns rooted in the culture’s myth/ideological tradition. It is also [a zone where contemporary myths are (re)shaped]…[When the Western began to develop, that is, when the first moviemakers such as Edwin Porter found the West, it] was already a mythologized space…Cultural tradition defined ‘the West’ as both an actual place with a real history and as a mythic space populated by projective fantasies. Expectations about Western stories were therefore contradictory: they had to seem in some way realistic or ‘authentic’ while at the same time conforming to ideas of setting, costume, and heroic behavior derived from literary fantasy” (234).

“What became essential to the creation of an illusion of authenticity and historicity was not the presence of a real old-time outlaw’…but the establishment of a set of habitual associations between image and idea that would ultimately constitute a code or language of cinematic symbols, understood by both filmmaker and audience as referring to or symbolizing ‘the historical West’ or ‘the real thing'” (237).

The film Western is as much tied to the conventions of the genre–already well established by many pulp writers in the literary field–as the factual history of the West. From the outset, the film Western drew upon the myths of the Wild West (narrative formulas, characteristic iconographies, conventional settings, typical images, allegorizing tendencies, etc.).

Mythic Space and Legendary Stars

“In the six Westerns [John Wayne made for Warners in 1932-33], Wayne’s character was always named ‘John’…Buffalo Bill’s performance authenticated itself by referring to our memory of or belief in his relation to the historical or real ‘Wild West,’ whereas John Wayne’s ‘authenticity’ is established by confusing an actor with his role and by mistaking references to other movies for references to a world outside the movies” (272-73).

Mythic Space, Formal Complications, Convoluted Implications

“By translating the West into a purely mythic or fantasy-space, Grey [Zane Grey, perhaps the most popular Western writer of all time] made western settings available for a range of stories unlimited by the constraints of historical or conceptual consistency. In such a mythic space, style is indistinguishable from content. A hero who acts in a ‘popular’ style may be taken as the representative of liberal democratic values (for example, racial tolerance or anti-monopoly) even though he acts on behalf of a conservative, repressive, or corporatist program. Although the purpose of this combination…may be to co-opt the outlaw hero to the side of authority, such a procedure also indicates the persistent power and appeal of genuinely populist, liberal, or democratic values in the society addressed by mass culture, as well as the necessity felt even by conservative writers to square their views with democratic ideas and myths” (216-17).

“When an ideological issue or problem is projected into a Western movie setting, the range of possible and plausible resolutions is shaped by the rules and expectations that inform the mythic landscape of the genre. These are neither arbitrary nor inflexibly prescriptive. Rather, they are practical result of a continuous process of revision, and they permit a range of interpretation broad enough to give moral license to heroes as politically opposite as Jesse James and George Armstrong Custer…However, the peculiar confrontation of the mythic landscape shapes and limits the ways in which issues can be conceived and pressures the flow of action toward particular kinds of resolution” (351).

Costume and Myth Formation

“In American Western, costume is the place where nature flows into culture…From the heel of his spurred boot [to the six-gun in his holster and the wide-brimed hat], the cowboy is a creature of the desert and the plains, a creature whose biological evolution and genetic adaptation historically ensured his day-to-day survival…The cowboy is one of those places in mass culture where common sense always wants to see the mythic as estranged from the authentic…[: hence,] the interdependence of the mythic and the authentic [or] the inextricability of the myth and the reality [the fantasy of the authenticity].”

Jean Marie Gaines and Charlotte Cornelia Herzog, “The Fantasy of Authenticity in Western,” in Edward Buscombe and Roberta E. Pearson, eds. Back in the Saddle Again: New Essays on the Western (London: BFI Publishing, 1998), 172-73.

De-/Re-Mythologization of the Mythic Space of the Western in the post-classical Western (revisionist and various international Westerns since the 1950s) 

It is certain that there were attempts to rectify biased ideologies inscribed in the narrative and visual formulas of the classic Western.  On the other side of the spectrum, however, was quite contrasting a trend: a radicalization of the mythic space in the Western rather than a complete negation of the mythic nature of the Western by unabashedly taking on more freedom with the empirical sense of history. This is why the stylization or aestheticization of the Western became possible.

For instance, Leone’s Spaghetti Westerns as fairytales or fables for disillusioned grown-ups in that, with disenchantment certainly as one of fundamental elements at work in his works, Leone radicalized the mythic nature of the Western: “‘He had this childlike way of looking at the world,’ and he wanted to re-create for adult audiences in the mid-1960s the magic of going to the cinema in Trastevere when he was a small boy…The American Western had made its heroes and villains too mundane; now he would re-mythologize them. ‘The West,’ Leone liked to say, ‘was made by violence and uncomplicated men.'” Christopher Frayling, Sergio Leone: Something to Do with Death (London: Faber & Faber, 2000), 127, 141-42.

Leone “exploits the Hollywood Western, at the same time as ‘deconstructing’ it–an act of demythologization, rather than demythicization [or a radicalization of the mythic nature of the Western beyond the realm of historical reality]…Such an exercise, both a celebration and a denunciation, could only have happened from outside Hollywood, from inside a formula genre, and from an industry which has a lot of confidence in its audience.” Christopher Frayling, Spaghetti Westerns: Cowboys and Europeans from Karl May to Sergio Leone, revised ed. (New York: I.B. Tauris, 2006), xxv.

The difference between the American and the international Westerns in their stances toward the West as a mythic space: the American Western, whether classical or revisionist, drawing upon or circumscribed by an empirical sense of history (geared toward the notion of the empirically authentic West) ↔ the international Western built upon the West as an imaginary space of origins, a space with little empirical historical connection, a radically mythicized space, a space of nostalgia without experienced memories. 

Henry Fonda has commented on Leone’s unusually enthusiastic interest in the tiniest detail of setting and props. Charles Bronson was surprised to discover that Leone knows more about the Western than most American directors. His knowledge of both the West and the Western led him to unknown details of the old West, which are quite bizarre and heinous  but close to everyday life of the remote frontier. Inscribed in Leone’s neorealist or naturalist emphasis on the authenticity of background is an attempt to deconstruct one mythology (the one built by American Westerns) and reconstruct another: to demythologize, rather than to demythicize. Many of Italian Westerns bears resemblance to parable. According to Christopher Frayling, Sergio Leone, who called himself a pupil of American Westerns, particularly John Ford’s, often defined his own works as “fairytales for grown-ups.”

Christopher Frayling, Spaghetti Westerns (New York: I.B. Tauris, 2006), 126; Sergio Leone: Once Upon a Time in Italy (London: Thames & Hudson, 2005), 15; Sergio Leone: Something To Do with Death (London: Faber & Faber, 2000), 10, 15-6, 141-42, 143, 178-79, 189-91.

More accurately, fairytales or fables for disillusioned grown-ups in that, with disenchantment certainly as one of fundamental elements at work in his works, Leone radicalized the mythic nature of the Western: “‘He had this childlike way of looking at the world,’ and he wanted to re-create for adult audiences in the mid-1960s the magic of going to the cinema in Trastevere when he was a small boy…The American Western had made its heroes and villains too mundane; now he would re-mythologize them. ‘The West,’ Leone liked to say, ‘was made by violence and uncomplicated men.'”

Sergio Leone: Something To Do with Death (London: Faber & Faber, 2000), 127, 141-2.

Articles/comments on the historicity of the Western

Janet Walker, “Introduction: Westerns Through History,” Janet Walker, ed. Westerns: Films Through History (New York: Routledge, 2001), 1-24.

Michael Wood, qtd. in Christopher Frayling, Spaghetti Western: Cowboys and Europeans from Karl May to Sergio Leone, Revised Ed. (New York: I.B. Tauris, 2006).

“Westerns very frequently leave history and America behind, escape into those international regions of the imagination where society itself has been taken away, where revenge, for example, is still possible and honourable, where you might meet and kill your enemy with the ease and grace one knows only in dreams. Even having a single, identifiable enemy is a luxury which has been denied to serious literature since the Middle Ages” (47).

“As the demonstrators surge forward to confront the police [in Costa Gavras’ Z], they pass a film poster, and tread it into the ground. The poster shows Clint Eastwood as the Man With No Name in one of Leone’s ‘Dollars’ films: Gavras seems to be saying that ‘fantasy’ films (represented by Eastwood) are nearer to the concerns of the demonstrators [unlike the Bolshoi Ballet limited to high society], but that ‘fantasy’ violence has no point of contact with political confrontation…’Fantasy violence…[however] Leone seems to be saying, have…a more direct relationship with ‘political’ or ‘economic’ violence than Costa Gavras would allow.” When Frank guns down one of his own men (with Harmonica’s guidance) in Once Upon a Time in the West, he slides down the roof, ripping through the paper-thin theater banner, ‘The Wild West Show,’ which incites the viewer to read the Frontier myth in the context of the brutality that inevitably accompanied the birth of America and the development of capitalism (213). 

This entry was posted in Film History, Film Theory, Historical Film, Historicity, Mythic Violence, N. American Cinema, The Western, Violence and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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