The Cold War and the Stylization and Demoralization of the Western

Richard Slotkin, Gunfighter Nation (New York: Atheneum, 1992)

The beginning of the Cold War in 1948 inaugurated the Golden Age of the Western: a 25-year period…The rise and fall of the Western mirrors the development of the Cold War and its sustaining ideological consensus from its seedtime in 1948-54 to its fulfillment in the years of the liberal counteroffensive under Kennedy and Johnson, to its disruption by the failure of the war in Vietnam…The genre provided a frame in which alternative approaches to the political and ideological problems of the Cold War era could be imaginatively entertained” (347).

Revisited over and again in the Western’s handling of violence in the Cold War era when the U.S. saw its development from a republican nation-state into an imperial world power was how to achieve a new balance between the use of force and the pursuit of consent (353).

Particularly, “[when] the recently ‘liberated’ colonial empires of [US] allies began to break up in response to indigenous nationalist movements with revolutionary agendas…[it was no more clear] whether these movements should be encouraged as the fulfillment of American hopes for a world of self-governing nations or opposed as threats to [US political and economic interests]” (349). 

“The problem of reconciling democratic values and practices with the imperatives of power is both the central contradiction of American Cold War ideology and the classic problem of democratic policies. And it was precisely this issue that the ‘Cold War Western’ addressed” (353).

The high quality of the product: the emergence of new talented writers and directors such as Anthony Mann and Budd Boetticher, a resurge of old hands such as Henry King and John Ford with new approaches, and an entrance of veterans such as Howard Hawks into the genre.

“When an ideological issue or problem is projected into a Western movie setting [such as town taming, epic adventure such as cattle drive, ranch building or railroad construction, the cult of the outlaw, the cavalry legend], 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).

New tendencies: the cavalry Western, the cult of the Indian, the cult of the outlaw, the discontents with democracy articulated in the return of mythic violence

“The cavalry film tended to remain responsive primarily to Cold War issues, while the Indian film provided a setting for stories related to the domestic struggle over civil rights” (377).

1. The cavalry Western: Rio Grande (John Ford, 1950) is in some sort of dialogue with history. Film event and historical event speak to each other “not because one necessarily caused or influenced the other but because the conceptual categories which shaped the scenarios developed by both movie-makers and policy-makers were drawn from the same cultural lexicon, the same set of mythological models…: the use of the cavalry as a microcosm of embattled American values, the representation of the Indian as the supreme enemy of those values, and the resolution of all the personal and ideological divisions of the microcosm in the process of defeating that enemy” (365).

2. The cult of the Indian and the surge of the Mexico Western: on the opposite side of the spectrum of the Western in the Cold War era emerged the ‘cult of the Indian’ Western as “the mirror image of the cult of the cavalry,” which “offered a vehicle for a liberal critique of the Could War and the unfulfilled promises of the New Deal” such as Devil’s Doorway (Anthony Mann, 1950) and Broken Arrow (Delmer Daves, 365).

“[When] the anti-Communist crusade directly affected the language of cinema by imposing limits on the expression of liberal ideas…the Western was a safe haven for liberals, because its identification with the heroic fable of American progress covered its practioners with a presumption of patriotism that was essential in Hollywood during the years of the ‘Red Scare.’ Because it was safely ‘in the past,’ the tale of White-Indian conflict and peace-making allowed filmmakers to raise questions of war and peace and to entertain the possibility of coexistence without the kind of scrutiny to which a films set in…Moreover, the same setting would allow them to address the race question without offending southern sensibilities” (367).

From an ideological perspective, the most significant expression of gunfight style was the new subgenre of the ‘Mexico Western,’ which sets the gunfighter in a story-frame redolent of foreign-policy issues during the Cold War era (403-04).  

3. The cult of the outlaw (the town-taming to the noir Western and the gunfighter Western): a stylization of the Western heroes, which has a particular kind of ideological significance under the context of the postwar and Cold War anxieties (379).

Postwar Western makers had a highly developed sense of the genre as genre–a self-reflexive awareness of the conventionality of their working language. Psychological depth added to postwar Western characters (a more complex engagement with characterization) allowed the mature genre to be a vehicle to touch on some serious issues appealing to upscale spectatorship. The common denominator in their Westerns is “a particular kind of abstraction and stylization,” where “[a] single element of the Western is isolated from its original context and made the subject of exaggerated attention and concern, even to the point of fetishization”: hence, a fetishization of particular kinds of weapon, legendary gunfighter with extraordinary skills, Western tropes reconfigured through camp sensibilities, etc. (380)

Fetishization of violence → Hannah Arendt, On Violence → The rise of the violence question as a symptom of the social condition (the 1960s) where the faculty of action is deeply frustrated.

Susan Sontag → The Camp essay → The primacy of form over content.

The emphasis on psychology was accompanied by the de-emphasis of social/historical contexts, that is, “the dismissal of politics, social criticism and the idea of revolution from the film of mythological play,” which was in a way “a self-proctetive gesture at a time when the postwar ‘Red Scare’ in Hollywood made political statements of any kind potentially dangerous.” More importantly, however, the shift from history to myth-historical narratives was an outcome of the changing milieu where radical forms of social analysis was losing their momentums and the end of ideology was proclaimed (381).

One notable trend in the psychological Western is the revenge Western (e.g., Anthony Mann’s Winchester ’73, 1950), where “the West is abstracted even further from the historical frame than was the west in the psychologized outlaw film…The revenger Western isolates [the passionate anger and desire to avenge] and privatizes it…The revenger always faces a world in which social authority and community support are lacking; he must rely on himself, and perhaps one other person, for the fulfillment of his obsessional quest and/or redemption. Thus the revenger Western also fetishized ‘psychology,’ isolating the private dimension of the original story and replacing social with exclusively personal motives, insisting (in effect) that the private dimension determines the whole significance of the story” (382).

Another noteworthy strand in the postwar psychological Western is the gunfighter Western which adopts the noir sensibility of the revenger Western and its concern with character.  Distinctive in the gunfighter Western is that the gunfighter is invariably a killer by profession, a professional of violence (e.g., Henry King’s The Gunfighter, 1950). The existence of his profession is in itself an implicitly hard-bioled commentary on the nature of American society and the gunfighter embodies the central paradox of America’s self-image in an era of Cold War: “a sense of being at once supremely powerful and utterly vulnerable, politically dominant and yet helpless to shape the course of crucial events” (383).

In a highly stylized form, gunfighting becomes a game where there can be two suns at once, where one should always and for ever confront challengers and reputation is only achieved and retained by defeating those challengers, where the gunslinger becomes akin to the star, the person entrapped in a game where he or she can never stop seeking a higher point → “The mood of entrapment was to shape the narrative and the landscape through which the gunfighter would move, seeking refuge or escape from his special history and failing to find it” (385). In this sense, the gunfighter Western is a self-reflexion on postwar America and also a movie about movie. As with America that had risen as the world power after the victory in WWII, the lone gunfighter is “at once the most powerful and the most vulnerable man in the world” (390). Gunfighting is also comparable to gambling which initially does not have any value except its function as a means of having fun or killing time, but becomes the end. 

The gunfighter is always to be watchful. His peripheral vision misses nothing. He always sits in the corner, never with his back exposed, never with anything left behind. He lives according to a discipline of watchfulness, preparedness, and restraint–the marks of his professionalism and signs of his isolation (387).

George Steven’s Shane (1953) as an exemplary case of the aesthetically oriented gunfighter Western:

The historical and naturalistic references are offset by a perspective (identified with Joey’s point of view) that insists on abstracting and stylizing every person and action and looking through history to find a mythic archetype, which is given force by Steven’s alternation of naturalistic and folkloric elements in scenes where elements are exaggerated and distorted to achieve an ‘epic’ effect (e.g., an heroic action coupled with responsive Nature as in the Homeric world–a duel with lightning) (397).

“Shane arrives from outside, and his past is concealed…But because Shane’s motives for helping the farmers are unique and arise from no visible history or social background, they appear to be expressions of his nature, signs of a nobility which is independent of history, like the attributes of a ‘higher race,’ Shane is never part of the community, and his superior values are not seen as belonging to the community. He is an aristocrat of violence, an alien from a more glamorous world, who is better than those he helps and is finally not accountable to those for whom he sacrifices himself” (400).

4. The return of mythic violence and democracy in question: Fred Zinneman’s High Noon (1952)

The return of villains and townspeople’s unwillingness to fight → a parody of democracy: “At first, the townspeople are all for helping Kane; then ‘cooler heads’ prevail, particularly the mayor…The defeat of Miller…meant progress for the town…But if a gunfight takes place in the streets, [the town] will seem like ‘just another wide open town.’ Thus the traditional sanctions of ‘progress’ become motives for cowardice rather than incitements to heroism. The community, in a virtual town meeting, declares that it does not want Will Kane to fight its battles a second time…At this moment, [Kane becomes] deprived of the classic sanctions that authorized the town-tamer’s use of violence [in the past]. He has no official entitlement to the badge he has re-assumed after retiring that morning; the Mayor had defined his action as anti-progressive; and the town meeting has made it clear that it no longer wants him to act as its agent. He is, in effect, a vigilante: a private man assuming the power of the law without submitting himself to the democratic process…The principle on which he acts [like other vigilantes] is…that the defense of ‘civilization’ is more important than the procedures of ‘democracy’” (392-93).

A more fundamental dimension of High Noon than both the left and the right perspective: From a leftist perspective, the film is usually interpreted, as its screenwriter Foreman intended, as an allegory of Hollywood’s surrender to McCarthyism…the same people who in an earlier and less prosperous time had risen up to defeat the enemy have now grown too comfortable or complacent to risk their lives and fortunes for the public good. On the other hand, a rightist reading can detect in the return of Miller a symbolization of that of Fascism in the guise of Communism…Beneath the ‘left’ perspective of the gunfighter film and the ‘right’ perspective of the cavalry film is a common ideological structure that devalues ‘democracy’ as an instrument of progress and declares that the only effective instrument for constructive historical action is a gun in the hands of the right man (395-96).

* Objections to the aestheticization of the Western: Warshow and Bazin

“[In Robert Warshow's 1954 essay] The Gunfighter (1950) and High Noon are accused of distracting us from the central figure of the hero by their insistence on detailing (in what Warshow regards as a fairly humdrum way) the social fabric of the towns where the action happens. Warshow is also suspicious of what he sees as a tendency towards aestheticism in such films as Shane (1952). This is similar to the objection by André Bazin, writing just a year after Warshow in 1955. Bazin identifies something he calls the ‘sur-Western,’ which is ‘a Western that would be ashamed to be just itself, and looks for some additional interest to justify its existence–an aesthetic, sociological, moral, psychological, political or erotic interest, in short some quality extrinsic to the genre and which is supposed to enrich it.’ As an example he too gives Shane, which he feels is too self-consciously at work on the creation of a myth and which he sees as a possible indication of decadence.”

Edward Buscombe, ed. The BFI Companion to the Western (New York: Da Capo Press, 1988), 45.  

“André Bazin and Robert Warshow, [the two earliest and most distinguished theorists of the Western,] both lamented the tendency they saw in 1950s films like Shane (1953) and High Noon (1952) to justify the genre either by bringing to bear content that lay outside traditional themes or an unnecessary aestheticizing. [Now, however, not a few would agree on the claim that all of Eastwood's films are essentially Westerns, which is indicative of] how far the pendulum has not swung in the opposite direction.”

Jim Kitses, Horizons West (London: BFI Publishing, 2004 ), 3.

Two failed wars in the late 1960s and the Western in revision

1. The failure of Johnson’s War on Poverty → Repeated urban riots in Watts, Newark, Detroit, and even Washington, D.C between 1965 and 1969 (esp. the ghetto riots in Newark and Detroit in the summer of 1967) (549-54).

2. The failure in the Vietnam War → The uncontainable shock from the Tet Offensive (1968) (534-48 and 578).

The notion of exceptional violence put in question → Ambivalent or inconsistent stances stuck in between demystifying the Frontier mythology and revitalizing the Frontier spirit (the pioneer mindset and exceptionalism), criticizing the cruelty and irrationality of social violence and defending American tradition from its demonization, excusing rational forms of violence (those of historical necessity) and denouncing unjustifiable forms of violence (genocides, massacres and atrocities) → “[This] inconsistencies reflect the ambivalence of the American public toward the violence being done in its name” (560).

Attempts to develop a revised version of the myth of regeneration through violence: Sam Peckinpah’s Major Dundee (1965) and Richard Brooks’ The Professionals (1966)

The violence in this stage is “extraordinary”: 1) heroes are utterly cynical and cold-bloodely instrumentalist about their reasons and methods for shedding blood and 2) the representation of violence is realistic, elaborate, and sensational–the result of a combination of technical innovation (special effects) and the more freedom for sensationalism characteristic of the arts in the 1960s and the success of spectacularly violent films such as Bonnie and Clyde (1967). In those developments, violence is abstracted from the realistic level and presented as something beautiful and worthy of attention in and for itself (560).

“Both Major Dundee and The Professionals raise questions about the war and the counterinsurgency project, and both identify American heroism with a propensity for violence that is presented as extraordinary in its methods and scope–a shocking willingness and ability to give and take death without stint or limit. But in both films the suggestion of a disproportion between violent means and moral ends is first voiced and then abandoned for endings that suggest that an American victory justifies the methods used to achieve it” (574).

The demoralization of the Western

Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch (1969), George Roy Hill’s Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969), and Andrew V. McLaglen’s The Undefeated (1969) → the adventure of American gunfighters in Mexico as a mixture of the heroic and the morally dubious (592-613).

Twilight struggles of the Western throughout the 1970s

“The return of the last American combat forces from Vietnam in 1973 marked the sudden end of the preeminence of the Western among the genres of mythic discourse. For most of the century the genre had been a sensitive indicator of the state of public myth. It had reached the peak of its popularity and cultural preeminence from 1969 to 1972, with an average release by American producers of 24 feature Westerns per year, with a high of 29 in 1971. But in 1973 only 13 Western features were released, and in 1974 only 7. After a brief resurgence in 1975 and 1976 (13 releases in each year), the number dropped to an average of 4 per year from 1977 to 1982. Western series also disappeared from television screens between 1972 and 1975″ (627).

Several failed attempts to revise/revive the Western since 1970 and in the wake of The Wild Bunch: “the failed attempt to develop an alternative Western in 1970-72 and the aborted revival of 1975-76 are symptomatic of the cultural crisis of the post-Vietnam decade”; “their failures indicate that what might loosely be called a ‘New Left’ revision of the myth was incapable…of replacing the traditional ‘progressive’ Western as the basis of an enduring popular genre” (628).

Three types of alternative Western in the 1970s:

The formalist: the spaghetti Western and The Missouri Breaks and Clint Eastwood’s The Outlaw Josie Wales (1976).

The neo-realist: portrayals of darker, grittier, even meaner sides of cowboy life such as The Posse and The Shootist.

The counterculture: the pro-minorities Western-embodiments of a set of alternative values in sexuality, race, class, culture, and politics: e.g., Little Big Man (Arthur Penn, 1970) where casting a non-Western figure such as Dustin Hoffman serves to debunk not only the ideology of race war but the conventions of the Western genre (630). See also Buffalo Bill and the Indians, or Sitting Bull’s History Lesson (Robert Altman 1976), A Man Called Horse (Elliot Silverstein, 1969) and Soldier Blue (Ralph Nelson, 1970). For the Black Western, see Buck and the Preacher (Sidney Poitier, 1971) where the earlier trend of undoing anti-Black racism by scapegoating the Indians are rectified (631).

The post-Western genre map: the Frontier metaphor displaced into genres dealing with urban crime, adventure (realistic or fantastic), combat, horror story, etc.

- The urban vigilante/gangster films: The Godfather (Francis Ford Coppola, 1972), The French Connection (William Friedkin, 1971), Dirty Harry (Don Siegel, 1971), Death Wish (Michael Winner, 1974), Taxi Driver (1976), The Bronx (1981), etc., where, situated in between broken society and prevailing villains, protagonists are to be be either an outlaw hero or an official hero, both as the heirs of the Western.

- The sci-fi/fantasy genre: Star Wars (George Lucas, 1977), Star Trek (1966-69), Outland (Peter Hyams, 1981), Battle Beyond the Stars (Jimmy Murakami, 1982), etc. where adventures in a remote space bears undeniable resemblance to the conventions of the Western.

- The horror/slasher genre: Night of the Living Dead (George A. Romero, 1968), Rosemary’s Baby (Roman Polanski, 1968), Texas Chainsaw Massacre (Tobe Hooper, 1974), The Omen (Richard Donner, 1976), Dawn of the Dead (George A. Romero, 1978), Friday the Thirteenth (Sean Cunningham, 1980), etc. where the captivity/rescue narrative tradition is recycled with a reversed, that is, inward gaze.

“The ‘post-Western’ genre map suggests that, while the Western may no longer provide the most important of our ideologically symbolic languages, the underlying mythic structures it expressed remain more or less intact. Action in the imagined world of myth-symbolic play still takes the form of captivity and rescues, still invokes the three-part opposition in which the American hero stands between the extremes of bureaucratic order and savage license…What has been lost is not the underlying myth but a particular set of historical references that tied a scenario of heroic action to a particular version of American national history” (642).

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

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