Elegies for the Western

The Western, as Lee Clark Mitchell once said, has often been pronounced dead only to rise again. It has so often been the case that the shadow of its demise has become an integral characteristic of the genre itself.

The Western’s continued life after its demise has long and frequently been pronounced.

→ Reminiscent of Adorno’s opening remarks in the opening statement Negative Dialectic and Benjamin’s notes on Kafka, ‘His genius lies in the fact that he destructed the truth for to make it communicable, translatable, and transmissible.’

André Bazin, “The Evolution of the Western” in The Western Reader, eds. Jim Kitses and Gregg Rickman (New York: Limelight Editions, 1998), 52.

“If the Western was about to disappear, the superwestern [the postwar Western, Westerns in the aesthetic periods in the wake of the classic Western such as Stagecoach (1939) and WWII which were geared, to a greater or lesser extent, toward tpolitical revisionism, psychological investments, baroque embellishments and formalist renovations] would be the perfect expression of its decadence, of its final collapse.”

Richard Schickel, “Foreword” in Edward Buscombe, ed. The BFI Companion to the Western (New York: Da Capo Press, 1988).

“An Encyclopedia of Western movies! I never thought I’d live to see the day…Now that it is actually here, I find myself, frankly, somewhat saddened…it is the signpost that marks the end of a long and lovely trail” (9).

From the beginning, the West was not too far, not two near, neither too exotic nor two quotidian (11).

Willa Cather’s long-ago elegy for the West → In her 1923 novel A Lost Lady, Willa Cather expressed through Niel Herbert, her surrogate, “a sense that the era of the ‘road-making West’ was ‘already gone…and nothing could ever bring it back’ and insisted Niel capture and remember the West’s afterglow” (9).

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

“Stephen Crane’s story ‘The Bride Comes to Yellow Sky,’ published in 1898, is an elegy for the rowdy excitements of a frontier town. Indeed, it seemed as though at the very moment of its creation, the West was suffused with a rosy tinge of nostalgia” (52).

Edward Buscombe and Roberta E. Pearson, “Introduction” in Edward Buscombe and Roberta E. Pearson, ed. Back in the Saddle Again: New Essays on the Western (London: BFI Publishing, 1998).

By the 1960s, the production of Westerns in HW had entered a decline from which it has never recovered. In the 1950s, it saw its golden age, yet by the 60s and the 70s the Western film, as if anticipating its own demise, took up the theme of the vanishing Western: e.g., a series of nobly elegiac works such as the Wild Bunch, Monte Walsh, ad The Shootist, last snapshots of heroes who seemingly had outlived their times but who refused to concede to a new social order and chose either to take up one last stand for a noble death or to ride off to the sunset.

The Western has many times been pronounced dead, only to renew itself. As far back as 1911 the film trade journal Nickelodeon declared in response to the abundance of Westerns that the Western was ‘a gold mine that had been worked to the limit.’ In a review of a William D. Hart Western in 1918, the New York Times complained: ‘that kind of photoplay has been done almost to death. After Charles Lindberg flew over the Atlantic, Photoplay pronounced in 1929: “The Western novel and motion picture heroes have slunk away into the brush, never to return” (24).

Of course, efforts to inject new life into the dying genre have been continually made since its golden era in the 1950s: the spaghetti Western in the mid-1960s, various revisionist Westerns throughout next two decades or so, and one last stand in the 1990s thanks to such figures as Kevin Costner and Clint Eastwood. However, they were all shot-lived or failed to get the genre back on its feet. Now, “even in an industry as notorious as Hollywood for repeating its past successes, the return of the Western to the pre-eminent position it once occupied in production schedules looks very unlikely” (1-2).

Raoul Walsh: (from Sergio Leone’s recollection on a conversation he had with director Walsh during the production of Hellen of Troy): “I was a great admirer of Raoul Walsh, one of the masters of the Western. When we were shooting Helen of Troy, I asked him all about this genre: he always replied, ‘the Western is finished.’ I insisted that the Western had been killed off by those who had maltreated the genre; but he still replied ‘the Western is finished; the public does not want it any more!’ So I saw all these cinéastes, like William Wyler, sacrifice themselves to the taste of the moment by making ‘peplums.’ And I was their assistant, the victim of some curse. I was more in love with the idea of America than anyone you could imagine…While I organized chariot races, battles between triremes, and explosions on galleys [for historical epics in the 1950s], I was silently dreaming about Nevada and New Mexico.”

Christopher Frayling, Spaghetti Westerns: Cowboys and Europeans from Karl May to Sergio Leone, Revised Ed. (London: I.B. Tauris, 2006), 100.

Sergio Leone: “In my childhood, America was like a religion. Throughout my childhood and adolescence (and I am by no means sure that I have grown out of that stage even now, although I passed the age of forty a long time ago), I dreamed of the wide open spaces of America. The great expanses of desert. The extraordinary ‘melting-pot,’ the first nation made up of people from all over the world…Then real-life Americans abruptly entered my life–in jeeps–and upset all my dreams…They were no longer the Americans of the West…[but] soldiers like any others…In the GIs who chased after our women, and sold their cigarettes on the black market, I could see nothing that I had seen in Hemingway, Dos Passos or Chandler…Nothing…of the great prairies, or of the demi-gods of my childhood.”  

Christopher Frayling, Spaghetti Westerns: Cowboys and Europeans from Karl May to Sergio Leone, Revised Ed. (London: I.B. Tauris, 2006), 65; Christopher Frayling, Sergio Leone: Something to Do with Death (London: Faber & Faber, 2000), 23-4.

On Once Upon a Time in America, Leone had this to say: “What can possibly follow that dream of America lost?…Death. And this new film will certainly about death…My interest in America, indeed the universal interest in America, is because of the tale. America, to my eyes, appears like a long and cruel Arabian Night, which is why my cinema is populated with thieves of Baghdad, kidnapped princess, nasty magicians, birds which sing rock ‘n’ roll…I must try to tell the story of Scheherezade, and capture the attention of the public–or the death sentence will be carried out at dawn.”

Christopher Frayling, Sergio Leone: Something to Do with Death (London: Faber & Faber, 2000), 476.

Wim Wenders: see Christopher Frayling, Sergio Leone: Something to Do with Death (London: Faber & Faber, 2000), 300.

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

“A genre that cannot be adapted and transformed will finally disappear, as the Western, after its long history, seems finally to be disappearing into its own sunset” (13).

“[T]he Western has become a backward-looking genre steeped in nostalgia. Significant new creations in the genre seem increasingly rare…The future seems rather dim for further revitalization of the traditional Western genre. Certainly, the cinematic and artistic possibilities of Western formal and thematic conventions will continue to attract occasional writers and producers of film and television. This probably will result in occasional flurries of Western production like those which marked the early 1990s…[Besides, the Post-Western approach will continue to draw our attention to Western tropes.] However, though I would be delighted to be wrong about this, it seems doubtful that the Western will ever regain its place as the major American popular genre and myth. Lee Clark Mitchell has wisely warned us that the Western has often been pronounced dead only to rise again, but Richard Slotkin’s insight that America desperately needs a new set of myths seems more likely to be an important factor in the future” (166).

Jim Kitses, “Introduction: Post-modernism and the Western” in The Western Reader, eds. Jim Kitses and Gregg Rickman (New York: Limelight Editions, 1998).

“If a marker had been erected every time the genre’s end had been proclaimed over its long history, the Western’s gravestones would overflow even Tombstone’s cemetery, ‘the biggest graveyard West of the Rockies,’ as Dock Holliday…informs Wyatt Earp in John Ford’s My Darling Clementine…The Western has no peer for premature anticipations of its demise” (15).

Doug Williams, “Pilgrims and the Promised Land” in The Western Reader, eds. Jim Kitses and Gregg Rickman (New York: Limelight Editions, 1998), 111.

The West is the ritual altar of American identity“: “The Western periodically dies, as the needs it served fade, and then its is rediscovered in a new form, more responsive to the needs of its time [ensuing from struggles among heterogeneous visions of American history and society]”

Elegiac Westerns

One of the notable attributes in the Western of the 1960s is the elegiac Western where the aging gunfighter or cowboy is symptomatic of the decline of the Western itself → the motif of the hero who cannot settle down, who is unable to readjust to the changing world, who laments the passing of the Old West. Above all, Sam Peckinpah continued to return to the idea obsessively.  Many other Westerns of honorable standing during the 1960s are also engaged with the motif: The Gunfighter, Lonely Are the Brave, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, The Good Guys and the Bad Guys (1969), Monte Walsh (1970), The Shootist (1976), etc. (52).

“Instead of simply affirming the traditional morality and dramatically resolving conflicts within it, this new image of the West [in the Westerns from 1940 to 1960] encouraged a richer exploration of the tensions between old moral assumptions and new uncertainties of experience. It also expressed a sense of loss associated with the passage of a simpler and less ambiguous era while acknowledging its inevitability…Thus, in contrast to the sense of moral triumph and regeneration through violence that characterized the Western of the 1910s and 1920s, the new ‘classic’ Western was typically more elegiac and even sometimes tragic in its pattern of action…The hero becomes not the founder of a new order, but a somewhat archaic survival, driven by motives and values that are somewhat anachronistic in the new social order…In this situation, the hero increasingly tended toward isolation, separation, and alienation…In this type of story, the gunfighter often takes the place of the cowboy as hero [who by] the standards of the new West…is illegally taking the law into his own hands [usually for money as is the case with bounty hunters and mercenaries]”

In Hollywood, above all, The Searchers (1956), The Man Who Shot the Liberty Valance (1962), High Noon (1952), Shane (1953); Sam Peckinpah carried the theme of the end of the Wild West to its ultimate completion in Ride the High Country (1962) and The Wild Bunch (1967). Also notable here is the emergence of the ‘post-Western’ (which marked the end of the ‘classic’ Western: Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, True Grit, The Wild Bunch, and Leone’s Spaghetti Westerns).

John E. Cawelti, The Six-Gun Mystique Sequel (Bowling Green, OH: Popular Press, 1999), 92-8.

In Italy, My Name Is Nobody (Tonino Valerii, 1973; Sergio Leone participated as producer and supervisor of the editing and also directed the opening sequence) → the tension between Beauregard (an aging mythic hero (or the declining Hollywood Western) who, played by Henry Fonda, desires to retire peacefully from the world of mythic gunslingers to Europe) and Nobody (a young Western-hero-worshiper, who symbolizes anonymous Western viewers and also plays a role of a scriptwriter who is so concerned to experience the national monument of the West for the last time to write it in the history books) (Frayling, 248-55).

Persistence of the Western’s appeal

André Bazin, “The Evolution of the Western” in The Western Reader, eds. Jim Kitses and Gregg Rickman (New York: Limelight Editions, 1998), 52-3.

Although the postwar superwestern may be considered a symptom of the Western’s decadence following the the perfection of the genre on the threshold of WWII (e.g., Stagecoach), “[I]ts ups and downs do not affect its existence very much. Its roots continue to spread under the Hollywood humus and one is amazed to see green and robust suckers spring up in the midst of the seductive and sterile hybrids…It is in these ‘lower’ layers [low-budget westerns or the ‘B’ western that does not attempt to find refuge in intellectual or aesthetic alibis] whose economic fertility has not diminished that the traditional western has continued to take root.” 

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

“So far [the Western] has always managed to renew itself. Despite changes in the audience its underlying appeal may still be strong enough for a new cycle to emerge. No one can say with confidence that this will happen, still less what kind of spark might rekindle Hollywood’s enthusiasm…The Western may surprise us yet” (54).

Jim Kitses, Horizons West: Directing the Western from John Ford to Clint Eastwood (London: BFI Publishing, 2004)

The Western’s resilience: recent films like Kevin Costner’s Dances with Wolves (1990), Clint Eastwood’s Unforgiven (1992), Maggie Greenwald’s The Ballad of Little Jo (1994), Jim Jarmush’s Dead Man (1996) attest to the endurability of the Western (2-3).

“The Western is not the dominant form that it was, but it is America’s defining myth and remains a vital tradition available to filmmakers despite the facile pronouncements of its ‘demise,’ the habit of reckless journalism and even academic studies…[which ignores its undying charm as is the case with] a new level of sophistication in the post-modern era, a creative intertextuality that testifies to the continuing relevance and dynamic potential of the genre, be it at the hands of seasoned veterans or of newcomers to the form” (9).

Jim Kitses, “Introduction: Post-modernism and the Western” in The Western Reader, eds. Jim Kitses and Gregg Rickman (New York: Limelight Editions, 1998).

“A major problem bedeviling discussion of the genre, and informing predictions of its death, has been the persistent and narrow identification of the Western with its traditional model” (17) → Our purview is to be extended to look at different and less recognized strains in the evolution of the Western to explain the genre’s extraordinary potential for various practices of rethinking and fresh ways in which the genre inspires filmmakers and audiences in the era of iconoclasm.

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

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