Sympathy for Violence in the Western

Robert Warshow, “Movie Chronicle: The Western” in The Western Reader, eds. Jim Kitses and Gregg Rickman (New York: Limelights Edition, 1998), 46-7.

“Why does the Western movie especially have such a hold on our imagination?

Chiefly, I think, because it offers a serious orientation to the problem of violence such as can be found almost nowhere else in our culture. One of the well-known peculiarities of modern civilized opinion is its refusal to acknowledge the value of violence. This refusal is a virtue, but like many virtues it involves a certain willful blindness and it encourages hypocrisy. We train ourselves to be shocked or bored by cultural images of violence, and out very concept of heroism tends to be a passive one: we are less drawn to the brave young men who kill large numbers of our enemies than to the heroic prisoners who endure torture without capitulating. In art, though we may still be able to understand and participate in the values of the Iliad, a modern writer like Ernest Hemingway we find somewhat embarrassing: there is no doubt that he stirs us, but we cannot help recognizing also that he is a little childish. And in the criticism of popular culture…the presence of images of violence is often assumed to be in itself a sufficient ground for condemnation…The celebration of acts of violence is left more and more to the irresponsible: on the higher cultural level to writers like Céline, and lower down to Mickey Spillane or Horace McCoy, or to the comic books, television, and the movies…[the] cultural underground which sets forth the attractions of violence in the face of all our higher social attitudes…If we are brought finally to acquiesce in the denial of [the fantasies of irresponsible freedom], it is only because they have been shown to be dangerous, not because they have given way to a better vision of behavior.

In war movies, to be sure, it is possible to present the uses of violence within a framework of responsibility [the sanctioned use of violence]. But…its violence is largely impersonal and heroism belongs to the group more than to the individual…You are not supposed to be brave, you are supposed to get the job done and stay alive. At its best, the war movie may represent a more civilized point of vies than the Western…[On the other hand, in the Western, the value of violence is embedded in the image of a single man whose gun] tells us that he lives in a world of violence, and even then he ‘believes in violence’…There is little cruelty in Western movies, and little sentimentality; our eyes are not focused on the sufferings of the defeated but on the deportment of the hero. Really, it is not violence at all which is the ‘point’ of the Western movie, but a certain image of man, a style, which expresses itself most clearly in violence…not the fantasy of hurting others, but…how a man might look when he shoots or is shot. A hero is one who looks like a hero. [Honor is more than virtue, justice and courage; it is a style, concerned with appearances to the extent that art takes primacy over the reality principle (38)]

Whatever the limitations of such an idea in experience, it has always been valid in art, and has a special validity in an art where appearances are everything. The Western hero is necessarily an archaic figure…But his archaism does not take away from his power; on the contrary, it adds to it by keeping him just a little beyond the reach both of common sense and of absolutized emotion, the two usual impulses of our art…He is there to remind us of the possibility of style in an age which as put on itself the burden of pretending that style has no meaning, and, in the midst of our anxieties over the problem of violence, to suggest that even in killing or being killed we are not freed from the necessity of establishing satisfactory modes of behavior.”

Edward Buscombe, “The Idea of Genre in the American Cinema,” in Film Genre Reader III (Austin: U of Texas P, 2003), 17.

“[G]iven the arsenal of weapons on view in the films, violence will play a crucial part in the stories…it is hard to think of a western in which there is at least no threat of violence…Because the guns are there as part of the formal structure, there will be, characteristically, a dilemma that either can only be resolved by violence or in which the violence would be a solution, though a wrong one.  The characters will be of a kind whose virtue resides not so much in subtlety of intellect, or sensitivity, or imagination, as in their willingness and ability to stand up for themselves, to be in some sense, not necessarily physical, strong.”

Will Wright, Sixguns and Society (Berkeley: U of California P, 1975)

In The Wild Bunch, the main characters are not heroes; since they are outlaws and killers, the good/bad distinction does not seem to be a viable means of classification. But it clearly does apply in the sense that the Wild Bunch are sympathetic and their opponents are not. In other words, we recognizes the heroes not because they are morally or in terms of the law right but because they evoke sympathy.  Here their non-commitment to society and morality undermines the established sense of good and bad (168).

In the professional plot, the good/bad distinction depends solely on sympathy, not on commitment to conventional social values (182).

The popular appeal of the Western has less to do with the historical West than with sentimental attachments to the West, the modern feeling for the West, the West as a source of inspiration (188).

Sympathy for violence → a legitimated indulgence in violence, an unsanctioned use of force to an individual end.

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

“There is quantitatively just as much violence in Shakespeare or in Oedipus the King (a nice bit of eyegouging) as there is in Gunsmoke, but it does not mean the same thing. In the Western violence is characteristically the hero’s means of resolving the conflict generated by his adversary; in Shakespeare it is the means by which the hero destroys himself or is destroyed; in the classic detective story, violence is the adversary’s means of protection and the hero’s clue. In each instance, violence cannot be understood simply as violence, for its meaning depends on the place it plays in the overall structure of the action” (12).

Can we dismiss the violence in the Western simply as an attempt to defend the unjust subjugation of minority and foreign people through heroes’ legitimate violence? “These ambiguities created a need for a fictional pattern that would disguise the hero’s aggressive impulses while permitting them a full and legitimated indulgence.” A notable aspect of the pattern is “the way in which it works toward a moral and stylistic differentiation of the hero’s violence as legitimate and good, from that of the outlaws or savages.” Hero’s violence is governed by strict codes of honor and integrity, while the villain appears enslaved to uncontrollable impulses (55; see also 41).

The scandalous nature of violence as a challenge to the narrative formula of the Western, which often leads to a sophistication of the Western, rendering the genre intellectually convoluted: “Robert Warshow is quite correct when he argues that the serious Western’s major claim to a high level of artistic significance lies in the face that ‘it offers a serious orientation to the problem of violence which can be found almost nowhere else in our culture.’ While it is true that the commitment to romantic entertainment and to the figure of a transcendent hero made it difficult to so do, the best Westerns always managed to suggest a more complex recognition of the ambiguities of violence than the formulaic fantasy of legitimated moralistic aggression” (55-6).

1) Violence and ethical criticism of the Western → Violence in the Western has long been a major ethical concern and the issue became “more troublesome, especially in the later 1960s after the impact of films like Leone’s Italian Westerns and Sam Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch, which were noticeably more violent than earlier Westerns. In fact, the attempt to justify the presentation of violence in Westerns has been one of the most interesting and complex aspects of ethical criticism of the genre.” For those in a defensive position like Robert Warshow, “the Western does not indulge in violence for violence’s sake, but, at its best, is a serious attempt to present an ethic of violence for a violent age” (128-29).

Warshow’s articulation of the intricate interplay between the ethical dimension and the formal elements: In the Western, “guns constitute the visible moral center” (131).

2) Violence and psychologization

One of the major organizing principle of the Western is the rationalization and justification of acts of violent aggression: “the Western’s narrative pattern develops and resolves the tension between a strong need for aggression and a sense of ambiguity and guilt about violence.” The popular appeal of violence in the Western comes from its materialization of widely shared psychic conflicts (142).

This approach can apply to any form of narrative involving violence and conflict and therefore offers little insight into the particular significance of violence in the Western (143). It is another attempt to apply a general theory (psychological approach) to a particular case (the Western).

3) Mythic violence (see notes titled “Mythic Space”)

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

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