When one thinks of the American West one may recall the vistas of John Ford, prints by Mort Künstler, John Wayne, Clint Eastwood, the music of Ennio Morricone, or even perhaps Tom Mix, though that seems somewhat doubtful today. The West, with its legendary gunfighters, its promise of Western expansion, and the advent of railways that would unite the country have all worked together to solidify its myth in the consciousness of nearly every American. The West provides such a rich mythology that, within the cinema, it has become the single most American of film genres. It’s potential and versatility has even prompted filmmakers from without the United States to make films of the West. Just as American filmmakers embraced Arthurian legend and Roman history, so have the Europeans embraced the Western.
Being the most popular genre in this country one can find an almost inexhaustible resource of film criticism and analysis on the subject. Critics have been debating the many forms the genre has taken over the years since its inception in the late 19th century. Due to this over abundance I have seen fit to isolate and examine a few key films from the last century that represent an international understanding of the genre. Placing these films for discussion by order of release will help map the evolution of the genre from B-Movie to blockbuster and beyond. But in selecting these films I have opted to avoid titles and filmmakers alike who have become iconic within the genre. Names such as John Ford, Howard Hawks, Anthony Mann, George Stevens, John Sturges, Richard Thorpe, Clint Eastwood, Sam Peckinpah, and Sergio Leone will not be discussed at great length. Likewise, filmmakers who have been widely written about in cinema circles, like Monte Hellman, Sam Fuller, Robert Aldrich, Nicholas Ray and Bud Boetticher will also not be discussed at great length. As I stated before, the primary goal of this article is to examine films from around the world that have reinterpreted and expanded the genre beyond the parameters one commonly associated with Westerns today.
“Give a man a free hand and he’ll try to put it all over you.”-Raoul Walsh
Raoul Walsh is one of the big names in studio-era Westerns, often appearing alongside names such as John Ford and Howard Hawks in film journals. And like them, Walsh’s life was disproportionate to the rest of existence as if he were a character in one of his own films. Still, despite his fame and reputation, Walsh’s silent films about poverty and his early “talkies” go unrecognized by most. This is likely due to the fact that these early films by the director do not come equipped with a reputation earned during their original release. These films, including The Big Trail, were rediscovered and re-evaluated some thirty years or more after the fact.
Raoul Walsh brings to The Big Trail (1930) something never seen on the same scope again in any of his films, an epic sense of mise-en-scène. Walsh’s ability to control as well as to construct shots with gigantic set pieces and a horde of extras comes as a by-product of his years working under D.W. Griffith. Add to that the new technology he was able to apply to the picture, 70mm film, and this particular talent is made even more apparent.
Lucien Andriot’s cinematography also recalls Griffith’s silent epics with its use of light; smokey and faded. The dreamy effect of the photography instills Walsh’s images with a Romanticism fitting the films narrative which, from today’s perspective, seems a bit contrived and overly familiar. But it is the Romantically pastoral images of The Big Trail that set it far apart from other early sound Westerns. In 1930 Westerns were predominantly a genre of low-budget “quickies” meant to fill out a day’s worth of programing at the theaters. The Big Trail was a prestige picture with a momentous budget and considerable resources. The failure of the film to find its audience seriously jeopardized the careers of not just Raoul Walsh, but also the film’s star, newcomer John Wayne.
What’s problematic today about viewing The Big Trail is just how much we, as an audience, take sound for granted. In terms of sound design and even the manner in which particular characters talk, The Big Trail established the codified sound cues that are essential to the contemporary Western. Tyrone Power Sr.’s performance as Red Flack in the film invented what has become the archetypal villain in “wagon train dramas”, most obviously referenced in Anthony Mann’s Bend In The River (1952) with Arthur Kennedy’s portrayal of Emerson Cole or Gene Hackman’s Little Bill in Clint Eastwood’s film Unforgiven (1992). That The Big Trail was so hardly seen and yet so influential speaks to the uniqueness of Walsh’s talents.
“Cinemascope is not for men, but for snakes and funerals.”-Fritz Lang
Rancho Notorious (1952) is not unique in its inversion of the traditional female role in Westerns. Nicholas Ray’s Johnny Guitar (1954) and Samuel Fuller’s Forty Guns (1957) accomplish this with more style and aptitude. What Rancho Notorious has that makes it something unique during the height of the Westerns’ popularity in the United States is Fritz Lang.
Coming from years of working at Ufa as one of Germany’s most successful directing talents, Lang brings not just his experience, but weds that experience with his own sense of disenfranchisement that he was experiencing in America. Lang’s own struggle to connect with American culture is in no film more apparent that Rancho Notorious. Early in the film there is a montage in which Arthur Kennedy travels about looking for the man who killed his lover. This montage resembles, in pace and content, those of M (1931) and Metropolis (1927). Similarly, when Arthur Kennedy recognizes his lover’s broach on Marlene Dietrich in the scene where they first meet the lighting as well as the camera’s proximity to Kennedy recreate a number of similar shots of similar emotional content in Lang’s Dr. Mabuse The Gambler (1922). The most striking sequence in the film in terms of technique occurs in the scene where Kennedy gets into a brawl at a barbershop. This scene, unlike any other in Lang’s career to that point, features a roaming camera whose focus is the action. That simple choice of camera work gives the scene a realism to its violence that is, even today, uncomfortable simply because it is not at all what one expects. The fight from Rancho Notorious would recreate itself the following year though in Lang’s The Big Heat (1953).
It’s in these distinctly expressionistic tactics cited above that the audience finds the sense of “other worldliness” in Rancho Notorious. It is an unreality more violent, more sexual than one is accustomed to in Westerns of this time. And it is through this phenomenon that discerning viewers may realize that the “other worldliness” of Rancho Notorious is, at least for Lang, representative of his view of the United States.
“…a movie about a one-woman all-fag cowboy town“-Andy Warhol
If the fifties represented a trend in subverting the Western genre by inverting the sexual politics of the day, enhancing the explicitness of the violence, and embracing the sexuality of the films’ characters, then the sixties simply pushed those elements out and beyond into the realm of camp. And it is in this realm that Andy Warhol’s Lonesome Cowboys (1968) lives.
Like most of Warhol’s films at the time Lonesome Cowboys was co-directed by Paul Morrissey, who was bringing a degree of legitimacy to Warhol’s productions via his knowledge of classic Hollywood. So it is little wonder that Lonesome Cowboys follows the conventions, with regards to its sexual politics, set forth in Rancho Notorious, Forty Guns and Johnny Guitar. Except Warhol’s cowboys are all gay, thus relegating the “one-woman” in town into the role of mother and incestuous lover. The significance of this film beyond that has little to do with re-writing the conventions of the genre. Instead Lonesome Cowboys significance derives from the simple fact that it is a Western shot in Arizona. Up until this time “underground” filmmakers the likes of Warhol and Morrissey were restricted to making genre films for almost no money within the limits of the city in which they lived, New York.
Ironically it was the foul language and the vulgarity of the sexuality depicted in Lonesome Cowboys that isolated mainstream audiences while the more legitimate production value drove off the “underground” audience. Even Jonas Mekas had nothing good to say about the film in his column at the Village Voice. Without any audience, Lonesome Cowboys wandered into obscurity. However, the film has become a little more important in recent years when Gregg Araki cited it as an influence, thus canonizing it as part of the early Queer Film movement. As Mark Rappaport points out in his Silver Screen: Color Me Lavender (1997) the old Hollywood Westerns are brimming with homoerotic innuendos. Lonesome Cowboys then represents the first major film to make the inherent homoerotic qualities of the genre its primary concern.
“In art there is only artifice“-Luc Moullet
Luc Moullet remains one of the most neglected filmmakers of all time, and certainly of the French New Wave. Like Jacques Rivette, his films are near to impossible to obtain in the United States. All of this in spite of a significant critical re-evaluation by the likes of Jonathan Rosenbaum and others. Still, Luc Moullet’s A Girl Is A Gun (1971) is the most unique and thought-provoking film on this list.
A Girl Is A Gun follows the misadventures of Jean-Pierre Léaud as Billy The Kid. Unlike most depictions of the famous gunslinger, Billy The Kid is depicted as a bumbling loser who, despite himself, manages to exact his revenge and steal the girlfriend of a man he has killed. The narrative content of A Girl Is A Gun is completely vacant of the Romanticism that unifies most American Westerns. Even Lonesome Cowboys plays into the popular Romantic notions of the Old West by being so totally dependent on the recognizable signifiers and tropes of the genre. Billy The Kid in Moullet’s film is, therefore, the antithesis of the genre itself.
That said, A Girl Is A Gun brings a bit of that Romanticism into play in terms of the films theme song and visual structure. But these mechanisms, in Moullet’s hands, work only to compliment and enhance the anti-Romanticism of the narrative. A Girl Is A Gun only superficially functions as a Western. As the film perverts the Romantic models it employs via the contrast of narrative content and technique, Moullet is able to disassemble and examine the Western Genre.
This deconstruction of the genre is playful, the precise opposite of the intellectualized genre deconstructions that Jean-Luc Godard became famous for in the sixties. This playfulness derives from A Girl Is A Gun‘s relatively low-budget, forcing Moulett to make a Western without either the vistas of Ford, the violence of Anthony Mann, nor the horses of every other Western. Moulett, like Warhol and Morrissey, is forced to make the film with the available resources, even if that restricts the films Western “look” to props and costume.
It must be said that this “superficiality of genre” in A Girl Is Gun comes from a unique place in the history of the genre. Where Sam Fuller may make a low-budget Western and accommodate that budget by distilling the narrative down to a hard-punching tale of revenge, Moullet decides instead to pay for devices such as a theme song with his budget. This decision on Moullet’s part places A Girl Is A Gun into the same category of “Western Camp” as Lonesome Cowboys, Rancho Notorious, Johnny Guitar, John Sturges’ Gunfight At The O.K. Corral (1957), and Douglas Sirk’s Taza-Son Of Cochise (1954). Critics like Jonas Mekas would interpret this alignment of stylistic concerns with Pop Art, which seems to be what A Girl Is A Gun is getting at.
Luc Moullet obviously does not have a strong Romantic connection with the Western genre. For him it is a unique spectacle in that it is a legitimate genre. A Girl Is A Gun is a testament to Moullet’s view of the cinema as entertainment first and foremost.
“So certainly, if we can tell evil stories to make people sick, we can also tell good myths that make them well.”-R.W. Fassbinder
Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s Whity (1971), released the same year as Luc Moullet’s A Girl Is A Gun, adopts the “Western Camp” aesthetic of Johnny Guitar and Rancho Notorious and blows it up to Brechtian proportions. Whity, more so than any other Western, infuses with its Historic Romanticism the rich melodrama of the fifties “Weepy” or “Woman’s Film”. For Fassbinder the Western provides a means of examining the political and sociological relations between sex, class and race. Taking his cues from Douglas Sirk’s period at Universal Pictures, Fassbinder seizes the chance to exploit the most American of movie genres to ironically critic the state of the world at large.
Firstly, the theatricality of “camp” is heightened not just in Fassbinder’s direction of his actors, but in the blocking and framing. Photographed by Michael Ballhaus in a series of predominantly long lasting wide shots, the cast is positioned so that they are almost always facing out, regardless of how many characters are in a scene or the nature of this interaction. This strategy, often summed up as Brechtian, allows the subtext of a scene to emerge superficially through the actors’ over-sized performances. When contextualizing this choice by Fassbinder in the Western genre, Whity becomes a critique of the Western Romanticism and its own subtextual racism and sexism. Westerns have functioned as allegories for contemporary issues before, it is true, but not so within the vernacular of Fassbinder’s particular brand of “camp”.
At the heart of Whity is the story of an interracial love affair akin to his own Ali: Fear Eats The Soul (1974). Gunther Kauffman and Hana Schygulla play a house servant slave and a saloon mistress whose love is forbidden. Their union, emotionally and sexually, is not only verboten, but reminiscent of Dietrich and Kennedy’s May/December romance in Fritz Lang’s Rancho Notorious. The very manner with which Schygulla performs her songs in the local saloon intentionally recalls Dietrich. Kauffman’s dark skin that keeps him a rung below on the ladder in this Western town also recalls the “outsider” in films like Zinnemann’s High Noon (1952) or George Marshall’s Destry Rides Again (1939). The difference being a matter of race rather than cowardice or femininity.
The scenes of Kauffman at the rancher’s estate where he is a slave to his half-siblings are a step removed from the Western. These scenes play out like an anti-white parody of Gone With The Wind (1939), complete with white actors wearing white face. But it is the sadistic and exploitative quality of the sex and violence in these sequences that bolster the sense of artifice with not just their outlandishness, but in their striking similarity to Italian exploitation films of the same period. Whity is very modern in this respect since its concerns have little to do with the world of the Old West as it was and everything to do with what a Western can say about society in the present.
The modernity of Whity can also be seen in another respect. In scenes at the saloon when cowboys and gunslingers are hanging about, Fassbinder has positioned them so that their posture maximizes the homoeroticism of the genre. In this he is more subtle than Morrissey and Warhol but also more realistic since most homosexuals are not as depraved or aggressive as the cowboys in Lonesome Cowboys.
The accumulation of all of these parts within the confines of a Western allow Whity to exist beyond the genre. In terms of style one couldn’t call it a Western at all since there is no visual or narrative connection beyond some subtle allusions. Pieces may be seen as distinctly Western, but the whole of the parts evolves into something so post-modern that it is uncategorizable. As though he were aware of this, Fassbinder opens and closes Whity with a ballad about the title character sung by Gunther Kauffman. This strategy forces the audience to take this non-Western and interpret it as such.
“If only he had realized all his ideas, he could have become one of the greatest.”-Sergio Leone
Sergio Corbucci has long-lived in the shadow of Sergio Leone. One cannot read about Corbucci’s work without the inevitable comparison to Leone, despite the fact that the two men have highly contrasting styles and aesthetic concerns in their approach to the Western genre. Corbucci’s films are noted for their loose style and hyper energy. Sometimes a particular sequence seems muddy or out-of-place, but the overall feeling of Corbucci’s style is one of unbridled enthusiasm for the genre, very similar to Luc Moullet. What the Italians did with the Western genre was to re-appropriate it after it had been filtered through Akira Kurosawa’s Yojimbo (1961). The Italian Western, Corbucci’s films included, champion an anti-hero, depict governments as corrupt, and exploit the violence and sexuality of the genre.
The Great Silence (1968) sees Corbucci taking the Italian Western a step further. Though the Italian Westerns added a grittier element to the genre, they still followed the basic principles of good and evil that can be traced back to Raoul Walsh’s The Big Trail and even further. The Great Silence shatters this balance of negative and positive, concluding with a bleak, existential morality.
It’s interesting to note that The Great Silence pre-dates the shifts in the American Western aesthetic that would occur in the seventies. Robert Altman’s meditative Western McCabe & Mrs. Miller (1971) would be the first to outright contradict the forms one associates with the Western film. Prior to that, American filmmakers such as Sam Fuller, Monte Hellman and Anthony Mann preferred anti-heroes working within a corrupt moral system but still maintained the regular signifiers and conformed to the basic narrative expectations of the Western.
The Great Silence is like any other Corbucci film. It’s violent, the characters are corrupt, the hero has a gadget gimmick and an odd name (in this case Silence) and the villains are sadistic. Yet, in the last act when Silence (Jean-Louis Trintignant) is expected to defeat his nemesis, despite his wounds, he fails. Silence is murdered by the man he should have defeated, Locco (Klaus Kinski). As a result of Silence’s death the starving townspeople living in exile, because of their differing ethnicity, are butchered by Locco and his gang. This ending speaks to Corbucci’s bleak outlook on life. For him the righteous are not always victorious.
That this ending comes in a film who, until its end, fits so nicely into the regular genre makes it all the more shocking and impactful. The Great Silence, like Michael Cimino’s Heaven’s Gate (1980), addresses the Johnson County range war with a contemporary leftist commentary. Corbucci treats The Great Silence as a sort of allegory for the failed student riots and demonstrations that occurred in Rome in 1967 and 1968. In the following decade this is the role, the function, that the Western genre would play. Marking the genesis of the revisionist Western.
“I created ‘The Westerner’ because of anger – anger at never-miss sheriffs, always-right marshalls, whitewashed gunfighters … anger at TV’s quick-draw tin gods who stand behind a tin star or ten cents’ worth of righteous anger and justify their skill and slaughter with a self-conscious grin or a minute’s worth of bad philosophy.”-Sam Peckinpah
The Revisionist Western that came to prominence in the early seventies at around the same time the New Hollywood began, like the latter, dissipated after Heaven’s Gate. Since then filmmakers have tried to strike a balance between the philosophical complexity and grittiness of the Revisionist Western with the Historical Romanticism of the Western of the fifties and before. Clint Eastwood has consistently made Westerns in line with Revisionism while others, such as Alex Cox with Walker (1987), attempted to fuse the genre with a blaring sense of post-modernism.
The least interesting and least successful Westerns have tended to be those dressed up in the grit of Revisionist Westerns that function on every other level as Romantic Westerns. Unfortunately films such as these tend to be more popular. In most recent years the best example of this nostalgic phenomenon would have to be the Cohen Brothers’ remake of True Grit (2010).
It is unfortunate that the genre has been unable to perpetuate itself into a new form at the beginning of the 21st century. This is even more unusual when one considers the renewed sense of nationalism America is still experiencing after 9/11. Perhaps this is because America, as a nation, is attempting to move beyond its pre-WWII past? That’s an essay for another time.