Cours d'Annie Bourgois sur le cinéma
Cours de Madame Annie Bourgois
Nature versus culture
The American western is more complex than the overworked
and often misleading distinction between the black-hatted villain and the white-clothed
hero suggests. In fact the western is not so much a matter of good versus evil
as of wilderness versus civilization; this generic opposition unfolding into
others: the individual versus the community, nature versus culture; West versus
East, or its variant, North versus South. The tension between wilderness and
civilization is dramatized in The Far Country, or Je Suis un Aventurier by A.
Mann, when the poor gold diggers wish to impose order and stability, build a
school and a church but have first to overthrow the tyranny of the so-called
judge Gannon. The latter obeys his self interest, the others see the welfare
of the whole community, one is moved by immediate, unchecked gratification,
the others bet on the future of their community (selfishness versus commitment,
or how Jeff will pass from one to the other). We find a similar struggle in
the community of Tombstone in My Darling Clementine or La Poursuite infernale
by Ford; the old Clanton and his four boys steal what they want and kill whoever
stand between their desire and its gratification, considering that the law coincides
with their selfish interests . The scene when they nearly shoot the actor because
he can only recite ‘poems’ (that is, in fact, ‘To Be or Not
To Be’!) is symptomatic of the wild barbarity they symbolize. The old
Clanton who rules with the whip over his sons symbolizes the archaic, tyrannical
father figure, who knows only his will, his pleasure. He epitomizes the tyrant
of primitive barbarian clan or bunch (Freud’s primitive horde) and will
be killed in OK Corral by the law abiding marshal, Wyatt Earp. Now, the scene
when, after having had his hair cropped, a strong scent of honeysuckle wafts
from him and which his brother and later Clementine mistake for the lovely smell
of nature is also gently and humorously significant of the taming of both men
and nature. (There are no long, heavy speeches nor conspicuous thesis hammered
in forcefully in Ford, just some apparently meaningless, trivial events, but
watch carefully: discrete, serious significations doze in them, waiting for
an alert mind to come to life. Intelligent films are not necessarily boring
and slow and conspicuously abstract!)
The main issues, as we shall see, are political and ethical and concern the notion of social contract and the nature of the social bond: in other words the nature of the Law that may lead a man to forsake his free rights, the better to safely enjoy his property. Besides, there lies a paradox which many westerns interrogate: in the State of Nature, one may be free and equal but so are others and it follows that one can never be protected from the equally free, equally eager others driven by the same strong desire to own and increase . The sad and pessimistic vision of mankind as a pack of hungry wolves reminds us of Hobbes’s belief that mankind would not be spared from war was it left in this State of Nature. The initial situation of most westerns perfectly illustrates this theory. The ambiguity of the proposed solution lies in the necessary limitations of freedom entailed by all civil and legal measures taken to ensure peace. It is generally on this account that the gunmen will resent the presence of a marshal or lawman, complaining that he puts an end to their freedom. Indeed, the triumph over the gunmen implies a delegation of power to a marshal or a lawyer and the end of personal vengeance, exemplified by the interdiction passed by some marshal to carry a gun when they enter a town. We could argue that westerns provide the best and most telling illustrations of the theses of both Hobbes and Locke. Of the former they retain the notion that ‘primitive communism’ is illusory and soon destroyed by the greed of some, of the latter they invoke the system of free delegation of power and the inescapable necessity of a strong independent legal authority. Some early westerns evoked the quest by pioneers for a pure prelapsarian (meaning before the Fall) adamic community of free Adam-like men (The Big Trail, La Piste des Géants). But then, after the settlement many westerns will show the evolution of a town ruled first by a violent, selfish tyrant, then the agreement to elect a marshal and finally the struggle against the lawless clan. If westerns, like myths, relate stories of origins, they invite us to meditate on the origin and the nature of the Law. It also follows that they raise the ethical issues resulting from civil life. We shall examine this more lengthily later.
The Western, an original American genre
America borrowed or stole many of its cultural manifestations
and modes of expression before it could create a culture of its own. As we know,
due to the absence of any copyrights, it started pillaging English literature,
then it proceeded to imitate it. Gradually though, the generations of Fenimore
Cooper, Hawthorne, Melville, Poe actually invented a style, a school, a universe
which is unmistakably American and which is characterized by a number of features
and patterns among which certain will find their ways into cinema. We may mention
the couple of male protagonists, the hero and his partner, and the absence of
truly great feminine heroine which we will develop later. Let us add the journey
pattern, as escape from civilization into the ocean (Moby Dick), or the prairies
(The Prairie) or even Europe (James), as quest for the Graal, or conquest of
the promised land. Among the main themes or concerns we find : the focus on
ethic issues, the struggle with the puritan sense of guilt and the search for
a true individualism which is not reduced to selfishness, a heavy resort to
symbolism which is inherited from the creed that God left signs of his providential
will in nature and that these signs must be read and interpreted, a tendency
to approach problems through a logic of antinomies and antagonism opposing sin
and redemption, innocence and guilt, election and doom, etc, and of course for
a population of protestants an excellent knowledge of the Bible and a systematic
use of biblical episode or symbolism among which, The Exodus, Moses (the man
with the tables of law) leading his people to Chanaan. (Egypt being replaced
by England, or later East), Cain versus Abel, The new Adam, The promised land.
Now we may safely claim that westerns picked up all these characteristics of American literature. It is nonetheless an authentically original cinematographic mode, imitated by Italians (Sergio Leone among others), but entirely born in the States, in the early years of mute cinema. Hence, it is not surprising that it should have played the ideological role I intend to examine .
Western and rites
Westerns tell stories and it is in this sense that we
were entitled to look for the common features between literature and films.
But, the western is also closer to theatre than novels and therefore much more
ritualistic. When we attend an opera, we accept the code and willingly suspend
disbelief; therefore we find it quite normal that the characters should sing
even when writhing in the last throes of agony. Same thing for ballet dancing:
No petty expectations for verisimilitudes come to thwart our pleasure at watching
bodies flouting the laws of terrestrial attraction. Likewise, westerns require
a good degree of connivance, duplicity and a willing suspension of disbelief.
But, and may be more than in other genres and even in films tending to realism,
the attendance and mise-en-scene of the genre respond to a high ritualisation.
The screening is attended by an audience and enhances the sense of social cohesion.
All the gazes focussing on one single spectacle tend to fuse the minds and souls
and foster an experience of communion. Cinema functioned as a social binder
in the early 20th century for the poor new immigrants and during the Depression.
Moreover it is not only the specific way of life of a given nation which is thus celebrated but also the general humanity of Mankind. Each of the main events of a man’s life are endowed with a ritual solemnity that wrenches them from the pettiness, triviality of daily life and endows them with a ceremonial quality, as if, each time, it was the first death, the first killing, the first treason. It follows that they seem to be performed according to a rite or in obedience to a liturgy. With westerns it is always a matter of beginnings. Each death encapsulates all death, each journey all journeys. If you miss this dimension of westerns and stick to the bare story, then you will be very disappointed and you will be left far beyond the true grandeur of the genre. Such rituals include gunplay, returns, departures, burials and chases. In a western one does not simply reach for a gun and shoot, one draws from the hip with style and flourish. The gun is more than a weapon, it is an extension of the personality, the projection of the power of the man, the manifestation of his aura. It is also an icon that inspires awe and respect (see the gold colts of Clay, in Warlock, L’Homme aux Colts d’Or). There is a tradition of dramatic shooting, a true choreography, with theatrical death (see the white handkerchief of Doc Halliday)
Homecomings and departure are as significantly ritualized as burials. The figure of Ulysses is never far, the return is a Nostos in the epic sense: see the return of Ethan (the hero of The Searchers) who rides towards his brother’s house as if along a processional alley, each member of the family looking at him in awe. When Wyatt Earp takes leave of Clementine or Shane of Marion, each behaves like a knight bidding farewell to his lady. Burials are strikingly framed with the mourners set against the horizon as if figures in a painting. Occasionally a touch of pathos is added, when the dog refuses to budge (Westward the Women).
Westerns and history
Westerns address all men, no matter their nationality, and it explains why, in spite of the ‘americanness’ of the genre, they are world-wide appreciated. This fact should not lead us to underestimate the role they have played in the writing or forging of American History.
Healing the wounds and adulterating the horrors.
It is clear that westerns record the history of the creation of a nation, registering its progress westward, the recession of the frontier, the Indians wars - Little Big Horn, Wounded knee, the genocide - the war with Spain, the railways, gold rushes, the conflict between cowboys and farmers, the issue of the barbed wire and the struggle of this young nation against its own barbarity to impose a civilization. They recycled some legendary pioneers, soldiers or marshals: Daniel Boone, Kit Carson, Buffalo Bill, Custer, Wyatt Earp, some famous gunmen, Jesse James, Billy the Kid, Anne Oakley and Calamity Jane, some famous places, Tombstone, Fort Alamo, Fort Apache. Few westerns deal with the Civil War, but there are many ex confederates or northern soldiers in the stories. The southerners escape the ruined South and the devastating Reconstruction. Wishing to triumph over the mourning of their dead culture, they feed their courage and eagerness to succeed with a strong dose of resentment and hatred of the North and turn to the West. They are gamblers. They bring with them their gentility, Romanesque spirit, knight-like behaviour, a touch of nostalgia, they are conspicuously well mannered with ladies (in Stagecoach, or La Chevauchée Fantastique ).The great cavalry westerns: They Died with their Boots On or La Charge Fantastique, She Wore a Yellow Ribbon or La Charge Héroique, Rio Grande, Fort Apache or Le Massacre de Fort Apache meant surely to reconcile the nation with its federal army after the ravages of the Civil War which had split the Nation in two, with two contending armies. It follows that westerns provided spectators with the image of a brave and honest army which was likely to restore the shattered patriotism or simply to instil one in the newly arrived immigrants.
Wedding the West with the East.
Another struggle is recorded between the coarse, vulgar but often pure westerners and the educated but often corrupted Easterners. In The Man who Shot Liberty Valance of course, the East brings education, justice, teaches to read, but, since Stoddard cannot shoot, he could not just survive without Doniphon. And yet his arrival signalises the end of the world of Doniphon and the replacement of cactus by roses. The gun helped impose the book, but under the rule of the book, the gun must surrender and disappear. Let me add that to save the lawyer, Doniphan has had to proceed slyly, flouting the noble rules of western duels and therefore transgressing his own code of behaviour. It follows that Doniphon is not simply buried by the lawyer; he deliberately chooses to betray his code to give way to another civilization where politicians, lawyers will rule the country. In this sense the film offers an interesting exception, since usually westerns focus on the poor role played by the corrupted northerners in the spreading of the railways or in the genocide of the Indians. The politicians of Washington are often depicted as stupid and cupid, easily bribed and flattered (see the opposition between the noble soldiers and the crooked politicians in They died with their boots on.)
Screen or smoke screen?
It is also interesting to consider the period that saw
the birth, rise and climax of the genre and examine the ideological role the
westerns played. At the end of the 19th century (1894) and dawn of the 20th
century (up to 1917), the first mute westerns were shown in Nickelodeons, attended
by poor immigrants who did not yet speak English, but who could follow the simple
plots of these mute films. They taught them the legend of the West, educated
them in the pioneer spirit and contributed to integrate them, being unquestionably
a major ingredient of the melting pot. It is also in those years that Roosevelt
as president launched a new project for America, the conquest of Cuba and the
Philippines upheld by the notion of white supremacy and the providential mission
of the Manifest Destiny. The memory of the conquest of the West could serve
to fuel the ardour of the American citizens and provided an illustrious example.
In fact, to better understand the ideological function of westerns it is necessary to differentiate between different periods and see, for each historical, economical context, the type of stories that were promoted.
1901-1918: The birth of the genre: a popular entertainment targeted to poor classes. Broncho Billy, Rio Jim, Tom Mix, legendary heroes. The creation of a unifying Myth; the idealisation of the Frontier.
1918- 29: From mythification to mystification; the films must appeal to the middle-class. Moralizing stories. Racism. ( From 27 films talk!)
The thirties.: The shock of the depression, a need for escapism and entertainment.
The forties and fifties. The main events: second world war and cold war, fear of communism, economic boom, emancipation of women. The greatest period for westerns. The marshal replaced the pioneers, political and ethical issues are central. The psychology of the heroes is complexified.
The dusk of the genre, the 70s and after: the dream was a nightmare
Cimino, Heavens’ gates or Peckinpah, The Wild Bunch, an apocalyptic vision. A disenchanted gaze.
Eastwood or the stripping of the genre of its mythical veils. Both an homage paid to the masters of the genre and a disclosing of hideous realities. Find information about his westerns.
Westerns and the American dream. “When the legend is better than reality. Print the legend.”
Many westerns either promote the American dream or register
its defeat or failure. The first category may be said to participate in an enterprise
of idealization, turning history into a mythical realisation of some biblical
achievement. Wherever they are going, Chanaan is there, the Exodus providing,
as we have seen a narrative pattern often resorted to. America has a short history
but, all the same, it needed to forge a common past, common roots, common values.
We may argue that the westerns provided all these so as to create a common culture.
Remember the role of the nickelodeons. The bad Indian, as the negro, functions
as the scapegoating victim whose lynching or killing offer a ritual gathering
and sharing. In a country where each man was in fact a stranger to the land,
and a foreigner to his neighbour, it was essential to elect someone unto whom
the hatred of the other could find its target, clearing the community of all
traces of hostility likely to thwart the celebration of one ideal, one flag.
We’ll see that in fact as the Civil Right Movement gained, the Indian
received a different treatment even though not all great filmmakers were biased
in their depiction of Indians. Cheyenne Autumn, 1964 is reputed to be the first
great film showing something of the deliberate genocide that took place in the
west. But, with Broken Arrow, 1950, Delmer Daves had opened the way. The famous
massacre of Wounded Knee, the hideous role of Custer have often being totally
transvested into heroic episodes, not to mention a similar drastic transformation
of the slaughter of the buffalos by Buffalo Bill which was meant to starve the
Indians and force them to accept to be reduced to settlement and agriculture,
while clearing the plains for the railways.
Clint Eastwood, even better than Peckinpah, revisited the western and stripped it of the glorious veil that concealed the hideous truth of the frontier. Unforgiven, 92, High Man Drifter 73, Josey Wales , 76, Bronco Billy, 80, Pale Rider, 85 should be seen both as homage paid to the great directors, Ford, Mann, Hawks and as dire criticism of the idealization westerns contrived to forge of historical facts and bleak reality. Little Big Man did not conceal this either.
From History to Stories
Western narratives: the quest and journey patterns.
How does a story unfold?
Beneath the extreme varieties of stories, let us discover the invariable patterns. If we agree to consider that a story is the relation of a transformation, that is the passage from a state of being to another, we are then legitimized in asking what motivates this change. It so happens that the initial situation undergoes such a disruption which may be qualified as a loss or want that an action has to be undertaken to restore the balance. Most stories relate tales of restoration or recovery, what has been lost must be found, regained or replaced, what was wanting must be discovered. The agents of these transformations will necessarily change under the circumstances, either improve or deteriorate.
What are they looking for?
We may safely contend that in westerns the heroes are
looking for something which either they have lost or never have had ( Kemp in
The Naked Spur means to compensate for the loss of his ranch by the money of
the award; Jesse is looking for gold, which he has spent his whole life vainly
The search goading the heroes is either, a search for someone who may be loved or hated, the hero of The Searchers condenses the two feelings on the same girl, the niece of Ethan who has been captured by Indians, hence the struggle between love and hate is internalized. It can be gold, or a desired place to settle so that the film unfolds a remake of the Exodus and the yearned for country conjures up lost paradise.
The education of a wild bunch.
Those embarking on this quest are a varied lot, usually a mix of individualists, educated or uncouth, moral or amoral, romantic or realist, belonging to different classes. In the coach that gathers them as in Stagecoach we recognize the legacy of the picaresque novel, confronting different classes: the loner hero with a criminal past, the ex prostitute, the drunken doctor, the embezzling banker, the good pregnant wife of a regular officer, the southern gambler, the nice whiskey saler, a generous marshal and rough but kind driver married to a Mexican wife. It is a small microcosmos and the point to make is that the true moral values are not to be found in the higher strata of society, the bourgeoisie is either corrupted or stifled by limiting prejudices; the myth of the open society is dismissed, the promiscuity in the coach cannot erase the distance imposed by customs and codes. Ford means to show that the true moral values which the marshal identifies in the couple Ringo and Dallas are not to be identified to social status. Let us now focus our analysis on the hero.
Transformations: the fall and rise of the hero
The western hero is often deep inside a loner, fiercely independent, totally self reliant and proud of it, a fierce, staunch individualist. If he is to develop as a true human being, he must undergo a transformation, a kind of ritual initiation which, through a series of trials, severe defeats, losses will lead him to a revival, or rebirth.
The U-pattern of the hero’s evolution.
In this sense, the western unfolds along the U-pattern
of the comedy , as analysed by Northrop Frye. Comedy, in this occurrence, is
just a mode of telling a story which means to negotiate a severe clash between
different persons, or different states, which may disrupt social order; the
social body is sick and the comic resolution will cure it. It starts with a
situation where a hero faces an illegitimate order of usurpers who prevent him
from integrating or just finding his place in the community ( for ex, in classical
comedies a young maid is not allowed to marry the man she loves, whereas in
western, a man who wishes to invest his money in a little business is robbed
(in Wichita). The young couple will have to pass through many trials before
triumphing over the will of old, ruthless parents; the lawman will have to rid
the town of the gangsters and enforce the law). Now the Divine Comedy is also
a comedy but the community to be joined is God’s. Therefore, a comedy
is a story of fall and rise, sin and redemption. Before he can rise, the hero
must undergo a number of trials and tests; he will approximate symbolical death,
loose most of his belongings and physical capacities (his hand may be wounded),
he wanders in a state of wilderness, is forsaken by friends and faces loneliness
(High Noon), he faces deprivation. The opening situation is often triggered
by loss, this loss anticipating or prefiguring the coming want, want of law.
The hero looses something precious: cattle, a brother or son, a wife, he is
exposed to the temptation of a bloody revenge, yearning to quench his thirst
for justice in the blood of the culprit. He may at the end propose a fair trial
or a reconciliation or contribute to the triumph of justice.
He must overcome his hatred, his passion (Ethan, in The Searchers), his greed (The Naked Spur), his selfishness (Jeff in Far Country) to serve his community or simply to join in and belong to a redeemed humanity.
Resolution of conflicts. The tragic and comic solutions.
We may consider that both types of stories are means of
negotiating a social problem
If the comedy solves the conflict and restores peace and harmony through a principle of integration, the tragedy differs because the resolution of the conflict is dealt with through the exclusion of the villain. The tragic show invites us to see how the hero makes systematic wrong choices and led by a blind passion speeds to his defeat. Instead of being capable of overcoming his flaws, he yields to them endlessly. We can say that the story of Billy the Kid follows this logic. Some westerns resort to this pattern and end with the death of the wrongdoer, around whose corpse a purged community gathers and unites in the celebration of its restored harmony, the death of the villain partakes of scapegoating mechanism. Comedies cannot stage death , being originally celebration of fertility and rebirth, whereas tragedies are often variations of Memento Mori. So the ironic tragic mode is even more efficient when the victim of the process is innocent. The agonizing Kirk Douglas and the convulsive jerks of his wounded mare, Whisky surrounded by a circle of anonymous gazes in Lonely are the Brave, 1962, allow David Miller to illustrate perfectly that type of tragic resolution.
Westerns and women
We may notice that quite often the western hero avoids marriage, or that marriage is not represented, avowedly because it is an institution that curtails freedom and subjects men to the power of women. It has been argued that, in American literature, the only great significant couples involved either two men or a boy and a man but only rarely a man and a woman (Ishmael and Queequeg, the young Huck and Jim, the fugitive slave, Natty Bumpo and Chingachgook, the Indian, etc). It seems that there are no memorable feminine heroine either., no Anna Karina, no Madame de Bovary, no Princesse de Clèves, no Manon Lescaut, etc. (remember Hester in The Scarlet Letter). This is not systematically the case in westerns, Johnny Guitar, - Vienna- Rancho Notorious or L’Ange des Maudits – Altar-, Forty Guns or Quarante Tueurs, offer extraordinary phallic heroines, but these are exceptions and in the majority of cases, the couples are formed by two men (Clay and Morgan, Pat and Billy Wyatt and Doc Holliday, see The Outlaw among others, Vera Cruz). Nevertheless the great majority of westerns evolve in a no woman’s land. To return to the relative absence of marriage, another reason could be invoked, that is, since marriage as an institution requires an elaborate institutionalised society and since westerns are essentially engaged with the founding of societies, consequently there is no room for such a manifestation. The proof may be provided by the structural place that is reserved to instances of marriage in westerns: either before the beginning of the film, at the very beginning (but then the wife dies) or at the very end, that is, when the film has not yet started or when it is finished. Marriage simply does not belong to the universe of the westerns. When Jeff, in The Far Country finally yields to it, it is presented as a prospective poor choice, the hero being physically diminished. Otherwise, the wife is already dead and we simply see the hero talking gently to her on her tomb (Wayne in She wore a Yellow Ribbon). In The Searchers, the hero, symptomatically, will not enter any homes after the terrible slaughter of his family and at the end we see him leaving framed by the door of the house in which he has refused to settle. Even My Darling Clementine does not end with the expected wedding of Wyatt Earp with Clementine Carter. The hero must first go to his father and then eventually if he leads cattle again to California he says he’ll stop by. Westward Women by Wellman, released in 59, is a superb exception, since it tells the story of the journey 100 women undertake to join their husbands who have paid and sent for them. Generally women will serve an educating role, pruning the hairy, savage man. Who can forget the smell of honeysuckle wafting from Fonda’s hair?
The absent mother, a figure to be remembered.
The mother is another important figure who received a specific treatment in westerns: most often she is dead or has been left in a far country: the hero remembers her with great nostalgia and a regressive desire. She stands for a home which has been forsaken and not yet found or replaced. She symbolizes an edenic past and a longed for future. She is conspicuously absent from the present. She is always perfect as all old women are in westerns, all figures of the good, caring, feeding, bible-reading mother. The terrible, castrating great maternal figure does not appear unless it has been transferred to the whimsical tempers of wild Nature. No wonder the eligible woman will have to act motherly like. The westerns skip the erotic phase and jump from the apron of mums to the skirt of wives. The only place where sexuality is overtly exhibited is the saloon, that is before the drunk cowboy collapses from his chair, and if he does not prefer to make a riot with his boisterous palls.
The ladies of the saloons.
As a matter of fact, it is not quite true to claim that
the western is exclusively a man’s world, since there is hardly a single
western without saloons and therefore prostitutes. Under the cover of documentary
realism, directors could transgress the strict rules of censorship (not so strong
at the beginning of the century but sternly drastic with the Hays Code) and
stage some bawdy scenes in saloons (the role of orgies in Peplums). But the
point to be made is that the prostitute is always a good prostitute in love
with a gunman.
Save the whore : redeem the mother!
The redemption of prostitutes is not only a moral theme, which, in a Christian civilisation, familiar with the figure of Mary Magdalene, is not surprising; but it is also, as Freud analysed it, a symptomatic type of love among men who used to be strongly attached to their mothers. Save the whore, in other words, save the mother, since when the boy realized that his loved mother had a life of her own –meaning sex- with another man, the father, she became for him, and hopefully for a while only, no better than a whore; some will never recover from the shock and later the grown-up boy will love prostitutes with a single idea: save them and extract them from their trade so that they may again belong to one single man, that is the former boy.
The whore and the bullet
Some filmmakers however have gone further and turned these quasi props into real protagonists. However, the point in this case, owing to the selfsame rules of censorship, will be how to get rid of them in the final resolution which, as you remember, witnesses the birth of a purified society and can hardly integrate an ex prostitute. In Stagecoach, we have an interesting and rather daring resolution since the social outcast Ringo and the ex prostitute Dallas are both allowed to run away by the marshal. But Chihuaha in My Dear Clementine and Castle in Far Country, the queen of Rancho Notorious are killed and die . The best case is when the prostitute catches the bullet that was aimed at the hero and dies. Unforgiven makes an interesting point to the case, since the film revolves around the punishment of those who have wounded and disfigured a prostitute who had laughed at the puny tiny penis of her client. Hence the search for the fair retribution is closely linked to a reflection on the fate of women in the West, appalling!
The taming of men.
There are love stories in Westerns but we can hardly claim that it is the central theme, often just subsidiary to the central plot ( Duel in the Sun is an exception; while the stories of Pat Garret and Billy toy with homosexuality, in The Left-handed Gun or Le Gaucher or again in Brando’s film The Vengeance with Two Faces). Indeed, as we have seen, westerns are concerned with the creation of a community bound by the respect of the Law . Nevertheless, the heroine will play an important role in transforming the ‘beast’ into a man (she may first complain about his filth, hairy face, stench as in The Yellow Sky, or actually save him from the wrath which blinds him, as in The Naked Spur. She nurses him, cleans and tends his wounds as a good mother) In this sense, we may suggest that if westerns unfold like comedies, aiming towards a reconciliation including reconciliation of the sexes and integration so as to found a new city, the woman plays a role in this construction. Yet I wonder whether we can find a stronger face to face between two human beings than the one staging Fonda, in front of Widmark in Warlock. Here we witness the epiphany of the law, the surrendering of a man before the sacredness of the Law, whereas in the numerous, inevitable embraces we simply watch a tepid cliché. Love can hardly be the central topic of a western; it is only instrumental in the creation of the future families of the newly born city: a theme for the romantic comedies to come later in Hollywood.
From Myth to Epic
This first approach brings sufficient evidence to substanciate the complexity and interest of the genre which deserves a serious attention. It is my contention that westerns, though belonging to a modern aesthetic mode, cinema, paradoxically bear deep similarities to myths and epics while sometimes toying with tragedy. By this, I mean that it fulfils the same functions and broaches the same essential themes, performing an educating role, by teaching human beings how to behave so as to live in a community. We might argue that the western not only served to endow American history with the glories of heroism in order to construct a common past for a population which was born or had just arrived in the ‘melting pot’ but that it also accompanied the passage of the American West from a holistic community to an individualistic one.
Besides, we may contend that the films proposed clever meditations, through illustrations, on the complex notion of Law, dramatized the violent and ambiguous birth of a democratic system, trying to reconcile the rights of the individuals with the demands of security.
It follows that the best westerns examine or foreground the inevitable contradictions lying at the core of a system which means to promote the liberty of each, while ensuring the safety of all. Warlock is to my mind the film that illustrates this function best and after having considered the mythical and epic nature of westerns, we shall turn to a close analysis of this rare but essential film by Dmytryk.
Why stories? Stories of relations.
After all, the question is simple: why did men always felt the need for telling or listening to stories? What were the functions of the first stories ever forged, that is, myths, soon followed by epics? We can hardly believe that the culture of leisure already existed and that mankind, bored of its daily routine, yearned for good entertaining stories!! Nor was it a matter of whiling away spare time when nights fell early. They must perform a serious role, answer serious questions, give sense and direction, unveil mysteries. They are essentially stories of relations: relationships between men, relations between Man and Nature, relations between Man and his Humanity. Hence, before examining the common features between myths and westerns, let us briefly remember what a myth is and how it functions.
Myths: a definition
Myths aim at explaining and enlightening the present state of a community by tracing its illustrious, providential, divine origin. It is meant to provide an answer to all the whys a man may ask. Besides, by polarizing the universe, the rules of which they mean to explain, ( dividing a whole into opposites) they tend to focus on the intermediary states, so as to explore the exact nature of the opposites, but also their compatibilities or differences; furthermore, by forging third terms whose nature is heterogeneous and complex, borrowing from the nature of each primal opposite state, and whose function is to mediate between these extremes, myths elicit their respective complexity and create possible transitions, passages between the two, and communications. Finally, they formulate the rules of behaviour of each member of a community by tracing the origins of these compulsory attitudes to famous ancestors, gods or sacred animals and explaining the tremendous catastrophes to be thus avoided. You must bear in mind that the prevailing frame of reference within which all myths were forged was holistic, implying a fundamental sense of totality of the whole, Man belonging to this whole in as much as he contributes to maintain this unity. Actually, this vision still obtained in the early westerns. If you wish to learn more about myths, read Levy-Strauss’s Mythologies. ( I recommend Le Cru et le Cuit)
A binary system
The universe of the western, due to its similitude to myth and epic, hinges around a binary structure : the desert vs the garden, the rose vs the cactus, ignorance vs education, freedom vs responsibility, self concern vs commitment. This polarity does not necessarily imply a simplistic dualism nor a Manichaeism, ( the rose is not better than the cactus in The man who Shot Liberty Valance) but rather constructs the adequate ground for a dialectic system to start elaborating new synthesis, through which opposites must relinquish something of their staunch differences, open their inner complexities, and allow for a possible communication, if not total reconciliation, through a mediating third term or even reorganize the whole data. ( The third term is of course embodied and it clearly appears in The Naked Spur under the features of Lina, the young maid who passes from Ben, the Killer, to Kemp and brings his redemption. Jeff will have to learn that self reliance is useful but may also verge on pure selfishness and total indifference: individualism does not equate complete disregard for others) As I said above, but I wish the point to be absolutely clear, the polarisation of a fictitious universe and of characters, except in simplistic films, is in fact a means to better investigate the intermediary space, the in-betweens, to discover the features likely to allow for a circulation between the stringent poles. It is only if you oppose Good to Evil that you will be able to appreciate all the degrees of goodness, discover the wide range of its manifestations, differentiate between terrestrial good and heavenly good, and thus learn how it may strangely disguise Evil into a good-looking, fair, amiable chap! Or again, how the very good people ( there are many in the western towns) hide bigotry, intolerance and sheer idiocy.
A game: is there a difference between: “I cannot not want”, “ I cannot want”, “I must want to know”, “I should want to know”?
The play with contradictions and contrarieties yields
great knowledge; this game may be played by predicating each opposite with the
whole gamut of negative and affirmative modalities. By modalities, I mean: will,
duty, knowledge and power – can, will or shall, must or ought to; and
by negative or affirmative, I simply mean: can or cannot, etc. Moreover, to
gently but fruitfully complexify the game, you will relate ad libitum the various
modals: X cannot want, X wants but cannot do, X can do but does not know how
he should, better still, X cannot not want, etc. By doing this you’ll
cover the whole range of human attitudes. And it may allow you to schematize
the various behaviours of the same character, and assess his evolution. It is
just a simple method and you should learn to practice it.
The hero and his partners
The opposition between the hero and the villain is often qualified or tempered by similarities, connivance, a compatibility ( Vera Cruz, Pat Garret and Billy), ( in The Naked Spur Roy will several times remind Kemp that he is no better than himself, both seeking the 5000$ award). It is as if the couple or pair resulted in fact from the splitting of one character, each one embodying one aspect of a same man. In other cases, within the group of the goodies you find a wide range of social status, ages, temperaments (Rio Bravo). One member is too young, another too old, a third too alcoholic, too marginal. The miscellaneous group tempers the whiteness of the hero. There is a shared dose of excess that brands the bunch, an excess of youth, age, addiction, violence, and these excesses will have to yield to make way for a Via Media. The point lies in the evolution or education of the hero who will undergo the trial through the chase or the fight as an initiation. This education is also very often obtained thanks to the presence of a woman. See in The Far Country, The Searchers, Rio Bravo, Vera Cruz, etc.
:From exemplary heroes to problematic ones.
Now when the present of a society is already rationalized , its origin can no longer be deemed providential nor divine, therefore the myth turns into chronicles and genealogies. The gods send men on earth who are the founding fathers or ancestors. Their stories read as epics or legends. The western is a secularized mythology through which a society attempts to solve its contradictions by tracing its origins. The epic western of the early years of the 20th century dramatizes the time when nature was humanized in a primitive communism (The Big Trail), likewise later westerns define the birth and instauration of the law, when the community divides itself through the division of work and powers. The hero faces, in this separation, the trial which qualifies him. If the law triumphs it is because something, a superior agency has granted, or endowed this law with its power. These westerns manage to isolate the moment when the elaboration of a civilization requires the end of the collective epic adventure, and when some men (Gannon) make history.
When History wins over the epic.
The first westerns documented an epic world where all heroes were exemplary as founding fathers. The late westerns register the end of this primitive heroic time with nostalgia and pain. Indeed, westerns, as we have seen, even if they are highly ritualised and easily recognizable due to their inevitable unvariants: the chase, the horses, the gunfight, the attack of the Indians, the wide space, cannot be simply reduced to their forms. They belong to the mythology of the West, telling national epic or political tales . The heroes are mythological in the sense that they entertain with history an essential, creative relation in a situation where evil defies good and good triumphs over evil The conflicts inherent to epic, an unadulterated world which ignores division, splitting, were simple: good is life and the security of the community, evil is that which jeopardizes it, good and evil are exterior from one other, having nothing in common. But when the conflict is no longer as simple, when evil is interiorized, or located in an alter ego, when the value of the hero may be questioned, then the epic vanishes and yields to history and human stories are related in comic romances or tragedies.
A budding historical consciousness.
We may suggest that the late (the 40s, 50s, 60s) western’s
appearance resulted from a triple transformation of its mythology.
1. a crisis of its epic nature: the ethic community in a state of nature no longer enjoys the privileges of innocence and is exposed to all kinds of degradations and decays. Greed, selfishness, jealousy, fear, corruption teem in the towns. Its legitimacy is questioned.
2. This questioning is contemporary to a displacement of the dramatic situation : the West is no longer the west of the conquest, the west of the frontier, but the conquered west, exploited and plundered. The exploitation of the country becomes the central problem and private interests clash: cowboys vs farmers. The gun man who is hired to restore peace must face his own community and then is expelled. The situation is complex with three terms; good is subdivided into the hitman and the marshal.(Gannon vs Clay)
3. A new historical consciousness appears: The Man who Shot Liberty Valance illustrates it. The epic mode aimed at an achievement which justified the action, now the hero is excluded from the victory, as the violence of Doniphan must leave room to the morality of Stoddard, the man from the East.
The tragic exclusion of the epic hero.
A new blasé hero must face the dissociation of social life. The hero is doomed to solitude, isolated, he is excluded from the city, just as estranged from it as law itself in its inhuman, abstract purity. The hero is doomed then to meet the trial, when a civilization actuates its founding act: the instauration of the law. It reminds the situation of Greek tragedies: Troy is vanquished, Agamemnon returns and must now impose political law over the ancient law of revenge and retaliation, the law of blood. The community is helpless and can only become the witness of this historical shift. When the hero recognizes the law, when Clay drops his colt in front of Gannon, this triumphant revelation of the law coincides with his exclusion. Likewise Doniphon shrinks into a kind of unshaved, slovenly tramp as Stoddard is elected delegate.
The triumph of the law
In The Man who Shot Liberty Valance, Ford juxtaposes and
confronts the epic past ( with the cowboys and Valance) and the tragic present
(the moment when law triumphs).If we ask the question: “who killed Valance
?”, it implies that we wonder who the hero is or even if there is any
hero. Doniphan embodies the power that Stoddard lacks and Stoddard the historical
consciousness that Doniphan ignores, they should be complementary, but one is
the death of the other. Their two modes will never coincide. The passage from
collective epic justice to administrative justice is in fact unfair, unjust.
It could be tragically glorified because man proves capable of being a lawman
and the law is human creation. But the heroism of the law splits into a heroism
serving the law (Doniphan) and a stern legalism devoid of heroism (Stoddard).
The epic mythology vanishes into the confused religiosity of the civil service
man, and the state becomes the new idol.
Warlock: The lawman and the marshal.
In Warlock we find a similar fecund opposition between Gannon, the ex gangster who has been elected by the marshal and who embodies the law ‘I AM THE LAW’ says he as he painfully climbs back on his horse after having been badly wounded by Abe, the chief of the cowboys and Clay who is a famous gunman and lawman and has been sent for by the village committee. Both owe their power and legitimacy from a delegation and both share the same earnest desire to do the job they are paid for. Because, ultimately Clay will accept to surrender to the marshal in a superb scene when he drops his two gold colts which sink into the sand of the street, the film invites the viewer to meditate about the origin of the legitimacy of the agent of the law. We notice that among the first measures imposed by Clay there is the interdiction addressed to the cowboys to come to the village, likewise the last measure taken by Gannon is a similar interdiction for Clay; and we may wonder why Gannon should be more justified. There is an interesting splitting of the hero into Clay and Morgan, the crippled gambler and owner of the gambling place, on the one hand, and between Clay and Gannon on the other. This splitting is accompanied by the shifting of the prostitute, Lilly from Morgan to Gannon. The concept of law is so complex that not one single character can embody it; the whole scale, or all the various historical faces that law has assumed are represented: revenge and bloody personal retaliation illustrated by Morgan, dispassionate, controlled, rational application of order through violence and then legal law regulated by the system. It is interesting to notice the polarity dividing the universe with standing on one side, a crippled man, Morgan and at the extreme opposite, another cripple, the judge who is hysterically hostile to all use of violence (a kind of Stoddard who would hate Doniphan).
1)For each film screened the student will write a short, precise note.
2) The film will be interpreted within the frame provided by the lecture.
A few among the best westerns
Vera Cruz, 54
Broken Arrow, 50.
The Broken Lance, 54
The town of Warlock sees its peace and chances of prosperity jeopardized by a gang of unruly, bloody cowboys led by Abe. The first scene shows how they can terrorize the inhabitants, shooting whoever displeases them: the principle of pleasure prevails and they rule by the power of their gun and the fear they inspire. The inhabitants feel powerless and helpless: they are revolted but their legitimate fear of death paradoxically doom them to die. The motivations of the cowboys is purely uncurbed libido, they act as children who admit no lapse of waiting between their want and their gratification. The committee of warlock meets and agrees on sending for a famous lawman and gunman. The townsmen delegate to him the power to use any necessary means to restore peace and power to kill whoever transgresses the law he passes. The main plot will focus on the feud between this gunman and the man who accepts to become the lawful marshal. The point being to elicit from this confrontation the true nature of the law.
High Plains Drifter
Drums along the Mohawks, 39
My Darling Clementine, 46
Fort Apache, 48
Three Godfathers, 48
She Wore a Yellow Ribbon, 49
The Searchers, 56
Two Rode Together, 61
The Man who Shot Liberty Valance, 61
Cheyenne Autumn, 64.
I Shot Jesse James, 48
Run of the Arrow, 56
Forty Guns, 57
Red River, 48
Big Sky, 52
Rio Bravo, 58
El Dorado, 67
The Return of Frank James, 40
Rancho Notorious, 51
The Naked Spur, 52
The Far Country, 53
The Man from Laramie, 54
The Last Frontier, 55
The Tin Star, 56
Man of the West, 58
The Wild Bunch,
The left-handed Gun,58
The River of no Return, 54
Johnny Guitar, 54
Gunfight at the OK Corral, 57
The Last Train from Gunhill, 59
The Magnificent Seven, 60
The Naked Dawn, 54
Duel in the Sun, 46
Man without a star, 54
The Big Trail, 30
They Died with their Boots on, 41
Distant Drums, 51
A distant trumpet, 63
Yellow Sky, 48
Westward the Women, 50
High Noon, 52
Here should come the summary of major films, but it’s up to you now; since there is no point in your reading the story of a film you’ve not seen.