Hang onto your six gallon hats for this whistle-stop tour of influential Western films from My Darling Clementine to Brokeback Mountain by True West director Phillip Breen:
The Western In American Life (A True West Filmography)
American social life is drenched in imagery from the Western. The term "rugged individualism" evoked by Herbert Hoover was straight out of the lexicon of the cowboy and served to justify the lack of state intervention in the economy that led to the Wall Street crash and the great depression of 1929. The gun is still an emotive symbol of American Freedom. President Bush's talk of "a coalition of the willing", and his desire to "root out evil doers" comes straight out of a Hopalong Cassidy comic. President Truman's favourite film was John Ford's My Darling Clementine a soothing and sentimental depiction of the life of lawman Wyatt Earp. It played at the White House several times in 1946, the year after America bombed Hiroshima and Nagasaki and the year in which America rattled sabres with the Soviet Union by carrying out a series of further nuclear tests in the New Mexico desert.
|My Darling Clementine|
America's anxiety about its role on the world stage was dramatised in Fred Zinneman's High Noon (1952) (a favourite film of Eisenhower's), while the Korean War was in full swing and America was trying (often alone) to stop communist expansion in Asia. In this film the pacifist marshall played by Gary Cooper fails to gather a posse to face down the evil Colby brothers, and he must face them alone at high noon. America's racial tensions in the 50s were played out in films like John Ford's The Searchers (1956), where the "Indians" clearly represented African Americans as seen through the lens of white middle America, they were close by, savage, sexually rapacious and a threat to the American way of life. In this film John Wayne would rather kill his niece than let her live married to an Indian. America's unease with the pace of modernity was explored in David Miller's 1962 film Lonely Are The Brave where in the opening frames a sleeping cowboy (played by Kirk Douglas) and his horse are woken by the scream of a pair of jet-fighters soaring through the sky.
|Lonely Are The Brave|
John Ford's 50 year career which saw him make 140 films, most of them Westerns, lasted twice as long as the frontier period itself. However toward the end of his movie-making career in the mid- sixties he was making films like Cheyenne Autumn a sympathetic portrait of Native American life and culture. This film was seemingly dramatising his own guilt about the senseless slaughter of Native Americans in his films. And perhaps reflecting America's own guilt about its own deep seated racial prejudice. It was made in 1963 the same year that Martin Luther King was making his famous 'I have a dream' speech.
Soon the Western was being colonised by a counter-culture as a way of criticising American life. Andy Warhol's Lonesome Cowboys (1968) became a hit among hipsters, this film accompanied his iconoclastic pop-art renderings of John Wayne and Geronimo. Schlesinger's Midnight Cowboy (1969) offered up a western with the backdrop of an urban dystopia* and even the spaghetti westerns by Sergio Leone, starring Clint Eastwood took the overtly moral core out of the Western genre and left us with an inscrutable anti-hero "the man with no name" who metes out bloody violence to anyone who stands in his way. Instead of justice, just a dark unknowable heart - and it became increasingly difficult to distinguish between the good guys and the bad guys.
|Geronimo by Andy Warhol|
The Western also reflected the increasingly violent character of American society in the early to mid 1970's. Audiences flocked to the extreme, nihilistic violence of the films of Sam Peckinpah The Wild Bunch (1969) and Pat Garrett and BIlly the Kid (1973). Peckinpah was the ultimate ersatz cowboy, whilst ragingly drunk one night he caused hundreds of thousands of dollars of damage to a Texas hotel when he tried to take his horse up to his suite in the elevator. The horse died when it was cut out of the lift shaft.
|The Wild Bunch|
Scorsese's Taxi Driver (1976) had an explicit conversation with the Western genre. The film offers us a complicated urban morality tale, in which the damsel in distress was a child prostitute and the hero takes his date to a porn movie rather than a barn dance but still, at the film’s bloody conclusion, he massacres the baddies in a hail of bullets. Here Scorsese offers a reducto ad absurdum of tenets of the western, the film’s anti-hero, the wanderer Travis Bickle offers simplistic western-style individualist solutions to highly complex social problems. Even his name ‘Travis’ linked him to the defender of the Alamo. Crucially Travis is a disaffected young Vietnam veteran who, because he cannot express himself economically, finds himself alienated from mainstream American life, he can't find himself so he assembles an identity from an external menu of traits from the western; the macho individualist, the gunslinger and the western lawman. Far from being lionised, the gunslinging American male was being scrutinised - America was being asked to countenance whether it was themselves who were the bad guys.
However it took until 2005 for the final myth of the main stream Western to be exploded. Ang Lee's Brokeback Mountain was one of the first mainstream American films to offer up not only a gay love story, but a romantic gay love scene (Tarantino's Pulp Fiction (1994) and Alan Parker's Midnight Express (1978) even gave us explicitly violent scenes of male rape in mainstream cinema); but somehow it seemed apt that to was through the lens of the Western that mainstream American cinema saw its first achingly romantic gay love story.
Citizens Theatre | 29 Oct - 16 Nov 2013