“With the stakes raised so high, the heroes of such dramas are indeed often superheroic, near divinities. One man can outduel five others in a shoot-out (as in the Achilles and Patroclus ending of Unforgiven [dir. Clint Eastwood, 1992] or the final gunfight in Stagecoach [dir. John Ford, 1939]); a hero can be accurate with a pistol (at a full gallop) at two hundred yards, and so on, just as
Odysseus can slay all the suitors and Achilles can terrify an entire army with one war cry. Accordingly, the acting styles and visual sweep are, in their grandiosity and ambition, much closer to opera than to filmed domestic dramas. (Not for nothing are they derisively known as horse operas.)-Robert B. Pippin
What westerns are all about is often far more complex than vague doctrines on American populism. Wrung dry of tearful sentimentalism, the clearing gunsmoke from those dusty main streets of the frontier town reveals some persistent political themes…
It is generally agreed that while, from the silent film The Great Train Robbery (1903) until the present, well over seven thousand Westerns have been made it was not until three seminal articles in the nineteen fifties by Andre´ Bazin and Robert Warshow that the genre began to be taken seriously. Indeed Bazin argued that the “secret” of the extraordinary persistence of the Western
must be due to the fact that the Western embodies “the essence of cinema,”and he suggested that that essence was its incorporation of myth and a mythic consciousness of the world. He appeared to mean by this that Westerns tended to treat characters as types and narrative as revolving around a small number of essential plots, offering various perspectives on fundamental issues faced by any society, especially the problem of law and political authority.
The Western hero is rarely a Sir Gallahad in chaps; he is instead what might be termed the Madisonian hero . According to James Madison , the only free government likely to endure is one so contrived that the private interests of the man will coincide with he interests of his office. Congressmen and the president will check each others’s usurpations not necessarily out of devotion to the common weal but because each, if only out of pride and vanity, will defend the prerogatives of his branch of government.
In this way private motives will serve common good. The Madisonian skepticism, the refusal to rely on, or even believe in, men of high public virtue, is perhaps the strongest of all America’s shared political beliefs. We demand- at least in the movies- that the doer of great public deeds have a private motive. The Western hero meets our political requirement, reaffirming our deep- seated political skepticism . He wreaks ruthless private vengeance, and the town, as a result, is set free.
…”Bazin expressed great contempt for critics who thought that Western plots were “simple” and insisted that the right way to understand such simplicity was by reference to the “ethics” of epic and tragic literature, and he called the great French playwright Corneille to mind as a worthy forerunner. The Western, he said, turned the Civil War into our Trojan War, and “the migration to
the West is our Odyssey.” One could go even further, paraphrasing a German commentator. The Greeks have the Iliad; the Jews, the Hebrew Bible; the Romans, the Aeneid; the Germans, the Nibelungenlied; the Scandinavians, the Nja´ls saga; the Spanish have the Cid; the British have the Arthurian legends. The Americans have John Ford.” …
Since Westerns have happy endings achieved by a quick spasm of violence , they are often said to be shallow and overoptimistic. Such criticism is remarkably self-contradictory. It objects to the happy ending, presumably on the grounds that corrupt regimes cannot be so easily overthrown. Then it turns around and objects to the violence, presumably on the grounds that regimes so hard to overthrow can only be overthrown peacefully. The Western is at once more profound and more consistent. The happy ending is no flight of fancy. Hiically, usurpers do get overthrown; it is not as easy at it looks to hold illicit power.
In the Western the town is liberated because the townspeople find an implacable enemy of the usurper, but they are not lucky in the fairy tale sense. Inevitably, evil rulers make implacable enemies; tyranny does produce tyrannicides. On the other hand, the Western is far from being optimistic. It emphatically denies what its critics so blandly assume: that a corrupt regime can be overthrown peacefully. If the Western movie’s political understanding errs, it errs in its extreme pessimism, in its tacit assumption that only through violence and insurrection can free men rid themselves of entrenched corruption.
…”Mythic accounts are about events in the remote past of decisive significance for the present (often about foundings), and they assume that the course of these events is the result of actions undertaken by heroes of superhuman abilities. The tone is one of quite elevated seriousness, and so the form of such mythic storytelling is usually epic. This elevation of Westerns (or the handful of great ones among that seven thousand) into epic literature with mythical heroes and events was not of course universally accepted. The idea of a “bourgeois epic” or the idea that commercial republics could have an epic dimension can seem faintly comic.
Some commentators saw many fifties Westerns as mostly about cold war politics, or argued that their appeal could be explained by reference to the fantasies of white, working-class, male adolescents, or insisted on their essentially deformed,
masculine, patriarchal (and so hardly universal) perspective, or claimed that no progress would be made until we included the Western within a general theory of cinematic pleasure, usually a psychoanalytic theory. But when this mythic notion was combined, as it frequently was, with Frederick Jackson Turner’s famous frontier hypothesis (that many aspects of something like an American national character could be understood by reference to the experience of the frontier and the expansion west,
the long struggle so vivid in our national memory of “a place where advancing civilization met declining savagery”) such an interpretive frame became an even more powerful one. ( Pippin )…
For many great Westerns are indeed about the founding or the early, struggling stages of modern bourgeois, law-abiding, property-owning, marketeconomy, technologically advanced societies in transition from, mostly, lawlessness (or corrupt and ineffective law) and war that border on classic state-of-nature thought experiments (or mythic pictures of origins).That is, beliefs and passions about the founding: the what was founded and why and the self-evident necessary illusions that being led back to the garden would challenge the notion of being freed in all its various complexities. The Old west as metaphor for wandering in the desert like the Hebrews smiting Hittites and other versions of native Indians. Was it all worth it?
Indeed, some films are also haunted by the fact that the first founding essentially failed. The great experiment didn’t work; the nation exploded into one of the most deadly civil wars in recorded history, and the constant re-appearance of these ferocious animosities in the conflicts in Westerns can suggest that there is a real and continuing question about whether the “second founding” in the West, the conquest of native American lands, made possible more a lengthy truce than the achievement of, finally, a true union.
To say that, however relevant to history, the narrative form is not historical or realistic but mythic means seeing such films as attempts to capture the fundamental, common problems in a founding and in the institution of law, sometimes as attempts to understand what the law comes to mean in such situations, or to capture the core drama in a particular form of political life.
Indeed in many American Westerns there is something even broader at stake: the question of the possibility of the political itself. Politics at least has something to do with ruling and with obedience and that means the use of coercion and violence. So for many the issue is, What, if anything, distinguishes the organized use of violence and coercion by one group of people against another from the exercise of power in everyone’s name? Can someone really act as a representative in this way and so not as an individual or group member? The question is whether there is,especially in modern America, a unique sort of social bond that links individuals, often strangers, together in a distinctive ethical relationship and distinctive sort of enterprise: citizenship. The question is the one raised by Rousseau’s famous statement in 1750 in the First Discourse:
America seems to be at the crossroads of that question again, or yet again: did the Civil War produce a new union or an endless tension-filled truce between two irreconcilable visions of the nation. Yet another surge in what has been called the rise of the anti-government right. The great feudal barons with their vast estates in empire Westerns, brutally attacking the arrival of farmers and fences, railroads and banks; rule of law civilians, full of fine phrases until they have to call on the wandering gunfighter or ex-gunfighter to save them; the inevitable romantic triangle, with a woman torn between love for a lawyer, an educator -Jimmy Stewart in “Liberty Valance”- and a supremely self-sufficient hero of great martial prowess- John Wayne in the same film. There is a search for figures for America’s own tense, divided, self-image; and the flavor of the moment resonates in the language and images of the Sarah Palin or Tea Party right wing.
But one way of saying what is misguided and dangerous about such a mythic self-image, the “real” America, is that this is all a facile, even a puerile understanding of these films: and so a facile understanding of what the United States faces as the problem of its union. In none of the great Westerns is the required sacrifice of self-sufficiency for the sake of civil order a mistake, or in any fundamental sense portrayed as regrettable. There are tragic losses of course, but vast historical gains. Where these gains, seemingly put into question, will now lead us seems to point to a pronounced political fragmentation that could conceivably split the country in another re-enactment of a civil war or divorce. This “horse opera” is not over yet.
ADDENDUM: ( Michael Vanoy Adams ):
Like the liberal newspaper columnists Herbert and Krugman, my client hoped that the reality principle would triumph over the fantasy principle. The difficulty with this proposition was that President Bush, especially after 9/11, had opportunistically appropriated and effectively exploited a “cultural fantasy.” This cultural fantasy was that Americans are what my client called “reluctant heroes.”
One version of this cultural fantasy was a movie, a “Western,” with the following script. Bush was simply a cowboy who would prefer to live on his ranch with his wife and spend his time in his jeans and boots, clearing his land with a Texas chainsaw – but Osama bin Laden and the Al Qaeda gang, including Saddam Hussein, had taken over the town and terrorized the people. Only reluctantly did Bush undertake the heroic task – agree to be sheriff, pin a tin star on his chest, and, in a showdown, attempt to arrest or shoot and kill all the outlaws.
Just who is an outlaw is, of course, a provocative question. “What are we to understand,” Luigi Zoja asks, ” when America’s official voices tell us that the terrorists hate the U.S. because it is a country acting under the rule of law and who then invoke ‘Wild West’ and call for Osama bin Laden ‘dead or alive’?” . Was not this wanted poster attitude patently hypocritical?