The Western genre is sumptuously classical, historically entwined with cinema since its birth – and yet it is also helplessly turbulent, subject to postcolonial criticism for the histories it depicts in its earlier output and brimming with antiquated politics to such a degree that some of the major texts in its canon now leave modern viewers with a bad taste in the mouth. Of course it is much too simplistic to dismiss many of the pre-Vietnam Westerns due to their overtly right-wing, infuriatingly white propaganda, no matter how tempting it might be to do so. It is hardly the case that watching a film such D.W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation – a film that owes much to various tropes of the Western genre – will automatically make you a racist by association and, while there is little to celebrate in the various depictions of native slaughter, often these films remain fascinating insights into the stormy matter of domestic socio-ethnic relations over the course of the twentieth century.
While it sits among the more controversial forms of the genre, the Cowboy and Indian format is, however, just one example of the Western’s more traditional narratives. Just as popular was the outlaw picture, exemplified in the very first Western, Edwin S. Porter’s The Great Train Robbery. One could go as far to call the Western genre a grandfather to the film medium. While Porter is often overshadowed by D.W. Griffith, a contemporary of his, in academic approaches to early film and its makers, there is no doubt that 1903’s The Great Train Robbery – one of the first narrative features – is one of the most important films of the early period. The simple plot follows a group of bandits as they perform the titular robbery and ends with their eventual capture and execution. The most famous shot is saved for its end as the bandit leader turns to the camera and fires at his audience. The fourth wall-breaking technique is startling; the shots fired are aimed at the audience, foreshadowing the explosive effect that the medium will have upon the popular imagination. The film’s legacy can be felt in later westerns such as Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, not to mention films from other genres: the closing moments of Martin Scorsese’s Goodfellas, for example, stands as homage to the aforementioned final shot of Porter’s classic.
Until the 1960s the Western was arguably Hollywood’s most popular genre. It was a trademark genre for such directors as John Ford and Howard Hawks and occupied a key position within the ever-changing landscape of American cinema. Among the early classics of the genre is Raoul Walsh’s The Big Trial. Released in 1930 and starring John Wayne in his first leading role, Walsh’s classic was predominantly shot on location and its great use of the American landscape set a precedent that has continued throughout the history of the genre. The iconic natural arrangement of the South-West is inscribed upon the Western, especially in the works of genre and era defining filmmakers Ford and Hawks.
For those of you recently (and rightly) enthralled by Mad Max: Fury Road, you will find plenty to love in John Ford’s Stagecoach. Not only does it maintain the power to excite, it is essentially a blueprint for the recent return of George Miller’s apocalyptic lone ranger. Two of Ford’s other masterpieces, My Darling Clementine and The Searchers, beside Howard Hawks’ Red River and Rio Bravo, Fred Zinnemann’s High Noon, and George Stevens’ Shane, stand together to form a core canon of superlative early American Westerns. The extent of their influence within film in general is self-evident. The Searchers became a primary influence for Martin Scorsese’s gritty urban western Taxi Driver, while Star Wars’ Han Solo is essentially a space cowboy (see also: Firefly’s Mal Reynolds).
By the mid-1960s, however, the Western was starting to lose its grip on the wider market. The source of the genre’s problems was that its conservative politics – alluded to at the outset – were no longer sitting well with the increasingly more liberal, politically conscious audiences that were emerging in the build-up to the New Hollywood explosion at the end of the 1960s. Elsewhere, in Italy, the Western enjoyed a continuing, if somewhat brief, success until the decade’s end. Most famous among these Spaghetti Westerns is Sergio Leone’s iconic trilogy starring Clint Eastwood as The Man with No Name. The trilogy’s final entry, The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly (1966), boasts one of the genre’s most memorable climactic stand-offs and is a regular fixture on most ‘Best Of’ lists. Greater, arguably, is Leone’s 1968 opus Once Upon a Time in the West. While the film retains many of the genre’s iconic tropes, there is an elegiac sense of mortality running through it that extends beyond the film itself; it creeps across the landscapes of the South-West, finally resonating as a sombre death march for the genre it reveres and mourns.
It could be argued that Once Upon a Time in the West in fact created the platform upon which the Revisionist Westerns were formed. While they are not confined to the era, these Westerns were nevertheless born out of New Hollywood, and adopted many of the same political agendas, aiming to challenge the mythos surrounding the genre. Some filmmakers were unsatisfied with the presentation of Native Americans as either unevolved or savage people and films such as A Man Called Horse, Little Big Man, and Eastwood’s The Outlaw Josey Wales sought to rewrite the rather brutal cinematic whitewashing that natives had suffered at the hands of Hollywood. Other Revisionist Westerns such as Sam Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch and Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid, Robert Altman’s McCabe & Mrs. Miller, or even Paul Thomas Anderson’s There Will Be Blood decades later, utilised the subversive inclinations of this new Western formula to critique other things such as morality, violence, or the destructive nature of capitalism. There Will Be Blood is a fine example of the lasting effect of this transformation for the genre; other more recent Revisionist Westerns include two early 1990s Best Picture winners Dances With Wolves and Unforgiven, not to mention more recent films such as The Proposition, The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, True Grit, and Django Unchained.
Andrew Dominik’s utterly brilliant Assassination of Jesse James, the Coen brothers’ True Grit, and Tarantino’s uproarious, tongue-in-cheek Django Unchained are fine examples of the genre’s continuing relevance. All Westerns that might be labelled Revisionist are identifiably divergent in terms of the politics that they propagate. This tradition has continued this year with The Salvation starring Mads Mikkelsen, John Maclean’s inbound debut Slow West, and Tarantino’s upcoming feature The Hateful Eight. Aesthetically speaking, these Westerns do still resemble the Westerns of old, but Westerns need not be confined to the Old West at all. Neo-Westerns such as Ang Lee’s Brokeback Mountain, Tommy Lee Jones’ The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada, and the Coen brothers’ No Country for Old Men transplant the genre into more contemporary surroundings while staying true to its well-established roots.
It seems that the Western genre’s resurrection is discussed nearly as frequently as its demise. Often controversial, characteristically epochal, endlessly fascinating, the Western has contributed an envious number of masterpieces to film. It was, is, and will continue to be a genre to keep firmly on your radar.
Top 5 Western Films:
The Searchers (1956) – An undisputed masterpiece whose legacy is writ large across filmmaking: The Searchers remains a wonderful example of a traditional Western.
Once Upon a Time in the West (1968) – Leone’s masterwork remains one for the ages; from its shatteringly tense opening stand-off to its heartbreaking end, this really is filmmaking of the very highest order.
Unforgiven (1992) – A perfect crystallisation of everything the Revisionist Westerns sought to do; a meditation on the violence that lurks at the heart of the Western myth, it is a triumph for Eastwood as both director and actor.
The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (2007) – Andrew Dominik’s brooding tale of the infamous bandit’s final days is a deliriously brilliant piece of filmmaking; it balances stunning cinematography, weighty themes, and, arguably, Brad Pitt’s finest performance. It is a thing of beauty.
No Country for Old Men (2007) – Along with Assassination and There Will Be Blood, 2007 proved to be quite the year of revival for the genre. Based upon Cormac McCarthy’s dark but divine novel, the Coens’ Best Picture winner remains a perfect example of the Neo-Western subgenre.
Slow West is in UK cinemas this Friday, 26th of June.