Thursday, July 19, 2007

The Western by Jim Kitses

The most popular and enduring of Hollywood forms, the western has yet received scant critical attention. Especially in recent years, it has been the director rather than the form that has occupied critical energies. Rightly so, up to a point, and much of this book springs from the desire to rescue three talented men from the neglect forced upon them. The gains resulting from the emergence of auteur theory have been remarkable: the beginnings of a systematic critical approach; the foundation for a subject with its own body of knowledge; the great task of re-evaluation of the American cinema under way.

But I should make clear what I mean here by auteur theory. In my view the term describes a basic principle and a method, no more and no less: the idea of personal authorship in the cinema and - of key importance - the concomitant responsibility to honour all of a director's works by a systematic examination in order to trace characteristic themes, structures and formal qualities. In this light the idea of the auteur does not seem to me to solve all our problems so much as to crystallize them. Can we speak defensibly of a director who transcends his forms? Of genre as part of the industrial complex that the film-maker must dominate? At their most simplistic auteur critics have insisted that there is only good work and bad, authors and others. Years ago Andre Bazin warned fellow critics of Cahiers du Cinema about the dangers of a cult of the personality latent in a narrow approach. In my view if we are to avoid this pitfall and build a body of film scholarship that is both vigorous and educationally valid, we must begin to explore the inner workings of genre. It is the belief that auteur theory must confront this problem that has led me to structure this book in the way that I have. In place of the reactionary notion that Hollywood direc­tors function like the charismatic heroes of their films, I have wanted to advance the idea of an American tradition, of which the western seems to me an admirable and central model. However, I have not tried to catalogue the history of the genre or to chart the ebb and flow of its recent usage. In lieu of these more general approaches, I here embark on a survey of what I take to be the constituent elements of the form before going on to examine in some detail the contributions of three of its finest champions in the post-war era.

First of all, the western is American history. Needless to say, this does not mean that the films are historically accurate or that they cannot be made by Italians. More simply, the statement means that American frontier life provides the milieu and mores of the western, its wild bunch of cowboys, its straggling towns and mountain scenery. Of course westward expansion was to continue for over a century, the fron­tier throughout that period a constantly shifting belt of settlement. However, Hollywood's West has typically been, from about 1865 to 1890 or so, a brief final instant in the process. This twilight era was a momentous one: within just its span we can count a number of frontiers in the sudden rash of mining camps, the building of the railways, the Indian Wars, the cattle drives, the coming of the farmer. Together with the last days of the Civil War and the exploits of the badmen, here is the raw material of the western.

At the heart of this material, and crucial to an understanding of the gifts the form holds out to its practitioners, is an ambiguous, mercurial concept: the idea of the West. From time immemorial the West had beckoned to statesmen and poets, existing as both a direction and a place, an imperialist theme and a pastoral Utopia. Great empires developed ever westward: from Greece to Rome, from Rome to Britain, from Britain to America. It was in the West as well that the fabled lands lay, the Elysian fields, Atlantis, El Dorado. As every American schoolboy knows, it was in sailing on his passage to India, moving ever westward to realize the riches of the East, that Columbus chanced on the New World. Hand in hand with the hope of fragrant spices and marvellous tapestries went the ever-beck­oning dream of life eternal: surely somewhere, there where the sun slept, was the fountain of youth.

As America began to be settled and moved into its expansionist phases, this apocalyptic and materialist vision found new expression. In his seminal study Virgin Land, Henry Nash Smith has traced how the West as symbol has functioned in America's history and consciousness. Is the West a Garden of natural dignity and innocence offering refuge from the decadence of civilization? Or is it a treach­erous Desert stubbornly resisting the gradual sweep of agrarian progress and community values? Dominating America's intellectual life in the nineteenth century, these warring ideas were most clearly at work in attitudes surrounding figures like Daniel Boone, Kit Carson and Buffalo Bill Cody, who were variously seen as rough innocents ever in flight from society's artifice, and as enlightened pathfinders for the new nation. A folk-hero manufactured in his own time, Cody himself succumbed towards the end of his life to the play of these concepts that so gripped the imagination of his countrymen: 'I stood between savagery and civi­lization most all my early days.'

Refracted through and pervading the genre, this ideological tension has meant that a wide range of variation is possible in the basic elements of the form. The plains and mountains of western landscape can be an inspiring and civilizing envi­ronment, a moral universe productive of the western hero, a man with a code. But this view, popularized by Robert Warshow in his famous essay, 'The Westerner', is one-sided. Equally the terrain can be barren and savage, surroundings so demanding that men are rendered morally ambiguous, or wholly brutalized. In the same way, the community in the western can be seen as a positive force, a movement of refine­ment, order and local democracy into the wilds, or as a harbinger of corruption in the form of Eastern values which threaten frontier ways. This analysis over-simplifies in isolating the attitudes: a conceptually complex structure that draws on both images is the typical one. If Eastern figures such as bankers, lawyers and journalists are often either drunkards or corrupt, their female counterparts generally carry virtues and graces which the West clearly lacks. And if Nature's harmonies produce the upright hero, they also harbour the animalistic Indian. Thus central to the form we have a philosophical dialectic, an ambiguous cluster of meanings and attitudes that provide the traditional thematic structure of the genre. This shifting ideological play can be described through a series of antinomies, so:


The individual The community

Freedom restriction
Honour institutions
self-knowledge illusion
integrity compromise
self-interest social responsibility
solipsism democracy

Nature Culture

Purity corruption
Experience knowledge
Empiricism legalism
Pragmatism idealism
Brutalization refinement
Savagery humanity

The West The East

America Europe
the frontier America
equality class
agrarianism industrialism
tradition change
the past the future

In scanning this grid, if we compare the tops and tails of each sub-section, we can see the ambivalence at work at its outer limits: the West, for example, rapidly moves from being the spearhead of manifest destiny to the retreat of ritual. What we are dealing with here, of course, is no less than a national world-view: underlying the whole complex is the grave problem of identity that has special meaning for Americans. The isolation of a vast unexplored continent, the slow growth of social forms, the impact of an unremitting New England Puritanism obsessed with the cosmic struggle of good and evil, of the elect and the damned, the clash of alle­giances to Mother Country and New World, these factors are the crucible in which American consciousness was formed. The thrust of contradictions, everywhere apparent in American life and culture, is clearest in the great literary heritage of the romantic novel that springs from Fenimore Cooper and moves through Hawthorne and Melville, Mark Twain and Henry James, Fitzgerald and Faulkner, Hemingway and Mailer. As Richard Chase has underlined in his The American Novel and Its Tradition, this form in American hands has always tended to explore rather than to order, to reflect on rather than to moralize about, the irreconcilables that it confronts; and where contradictions are resolved the mode is often that of melodrama or the pastoral. For failing to find a moral tone and a style of close social observation - in short, for failing to be English - the American novel has often had its knuckles rapped. As with literature, so with the film: the prejudice that even now persists in many quarters of criticism and education with reference to the Hollywood cinema (paramountly in America itself) flows from a similar lack of understanding.- The ideology that I have been discussing inevitably filters through many of Hollywood's genres: the western has no monopoly here. But what gives the form a particular thrust and centrality is its historical setting; its being placed at exactly that moment when options are still open, the dream of a primitivistic individualism, the ambivalence of at once beneficent and threatening horizons, still tenable. For the film-maker who is preoccupied with these motifs, the western has offered a remark­ably expressive canvas. Nowhere, of course, is the freedom that it bestows for personal expression more evident than in the cinema of John Ford.

It would be presumptuous to do more than refer here to this distinguished body of work, the crucial silent period of which remains almost wholly inaccessible. Yet Ford's career, a full-scale scrutiny of which must be a priority, stands as unassail­able proof of how the historical dimensions of the form can be orchestrated to produce the most personal kind of art. As Andrew Sarris has pointed out, 'no American director has ranged so far across the landscape of the American past'. But the journey has been a long and deeply private one through green valleys of hope on to bitter sands of despair. The peak comes in the forties where Ford's works are bright monuments to his vision of the trek of the faithful to the Promised Land, the populist hope of an ideal community, a dream affectionately etched in The Grapes of Wrath, My Darling Clementine, Wagonmaster. But as the years slip by the darker side of Ford's romanticism comes to the foreground, and twenty years after the war - in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, Two Rode Together, Cheyenne Autumn - we find a regret for the past, a bitterness at the larger role of Washington, and a desolation over the neglect of older values. The trooping of the colours has a different meaning now. As Peter Wollen has described in his chapter on auteur theory in Signs and Meaning in the Cinema, the progression can be traced in the transposition of civilized and savage elements. The Indians of Drums Along the Mohawk and Stagecoach, devilish marauders that threaten the hardy pioneers, suffer a sea-change as Ford's hopes wane, until with Cheyenne Autumn they are a civilized, tragic people at the mercy of a savage community. The ringing of the changes is discernible in the choice of star as well, the movement from the quiet idealism of the early Fonda through the rough pragmatism of the Wayne persona to the cynical self-interest of James Stewart. As Ford grows older the American dream sours, and we are left with nostalgia for the Desert.

Imperious as he is, Ford is not the western; nor is the western history. For if we stand back from the western, we are less aware of historical (or representational) elements than of form and archetype. This may sound platitudinous: for years critics have spoken confidently of the balletic movement of the genre, of pattern and varia­tion, of myth. This last, ever in the air when the form is discussed, clouds the issues completely. We can speak of the genre's celebration of America, of the contrasting images of Garden and Desert, as national myth. We can speak of the parade of mythology that is mass culture, of which the western is clearly a part. We can invoke Greek and medieval myth, referring to the western hero as a latter-day knight, a contemporary Achilles. Or we can simply speak of the myth of the western, a jour­nalistic usage which evidently implies that life is not like that. However, in strict classical terms of definition myth has to do with the activity of gods, and as such the western has no myth. Rather, it incorporates elements of displaced (or corrupted) myth on a scale that can render them considerably more prominent than in most art. It is not surprising that little advance is made upon the cliches, no analysis under­taken that interprets how these elements are at work within a particular film or director's career. What are the archetypal elements we sense within the genre and how do they function? As Northrop Frye has shown in his monumental The Anatomy of Criticism, for centuries this immensely tangled ground has remained almost wholly unexplored in literature itself. The primitive state of film criticism inevitably reveals a yawning abyss in this direction.

Certain facts are clear. Ultimately the western derives from the long and fertile tradition of Wild West literature that had dominated the mass taste of nineteenth-century America. Fenimore Cooper is again the germinal figure here: Nash Smith has traced how the roots of the formula, the adventures of an isolated, aged trapper/hunter (reminiscent of Daniel Boone) who rescues genteel heroines from the Indians, were in the Leatherstocking Tales which began to emerge in the 1820s. These works, fundamentally in the tradition of the sentimental novel, soon gave way to a rush of pulp literature in succeeding decades culminating in the famous series edited by Erastus Beadle which had astonishing sales for its time. Specialists in the adventure tale, the romance, the sea story, turned to the West for their setting to cash in on the huge market. As the appetite for violence and spectacle grew, variations followed, the younger hunter that had succeeded Cooper's hero losing his pristine nature and giving way to a morally ambiguous figure with a dark past, a Deadwood Dick who is finally redeemed by a woman's love. The genre, much of it sub-literary, became increasingly hungry for innovation as the century wore on, its Amazon heroines perhaps only the most spectacular sign of a desperation at its declining hold on the imagination. As the actual drama of the frontier finally came to a close, marked by Frederick C. Turner's historic address before the American Historical Association in 1893 where he advanced his thesis on free land and its continual recession westward as the key factor in America's development, the vogue for the dime novel waned, its hero now frozen in the figure of the American cowboy.

In 1900 the Wild Bunch held up and robbed a Union Pacific railway train in Wyoming; in 1903 Edwin S. Porter made The Great Train Robbery in New Jersey. The chronology of these events, often commented on, seems less important than their geography: it had been the East as well from which Beadle westerns such as Seth Jones; or, The Captives of the Frontier had flowed. The cinema was born, its novel visual apparatus at the ready, the heir to a venerable tradition of reworking history (the immediate past) in tune with ancient classical rhythms. In general, of course, the early silent cinema everywhere drew on and experimented with tradi­tional and folkloric patterns for the forms it required. What seems remarkable about the western, however, is that the core of a formulaic lineage already existed. The heart of this legacy was romantic narrative, tales which insisted on the idealization of characters who wielded near-magical powers. Recurrent confrontations between the personified forces of good and evil, testimony to the grip of the New England Calvinist ethic, had soon focused the tales in the direction of morality play. However, in any case, the structure was an impure one which had interpolated melo­dramatic patterns of corruption and redemption, the revenge motif borrowed from the stage towards the end of the century, and humour in the Davy Crockett and Eastern cracker-barrel traditions. The physical action and spectacle of the Wild West shows, an offshoot of the penny-dreadful vogue, was to be another factor. This complex inheritance meant that from the outset the western could be many things. In their anecdotal The Western George N. Fenin and William K. Everson have chronicled the proliferating, overlapping growth of early days: Bronco Billy Anderson's robust action melodramas, Thomas H. Ince's darker tales, W.S. Hart's more 'authentic' romances, the antics of the virtuous Tom Mix, the Cruze and Ford epics of the twenties, the stunts and flamboyance of Ken Maynard and Hoot Gibson, the flood of 'B' movies, revenge sagas, serials, and so on. Experiment seems always to have been varied and development dynamic, the pendulum swinging back and forth between opposing poles of emphasis on drama and history, plots and spectacle, romance and 'realism', seriousness and comedy. At any point where audience response was felt the action could freeze, the industrial machine moving into high gear to produce a cycle and, in effect, establish a minor tradition within the form. Whatever 'worked' was produced, the singing westerns of the thirties perhaps only the most prominent example of this policy of eclectic enterprise.

For many students of the western Gene Autry and Roy Rogers have seemed an embarrassing aberration. However, such a view presupposes that there is such an animal as the western, a precise model rather than a loose, shifting and variegated genre with many roots and branches. The word 'genre' itself, although a helpful one, is a mixed blessing: for many the term carries literary overtones of technical rules. Nor is 'form' any better; the western is many forms. Only a pluralist vision makes sense of our experience of the genre and begins to explain its amazing vigour and adaptability, the way it moves closer and further from our own world, brightening or darkening with each succeeding decade. Yet over the years critics have ever tried to freeze the genre once and for all in a definitive model of the 'classical' western. Certainly it must be admitted that works such as Shone and My Darling Clementine weld together in remarkable balance historical reconstruction and national themes with personal drama and archetypal elements. In his essay, The Evolution of the Western', Bazin declared Stagecoach the summit of the form, an example of 'classic maturity', before going on to see in Anthony Mann's early small westerns the path of further progress. Although there is a certain logic in searching for films at the centre of the spectrum, I suspect it is a false one and can see little value in it. Wherever definitions of the genre movie have been advanced they have become the weapons of generalization. Insisting on the purity of his classical elements, Bazin dismisses 'super-westerns' (Shane, High Noon, Duel in the Sun) because of their introduction of interests 'not endemic'. Warshow's position is similar, although his conception of the form is narrower, a particular kind of moral and physical texture embodied in his famous but inadequate view of the hero as 'the last gentleman'. Elsewhere Mann's films have been faulted for their neurotic qualities, strange and powerful works such as Rancho Notorious have been refused entry because they are somehow 'not westerns'. This impulse may well be informed by a fear that unless the form is defined precisely (which inevitably excludes) it will disappear, wraith-like, from under our eyes. The call has echoed out over the lonely landscape of crit­ical endeavour: what is the western?

The model we must hold before us is of a varied and flexible structure, a thematically fertile and ambiguous world of historical material shot through with arche­typal elements which are themselves ever in flux. [...]