Friday, July 20, 2007

The Western

The western


Arguably the western represented the starting point of genre criticism in Britain, contributing to the popular culture debate evidence of the capacity of Hollywood for­mula films to produce works of signifi­cance and value. In the 6os discussions of genre mostly used the western as their chief example, and were less interested in the critical problems of the notion of genre itself than they were in demonstrating the value of western films.

Alan Lovell characterised the critical context of this debate in the following way:

'For Anglo-Saxon critics, the western is typical of most of the vices of the mass media. It is endlessly repetitive, utterly simple in form and expresses naive attitudes. For French critics, the western contains nearly all the things they most admire in the American cinema, its direct­ness, its intelligence, its energy, its formal concerns' ('The western', 1967, p. 93).

This work of reclamation reflected its British context in the struggle to deflect, sometimes by incorporating, a Leavisite literary tradition, and in its concern to argue via the western for the place of Hol­lywood films in education. Two main con­cerns can be traced: the first, the status of the western as popular art and the capacity of such forms to handle questions of value and morality; and the second, the con­tribution of convention to great films or the work of great directors (see Hall and Whannel, 1964, Ch. 4).

The western and history

A key notion in the validation of the Holly­wood western has been its relation to history and to national cultural motifs. As we are repeatedly told, the material of the western is drawn from a brief period in the winning and settling of the American frontier:

'. . . Hollywood's West has typically been from about 1865 to 1890 or so ... within its brief span we can count a num­ber of frontiers in the sudden rush of min­ing camps, the building of 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' (Kitses, 1969, p. 8).

Although a widespread anti-mass media view of the western was that it travestied the West, only a few serious approaches to the genre attempted to found their argu­ments on its historical truth. The French critic, Jean-Louis Rieupeyrout, argued enthusiastically that the pleasures of the western derive from its reconstruction of the adventures of the frontier. He had spent much time researching the sources of individual western films and considered that proof of authenticity should change condescending attitudes to the form. How­ever the potential naivety of his notion of historical reflection is mitigated by his accepting as historical sources secondary elaborations in oral folklore, and newspaper journalism, so that an imagin­ative response to frontier tales becomes part of the fabric of history (Rieupeyrout, 'The western: a historical genre', 1951). The majority of commentators, however, have been concerned with either the con­tribution of history to the thematic struc­ture and narrative functioning of the western, or with the transformations per­formed by successive fictionalisations of the West.

The problem of relating history and the western has been posed in different ways. One form of the question is to ask why this particular brief stretch of history is capable of sustaining such a wide range of cultural elaboration over so long a period. Two answers emerge. One, from the perspective of cultural history, argues that the condi­tions of existence in the West put into par­ticularly sharp focus and provided imagery for a deep-seated ideological tension in America's view of itself and of progress -a tension axed around the conflicting ideals of unfettered individualism and community values represented in opposing views of the West as Desert or Garden. The second, looking for greater socio-economic precision, argues that within these narrow geographic and temporal boundaries assembled an exemplary cross-section of social types, representing a range of economic and social interests in struggle and caught in a variety of activi­ties eminently susceptible to the kind of narrativisation that can illuminate the underlying play of historical forces.

From such approaches arises a second way of posing the history/western ques­tion, i.e. the relation of fictionalised history not simply to the past it represents, but to the contemporary audiences for whom it is constructed. While some critics see the genre as crucially linked to the American problem of national identity (see Kitses, 1969) and imply the enduring viability of a set of representations produ­ced out of a particular historical exper­ience for succeeding generations, others argue for greater historical determinism, attempting to link different phases of wes­tern production to changes in economic and ideological conditions (Wagner, 'The western, history and actuality', 1961; Wright, 1975), or even to particular politi­cal leaders in power (French, 1973).

For critics in the first category a crucial factor is the precise moment in the conquering of the West that the western takes up - a moment critical in the forma­tion of America as a nation, balanced between the past and the future, 'when options are still open' (Kitses, 1969, p. 12.). Most critics agree that the fact that this moment of choice is past intensifies its possibility for ideological elaboration. Options closed off by history and a devel­oping social order can safely be reopened, nostalgically indulged, judged and closed off again (see Pye, 'Genre and history', 1977/78; Warshow, 'Movie chronicle: The Westerner', 1970).

The implication that the western is spe­cific to American culture and history raises the question of the genre's almost univer­sal appeal and its production in different cultural contexts, e.g. the Italian westerns made between 1965 and 1975. Rieupeyrout (i95z) deals with this problem by assum­ing a universal fascination with enacted history. Bazin (1971) side-steps it by assert­ing a mythic dimension through which the western finds in frontier history sympathetic material for reworking older and more universal themes. Other critics assert the importance of the movement westward and of America itself for older European nations, the 'idea of the West' having dominated western civilisation since classical times (Kitses, 1969, pp. 8-9).

Founding fathers

Most influential in Anglo-Saxon criticism of the western were Andre Bazin's two essays, 'The western, or the American film par excellence, and 'The evolution of the western' (1971), and Robert Warshow's 'Movie chronicle: The Westerner' (1970), all written in the 505. Both writers were concerned with defining the essence of the western film in order to locate its cinematic and cultural significance. They examine the development of the genre and attempt to determine its outer boundaries, so that they can distinguish acceptable transform­ations from violations. At the centre of their investigations stands a 'classic exam­ple' against which they evaluate earlier and later developments. Writing, however, from different perspectives and in different cultural contexts both their choice of example and their estimation of the value of the western differ.

Andre Bazin

As a celebrated proponent of cinematic realism (-» narrative and structural­ism : Bazin, p. 2.2.4) Bazin's account of the genre's realism is surprisingly oblique as he steers round the obvious pitfalls of a naive view of the relationship between the wes­tern and history:

'. . . the relations between the facts of history and the western are not immediate and direct, but dialectic. Tom Mix is the opposite of Abraham Lincoln, but after his own fashion he perpetuates Lincoln's cult and memory' (Bazin, 'The western, or the American film par excellence, 1971, p. 143).

Between history and cinema a process of mythologizing has taken place.

'Those formal attributes by which one normally recognises the western are simply signs or symbols of its profound reality, namely the myth. The western was born of an encounter between a mythology and a means of expression . . .' (p. 142).

For Bazin myth is an idealisation of historical reality; the historical and socio­logical conditions of the West permit imaginative elaborations dealing with fundamental realities that exceed the par­ticular moment, replaying in contemporary form metaphysical and moral dramas that recur throughout the history of cultural expression. The particular myth that Bazin elaborates is 'the great epic Manicheism which sets the forces of evil over against the knights of the true cause' (p. 145), at the centre of which is the woman posed as representative of the good. This myth is demanded by the actual sociological conditions of the West and the role of women in the conquering and civilising of the frontier, but it both points back to earlier cultural forms, for instance the courtly romance, and also works through problems of the ambiguous rela­tion of law and social justice, or morality and individual conscience, endemic to civilisation itself.

For Bazin the ideal example of this mythologising of history is Stagecoach (Ford, 1939) made in a brief period (1937-40) in which the western arrived at its clas­sic peak, that 'ideal balance between social myth, historical reconstruction, psycho­logical truth, and the traditional theme of the western mise en scene' ('The evolution of the western', p. 149). Against this classi­cal achievement Bazin poses the post-war emergence of the 'superwestern' which under pressure to deal with serious themes' appropriate to the times, and self-conscious of its own history, effectively treated the western as 'a form in need of a content', stepping outside the parameters of its own concerns to bring in 'aesthetic, social, moral, psychological, political or erotic interest, in short some quality extrinsic to the genre and which is sup­posed to enrich it' (p. 151). High Noon (1951) and Shane (1951) are examples of this tendency. However, Bazin argues, the traditional western did not die, but con­tinued to be nourished at its popular base, in the 'B' westerns churned out in great numbers during the 505, e.g. The Gun-fighter (Henry King, 1950), or by older directors whose experience in western traditions was not to be deflected by new trends, e.g. The Big Sky (Howard Hawks, 1952,). The 505 also produced a group of newer directors who managed to make a class of western which, while developing a more contemporary flavour, did not break with the spirit of the true western, a class which Bazin termed 'novelistic', and characterised by their lyricism and their sincere rather than patronising approach to the form, e.g. Johnny Guitar (Nicholas Ray, 1954), Bend of the River and The Far Country (Anthony Mann, 1952 and 1954).

Robert Warshow

Like Bazin, Warshow, writing in 1954, sets out to define the essence of the western and like Bazin he sees its value in its capacity to handle moral ambiguity in traditionally epic terms. However, while Bazin writes from a Catholic/existentialist perspective and locates the struggle between good and evil as informing history itself, Warshow is concerned with the aesthetic realisation of ideological conflicts attendant on the development of twentieth-century Ameri­can capitalism. His concern, as for many writers on the western since, is the relation of the individual to society, the westerner rather than the western. Warshow defines the western hero in relation to the same problematic which, he argues, produced the gangster as tragic hero. The latter's acquisitive urge and inevitable defeat represents 'the "no" to that great Ameri­can "yes" which is stamped so big over our official culture and yet has so little to do with the way we really feel about our lives' (Warshow, 'Movie chronicle: The Westerner', 1970, p. 136). However, while the gangster's desperate need to prove him­self drives him from one bout of activity to another, the westerner is self-contained, knows his worth, and needs only to be able to live by his code. In this respect he repre­sents a type of hero, of individualism, not realisable in twentieth-century society. In these terms the historical West is import­ant only in as much as it is past — 'Where the westerner lives it is always about 1870 - not the real 1870, either, or the real West . . .' (p. 141) — and in so far as the material it offers the cinema, 'the land and the hor­ses', provide a 'moral openness'. In the western guns are carried openly rather than secretly as in the gangster film, forc­ing the hero into moral self-responsibility. The other crucial aspect of this hero for Warshow is his relation to violence. Unlike the opportunism of the gangster, the Westerner's violence is a statement of his being, and he waits for the quintessential moment in which to express this (p. 140).

For Warshow then, the central problem of the western is individual masculine identity and the violence necessary to its expression. His conception of the place of women in the western is the antithesis of Bazin's, for whom woman is the object of a metaphysical struggle between good and evil. In Warshow's account the role of women is associated with the establish­ment of community and the necessary qualifications of individualism and vio­lence brought by the civilising of the fron­tier. Prior to this moment 'the West, lacking the graces of civilisation, is the place "where men are men": in western movies, men have the deeper wisdom and women are children' (p. 138).

The western's move from primitivism to full maturity Warshow cautiously attributes to a deeper realism - more in terms of philosophical outlook and the ageing of the stars than in terms of histori­cal truth. The western grows up when it foregoes its innocent romanticism and recognises the tragic limitations of the frontier ethos, as for instance in Henry King's The Gunfighter (1950). However, when the impulse to realism breaks totally with this ethos and the code of the westerner for the sake of a ' "reinterpretation" of the West as a developed society' we arrive at a different genre, social drama for which the western setting is irrelevant except as a backdrop. High Noon (1951) provides an example of this kind of break­down. Warshow also identifies an opposite tendency away from realism towards an aesthetic embalming of western conven­tions in response to their mythological and cinematic potential. Here Bazin's exemplum, Stagecoach (1939) and Ford's later My Darling Clementine (1946) stand accused.

Alan Lovell: the western's formal history.

Both Bazin and Warshow define the essence of the western and choose their classic examples with scant reference to the historical development of the genre, basing their judgements on their own respective metaphysical and ideological concerns. Alan Lovell ('The western', 1967) sought a more objective way of establishing the parameters of the genre by examining its formal history. Such an attempt, he argues, must take account of the themes and forms introduced into the western through its source materials and of how it combined, displaced or trans­formed these in its movement towards establishing a coherent and stable struc­ture. Lovell defines four principal elements which contributed to the formation of the western genre: i) a structure drawn from nineteenth-century popular melodramatic literature, involving a virtuous hero and wicked villain who menaces a virginal heroine; i) 'an action story, composed of violence, chases and crimes appropriate to a place like the American West in the i9th century'; 3) the introduction of the history of the migration westwards and the open­ing of the frontier signalled in such films as The Covered Wagon (1924) and The Iron Horse (192.4); and 4) the revenge structure, which was present by the time of Billy the Kid in 1930 (Lovell, 1967, p. 97). For Lovell, the history of the wes­tern over the next twenty years can be understood in terms of the working of these elements into a coherent formal structure. From this perspective My Dar­ling Clementine (1946) becomes the classic centre of the genre. In this film the narra­tive is structured by the revenge theme, which is itself integrated into the historical theme of civilising the West, as the hero's quest for personal revenge is translated into the establishment of law and order for the nascent township of Tombstone, under the influence of the heroine school teacher from the East (-» authorship : John Ford, p. 184).

Although not all these elements necess­arily recur in every western since Clementine, the structural balance identified in that film, Lovell argues, is determining in the genre's subsequent development. Against frequent assertions that 505 wes­terns broke with their primitive past to become more adult, sophisticated and individualised Lovell argues for the con­tinuity between pre- and post-war wes­terns, positing a tradition that runs from My Darling Clementine (1946) through The Gunfighter (1950) to Guns in the Afternoon (1962), and citing the shared characteristics of The Left-Handed Gun (1958), often seen as one of the 'more modern' westerns, and My Darling Clementine. From this perspective, shifts in emphasis in the genre become interest­ing not in terms of breaks with a classic past but rather in terms of significant dif­ferences produced in relation to a main­tained continuity. Thus The Oxbow Incident (1943), maligned by Warshow for its illegitimate concern with problems of social organisation in the West, becomes interesting for its recasting of familiar ele­ments in a darker, more pessimistic tone.

From this position Lovell goes on to argue against the assumed naivety of the pre-war westerns, and against the attribu­tion of a precocious progressivism to the so-called adult westerns of the 505 -sympathetic treatment of the Indian for instance may be less a contemporary con­cern with racial questions than an explora­tion of ambiguous attitudes to the coming of civilisation to the West which are con­tained in the structure of the genre. How­ever, Lovell does not deny that 505 westerns also bear the marks of the prevailing climate of ideas or of the influx of a post-war generation of new and more cinematically conscious directors. But rather than a transformation of the genre, this represents 'the imposition of a new sensibility on the old forms', and Lovell argues that 'part of the fascination of the western in the 505 results from the con­fusions caused when this . . . comes into contact with the traditional forms of the genre' (p. 101). It is then arguable that some of these films are simply confused, but that others such as Guns in the After­noon (1962) or The Tall T (1957) dem­onstrate the productive power of genre confronted with 'new sensibility'.

Jim Kitses: Horizons West Jim Kitses' book (1969) on the western and western directors represents an attempt to deepen knowledge of the genre by con­sciously confronting, in its influential first chapter, many of the problems of generic criticism exhibited in earlier writings on the subject, namely prescriptiveness, the task of relating the western to history and the problem of understanding it as myth. Whereas Alan Lovell tackles the problem of arbitrary prescriptiveness by describing the history of a central tradition, Kitses attempts a synchronic and structural account of the genre's basic elements.

Thus he takes account of the genre's com­plex historical and socio-cultural inheritance in order to propose, rather than a central model, 'a loose, shifting and variegated genre with many roots and branches' (p. 17), which can account for films made at any period. History, in his account, is not the record of the genre's development but what has made the genre so fruitful.

Kitses sees history as contributing to the western in two ways. First, it provides the national cultural tradition in which the western is rooted and to which it speaks, and secondly, in a narrower sense, it offers as 'raw material' that brief historical span which covers the opening of the American frontier, 1865-1890.

For a definition of the particular cultural tradition underlying the western Kitses turns to Henry Nash Smith's seminal study, Virgin Land. Citing a range of political and cultural output, Nash Smith identifies as central to America's national consciousness an ambiguous attitude to the West, torn between the symbols of Garden and Desert. Several commentators have seen this ambiguity as providing much of the thematic preoccupations of the western (see Lovell, 1967; McArthur, 'The roots of the Western', 1969). Under the master opposition, Wilderness/ Civilisation, Kitses elaborates a series of antinomies which together represent a 'philosophical dialectic, an ambiguous cluster of meanings and attitudes that pro­vide the traditional/thematic structure of the genre' (p. u). The shift in meanings from the top to the bottom of each set of oppositions - the Wilderness starting with the Individual and Freedom and ending with Tradition and the Past, while Civilisation starts with the Community and Restriction and ends with Change and the Future - demonstrates both the flexi­bility of the structure and the ideological tension which it embodies. While the structure animates many forms of cultural activity, the use of frontier history in the western brought it into particularly acute focus, for the period was placed 'at exactly that moment when options are still open, the dream of a primitivistic individualism, the ambivalence of at once beneficient and threatening horizons still tenable' (p. 12). A third factor in the genre's appropriation of frontier history was that it had already been reworked in folkloric and mythic terms. Kitses attempts to differentiate the varieties of meaning attendant on the con­cept of myth, and to distinguish between a mythic dimension frequently attributed to twentieth-century popular culture, and the tales of gods and heroes handed down through oral traditions from classical and medieval times. While the western does not represent myth in the latter sense, it 'incorporates elements of displaced (or corrupted) myth on a scale that can render them considerably more prominent than in most art' (p. 14). Such incorporation takes place through the western's particularly varied inheritance from the popular liter­ary forms in which frontier history was first reworked. Following Northrop Frye's definition of archetypes, Kitses argues that different literary modes are characterised by types of hero and patterns of heroic action. Central to the western was the mode of romance 'which insisted on the idealisation of characters who wielded near-magical powers' (p. 15), and pro­vided . . . 'the movement of a god-like figure into the demonic wasteland, the death and resurrection, the return to a paradisal garden' (p. 2.0).

However, the incursion of morality play, melodrama, revenge tragedy into the tradition together with the input from Wild West shows and cracker-barrel humour meant that the western could develop within different modes and draw on a rich and complex profusion of mythic and archetypal elements. Finally the cultural resources of the western are enriched cinematically by the repertoire of visual iconography most frequently com­mented on in generic studies (e.g. Buscombe, 'The idea of genre in the American cinema', 1970; Collins, 'Genre: a reply to Ed Buscombe', 1970).

Thus Kitses provides an account of the western as a four-part structure: 1) fron­tier history, 2) the thematic antinomies of Wilderness/Civilisation; 3) archetype, and 4) iconography. Contrary to argument that a non-prescriptive genre criticism must be limited to description (see Ryall, 'The notion of genre', 1970), Kitses sees in the conceptual richness of the western genre a potential source of value, capable of realisation in the hands of 'the artist of vision in rapport with the genre' (p. 20). The peak of authorial westerns, however, is dependent on the structure produced by a particular social, cultural and formal history, a structure, moreover which includes the existence of the large popular audience who supported the development of the 'mass production at the base' which in turn 'allows refinement and reinvigoration' at the peak (p. 2.1). Thus, 'the western is not just the men who have worked within it... an empty vessel breathed into by the film-maker' (p. 2,6) but represents a vital structure 'saturated with conceptual significance' (p. 2,1).

Will Wright

Will Wright's much debated intervention (1975) in discussion of the western (see Frayling, 1981) sought to shift the looseness of its validation in terms of general moral or archetypal themes, cultural or psychological conflicts. He insists first that the significance of the western must be located in its appeal to contemporary pop­ular audiences, which are subject to historical change, and secondly that it must be treated as an aspect of communi­cation, subject to the rules that govern the production of symbolic meaning. He calls on the structural linguistics of Saussure and Jakobson and the structural anthropology of Levi-Strauss to support his argument that all human endeavour is an effort to communicate meaning. In Wright's view the work of myth or mass culture is not to achieve emotional expres­sion of problems arising elsewhere, in the psyche or cultural climate, but itself con­tributes to them through the forms of knowledge it produces. Thus in the cinema the western myth 'has become part of the cultural language by which America understands itself (p. 12). What interests Wright in structuralism is its promise of a methodology for understanding scientifi­cally how social communication works. Where he differs from the structuralists is in his retention of a sociological concern to analyse what meanings are produced in particular societies in given historical periods. What he is attempting then is to make content analysis more rigorous (p. 10).

In approaching the western from this standpoint Wright starts out from a num­ber of basic premises. First, integrating Levi-Strauss's view of primitive myth with Kenneth Burke's narrative theory, Wright contends that modern societies, despite the apparent authority of science, history and literature, still have recourse to myth as a means of producing knowledge of and order in the world. Second, he argues that western films represent industrially produ­ced stories made from mythic material already in social circulation which are amenable to the same, if liberalised, kind of analysis that Propp used on the Russian oral folk-tale or Levi-Strauss on the myths of tribal peoples (-» narrative and structuralism: Propp, p. 2.34; Levi-Strauss, p. 2.32). Third, he asserts that because analysis of the western as myth stresses the social and historical (rather than formal, authorial or industrial) pro­duction of meaning, its mythic significance can only be found in what the mass of people went to see. The 'classic' westerns are those most popular in the period in which the genre achieves clear definition and contours, not examples chosen in terms of a schema already constructed in the critic's mind, whether generic, cultural or authorial. Box-office popularity is in its turn an indicator of the 'meanings viewers demand of the myth' (p. 12,). Wright there­fore confines his structural analysis to those westerns which grossed $4,000,000 dollars or more. From these films he seeks to derive the 'communicative structure of the western' (p. 12), and from shifts in the structure over the decades to reveal a pat­tern of change and development 'cor­responding to changes in the structure of dominant institutions' (p. 14).

Wright's final premise is that the history of the American West supplies the western with appropriate material for the produc­tion of myth. This it does in two main ways. First it furnished a dramatic con­catenation of social types and actions pro­ductive of the kinds of oppositions from which, in Levi-Straussian terms, myth is made; and second, these character types and actions were capable of carrying the meanings and shifts in meaning which could make sense of the social conflicts dominant in American society at any one time (p. 6).

The meaning of the myths circulated by the western is located in two basic struc­tures: one of binary oppositions in which its characters are placed; and another, the organisation of these characters' functions into narrative sequences. Here Wright uses the Proppian notion of 'character function' - which he interprets as a single action or attribute referring to roles performed in the plot - as a link between Levi-Straussian oppositions and an argument mounted by the philosopher, Arthur Danto, that any narrative sequence, in so far as it describes a change in an initial state of affairs, also includes an explanation of it. In the explanatory function of narrative, com­bined with the representative function of the characters, Wright finds the power of the western myth to provide 'a conceptual response to the requirements of human action in a social situation' (p. 17). On this basis Wright proceeds to categorise the plots of westerns in terms of their con­stituent 'character functions' and the way character functions are organised into nar­rative sequences and narrative sequences into plots.

Wright's final task is to provide 'an inde­pendent analysis of the social institutions of America and demonstrate the correla­tion between the structure of the western and the structure of those institutions' (p. 130). This is not a relation of direct causation. Wright argues, however, for institutional determination on the way individuals live their lives, a determination which may be in conflict with the cultural traditions and values of a society, because institutional requirements tend to change more rapidly. This then produces 'a con­ceptual dilemma . . . for the people of the society' to which a myth such as the wes­tern speaks. Drawing on social analysts such as Kenneth Galbraith, J├╝rgen Habermas, and C. B. MacPherson (a somewhat heterogeneous grouping of authorities), he argues that 'the classical western plot corresponds to the individual­istic conception of society underlying a market economy', that 'the vengeance plot is a variation that begins to reflect changes in the market economy', and that 'the pro­fessional plot reveals a new conception of society corresponding to the values and attitudes inherent in a planned, corporate economy' (p. 15).

The language of reflection here indicates the weak link in Wright's conception of the social function of myth: cultural produc­tion and social institutions confront each other as discrete entities, the influence of box office returns providing the only explanation as to why film-makers should provide audiences with the cultural models of social action necessary for their survival as institutions change. Moreover, the predominance of 'myth' in his analysis necessitates excluding many aspects of the film-making and reading process that intervene between the institutional needs of society and the finished film. This leads to a view of genre cinema as essentially conservative. For Wright assumes that, in its reliance on a structure of binary opposi­tions, 'myth depends on simple and recognisable meanings which reinforce rather than challenge social understand­ings' (p. 23). Works by individual artists, however, construct more complex, realis­tic and unique characters, which are not amenable to analysis by binary opposition. Thus the 'social action' proposed by any particular phase of a genre is seen as adapt­ing to institutional demands rather than resisting them or exploring their contradictions.

Gender and sexuality in the western

Disagreement may arise over the place of woman in the western, but most commen­tators assume its address to a male prob­lematic and a male audience. For instance, John Cawelti in The Six-Gun Mystique (1971) argues that the western speaks to adolescent or working-class males about 'the conflict between the adolescent's desire to be an adult and his fear and hesi­tation about the nature of adulthood' and 'the tension between a strong need for aggression and a sense of ambiguity and guilt about violence' which the working-class male feels in relation to the authority of corporation America (p. 82 and p. 14).

In very different terms, Raymond Bellour has argued (see Camera Obscura 3/4, 1979) that the western depends upon 'a whole organised circuit of feminine repre­sentations (the young heroine, the mother, the saloon girl, the wife, etc.) without which the film cannot function (p. 88). For Bellour the western is a variation of the classic Hollywood narrative text (-> history of narrative : The classic narra­tive system, p. 212) which, in line with the nineteenth-century novel, centres on the symbolic figure of the woman as source of the disruption that sets going a narrative trajectory of male desire and its ultimate resolution in heterosexual couple formation.

Feminist response to the dominance in the western of a male-defined problematic has taken two forms. Jacqueline Levitin has attacked the western for the circum­scribed roles it gives women. ('The wes­tern: any good roles for feminists?', 1982). She analyses their function in catalysing the choices that face the hero, and the nar­rative contortions undergone by those exceptional westerns which attempt to support a female hero — for instance Johnny Guitar. She also suggests that the historical West offered opportunities for greater freedom and social power for women, as well as potential female hero figures, which are transformed and tradu­ced in the process of producing patriarchal fiction. In this respect she argues that the history of the West provides material which could be colonised by feminism. The problem in her account is the assump­tion that all that is required is greater historical accuracy; she seems to ignore the work of fantasy and fiction at play in the childhood memories she cites of identi­fication with the male hero, and the prob­lems of finding forms that will fulfil this task for women.

The question of the female audience and the western is taken up by Laura Mulvey in a consideration of how women deal with the male system of spectatorship she had analysed in 'Visual Pleasure and Nar­rative Cinema' (1975) (-> narrative and structuralism : Narrative and audience, p. 242.). Mulvey draws on Freud for an argu­ment both about how the western relates to the male oedipal scenario and about the trans-sexual identification of women with male heroes described by Levitin. In both cases what she sees at work is a fictional indulgence of the fantasy of omnipotence belonging to the pre-oedipal phase, exper­ienced by both boys and girls, before the socially required gender positions are taken up. This phase is characterised by narcissism, allowing for object-choices and identifications based on similarity rather than difference, so that boys and girls are able to take up one another's posi­tions. This forms the basis of trans-sexual identification. Despite its hypothetical freedom from social categorisation, Mulvey notes that the pre-oedipal phase is nevertheless conceived in traditionally 'masculine' terms - as active, phallic. For the boy the oedipal passage into 'manhood' requires forsaking the fantasy of omnipotence, submission to sexual dif­ference ('masculinity') through the castra­tion scenario, and the channelling of his desire towards the woman positioned within the couple, marriage. For the girl passage through the oedipal phase requires not merely channelling active desire towards the correct goal, but forsaking it altogether by taking up the feminine posi­tion traditionally conceived as 'passive'. However because of the relative weakness of the castration scenario for women, the 'active' fantasies of the non-gender specific pre-oedipal phase are never entirely repressed.

The western serves the pre-oedipal fan­tasies of the gendered audience in two dis­tinct and gender-specific ways. If, as Bellour suggests, the oedipal resolution of 'couple formation' is the implicit goal of every western, the 'not marriage' choice, Mulvey argues, is also central to its agenda. The indulgence of this male fan­tasy, involving a disavowal of the feminine sphere, frequently leads in the western to a splitting of the hero:

'Here two functions emerge, one celebrating integration into society through marriage, the other celebrating resistance to social demands and respon­sibilities, above all those of marriage and family, the sphere represented by woman'

(P- 14)-

In the first option 'the fiction "mar­riage" sublimates the erotic into a final closing social ritual'. In the second the male spectator is offered 'a nostalgic celebration of phallic, narcissistic omnipotence...difficult to integrate exac­tly into the oedipal drama' (p. 14) - the hero rejects the woman and rides alone into the sunset.

However the dominance of the male hero, and role of woman as a signifier in a male scenario in this as in most genres does not, Mulvey argues, mean the films do not address the female spectator. They do so through the mechanism of trans-sex identification in which pre-oedipal 'active' and narcissistic fantasising, never finally repressed in women, is given cultural outlet and reinforcement by the logic of narrative grammar, which 'places the reader, listener or spectator with the hero' (p. 13).

'In this sense Hollywood genre films, structured around masculine pleasure, offering an identification with the active point of view, allow a woman spectator to rediscover that lost aspect of her sexual identity, the never fully repressed bed-rock of feminine neurosis' (p. 13).

From this perspective it could be argued that in the western female pleasure may be derived from its offering to women identi­fication with a male figure asserting desire in pre-oedipal terms, the male fantasy of self-sufficiency serving women's own ambivalence towards the 'correct' feminine position.

Male spectators and the western

In his book Genre (1980) Stephen Neale touches briefly on the question of spec­tatorship and the western from the masculine perspective. Laura Mulvey had argued in 'Visual pleasure and narrative cinema' (1975) that the role of the male hero for the male spectator is that of an ideal ego, through whose gaze the spec­tator gains symbolic possession of the female body placed as the central spectacle in the fiction. Neale is interested in Paul Willemen's qualification of this argument ('Voyeurism, the look and Dwoskin', 1976) in which he points out that in the Freudian scenario the scopophilic instinct (the drive to look) is in the first instance 'auto-erotic', taking as its object the sub­ject's own body. If the cinema can be seen as pleasuring such formative desires, then the male body can be 'a substantial source of gratification for a male viewer' (Willemen, 1976, p. 43). Mulvey had suggested that the narrative function of the hero acts in part as a deflection of such desires in so far as they threaten the social taboo against homosexuality. Neale takes this further, arguing that the spectator's gaze at the male hero is legitimated, 'rendered "innocent"', because in following his actions eroticism is deflected into the hero's pursuit of the woman, who con­stitutes an ideologically acceptable sexual object. What interests Neale here is the way the western plays on this ambiguous production of male hero as an object for the spectator's gaze. He argues that many of the structural antimonies of the western, described by Kitses, can be set in opposi­tion around the way the hero's body is represented, 'opening a space for . . . the male as privileged object of the look' (p. 58). Thus the opposition Law/Outside Law can be set up in the way the body of the hero, 'through the codes of dress, com­portment, movement, adornment' (p. 58), relates to those of Indian, outlaw, townspeople, farmers, 'elaborated through similar codes; or in the dynamic oscillation between natural landscape and township, realised in the play of 'light, texture, col­our' over the male figure, and in the pace and rhythm of his movements. For Neale, the drama of the western revolves around its exploration of various modes of the inscription of Law on the human body. Since it is the hero who engages with the Law, the Father/Son relationship domi­nates the scenario, and the western can be said to be 'about' the male half of the Oedipus trauma (p. 59).

Italian westerns

Finally the representation of sexuality and gender identity in the western received a revealing inflection in the decade of Italian production of what became known as the 'spaghetti western' - 1965-1975 - a period associated most strongly with the names of directors Sergio Leone and Sergio Corbucci, and the American star Glint East-wood, whose fame was made by the Dollars Trilogy. Little serious work has been done on how the popularity of this sub-genre affects the demarcation of the western per se, although Christopher Frayling (1981) has attempted a pioneering work of archival research on this phenomenon in which he mounts an argu­ment that Leone's films, at least, represent a critique of Hollywood's reconstruction of the West and its meanings. The films clearly mark a challenge to the dominance of Hollywood over genre production, complicating the question of the relation of genre motifs to the culture which produ­ced them, and demonstrating the work of translation and transformation that goes on between cultures, especially in the cinema. Anglo-Saxon critics of the period were appalled at what they saw as a travesty of the traditional western and its time-honoured values. Behind the outrage at what was considered gratuitous violence and sexual sado-masochism can be sensed an unease about the production of a more rampant, less romanticised expression of masculine identity. On the whole it is the Eastwood/Leone Dollars Trilogy through which this period of production has entered film studies, and the films are liable to be discussed as much in terms of the Eastwood image and how it speaks to a post- 68, 'post-feminist' crisis in male iden­tity as in terms of its contribution to and development of western traditions. Cur­rently critics and industry seem agreed that the era of large-scale and popular produc­tion of westerns is over.


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Raymond Bellour, 'Alternation, segmentation, hypnosis: interview with Raymond Bellour', in Camera Obscura no. 3/4,1979. Ed Buscombe, 'The idea of genre in the American cinema', Screen vol. II no. 2.,March/April 1970.

John Cawelti, The Six Gun Mystique, Bowling Green, Ohio, Bowling Green University Popular Press, 1971.

Richard Collins, 'Genre: a reply to Ed Buscombe', Screen vol. II no. 4/5, July-October 1970; reprinted in Nichols (ed.) Movies and Methods, Berkeley, University of California Press, 1976.

Christopher Frayling, 'The American western and American society', in Davies and Neve (eds.) Cinema, Politics and Society in America Manchester, Manchester University Press, 1981.

Christopher Frayling, Spaghetti Westerns : cowboys and Europeans from Karl May to Sergio Leone, London, Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1981.

Philip French, Westerns, London, Seeker and Warburg/BFI, 1973.

Stuart Hall and Paddy Whannel, The Popular Arts, London, Hutchinson Educational, 1964.

Jim Kitses, Horizons West, London, Seeker and Warburg/BFI, 1969.

Jacqueline Levitin, 'The western: any good roles for feminists ?', Film Reader no. 5,1981.

Alan Lovell, 'The western', Screen Education no. 41, September/October 1967.

Colin McArthur, 'The roots of the western', Cinema (UK) no. 4, October 1969.

Laura Mulvey, 'Afterthoughts on "Visual pleasure and narrative cinema" inspired by Duel in the Sun', Framework no. 15/16/17, Summer 1981.

Stephen Neale, Genre, London, BFI Publishing, 1980.

Douglas Pye, 'Genre and history: Fort Apache and Liberty Valance', Movie no. 25, Winter


Jean-Louis Rieupeyrout, 'The western: a historical genre', Quarterly of Film Radio and Television, vol. 3, Winter 1952.

Tom Ryall, 'The notion of genre', Screen vol. II no. i, March/April 1970.

Jean Wagner, 'The western, history and actuality', in Henri Agel (ed.), Le Western, Paris, Lettres Modernes, 1961.

Robert Warshow, 'Movie chronicle: The Westerner', in The Immediate Experience, New York, Atheneum Books, 1970.

Paul Willemen, 'Voyeurism, the look and Dwoskin,' Afterimage no. 6,1976.

Will Wright, Sixguns and Society: a structural study of the western, Berkeley, University of California Press, 1975.