The Western: More than a Shoot‘em Up

         Thought of merely as a “guy movie” of just action film fluff, Westerns often get brushed aside by critics and viewers alike. The Western is one of the oldest most enduring styles of film to this day. From Fred Zinnemann’s 1950 High Noon to Clint Eastwood’s 1992 The Unforgiven, Westerns never cease to be entertaining and incredibly deep at the same time.

         It all began during the 1920’s with films like King Baggott’s 1925 Tumbleweeds and John Ford’s 1924 The Iron Horse (Cook 190). Films such as these really laid the parameters for the Western as a relevant genre in film.

         In the 1950’s and 1960’s with the advent of widescreen cinema the Western flourished. The broad landscapes and open terrain where such films were set lent themselves perfectly to the widescreen. The films during this period did change with society as the “heroic, idealized, epic Western of John Ford” was slowly replaced by the more psychological “adult Westerns” (Cook 411).

         Films, such as High Noon, were of this ilk. More about building tension and the psychological conflicts of the lead character, this film helped revolutionize Westerns. No more was the lead character some “super hero” like figure but a man with a moral responsibility and a conscience.

         Anthony Mann, who, along with James Stewart, made many of these so-called “adult Westerns” brought the genre into an even more psychological and violent realm than Ford had. Stewart was the perfect man for such roles, and he absolutely thrived in films such as Winchester ’73 (1950) (Cook 411).

         John Ford would return in 1956 to make The Searchers, in his tried and true heroic epic style. The Searchers still to this day, is considered one of the best Westerns ever filmed (Cook 263).

         Film making does not exist inside a vacuum and outside influences began to converge on the Western genre in the 1960’s. The most notable influence came from the Far East in Japan. Heavy toned themes of honor, fatality and violence began to ring through the Western (Cook 411).

         Akira Kurosowa probably made the biggest impression on the Western film maker. His 1954 film Seven Samurai is considered by many his greatest work. John Sturges must have thought so too as he remade the film in the states as The Magnificent Seven (1960) (Cook 738).

         The Magnificent Seven was so successful that many film makers started to borrow heavily from the Samurai theme. All this soon led to the birth of the “spaghetti Western.” The “spaghetti Westerns” were violent films starring American actors that were shot in Italy or Yugoslavia by Italian filmmakers (Cook 411). Sergio Leone was the most notable director of such films. What began with A Fistful of Dollars (1964) turned into such classics as For a Few Dollars More (1965) and The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly (1966). Clint Eastwood carved out his niche with these films. Much like Anthony Mann and James Stewart, Leone and Eastwood were together very often. Eastwood was perfect as the gritty loner in these “spaghetti Westerns.” These incredibly violent films were very popular in the United States and spawned imitators here as well. Ted Post’s 1968 Hang ‘Em High is one such film. Post even borrows Eastwood, again doing yeoman’s work as the grizzled loner ever searching.

         From Ford to Post, the Western had changed drastically. The characters went from heroes to antiheroes and the violence more overt. These changes are no doubt in direct correlation to the changes in American society from the 1920’s to the late 1960’s.

         All this social commentary came to a head in 1969 with Sam Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch. This film was directly influenced by America’s “mercenary presence in Vietnam itself.” The aging gunmen played by such greats as Ernest Borgnine and William Holden travel to Mexico in search of “greener pastures” as the American west becomes more and more fenced in (Cook 852). They arrive in Mexico during a Civil War and just want to get in on some of the action that is going on. This, of course, is in direct correlation to the U. S. involvement in Vietnam. The United States with no seemingly obvious reason to be in Vietnam, just as the Wild Bunch in Mexico get caught in the middle of somebody else’s war. The final bloody scene of The Wild Bunch shows an incredible massacre of men, women and children (as well as soldiers) at the hands of the bunch. This scene is one of the most frenetic and violent as I have ever seen. This incredible violence is allegory for the violence at the hands of American soldiers in Vietnam, as was deemed excessive for its time (Cook 853).

         All the destruction did, however, have a message, and that is what all these movies are about. The Western had evolved from cookie-cutter heroic epic to scathing political commentary in the span of fifty some years. This is a supreme example of how a specific film genre is malleable and can be used to advance an agenda whether noble or not. Here is to many more years of Westerns and their ilk and film makers that are not afraid to go against traditional notions of how a certain genre should be.

Work Cited

Cook, David A. A History of Narrative Film.4th ed. New York: W. W. Norton & Co., Inc., 2004.

Eric Icenogle

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