Published 13 Mar 2017
Since the beginning of cinema in the United States, there has been on genre of film which has been explicitly American – the Western. Though touched on by films in other countries, the Western film has been used for decades as the quintessential view into American ideals and lifestyles. Though this genre has not changed much in since its inception, stylistically, it has changed in its way of expressing and covering issues of American culture.Many clichés have arisen out of the western film. The “good guys” wore white clothes. The “bad guys” wore black clothes. The lawmen were always on the side of truth and justice – and often portrayed as immensely stoic – if not immortal. Other clichés of the genre include the “savagery” of the Native Americans and the bravery, and justice displayed by every man in the position of “right” – IE. Marshals, military men or even the unaffiliated heroes such as the Lone Ranger.
One of the first movies to begin to break from this traditional view of the American west was the film High Noon. In this 1952 film, town marshal Will Kane, played by Gary Cooper, is told that a man from his past is returning to town with the intention of killing him – for putting the man in prison. Ian MacDonald’s Frank Miller is seeking revenge, and returning on the noon train.Though this motif was not original to the film, the manner of its characterization was. Marshal Kane’s first response to the news of Frank Miller’s return is to leave town and avoid the fight. Though his machismo will not allow for a “cowardly escape”, the film does illustrate the fear that plagues Cooper’s character.
The dread that Kane feels throughout the film is compounded by the lack of support he receives from the townspeople. Despite being a beloved lawman for sometime – the movie takes place on the day of his retirement – the entirety of the town recommends that Kane flee for his life rather than face possible death as the hands of Miller. Throughout the film Kane attempts to garner, at least, moral support for his pending conflict; however he finds none – not even from his wife, who also tells him to flee.
Howard Burton wrote, in 1953, that High Noon was the return of the story of “everyman” as well as the final maturing of the western film as a genre. In Burton’s explication of the film, Kane is everyman. Burton describes everyman as “weak. He tries desperately to avoid meeting death, even attempting to delay death […}” (Burton 83)
The film, however, does not stray too far from the old ideal of the stoic hero, as Kane does face Miller. However, a change is noticed, as the hero acknowledges his mortality, as well as his ability to lose it. This break from the norm would ripple throughout the decades – and eventually create a near-complete paradigm shift within the genre.
The next film that illustrates a shift away from the standards of the western is The Searchers. Released in 1956, this film would be praised as one of the greatest films of all time. This is mainly due to the affect the film had on the genre of the western.
In this film, John Wayne – nearly a western film cliché himself – is searching for a tribe of Indians who killed his family and kidnapped his niece. Wayne’s character, Ethan Edwards, is joined by his nephew – who happens to be half-Indian himself. This not only causes tension between the characters, as Edwards hates all Indians because of the loss of his family, but also creates an opportunity for the western film genre to see a character – though only half Indian – in a sympathetic light.
The depth of the racial crossover increases as the film progresses. In the film;
[A] white woman is adopted and raised red society, marries a red man; (part) red man is adopted and raised by white society, marries a white woman. This parallel poses an exchange between red and white tribes. (Henderson 13)
Because of this crossover, both sides of the racial issue are illustrated, and explained. This motif offers a commentary on the prejudice and hypocrisy of the white American culture – because it was ok for the white family to take the native child, but not for the reciprocal to occur.
Another example of the western leaving changing the normal expectations of the genre occurred in the film, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance. In this film, James Stewart is a Senator who returns to the town from which his career began – in order to attend the funeral of a drifter, played by John Wayne. throughout the film, Stewart is acknowledged as the man who killed the area’s most notorious outlaw, Liberty Valance.
There are several subtle details of this film which make a prime example of the shift in America’s western film. First, and most obvious, the prime villain is called Liberty – creating a tension between good and evil that most films had not dared before 1962. The hero, in opposition to this, is named Ransom – which is also in conflict with the nature of good versus evil. Next, the film spends the majority of its time building up the character of Ransom
Stoddard as an all-around hero archetype. Ransom teaches the townspeople to read and write, as well as bringing order to the town through his law office.John Wayne’s character, Tom Doniphon is portrayed as a shiftless tough guy – with few redeeming moral virtues. There is conflict between Stoddard and Doniphon for the affections of Vera Miles’ character Hallie – who eventually will marry Stoddard and accompany him to Doniphon’s funeral.
As the story progresses, conflicts arise with the character of Liberty Valance. These conflicts lead to a gun fight, after which, Valance is dead; and Stoddard is hailed as his killer. The acclaim that Stoddard receives from the killing of Liberty Valance propels his political career and is the driving force behind his life’s success.
The shift in the movie comes in the end – as Stoddard tells the story of the death of Liberty Valance to a reporter. Through his exposition, Stoddard eventually reveals that it was actually Doniphon who killed Valance, but took no credit. It was then the guilt created by the success of his title, that brought Stoddard back to his hometown.
Because Stoddard did not come forward sooner, Doniphon died penniless and alone. This revealed truth from Stoddard, shows that the success he enjoyed after leaving this town – and being elected to the US Senate – was based on a lie. This illustration of impropriety was rare in films of the era. To say that those who were controlling the highest offices of government were not as they claimed was a strong departure from the purity of government that most films portrayed.
The film, The Good, The Bad and The Ugly, though filmed primarily in Spain, and directed by an Italian director, still illustrates a strong paradigm shift in the western dogma. Drawn together by the promise of treasure and riches, three veterans of the Civil War join forces. The conflict of personalities in this film is another example of this shift in western cinema.Because they are forced to work together, the lines of good and evil are blurred by greed. This film depicts the characters in ways that illustrate their characters; good, bad, ugly (in deed more than looks). However, because of their necessity for cooperation, their characters are forced to subjugate their expectations to some degree.By 1990, the western had nearly been lost as a genre – however, the movie Dances with Wolves revived the concept. It also made the strongest divergence from the western of old. This film illustrated many juxtaposed characterizations – from the suicidal and insane Lieutenant commander, to the very personal and sympathetic view of the Lakota tribe.
Dances with Wolves also paints a picture of the American cavalry in a very unflattering, and prejudicial light. The actions of the soldiers in the western frontier lands are shown as extremely violent and immoral. They soldiers refuse to find the story behind why a praised and decorated lieutenant is found in close association with the Lakota. Instead, they instantly deem him a traitor – based solely on his dress – and arrest him.The film also shows a deep understanding of the social unit of the Lakota of the time. This, in itself, is a departure from class forms of the American western, which still to this day often portray the Native American only as a savage. This film, however, delves into the culture itself – in a way that allows the viewer to learn of the people along with the character of John Dunbar.
Though not directly, the film also addresses the continuing conflict between the modern American culture, and that of the Native American cultures. The movie ends without a strong conclusion to the story of John Dunbar. he is still pursued by the Calvary, and seen as a traitor and deserter. The trials of the Lakota people are not resolved – as they have not been in reality. There is also a strong sense of tension at the end of the film, between John Dunbar and the lead warrior of the Lakota tribe – Wind in his hair.
Dances with Wolves also touches on relationship between an individual and his or her country. Though John Dunbar never acts against the best interests of the United States, he is labeled a traitor due to his style of dress when seen by the returning soldiers. This calls into question several aspects of American society.First, the concept of innocent until proven guilty – which is the basis for the American judicial system – is completely ignored in the arrest of John Dunbar. Next comes the idea of patriotism. John Dunbar is arguably the most patriotic character in the film; however he is eventually arrested and treated as the worst type of criminal. Finally, there is the question of loyalty. John Dunbar is portrayed as a fine example of loyal soldier – and is initially rewarded with his choice of assignments.
The use of cinema to comment on society is in no way a new concept – the plays of ancient Greece did the same, as did the plays of Shakespeare. However, for the majority of Americans, film is the primary source of social commentary – and the most American form of that commentary is the western. Because of its perception of being an entirely American genre, these types of films can hold a strong place in the minds of their audience.
The directors of these types of films understand this, of course, and use that to their advantage. Though not all directors set out to create a film which has some, deep, underlying message about the state of affairs in the United States, many western films contained such nuances, nonetheless.
World War II, Viet Nam, the Civil Rights Movement and the counter culture movements of the 60s and 70s were all very important to the development of the current American identity. It is, therefore, no surprise that these changes in social order were echoed in the changes of American cinema. These eras also brought about the first questionings of authority, and shifting away from the blind trust that Americans had in the government, and society as a whole – this was also mirrored in the American western. The social upheaval that occurred in the United States during the 1940s, 50s, 60s and into the 90s, marked drastic changes in both social stratification as well as American identity.
- “High Noon”. dir. Fred Zinnemann. starring Gary Cooper, Thomas Mitchell, Lloyd Bridges. 1952. United Artists.
- “The Searchers”. dir. John Ford. starring; John Wayne, Jeffery Hunter, Vera Miles. 1956. Warner Bros.
- “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance”. dir. John Ford. starring; John Wayne, James Stewart, Vera Miles. 1962. Paramount Studios.
- “The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly”. dir. Sergio Leone. starring; Eli Wallach, Clint Eastwood, Lee Van Cleef. 1966. United Artists.
- “Dances with Wolves”. dir. Kevin Costner. starring; Kevin Costner, Mary McDonnell, Graham Greene. 1990. MGM/UA Entertainment.
- Henderson, Brian. “The Searchers: An American Dilemma”. Film Quarterly. Vol. 34, No. 2. 1980. p/ 9-23.
- Burton, Howard A. “High Noon: Everyman Rides Again”. The Quarterly of Film Radio and Television. Vol. 8, No. 1. 1953. p. 80-86.