Why we Should be watching Western movies today

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Go West, young man, and grow up with the country
– Horace Greely

Why should we be watching Western movies today?

Talking about westerns today is as good a way as any to become unpopular. Not as much as pretending to be a supporter of Kim Jong-un during a conference in Washington DC, but certainly enough to raise the skepticism of every passionate and refined lover of the Seventh Art who idolizes the Antonioni, Bergman and Fellini triad. Why this prejudice? Why does the genre that more than any other represents the United States, and therefore popular cinema par excellence, suffer from this bad reputation?

For many years, western cinema has been considered the ultimate reactionary genre. Without subtlety, it divided the world into good and evil; it enjoyed the support of notable republicans like John Ford, John Wayne and Clint Eastwood; its female characters were often destined for a negligible role, and treated as mere booty to conquer: when confronted with these observations, one might be led to think that being a western movie fan is almost offensive.

Has anyone ever rightfully ascertained that these (or other, perhaps more convoluted, but even less convincing) “reflections” are enough to set us up as naive, gullible watchers ready to be duped by the new Birth of a Nation?

Clint Eastwood agrees
Clint Eastwood couldn’t have said it better himself.

As often happens when dealing with a genre, we face the issue of having to analyze very different products: classic American cinema (not to mention the important antecedents in the early years of silent movies), European Westerns and New Hollywood movies have only a few elements in common, which I will try to analyze and interpret.

I always ascribed the good fortune of Western cinema on its important relationship with movie theaters. If all “good” movies are better watched on the big screen, this is especially true for those set in the Old West. The spectacular landscapes, the marked contrasts, the grandiose wilderness and bright colors are made to be watched on a screen that is “larger than life” – and when the music starts, and the camera takes off, you just never want to leave your  theater seat:

Theme from Once Upon a time in the West by Ennio Morricone

Before Spaghetti Westerns came about, it would have been appropriate to devote a paragraph to the modern saint called cowboy. After Leone & co., such analysis would be misleading. As in war cinema, however, it is legitimate to question the structure of interactions created between the protagonists of the genre. Female characters are rarely at the center of action; men, almost always armed, ground their relationships in bluntness. The tough experience of frontier life forces the characters to engage in scant, rudimentary interactions. After all, what’s the point of lying to someone when I can easily shoot him?

John Wayne shoots in El Dorado
John Wayne doing what he does best.

The theme of the frontier is connected with the institution of Law in an almost anarchic dimension. If The Man Who Killed Liberty Valance is a paradigmatic title, it is not the only one focusing on the advent of civilization in a context of barbarism. The rules of the West are not always that strict with regards to the use of violence (think of all those sheriffs who favor the resolution of conflicts outside of the courtroom).

For many years, the Indians have been the great forsaken of American cinema. Native Americans would have a lot to say about the way their country’s story was told. As in the best definition of propaganda, Indians have been associated with cruel and barbarous customs, in contrast to white man’s civilization. Obviously no reference to the great Indian democratic tradition has ever been made (I look forward to a film that would recount the American Revolution and the Six Nations civilization from the point of view of the Indians, along the lines of Wu Ming’s Manituana novel). Some important directors, like Aldrich, did humanize the enemy, but the real paradigm shift came thanks to the New Hollywood: Soldier Blue is one of the first titles that recounts the other side of the myth. Despite the criticism put forward by various films at different times, the role of the conquest of the West in US imagery is never questioned (not even after the jumble of Oscars obtained by Dances With Wolves).

Cheyenne war chief Spotted Wolf facing a treacherous attack in Soldier Blue.

Epic (and Myth). It’s difficult to find a country that does not trace its destiny back to a myth. A nation with such a recent history as the United States has been able to make the most of the greatest bard of the twentieth century, to find a unifying story that is also functional to the status of a great world power. The conquest of the West was a slow, long and difficult journey through the lands of a vast continent. The fact that almost no one remembers it as a clash between two worlds is due to literature first, and then to Western movies. Viewing this process exclusively as military confrontation would be reductive. It is necessary to underline the importance of the technical and industrial aspects (think of the railway epic The Iron Horse) and of the relationship between man and nature (but perhaps it would be better to call it anthropization).

Why do these stories still work today?

Western film has its own circle of admirers. Each one of them lets him or herself be captivated, consciously or unconsciously, by certain aspects of the genre.

Those who love great stories are fascinated by those characters who stand out for their consistency and obstinacy. Characters who hide a big heart under their thick skin and throw themselves blindly into adventure only to honor their word. Surely these films privilege a quick and instinctive showdown, where words and thoughts are less valuable than action. This however does not prevent the development of intellectual clashes between the protagonists.

Johnny Guitar: ready wit, loaded gun, big heart.

Violence is an essential element of the genre, but it is not an end in itself (with the exception of Spaghetti Western, and of the cinema of the 60s and 70s in general). 

Others find in Western movies a clash between the old and the new ways (of producing, of living, of loving) that is denied elsewhere. New, in this case, almost never rhymes with good. These concepts are almost invariably delivered as transparently as possible. Some cases are more opaque: a symbolic or allusive language is used. House doors, stagecoaches or glasses of whiskey become synonyms for more complex ideas, fleetingly capable of alluding to a universe that only needs to be glimpsed at in order to be understood.

Film language lovers know that its evolution owes a lot to Western cinema. Through it, some technical expedients have been enhanced, in particular those related to large spaces: dollies, camera carts, trolleys, helicopters, increasingly luminous lenses and increasingly sensitive films (not to mention the brilliant use of ritter fans in the cinema field).

It is difficult to draw a profile of the Western aficionado; perhaps he is an esthete of the seventh art, perhaps a dreamer in search of adventure. But he surely has a good reason to keep looking beyond the horizon.

We do not like a good thing, if we don’t measure up to it.
– Friedrich W. Nietzsche

Translated from Italian by Valeria Calderoni