Last summer I completed work on a Film Talk that has yet to be delivered. With everyone staying at home at the moment I thought I’d share the film talk with you. Focusing on the evolving role and depiction of violence in the genre.
Tonight’s film talk is about the depiction of violence in the Western Genre. On-screen violence is a vast topic that if you could spend hours exploring it’s effects on society, censorship and how directors have each approached it in their work. Tonight I’ll be focusing on the evolution of the depiction of violence in the Western
The Great Train Robbery was the first noted Western in 1903, featuring the first use of editing to push forward a narrative and lay the foundations for the genre over the course of the next century. More notably the use of guns, ending with the a gun being aimed at the audience.
“They helped producers understanding of the important of setting and reference, the possibilities of location and action shooting…the new medium and the industry succeeded in appropriating the literary and historical tradition of the myth of the frontier and translating it’s symbols and references and its peculiar way of blending fiction and history into cinematic terms.”
Gunfighter Nation: The Myth of the Frontier in 20th Century America – Richard Slotkin p.254
During the silent era the genre was very popular with audiences. Innovators of the genre such as John Ford spoke of his time to fellow director Peter Bogdanovich.
“These early Westerns weren’t shoot-em-ups, they were character stories. [Harry] Carey was a great actor, and we didn’t dress him up like the cowboys you see on TV-all dolled up”
Ride, Boldly Ride : the evolution of the American Western – Mary Lea Bandy and Kevin Stoehr p.26
During the silent era a number of court cases were being held in connection to Westerns of the day. The James Boys in Missouri and Night Riders both released in 1908, both depicting the James Brothers. The Judge in the case of Block V the City of Chicago ruled against them. It was his opinion that
“…The James Boys and Night Riders were immoral not simply because they concentrated on the exploits of outlaws but because they did so exclusively, without corresponding depiction of law-abiding character that they ought to offer morally admirable characters and behaviour as a counterweight to depictions of crime…”
Classical Film Violence: Designing and Regulating Brutality in Hollywood Cinema (1930-1968) – Stephen Prince p.19
Similar rulings would have a lasting effect on the production that was later established in the 1930’s. Accompanied by the development of sound transforming how narratives we’re told. Changing the dynamic of the plot, from just visuals with the extra audio element, allowing for violence to be heard. The Production code was finally enforced in 1934, forcing filmmakers to think creatively to work around the restrictions.
“Restrictions on the image, paradoxically, open onto plenitude – the rich and fertile area of the imagination-which requires very little data to perform prodigious feats of creation. The oblique image, violence hinted but not displayed, can arouse the viewers imaginings with great ferocity.”
Classical Film Violence: Designing and Regulating Brutality in Hollywood Cinema (1930-1968) – Stephen Prince p.207
Westerns during the majority of the 1930’s were relegated to kids B-movies, some featuring a young John Wayne. If you wanted anything close to a gunplay you’d have watch a James Cagney or an Edward G Robinson film. The genre finally matured in 1939 with Stagecoach beginning a resurgence of Westerns.
During WWII images of violence filled the screen in newsreels and the first hand experiences of filmmakers of the U.S. Army Signal Corps, which I’ll touch on later. Films such as The Ox-Bow Incident (1942), which focused on mob violence.
“…Walter Van Tilburgs Clarks story, a sobering look at mob psychology and violence. While Gil, Art, and Davis [Henry Fonda, Harry Morgan and Harry Davenport], and others plead for law and more reasonable, rational behaviour to prevail, the mob has its way. It’s as if Clark is saying, and [William] Wellman and [Lamar] Trotti are confirming, that this is not at all unusual but, in fact, the natural state of human behaviour.”
The Noir Western: Darkness on the Range – David Meuel p.29
We see the result of the mob violence in this clip.
We only see the executioners setting up the horses, rigging the nooses. The only physical violence we see on-screen is handed out to the general’s son, a pacifist who’s clipped by his father. Then men executed are reduced to shadows from the trees above. The audience imagination shocks them more than the images on-screen. They have seen anyone hang, imaging the men hanging from above.
A few years later in 1946 in John Ford’s first film after leaving the Signal Corp – My Darling Clementine is released. He deals very differently with violence. It’s more traditional; we see gunfights, which are interposed with long periods of characterisation. We get to understand the motivations of the key Wyatt Earp and Doc Holiday before the final shoo-out at the infamous OK Corral.
As the 1950’s began the effects of film noir were being felt strongest with Anthony Mann and his cycle of psychological Westerns, filled with tormented men and women, struggling to understand the world around them. The director felt he had more freedom in the genre.
“It’s a primitive form. It’s not governed by rule; you can do anything with it. It has the essential pictorial qualities; has the guts of any character you want; the violence of anything you need; the sweep of anything you feel; the joy of sheer exercise, of outdoors. It is legend-and legend makes the very best cinema….”
The Wild Bunch: Sam Peckinpah, a Revolution in Hollywood, and the Making of a Legendary Film – W.K. Stratton p.73
A prime example of this psychological violence in a rare domestic setting takes place in The Furies (1950) when Barbara Stanwyck attacks her new stepmother.
Jumping forward 3 years to the Classic Shane, by George Stevens he wanted to push the expectations of what the audience expects when they see a man die on-screen.
Stevens wanted to replicate his experience of warfare for audiences back home. Also seeing boys playing cowboys in the streets. His wanted to make Shane for the kids to see what killing was really like.
“Now he re-created it on the screen in Technicolor. He’s given Americans, comfortable in their theatre seats, clutching their popcorn and sodas, a nasty taste of what death was really like.”
The Wild Bunch: Sam Peckinpah, a Revolution in Hollywood, and the Making of a Legendary Film – W.K. Stratton – W.K. Stratton p.74
At the end of the film social justice is restored, forcing Shane unfit to live among civilised people to wander forever at the close of the film.
Shane was one of a growing number of cinematic creations known as the Gunfighter, the walking embodiment of violence in the genre.
“These new takes on the Western were shaped by the internal logic of genre development, which fostered a certain kind of stylization of the Western and its hero and by the pressures and anxieties of the post-war/Cold War transition…The consonance between the formal character of the gunfighter Western and its ideological content is a genuinely poetic achievement. It gave the gunfighter films ideological and cinematic resonance and made heroic style of the gunfighter an important symbol of right and heroic actions for filmmakers, the public, and the nation’s political leadership.”
Gunfighter Nation: The Myth of the Frontier in 20th Century America – Richard Slotkin p.379-80
So far we have seen how violence has been developing on-screen however it’s John Ford in The Searchers (1956) as much as violence is depicted traditionally, guns being fired, yet we see no one of consequence die on camera.
“The violence in the film-ranging from the Comanche massacre of the Edwards family homes and Ethan’s discovery of Martha’s ravaged corpse to Ethan finding Lucy’s body and later his scalping of an already dead Scar-always takes place off-screen, leaving horrific acts and scenes to the power of the viewers imagination. This is a movie about violence that does not reveal its violence directly to the audience.”
Ride, Boldly Ride: the evolution of the American Western – Mary Lea Bandy and Kevin Stoehr p.193
This clip from The Searchers is a prime example of that unseen violence.
We clearly understand what’s happened to the Lucy, Ethan has buried her in the canyon he’s returned from earlier. Her body was mutilated and raped before she died. Ford relies on prior associations with Native Americans in the genre to inform us of what’s happened. The most brutal scenes are suppressed
“We feel the horror of Lucy’s death all the more because our imagination has to supply what Ethan will not tell, or in the case of Martha’s death, will not let Marty see. At the same time, keeping such things hidden not only invests them with extraordinary emotive power. It also allows the film to hint at the darkness deep in Ethan…only Scar’s death and mutilation are seen on screen. It’s as if at the end suppression is no longer possible. Things must finally be brought to light, after which there can be resolution.”
The Searchers (BFI film classics) – Edward Buscombe p.28-9
Moving to the end of the 50’s we have Anthony Mann again focusing on sexual violence too. Man of the West (1958) which rightly disturbs and angers Link (Gary Cooper’s), a now reformed bandit when an act is committed.
The First scene with Billie (Julie London) we see how this disturbs Link; Leading to his brutal fight with Coaley (Jack Lord) in the second scene. Both scenes are intense as we Link’s humanity being mentally stripped away at.
“Merely being around the Tobins brings out the worst in him – something that’s still (and maybe always be) there. Just as Billie and Coaley are stripped of their clothes, Link is bring stripped of his hard-won humanity The one bright spot is that, when Link has the chance to kill a defenceless Coaley, he can’t bring himself to do it. He hasn’t entirely reverted back to his old ways.”
The Noir Western: Darkness on the Range – David Meuel p.137
To see violence really develop you have to look to Italy with the introduction of the Spaghetti Western, cheaply made westerns using a mix of European actors and sometimes American stars. Personified by the Dollars trilogy teaming Clint Eastwood and Sergio Leone.
Up until this point there was a sense of morality in the genre, the gun brought justice to civilisation. Through skilful use of a gun you can rise you to the status of hero.
“According to [Robert] Warshow, the protagonist of the Western is in control of himself. He uses violence only when provoked and, ultimately, in defence of his vision of himself as a man of honour. For [John G.] Cawelti, the hero’s code and the epic moment (where an ‘advancing civilisation met a declining savagery’) worked to provide a ‘fictional justification for enjoying violent conflicts and expression of lawless force without feeling that they threatened the values or the fabric of society’ Violence as a moral force therefore became central to the classical Western formula.”
Myth of the Western: New Perspectives on Hollywood’s Frontier Narrative – Matthew Carter p.37
How this consideration simply goes out the window with directors like Leone and [Sergio] Corbucci according to Pauline Kael who observed this.
“It was spaghetti Westerns […] that first eliminated the morality play dimension and turned the Western into pure violent reverie. […] What made these […] popular was that they stripped the Western form of its cultural burden of morality. They discarded its civility along with hypocrisy. In a sense, they liberated the form: what the Western hero stood for was left out, and what he embodied (strength and gun power) was retained.”
Radical Frontiers in the Spaghetti Western: Politics, Violence and Popular Italian Cinema – Austin Fisher p.67
European cinema breathed new life into a purely American genre celebrating its own history. Burdened by the weight of the heroes and villains that populated it. Once removed you can use its form and write a new language.
What caused the removal of civility and morals in Italy to produce over a decade worth of film? You only need to look at the political tensions in the country to understand filmmakers and how they were responding on their work.
“There is in these films little sense of authorial surprise or shock that an outwardly democratic government might be corrupt and coercive. Certainly, the identification of state-sanctioned cruelty was hardly revelatory in a country with a living memory of totalitarianism and a rich tradition of militant insubordination. Accordingly, compared to the momentous depictions of a violent death being explored in contemporary Hollywood, the stylistics of the Italian Western as a whole reflect a considerably more blasé outlook towards brutality.”
Radical Frontiers in the Spaghetti Western – Austin Fisher p.160
A key film is Corbucci’s; Il Grande Silenzio (1968). The law is used to bounty hunters advantage to get rich. Lead by Tigrero (Klaus Kinski), his men deliver unspeakable death to one town, ignoring an amnesty that has just been passed on all outlaws. Tonally a very bleak film that even see’s the film’s hero Silenzio (Jean Louis Trintignant), himself a victim of violence eventually killed.
Back in America the production code was crumbling. Studios such as United Artist had been bypassing the code, releasing films without a seal. Those that worked with the code proved too much for one Western – One Eyed Jacks, it was still too much working with the Production Code Administration. Here’s a description of one scene that was never filmed.
“He is battered and bloody. Several teeth have been knocked out, and now half conscious he spits them out, one eye is swollen, already half-shut, blood pours in twin streams from his nose, his chin and cheekbones are bruised purple.”…“One of those shots has shattered the bridge of his nose, spraying his face and eyes with blood”…“The crowd hauls on a rope, which is attached to Bob’s right ankle. He is pulled up into the air and his dead body dangles downward, the other leg flopped awkwardly over at an angle… The barber douses Bob’s body with the kerosene and the holds a lighted match to it.”
Classical Film Violence – Stephen Prince p.191
Violence like this couldn’t be depicted for another decade, helped in part to he production code being replaced when Jack Valenti took over the, working with the major studios to bring it what we would be more familiar with – a ratings system that hoped to appease both studios and religiously conservative America.
“…the “G,” “PG,” and “R” registered with the US Patents trademark Office as certified labels of the MPAA. (The “X” category was never copyrighted since [Jack] Valenti thought if a producer felt that his movie couldn’t make the “R” cut, he would never submit it and the film would go unrated.
Hollywood Film 1963-1976 – Drew Casper p.120
As the 1960’s wore on we saw a number of pictures that really pushed the boundaries of what the public would like from Bonnie and Clyde (1967), opening the doors for Sam Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch. A Revisionist Western that had more in common with the Spaghetti Western. However it was the volume of violence that would be remembered. His reasoning was to depict what killing was really like, much like George Stevens reflecting the television pictures of the Vietnam war.
“Look, killing is no fun. I was trying to show what the hell it’s like to be shot.”
Hollywood Film 1963-1976 – Drew Casper p.334
The film’s bookended with two violent set pieces. The opening sequence was the first to depict women and children being shot, during a bank robbery. Whilst the finale would see the 4 anti heroes attempt to save their friend before engaging in a bloodbath opposite the Mexican Revolutionary Army. Using guns never seen in a Western before this point.
The the film was met with its share of controversy, critically it was both loved and hated. Overtime its status has raised to become a classic. The violent scenes are still shocking. Sadly it never had the effect that Peckinpah intended for. Carrying his share of regret, which we can see in this interview.
During the early 1970’s Westerns began to lose their place in the cinema, fading into pastiche and obsolescence for a time. Clint Eastwood was the only director keeping them alive. Culminating in Unforgiven (1992) when retired gunfighter William Munny after years of being a family man picks up his gun one last time. Throughout the film we see old man unable to shoot properly, mount a horse, all signs of aging, yet it’s the death of his friend Ned (Morgan Freeman) that triggers something inside him.
“[Munny has ] thrown a switch or something and now a kind of machinery was back in action, a “machinery of violence,” I guess you could say. No it wasn’t glamorous. He’s back in the mode of mayhem. And he doesn’t care. He’s his old self again, at least for the moment. He doesn’t miss a beat whole he loads his rifle and talks to the journalist…Now when he goes on this suicidal mission, he’s all machine. He not only murders Daggett at point blank range but shoots some bystanders with no more compunction than someone swatting a fly. Munny has been protesting all the time that he’s changed, but maybe he’s been protesting too much.”
Clint Eastwood Interview 1992
Ride, Boldly Ride : the evolution of the American Western – Mary Lea Bandy and Kevin Stoehr p.264
Eastwood reminds us of Peckinpah’s intentions in Wild Bunch to show the destructive power of technology in the hands of mind. Both directors are aware the audiences lust to see it that all on-screen. This is not the case in the traditional form.
For violence in modern cinema a prime we should look at Quentin Tarantino, whose last two films have been set in the Wild West. His 7th Django Unchained (2012) a quasi Spaghetti Western-blaxploitation. Violence is a constant that is always there in the background before we reach the final explosive act.
“The film ends with Django taking his revenge, redecorating the walls of Candie’s mansion with blood that “has it’s own ballet movements,” as David Thompson wrote in the New Republic. “It’s Jackson Pollock on speed; and it spouts from bodies the way oil arrives in Giant or jism comes in a porno movie, it can’t wait to get out of the bodies.”
Tarantino: A Retrospective p224 – David Thomson – New Republic Review
Whereas his last film The Hateful Eight (2015) essentially an Agatha Christie in the West, with some gruesome acts along the way to the fallout feels tamer in comparison. Is this in response to the constant criticism of his use of violence?
“But it’s a hassle, it’s a pain in the ass. Maybe I can take a break on it for this next one.”
Tarantino Interview – regarding the suggestion of doubling down on the violence in The Hateful Eight (2015)
Once Upon a Time in a Western p.270
So where does that leave violence in the genre today?
Firstly the output of Westerns has dropped dramatically in the last 20 years. The genre has become far more reflexive, open to critiquing itself in films. It’s also open to genre blending more violent depictions. Women are finding a more equal space in the genre. However violence is no longer a means to restore law and order as the classical form would promise deliver. Now it’s become at times excessive and run of the mill, an action film simply set in the West
As Eastwood touched on in Unforgiven, that traditional use of violence as a release of a build up of tension is still there. It just needs to be released more often due to scenes that build up throughout a film, which audiences have been trained to respond to. Another factor is that we are being numbed by the on-screen effects of the violent images found on television.