To mark just over a year ago since my chat/discussion/conversation with professor Neil Campbell of American Studies at Derby University, I feel I should share that conversation, to allow you all to understand more where I am coming from, my position on the Western, from my degree show piece and my fascination with the Western genre. I will link the conversation back to my writing on some of the films that we discussed
Q. Why did the Western genre lose popularity in the late 60’s?
A. The impact of television was clearly apart of that. The Television programs in that genre, was saturating the market. The genre was more accessible to viewers, here and in the U.S. Hollywood had to look to other styles or forms to gain their audiences. There was also the political climate, that of the civil rights movement that had reached a high, with riots and the death of Martin Luther King. Jr. Also the American people were beginning to question the conflict in Vietnam. This also questioned American values. In-turn the style of the Westerns didn’t tap into that at all. Being covered by the likes of John Wayne and John Ford, who were going into decline themselves. The Western doesn’t die it simply takes different forms. The classic formula was that a problem needs to be solved, the people can’t solve it, so a hero arrives. The film becomes action packed, solving the problem with violence. The classic John Ford’s fit the age anymore, being based on mythologies. Younger people are looking for something else. New directors like Sam Peckinpah, and Robert Altman who directed McCabe and Mrs Miller (1971) and Arthur Pen who directed both Left Handed Gun (1958) and Little Big Man (1970). The genre is seen now as Post Western, films about the West in the 20th and 21st century, such as No Country for Old Men (2007), that alters and plays around with the genre. The idea of the hero is now too simplistic. People don’t want to question the myth, as it sacrilegious to do so; it’s the national narrative, best seen in the Western. Today people are more cynical and sophisticated. Open Range (2003) is a classic western but also modern, so it’s like a Ford, but the Ford Western can no longer be sustained. It survives in a new form, the Contemporary America, using Western elements. So the Western has to adapt to the times to survive. The classic Western genre will always have a place, as apart of the culture, but also seen as a product of it times that tried to adapt, but was lost in the idea of the hero. Too simplistic to really survive when political tensions increased around the world and at home concerning America. The WWII required escapism, to have heroic figures saving the day, and seeing America as a place for possibilities and progress, the American dream.
Q. How has the depiction of the Native Americans effected their identity, their political position and racially?
A. In the classic western the Native Americans were seen as inferior, they had secondary importance. This produced a stereotype. They were seen amongst other obstacles to be overcome in order to progress. They were treated as just material. There was slow recognition to see them as human, not wanted to be seen on the same level as white people. Their importance really increased around the time of the civil rights movements. Hollywood had to acknowledge this. At the time of films such as Gone with the Wind (1939) they didn’t have the vote. John Ford tried to explore this through his films Cheyenne Autumn (1964) and Sergeant Rutledge (1960) and The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962). The minorities gradually become more human and less stereotyped. However things don’t really change until the Native Americans start to make their own films, in Post Westerns, but not in the Western style, such as Smoke Signals (1998) by director Chris Eyre, being set in a contemporary reservation. The film acknowledges the stereotypes are now apart of their identity, but seen critically and ironically, drawing stupidity out, they can laugh at it. Films such as Little Big Man (1970) is a civil rights film about the Native Americans, with lines such as “Sometimes it’s a good day to die”. Dances with Wolves (1990) however Campbell sees it as actually quite limited . Sadly there are not many Native American films being made, as they can’t get access to funding.
Q. How has the depiction of Early America been distorted by film?
A. It’s all about the myth; the first movies that were made during the silent era were about the West. At that time, the frontier was still out there. The Indian wars were still going on. There was a gap between the frontier and the Western expansion; these two grew up together. They had a ready-made landscape which could be mythicized. Dime novels that were being published created heroes out of gunfighter’s, for instance Jesse James who has recently been portrayed by Brad Pitt (in The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (2007). Beachamp follows up the idea of the Duke of Death in Unforgiven (1992). The dime novels mythicized the West. This was symbiotic in radio and film and the myth takes over. People don’t care for the real West, they are more persuaded by the myth where the hero walks away and we forget the violence. The real record of the West is by the photographers such as Muybridge in landscapes that he took, the photographs are slightly more honest, but get sucked away. Ansell Adams photographs are more empty, there is no community, how America was. Films such as Heavens Gate (1980) and The Deer Hunter (1978) by director Michael Cimino depict the West more honestly regarding immigration, when people just arrived off the boats. John Ford being an Irishman, depicted immigrants but using broken English, at a time in reality when there were all sorts of languages in the country. This is explored more in Deleuze’s Cinema 1 & 2. By 1945, things changed dramatically when WWII ended. The Neo-Western was coming into being. Ford represented the old style of Western. Directors such as Altman and Peckinpah were directors of the changing genre. The genre had to find a new form; life was no longer simple. They can’t go back to the American dream, or maybe not so, with films such as No Country for Old Men (2007). Also films such as Bad Day at Black Rock (1954) by John Sturges, which was so different with slow ponderings, looking at the internal space and the landscape, looking at war and racism. The Misfits (1961) set in the Nevada open desert starring Marilyn Monroe and Clark Gable. The film was based on a book by Arthur Miller directed by John Huston. The film Lone Star (1996) starring Kris Kristofferson set in the modern West, with classic elements but certainly looks at new ideas.
Q. Do you believe the majority of our knowledge of the West now comes from films?
A. In short, yes in Europe and America, only through the images, T.V. adverts and art etc, which take aspects of the mythologies. There are lots of examples of distortion, which come from 19th century American Art. I’m recommended to look at West is America, an art collection that was held in the 1990’s. The paintings are mythical, by the likes of Russel, Remington and Beerstat, from which the film-makers borrow from their art. Where as the work of Adams is not original, borrowings from paintings, and film borrows from photographs.
Q. Do you think that the Native Americans have fair representation in film and politically?
A. Yes, generally, but it depends on the voices being heard, more so now through the news, painting and films. However there are problems that still exist, people’s perceptions are broadly better and fairer, but still thought to always have feathers. There’s a film called The Exiles (1961) about a group of Native Americans who move to Los Angeles from a reservation, after being encouraged by the government. They found difficulties with alcohol, poverty and employment. However they are not shown as victims. The Urban world is so different from where they came from. Lastly the films of Sergio Leone lean towards the New Western genre.
I have just been reading the latest news and came across this fascinating article about the myth surrounding the cowboy. I just wish it was around a year ago when I was in the my final year of my degree. As much as I know about the cowboy and the West, I always enjoy discovering more.
- Origins of the First American Cowboys (costumesupercenter.com)