Near the end of 1991, I watched my first western film: “Dances With Wolves. At the age of nine, I took my first steps into the infinite realms of American cinema.
Kevin Costner, the star and director of “Wolves, was at the peak of his popularity thanks to a number of mega hits like “JFK, “Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves and “The Bodyguard. It was Costner that prompted me to rent “Wolves, a three-hour film about the friendship between an American lieutenant and an Indian tribe.
Honestly, I didn’t care much for the film. It was a long movie set in a world completely alien to me at that time. A couple of years later, I rented Clint Eastwood’s Oscar-winning “Unforgiven. Again, I couldn’t give a damn about a film too dark and adult for me to grasp back then.
A few years later, I revisited “Unforgiven, but this time I was deeply drawn into Eastwood’s atmospheric parable. The film prominently carried a theme that has preoccupied some of the best films Eastwood directed: “It’s a hell of a thing, killin’ a man. Take away all he’s got, and all he’s ever gonna have.
“Unforgiven was violent, unbending and bleak. The film’s Biblical themes of redemption, forgiveness and the concept of sin have haunted me for years. As a result, I have watched the film – obsessively – multiple times in search of answers.
Critics recognize the film as the last great Western, a genre that went out of fashion and almost died completely in the mid-70s.
Over the past 10 years, I’ve watched dozens of Westerns by John Ford, Anthony Mann and Howard Hawks to Sergio Leone, Robert Altman and Sam Peckinpah.
The earlier Hollywood westerns of Ford like “Stagecoach, “My Darling Clementine and the Cavalry trilogy were defined in terms of their structure, action sequences and – unlike what some critics hypothesized decades later – lack of profound subtexts.
John Wayne, Ford’s most famous collaborator, was the embodiment of righteousness, heroism and moral superiority. For Americans, Wayne was the embodiment of the noble American spirit. For Europeans and Middle Easterners like myself, Wayne personified American arrogance and blatant machismo.
In order to understand the essence of and fascination with Westerns, one has to closely study two of Ford’s monumental works: “The Searchers (1956) and “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962).The latter is a philosophical examination of the thin line that separates fact and myth. In this film, Ford deconstructed the foundation upon which a bulk of his work was built.
The images of cowboys, ruthless Indians and gunfights emerged at the end of the 19th century with the closing of the American frontier. Folktales of Billy the Kid, Wyatt Earp and Buffalo Bill were exaggerated, cunningly marketed and sold to a public in need of a distinctive figure representing their national identity.
“The Searchers – widely regarded as the greatest Western of all time – is one of Ford’s most divisive and daring works. Wayne’s Ethan Hunt is a bigot who considers killing his own niece. He’s also a morally ambiguous figure, a solitary, violent man unable to cope with modernity, which offers no place for traditional men of his ilk.
The iconic last scene sees Wayne striding off towards the unknown through a silhouetted door, marking the end of an era and Ford’s nostalgia for a fading place and time.
The Kennedy assassination, Vietnam War and sexual revolution obliterated any shades of the optimism or sense of assurance provided by Hollywood westerns.
In fact, the Spaghetti Westerns pioneered by Sergio Leone in the 60s were the polar opposite: cynical, gruesome and non-heroic. To a considerable extent, they were offensive parodies of John Ford’s westerns.
The Man with No Name played by Eastwood, was a selfish, self-serving wanderer working for the highest bidder.
Sam Peckinpah’s “The Wild Bunch, “Ride the High Country, among others, were similar in style and characters. Peckinpah’s over-stylized action sequences would heavily influence the works of John Woo, Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez. His cheap sentimentality and longing for a time with more defined moral and social codes has inspired a number of filmmakers to challenge his theory, reinventing the genre along the way.
James Mangold’s forthcoming remake of “3:10 to Yuma (1957) and, most prominently, Andrew Dominik s slow, meditative “The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford are prime examples.
The latter is partly a chilling drama about hero worship and partly a deconstruction of the American/western myth – much like “Liberty Valance.
Jesse James was portrayed as a Robin Hood-type champion of the poor in pulp novels near the end of the 19th century. The truth is James was a bank robber who also murdered a number of women and children.
Brad Pitt – in one of his finest, most subtle screen performances to date – captures James’ burden of constantly assuming the character created in people’s imagination.
Robert Ford, on the other hand, is a star-struck nobody who also takes on the role people have assigned. Both men commit acts of cowardice, and both men are victims of a hollow society in need of an earthly messiah.
The breathtaking landscapes of Ford’s ranches were transformed by Dominik into austere canvases that borrow extensively from Andrew Wyeth’s paintings and Terrance Malick’s “Days of Heaven.
The west, in the current crop of contemporary westerns, is no longer the place of comfort and old family values it once was. The world is, and has always been, a place filled with uncertainty, where the concept of right and wrong is vague and naïve.
Figures like James became what people wanted them to be. That’s always been the norm, and nothing much has changed.
The current American election can be perceived as another Western satire. The candidates are telling people what they want to hear as the public searches for another hero.
For the past three decades, the Western genre has been deemed irrelevant in the face of complex of our current reality; but now, with a surge of rebellious pictures, it’s more relevant than ever.