As I inch closer to the completion of my PhD studies I have supplemented my time and income by teaching undergraduate courses in the film program at Carleton. Last fall I introduced a group of upper-year students to the world of film sound — from the talkies to Dolby — which turned out to be a great experience. Having thought about the impact of sound on movies for years it was nice to bounce ideas and concepts off a sharp group. More recently — this past spring, to be specific — I was given an opportunity to develop a course on a film genre of my choice. I was immediately drawn to the deceptively simple and foundational essence of the Western.
Some have suggested that the Western is as old as Hollywood itself, a genre that grew to maturity not in literature or on stage but in the movies. Film scholar Robin Wood chose a Western — Rio Bravo — as the one film that could justify the existence of Hollywood. Hortense Powdermaker, author of Hollywood: The Dream Factory, noted in 1950 that “the only motion picture with a stereotyped plot which has met with a fairly consistent success over a long period of time is the Western.” Indeed, genre scholars like Thomas Schatz (see Hollywood Genres) and Jim Kitses (see Horizons West) have circled the wagons and argued that the Western, like the gangster film and the musical, provides a veritable blueprint for the study of film genre.
The icons and themes of the Western are a part of our collective consciousness, even if we don’t realize it. The cowboy hat, monument valley, a tin star, a six shooter, the sound of spurs and creaky wood floors, dusty trails, whiskey by the bottle, the music of Ennio Morricone, John Wayne’s confident swagger, and Clint Eastwood’s intense stare are all universal symbols of the genre. In terms of thematic importance, the classical Hollywood Western codified a not-quite-real Old West that was rooted in myth and myth-making. Perhaps the most recognizable thematic of the Hollywood West is the figure of the Lone Rider, who is outside of society and its civilized laws, but enters the community with the purpose of rooting out the cancerous villains that seek to overtake the town or rob it of its natural resources and citizenry. In the end, the gunslinging hero must leave society again to rejoin the uncivilized wilderness.
My approach to the Western was by no means revolutionary, which is where I encountered some comments from colleagues that were rather surprising. I am a big advocate of canon: canonical films and canonical readings. Sorry hipster filmsters: no radical departures from adorned classics, groundbreaking texts, or trailblazing films. There’s a trend in contemporary film instruction to dismiss the foundational movies that we grew up admiring in favor of lesser-known, lesser-liked works with the aim of “expanding” and “opening” the minds of film students everywhere.
During my own undergraduate studies it was not uncommon to hear professors exclaim the virtues of straying from the canon, as if they were the bearers of things that were “good for us” that we would otherwise never see or experience. There was the inevitable flashback to childhood when mother told you to eat your brussels sprouts because they were good for you. While there is a time and a place for the exploration of the darker and unexplored corners of cinema, it is essential that a foundation be laid before we build a complex, layered house of movies. Then there were those who spoke from the mountain and pronounced some filmmakers and actors off limits to make room for “alternatives.” Their reasoning was simple: you were raised with, say, Sergio Leone films, so why not forego that area of Western film study in favor of, say, Dennis Hopper’s The Last Movie.
Edward Buscombe put it best when he asked, “If we want to know what a Western is, we need to look at certain kinds of films. But how do we know what films to look at unless we know what a Western is?” In other words, what makes a Western a Western? My own approach necessitated the use of those canonical films — and scholarly readings — that defined the Western film for generations. How can we appreciate the revisionist tones of Jim Jarmusch’s Dead Man without a nod to John Ford’s morally ambiguous masterpiece The Searchers? How can we begin to understand the aesthetic influences of Sergio Leone without first considering the shooting styles of Ford, Hawks, and Peckinpah? How can we laugh at Mel Brooks’ Blazing Saddles without first laughing at its source material: Dodge City? To properly investigate the nuances of masculine discourse and gender relations in the Western, it would be a mistake to jump to The Ballad of Little Jo before encountering Johnny Guitar and High Noon, both of which offer fascinating accounts of feminism, femininity, and masculine crisis.
There are lessons to be learned from the films and filmmakers who have become synonymous with a genre or style of filmmaking. Not all canonical films are great, and not all great films are considered canon by the majority of film critics, but we must begin somewhere. In developing my Western syllabus I was keenly aware that some important films were going to be left off the course, if only because of time constraints. We never explored the Westerns of Anthony Mann (The Naked Spur) and Budd Boetticher (The Tall T), two directors that have received some new-found attention in recent years.
Some may confuse this approach with what Robert Allen and Douglas Gomery have termed the “masterpiece tradition” in film studies. This refers to a set — or canon — of “great films” that are legitimate examples of cinematic art, which continue to be taught in film courses, screened at museum retrospectives, and singled out by those perennial “Best” lists.Â As I have already suggested, some of these “masterpieces” may not deserve the praise, and they undoubtedly push some well-deserving, more ordinary examples out of the spotlight.Â As David Bordwell notes, “In most film histories, masterworks and innovations rise monumentally out of a hazy terrain whose contours remain unknown.” The masterwork tradition, as I have defined it thus far, champions the study of certain films over others with the aim of defining a group of legitimate, acceptable, and worthy examples of film art.
While it may have been preferable to cut through the brussels sprouts and avoid yet another screening of Stagecoach or The Searchers or Shane, it would have been a disservice to students with no prior relationship to Hollywood’s myth of the Old West to pick and choose the historical trajectory of the genre.
More generally, however, I was concerned that students would see through my attempt to explore the foundational essence of the Western as simplistic and naive. Indeed, contemporary Hollywood cinema is currently experiencing a condition of genre hybridization that George McKnight has called the “transgeneric.” The Matrix, for example, blends science fiction with literary allusion, Hong Kong action spectacle, the superhero film and the Western. While the transgeneric is by no means a new phenomenon — Chaplin was doing it in the 30s — it certainly hinders the plain vanilla genre film from appearing fresh. How can Alan Ladd’s Shane compete with Bruce Willis’ Western-inspired “Yippee Ki Yay” John McClane?
To my surprise, the student reaction to such old hat stand-bys as Shane and My Darling Clementine was incredibly positive. Stripping away the auteur arguments and the psychoanalysis of pop film criticism, John Ford’s doorways never looked so fresh and felt so moving. The deceptively simple shots through windows in Shane beautifully complemented the baroque framings in A Fistful of Dollars.
What was most inspiring were the connections that students made between classical Western plots and contemporary genre films. The fabric of Western icons and themes were noted in the current superhero cycle: Batman as urban Ethan Edwards. Even Joel and Ethan Coen have toyed with Western symbolism in No Country for Old Men and, to a more hilarious extent, in The Big Lebowski. The Dude remains one of my own personal favorite Western heroes, even if he never donned a cowboy hat or six shooter.
It was all summed up for me when a student approached me at the conclusion of the course and said, “Who knew there was such depth to the Western!”