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Revisiting the "Revisionist" western.

The cowboy film was typically the vehicle America used to explain itself to itself. Who makes the law? What is the order? Where is the frontier? Which ones are the good guys? Why is it that a man's gotta do what he's gotta do--and how does he do it? Each Hollywood Western, no matter how trite, was a national ritual, a passion play, a veritable presidential election dramatising and re-dramatising the triumph of civilisation, usually personified as the victory of the socially responsible individual over "savage" Indians or outlaws. "They tell me everything isn't black and white," John Wayne growled in 1969. "Well, I say why the hell not?" (1)

Writing in 1992 for a general rather than a scholarly readership, Village Voice critic Jim Hoberman could permit himself in his portrait of the Western a degree of hyperbole barred to more academic discussions of the genre. Yet the very unguardedness of this passage renders it especially revealing, and its working assumptions are furthermore entirely representative of the dominant tendency in cultural criticism of the genre over the last three decades. The traditional justification for discussing Westerns seriously is precisely that the Western's imaginative reinscription of history has played an important part in helping constitute what is sometimes called the American "social imaginary;" or, in a different disciplinary vocabulary, that Westerns have provided American audiences with, in Jurgen Habermas' phrase, "interpretive systems that guarantee social identity". (2) Hoberman's adoption of this approach is moreover perfectly representative in the way it virtually abstracts the genre from any recognizable material context of film production or audience reception, rather situating it immediately as a numinous cultural experience. Thus, even as Hoberman subsequently notes in passing that prior to Dances With Wolves in 1990 the highest-grossing Western was in fact a parody Western, Mel Brooks' Blazing Saddles, this is not allowed to qualify the claim that "each Hollywood Western, no matter how trite" constitutes an utterance in an ongoing national conversation of the utmost urgency. In fact, if box-office returns were taken as the sole index of cultural significance, the Western's alleged cultural centrality would be hard to sustain: individually and collectively, Westerns comprise a fairly small and consistently shrinking share of Hollywood's take since at least the mid-1950s. Hoberman takes as his non-negotiable starting-point the idea that Western films are ritual and myth before they are films. Just how these myths are constituted--what indeed is the operative concept of popular media as 'myth' here, a sense that seems to hover somewhere between Carl Jung and Roland Barthes--remains somewhat mysterious.

He does at least acknowledge that by 1992, the Western was already long past its zenith. The precipitate decline in Westerns output since the late 1970s (a short-lived mid-1990s revival would attend the popular and critical success of Clint Eastwood's Unforgiven (3)) seemed to have vacated the center-stage position in the American social imaginary allegedly occupied until then by the Western in favor of newer generic models--not only more popular but perhaps less fraught and conflicted articulations of American identity than the Western in its sunset years had become. Much commentary attended Ronald Reagan's infamous characterization of the Soviet Union in 1981 as an "Evil Empire;" not least, the observation that by his adoption of a trope from the newly dominant genre of science fiction, Reagan was signaling an interstellar shift in the imaginative location of American political discourse.

The phrase pilfered from Habermas above occurs in the context of a discussion of crises of social legitimation in a book written in 1973, when social and political systems throughout the developed world did indeed appear to be in systemic crisis. To quote the passage in full, "a rupture in tradition, through which the interpretive systems that guarantee identity lose their social integrative power, serves as an indicator of the collapse of social systems." (4) Habermas was not of course concerned primarily (or for that matter concerned at all) with such ephemeral social epiphenomena as popular media texts (which are indeed for Habermas probably part of the problem rather than of the solution). And in fact this conceptual model of legitimation crises as "rupture[s] in tradition" is criticized by Habermas as much too idealist and he proceeds to differentiate his own systems analysis from it. Yet cultural criticism is typically, and quite properly, readier than sociology to entertain the possibility that dominant representations--even if they are 'only' representations--exercise a reciprocal, and often very powerful, shaping power upon the social reality that on Habermas' (late) Marxist account they can finally only express. They are and they remain, we might say, the myths we live by. And the relevance of this observation for the present discussion is that such a sense of the determining importance of cognitive or representational practices in social self-realization, idealist or not, plays an increasingly important role in Westerns in the postwar period, above all from 1960. Hoberman's account itself encapsulates the acute self-consciousness of the Western's own part in supplying normative models of American identity for the 20th century that becomes a distinctive and ultimately the defining characteristic of the Westerns made in this period; which is also the period in which the Western enters what would prove, at any rate arguably, its terminal decline. The two phenomena are, I will argue, related. This self-consciousness underlies the specific "rupture in tradition" this essay will address, namely the emergence of the so-called "revisionist" Western--the attempt by Western filmmakers, animated by a conviction of the unsustainability of traditional generic models, to reorient the Western's relationship to the history in which, at least nominally, it is grounded. This essay argues that genre revisionism of this kind proves a logical impossibility, or at the very least a performative contradiction, because it is predicated on a fundamental misapprehension of the generic contract under which historical and generic identities are mutually constituted and driven by a misreading of key earlier genre texts. I will make this argument principally through an analysis of landmark Westerns, one, John Ford's The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962), that antedates the vogue for revisionism in the Western; a second, Sergio Leone's Once Upon a Time in the West (1969), that in a sense enables revisionism without actually engaging in revisionism itself; and finally Michael Cimino's Heaven's Gate (1980), a paradigmatic, climactic and disastrous example of the full-blown revisionist Western.

The Western In/And History: A Resume

Of course, although the Western's unusually stable and specific location in a given place and time (classically, America west of the Mississippi, between the end of the Civil War and at the very latest the United States' entry into World War I) and its (actually somewhat inconsistent) emphasis on period detail all lend it a manifestly historical coloration, this is in the overwhelming majority of cases a superficial veneer of historicity masking an essentially stylized representation whose principal debt of fidelity is to generic verisimilitude--lifelikeness--rather than to the authenticated historical record. The high degree of potentially reflexive self-consciousness achieved by the genre at a relatively early stage--it is now generally agreed, for instance, that Stagecoach (1939), popularly regarded as one of if not the "original" Western, is itself a knowing compendium of Western stock situations and characters (5)--this hermetic tendency towards the elaboration, refinement and ultimately the ritualisation of a limited set of generic tropes rather than an engagement with "real" history. As Rick Worland and Edward Countryman have noted, the advances and often radical shifts in interpretive direction away from the dominant monocultural account of Western settlement and the closing of the frontier inherited directly from Frederick Jackson Turner's famous essay that have marked the last three decades of Western historiography, the "new Western history," have really left remarkably little mark on the film Western, with the possible exception of some mid-90s Westerns that might better be classed "post-Westerns." (6)

On the other hand, the genre's condensed, stylised and relatively settled generic universe has enabled it consistently to articulate responses to currents in American social and economic history, from race and masculinity to the Vietnam War and the culture of celebrity. Precisely because the iconographic, characterological, narrative and indeed ideological conventions of the Western are so well established and widely recognised (and incidentally it is this highly atypical consistency, in relation to other Hollywood genres, that has made the Western so appealing to theorists of film genre and so very ill-suited to deliver the universalised statements about genre in general they have so often sought to elicit from it (7)), even relatively minor deviations from the norm tend to stand out in dramatic relief and their (critical, parodic, or modernising) purpose advertises itself readily.

Most of the foregoing is uncontentious in contemporary film studies. Indeed, notwithstanding the preceding observations concerning the Western's unusually high degree of conventionalisation, arguably the remarks above about the Western could apply to any if not all long-standing fictive genres. For if, as Hayden White observes in "The Fictions of Factual Representation," "History is no less a form of fiction than the novel is a form of historical representation," (8) then what we must pay attention to in any historical enterprise is as much--or possibly more--how historical narratives are made rather than what historical facts are recorded, omitted, or distorted. In thinking about genre revisionism, the real question is whether, to what degree, and how a genre becomes capable of reflecting, explicitly or otherwise, upon the conditions of possibility of its own history-making enterprise. To say that the Western is unhistorical is certainly not to say that it is not a genre invested with a high degree of historical self-consciousness that makes it acutely sensitive to potential shifts in the historical understanding that underpin its basic precepts and paradigms. In fact, over roughly two decades, the 1960s and 1970s, this sense of history as problem appears as a central feature of the Western, driven by an apparent recognition that the genre's own conditions of possibility as a historical are themselves in crisis.

What then concerns us here is a period in the history of the Western when, to recall Habermas' terminology, the "social integrative power" of the Western dissipates, or--which is at least as important--is widely felt to be dissipating. In this period, it appears that the genre is afflicted by an acute crisis of self-constitution. Purely in the interests of brevity, I will propose a basic, entirely provisional, outline of the interpretive model supplied by the Western. Let us suppose that genre is at root a contract between a specific audience and a cultural producer whose function is to specify, or to delimit, a range of meanings and uses. At the core of the Western then we find a limited set of possibilities around the performance of (white) masculinity which are themselves bound up with a specific, almost Hegelian, understanding of American history as, precisely, the self-unfolding of white male subjectivity. If we do not ourselves identify unquestioningly with historical narrative, we might then term it a complex, or using a different discourse, an episteme. In any event, centrally situated within it are such principles as personal autonomy, the determinacy of (especially individual) actions, and the problematic yet not irreconcilable affinity of the individual with the larger community and, ultimately, with the state. It seems reasonable to suggest that by the mid-1960s the episteme of the Western could no longer win assent from a public that was itself increasingly divided and contesting the very values the Western had traditionally promulgated. The immediate political and cultural context for this crisis is plain enough: one would list the impact of the civil rights struggle and of black, Hispanic, Chicano and Native American nationalisms, the rise of the counterculture and of the New Left, and of course the Vietnam War as the crucible in which all these elements find a volatile and combustible fusion. More abstractly, we might speak of the emergent terminal crisis of the liberal social and political settlement of the postwar era, a settlement the Western had worked hard to legitimate and a sense of whose incipient dissolution structures the Westerns of the 60s and after. What matters here is that this situation elicits a response in the shape of generic interventions that seek to interrogate and critically to reshape the Western in new directions.

The three films discussed in this essay span this crucial, not to say traumatic, two decades in the history of the Western genre. But it would be too naive to start out from the idea that it is the Western which is in crisis during this period: understood dialectically, that is as social and, as we should certainly not forget, industrial processes rather than as crypto-institutions, genres cannot be in crisis any more than they can, as some critics once argued (in a sort of genre theorist's version of Jacques' "Seven ages of Man" speech in As You Like It), "evolve" quasi-biologically and teleologically over time from inchoate origins via to querulously reflexive senescence. It is the understanding of the work that genres do, or the need for them to be doing it, that is in crisis. Robert Ray puts it more simply when he suggests that in order to understand how popular media texts relate to socio-historical changes we need, in effect, to triangulate the simple reflection or correspondence model by introducing to the text-history or text-society dyad the concept of an audience. (9) It is the audience to whom genre narratives offer provisional versions of reality; and it is the audience who grants those versions validity by their assent, or withholds it by their resistance to the model on offer.

As my point of entry into the three films under discussion I have chosen to focus on the representation of the railroad. Not only is the "iron horse" one of the Western's archetypal iconographic motifs, and the railroad-centered story one of the genre's archetypal narrative models; it is also, quite literally, the engine of history, and its presence in a Western vouchsafes in some degree the genre's commitment to encountering history. To some extent, the railroad is History itself, and its advance embodies that ineluctably Hegelian momentum alluded to above. At the very least, the railway is a textual signifier of the final subjection of the pre-modern and literally timeless world of the West to the grand linear narrative of Progress. The arrival of the railway marks the irresistible extension of rationalized and rationalizing modernity into the pathless wilderness. In a famous passage in Dombey and Son, Dickens describes the radically transformative impact of the railway upon the torpid English countryside; nothing is left untouched by its advent. "There was even railway time observed in clocks, as if the sun itself had given in." (10) West of the Mississippi, the inscription of technological modernity onto the empty page of the wilderness is a more epochal affair still than in the industrial Midlands. The imposition of "railway time" is a traumatic disarticulation of the Westerner's temporal and spatial gestalt--as the deadlines of High Noon (1952) and 3:10 to Yuma (1956) make evident. It is no accident that The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, of all Westerns perhaps the most thoroughly preoccupied with the colonization of the natural world by an abstracted instrumental rationality, should unfold in a few snatched hours between arrival and departure. Yet at the same time it is worth pointing out--and it is entirely consistent with the genre's peculiar historiography--that as far as most Westerns are concerned, a time "before" the railroad and all it brings with it, never existed. The 'Iron Horse' narrative has been identified as one of the Western's seven basic narrative models, and the historical threshold of the classic Western, the end of the Civil War, is identically the advent of the transcontinental railroad (Lincoln signed the Pacific Railroad Act in 1862 and the Union Pacific and Central Pacific tracks were joined at Promontory Point, Utah, in May 1869). So while, as a harbinger of modernity, the railroad is a contested textual location in the Western and a key locus of the ambivalent energies that circulate around social and technological advance, it is also a ubiquitous and unavoidable fact and a structuring narrative presence, resistance to which is worse than futile. At one level, this ties into the (often disingenuous) elegiac strain in the Western that can be traced back (in films) at least as far as the 1920s: "Boys," William S. Hart, the leading Western star of the 1920s, dolefully intones to his gang in Tumbleweeds (1925), "it's the last of the West;" and before then, of course, in both the vernacular and the elite art traditions that the film Western draws on, to the extensive representational repertoire developed in painting, literature and in the "Wild West" shows of Buffalo Bill Cody and his imitators, for the simultaneous celebration and mourning of the "vanishing American," whether he was depicted as frontiersman or as Plains Indian poised in noble obsolescence against the ambivalent sunset/sunrise culturescape of manifest destiny. Put simply, the modern Western genre is functionally predicated on the extinction of its literal historical referent and its distillation into myth, and built into its celebrated central structuring opposition of settlement/wilderness is the inevitable triumph of the former and the erosion, confinement or disappearance of the latter. This means that if, as Fredric Jameson and others have suggested, the Western is a derivative of the romance, it nevertheless does not like romance simply crystallise out of "a transitional moment in which two distinct modes of production, or moments of socio-economic development, coexist." (11) The Western clearly dramatises just such a transitional moment, but it does so in conscious belatedness; its own moment is not one of transition but of consolidation, its project not of free choice but of the validation of an irrevocable contract.

There is also of course a strong historical and cultural affinity of cinema and the railway that it is surely unnecessary to rehearse again here. Twin technological marvels and avatars of urban modernity, shrinking and rearranging the cultural experience of space and time, running as Lynne Kirby puts it on "parallel tracks"--these are commonplaces of the cultural history of modernism. (12) We ought however to note that this affinity in effect means that the representational medium of film itself is strongly identified with the forces that render the historical West historical (in the sense of past) and ensure that the choices apparently facing its protagonists have in fact always already been made. In the Western, the past is always already only a memory written by the future, the moment of whose inception it purports to enact. This is what Jane Gaines has called the Western's "fantasy of authenticity: ... the impossibility of ever knowing but all-the-while-reaching for the 'real' West." (13)

Slow Train Coming, Part I: The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance

The train that begins and ends The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance is really going in a circle, returning whence it came: in the context of the story Ford tells, the film's closing shot, a mirror image of the opening, suggests circularity rather than closure, compulsive repetition rather than resolution. The film's narrative is indeed a scene of compulsive return and perpetual acting-out; there is no working through to be had.

1962, the year of Valance's release, was a significant year for Westerns for at least two reasons. In the first place, it saw the release of just 15 Westerns, the lowest number since the dawn of the classic Hollywood era in the early 1920s. (14) Of those 15 Westerns, however, at least four were benchmark films that helped set the tone of growing disenchantment and cynicism for the genre over the coming two decades: John Ford's The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, Sam Peckinpah's Ride the High Country and two modern Westerns, David Miller's Lonely Are the Brave and Martin Ritt's Hud. All of these films explicitly reflect in some way either on the actual closing of the historical frontier or on the erosion of the values associated in cultural myth with it. All are varieties of what has been called the "end-of-the-line" Western: films in which a protagonist who embodies the old West runs out of time and room in a relentlessly modernising, rationalised contemporary reality. In Ride the High Country, two ageing gunfighters seek one last payday, and one last shot at redemption, escorting a gold shipment in an increasingly mundane and pragmatic world where they are advised that "the boom days of the forty-niners have passed and the days of the steady businessman have arrived." The film lays out the themes that would preoccupy Peckinpah, the most important American director of his generation, throughout his career, and in several ways can be seen as rehearsing in a gentler vein the much more extreme romantic nihilism of The Wild Bunch seven years later. In Hud, the ranch of benevolent patriarch Melvyn Douglas faces ruin when his cattle are culled during an outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease that the film presents as a metaphoric extension of the corrupt amoral cynicism of his son; while in Lonely Are the Brave, throwback outlaw Kirk Douglas successfully eludes a posse armed with all the tools of modern surveillance and law enforcement technology, only to be randomly run down (along with his horse) on the interstate by a truck carrying a consignment of toilet bowls. (15) All four films self-consciously exploit the prior generic associations of their performers to enunciate a reflexive exploration or even critique of genre traditions and assumptions; Ride the High Country's obsolescent lawmen, for example, are lent added pathos by casting two superannuated stars of the genre's golden age, Joel McCrea and Randolph Scott. The sophistication and self-consciousness of these films is itself indicative of a tendency that would become more marked as the 60s turned into the 70s and the decline in Western production continued: with far fewer Westerns being made overall, a much higher percentage of the survivors were what would once have been called 'A' Westerns--big-budget, high-profile films with major stars by important directors. In fact, whereas much criticism of the post-war Western has been distorted by an overemphasis on the so-called "adult" Westerns of the post-war decade (for example, Red River, High Noon, Shane, and the James Stewart-Anthony Mann Westerns) without due consideration of their relationship to the programme films that comprised most Western production in the period, from the early 1960s the increasingly threatened species of the theatrical Western is typified by precisely this stylised and self-reflexive aspect (to be differentiated therefore not from theatrical programmers but from the flood of TV Westerns that poured out between the late 1940s and the early 1960s and were in constant syndication throughout the 60s thereafter; something that reflects the cultural shift from film to television as the primary self-articulation of American national identity; it is precisely the relative delegitimation of film that enables it to take up the increasingly critical perspectives it adopts in this period.) This is nowhere more true than in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance.

"This is the West. When the legend becomes fact--print the legend." So over-familiar has Valance's climactic aphorism--perhaps the most oft-quoted line in any Western--become that it is hard to imagine that any new critical insight can be gleaned from it, after years of voluminous commentary. The conventional wisdom understands this moment as a form of reflexive commentary on the mythmaking practices of the Western itself, and Liberty Valance as a whole as a kind of valedictory gesture to the genre on the part of its most celebrated director (notwithstanding that it was neither Ford's last film nor even his final Western). But the particular historiographical model here invoked for the West, and for the Western itself, has I would argue not been generally appreciated. Liberty Valance is usually located within the history of the Western as a watershed film in terms of a distinctive shift in the genre's delicate balance between faith in progress and the consciousness of its costs decisively in favor of the latter, at the same time questioning the validity of progressive values themselves and undermining the genre's foundational faith in male self-actualization through violence. Although this reading of the film is entirely sustainable as far as it goes, Valance's significance lies at least as much in its narrative style as in its manifest content. The film is typically understood as a story of questionable gains and irrevocable loss, the melancholic strain central to so many Westerns, and especially to Ford's, that encounters the settlement of the frontier in terms of social exclusion and denial as much as progress and pacification here accentuated by the narrative device of viewing the old West through the remorseful recollections of an aging politician, using a most unusual--for a Western, at least--flashback structure that famously (through the postponed revelation that it was not Stoddard but Tom who shot Valance) foregrounds issues of spectatorial and subject positioning.

In fact, Liberty Valance is best regarded as a "chamber Western;" the mirrored opening and closing long-shots of the Stoddards' train are the film's only echo of the sweeping vistas (most famously, of course, Monument Valley in Arizona) that had come to typify Ford's Westerns since Stagecoach in 1939. Thereafter, the action takes place in interiors--steakhouses, schoolrooms, newspaper offices, and at a political convention--modest exteriors filmed on the studio backlot, and most notably on manifestly unreal studio sets. It is this last aspect of Valance that typifies the film's late style: the patent artificiality of the prairie set where Stoddard is pistol-whipped by Valance towards the start of his narrative, for example, seems intended as much as anything else to advertise the subjective and reconstructed nature of the history being told. The stylized nature of the physical milieu enforces a sense of the essentially symbolic and phantasy nature of Stoddard's testimony, which as Garry Wills and Tag Gallagher have both noted, is partial and self-serving even as a self-styled confession. (16) The jarring stylistic dissonance between the concrete materiality of present-tense Shinbone and the make-believe environment of memory undermines from the outset Stoddard's stated intention to set the historical record straight. This sense of creeping unreality is compounded, as has been frequently noted, by the absence of any serious effort to make either Stewart or Wayne look their supposedly decades-younger age in the flashback sequences (a device that Sergio Leone would also employ, though in reverse, in Once Upon a Time in America): Stoddard's story thus unfolds in a strange vacuum of temporal and topographical specificity.

This late style--a mannerist practice rather like Hitchcock's use of archaically unconvincing backcloths in Marnie a few years later--is the key to understanding the film's oft-quoted maxim about fact and legend. The editor's remark is usually read as tying into the film's preoccupation with authenticity, and so it does. Yet Liberty Valance is not an Edenic parable, even a complex one where the inevitable fall from the grace of the wilderness--which brings with it the capacity for dissimulation embodied by Stoddard's livelong lie, a capacity that neither Doniphon nor Valance possess--is also a fortunate fall into the security of civilization. (This is a better description of My Darling Clementine [1946] than of Liberty Valance.) Because in the famous phrase, the logical priority of fact and legend are in fact reversed. Logically, the editor should have declared, "when the fact becomes legend, print the legend"--that is, the (essentially political) insight that when one amongst the many competing versions of actuality that inevitably constellate controversial historical events attains a hegemonic status, the media invariably function to affirm rather than to contest that hegemony. But this is not what Liberty Valance says. The film's perspective on history is not multiperspectival, but singular, or rather, as the discursive distortions of Stoddard's recollection imply, alternate versions and perspectives are available only through fantasy. "History" begins and ends in legend; and that legend is essentially autonomous of either historical fact or any individual retelling of it.

So the lesson Ransom Stoddard finally learns as he, like Tom Doniphon in his coffin, is nailed back into the mythical identity, which time, circumstance and historical necessity have all forced upon him, is that while this may not be the history we want, it remains the history we have. Hence any naive attempt to "set the record straight" is doomed by its own idealistic illusion that history exists outside of retellings of it; the ideological overdetermination of some stories prohibits their redemption from within the representational paradigms by which those stories are conveyed. By this pitiless generic logic, not only must the legend, famously, be printed, but the possibility of printing (or filming) anything else--anything more "truthful"--never really existed.

Slow Train Coming, Part II: Once Upon a Time in the West

The train in Leone's Once Upon a Time in the West appears indeed to be the harbinger of the West's entry into historical time and the simultaneous retreat of the mythic West into legend; yet as we shall see it is perpetually stalled teasingly short of historical actuality--it can only invoke history, never penetrate it.

Leone's ludic film develops the object lesson in generic necessity taught Ransom Stoddard in Liberty Valance into its central performative contradiction. For the spectator, the film's representational paradox is that the prehistory of the Western (which Once Upon a Time purports to provide) is accessible only in the terms of the Western itself: while the action of the film may address the Western myth's foundational moment, it can do so only in the genre's own paradigmatic narrative and characterological norms (silent revenger, "outlaw hero," Bad Man, unscrupulous businessman, whore, etc.). The film is moreover replete with direct quotations and glancing allusions to previous Westerns--Christopher Frayling's biography describes Leone and his co-scenarists Bertolucci and Dario Argento passing long afternoons constructing ever more elaborate edifices of intertextual referencing as the indispensable exoskeleton of their screenplay. (17) Several moments in the film defeat interpretation without an adequate understanding of the network of allusion in which they are instantiated: the massive visual excess of the murderous Frank's celebrated first appearance, for example, hosannaed by Morricone's score and swept by the arabesques of Leone's camera, makes some sense in narrative terms but much more in terms of reflexive generic transgressivity--Leone's intention being to provoke a collective intake of breath as the audience registers that this cold-blooded child-killer is none other than Henry Fonda! (18) (an effect anticipated by Ford in Liberty Valance by the belated revelation that the anonymous and forsaken cadaver at the start of the film is in fact none other than John Wayne! himself). But this elaborate textual gamesmanship has a larger agenda: while during the publicity drive at the time of the film's initial release Leone widely advertised his interest in filming the frontier West on the cusp of its incorporation into the monopoly capitalism of the Gilded Age--here represented by the crippled but unscrupulous Gould-like railroad baron Morton--the film he actually made at every stage challenges the Western's ability to sustain such a historical inquiry.

As an exercise in practical narratology that reduces the Western's generic prerequisites to their Proppian essentials, in so doing Once Upon a Time strips bare the form's claims on historical verisimilitude and pushes its innately ritualized and stylized aspects to near-parodic extremes that evacuate the film of narrative credibility and psychological realism alike, to the point where we become fundamentally aware only of the pre-given structural relations between narrative "actants" or functions. When for example Jill, played by Claudia Cardinale, first arrives in Flagstone, she embodies one half of the fetishistically split Western woman: the saloon girl-whore-madam--a classic example would be Chihuahua in My Darling Clementine--whose finery and heart of gold notwithstanding is usually doomed not to survive the final reel. Against the fissile sexuality of this figureare canonically ranged the maternal presences of the homemaker and/or the schoolmarm (like Clementine herself), embodiment of the civilized and civilizing East. Jill indeed does not survive Once Upon a Time in the form she enters it, nor does she die; instead, she is simply and quite literally, that is physically, reworked from one Western type (whore) to another (frontier matriarch) when Harmonica (Charles Bronson) strips away the bordello frills from her dress, transforming it upon the instant into frontier homespun, and having thus iconographically reinscribed her, he sends her out to fetch a pail of water. As we can see, by the end of the film Jill has fully embraced this matriarchal identity. In the film's manifest reading of Western history, the transitional historical moment played out through the narrative marks not only the closing of the historical frontier, but the moment at which the concrete historical presence in the Western retreats definitively into myth. Harmonica's final exit, bearing the body of the courtly outlaw Cheyenne (Jason Robards), from the literal frame of the film and of material history alike, suggests this, and in their final exchange Harmonica and Frank ultimately seem aware of it: "other Mortons" will soon arrive to kill off the "ancient race" of Western heroes. Yet read another way, the pair's dance of death articulates an a- or even anti-historical sensibility. Anticipating Peckinpah's Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid (1973), an elaborate and refined consciousness of inescapable ritual overcomes any investment in politics or economics. As Frank rides to his final rendezvous with Harmonica, moreover, Leone's telephoto lens purposefully abstracts him from the background of railroad workers, surveyors, and engineers--that is, from History. All of which conspires to make the film's majestic conclusion utterly disingenuous: contrary to appearances, none of the climactic transformations--the arrival of the railroad, the emergence of a settled, matriarchal culture--mark the point at which the West shifts out of history and into legend, the beginning of a "once upon a time" fairytale West. The simple truth is that for the spectator there is no access through representation to any putative time "before" the Western itself--and no spectator of Once Upon a Time in the West could doubt it--hence no possibility of direct historical representation. In other words, in the West it has always already been "Once upon a time."

Taken together, and their enormous differences notwithstanding, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance and Once Upon a Time in America thus post a warning for future Westerns: that the aim of restoring to the Western those elements traditionally marginalized, elided, or simply excluded from it is simply unachievable while remaining recognizably within the generic paradigm. The British director John Boorman commented that Leone "revitalized [the Western] because he consciously reverted to mythic stories, making the texture and detail real, but ruthlessly shearing away the recent accretions of the 'real' West and its psychological motivations. Unfortunately this was not understood in Hollywood ..." (19) In their very different ways they bring together the history of the West and the history of the Western and enforce the lesson that the cultural response to the one is necessarily conditioned by the imaginative and ideological power of the other. This warning was, however, as Boorman observes, ignored for precisely such radical restructurings would come to characterize the project of the revisionist Western of the 1970s, culminating in the genre's precipitate decline following the watershed of Michael Cimino's revisionist Western Heaven's Gate.

Slow Train Coming, Part III: Heaven's Gate

The train that introduces the main, Western, narrative of Michael Cimino's Heaven's Gate--following an extended and characteristically indulgent prologue set in Harvard (but filmed in Oxford)--is perhaps the most notorious and least fondly remembered in all the long history of trains in movies, Westerns or otherwise: as described by Steven Bach in his classic insider's account of the New Hollywood, Final Cut, the particular period locomotive Cimino had determined to use could only reach the production in Montana having been circuitously rerouted through five other western states because the antiquated track gauge it required was no longer in general use. This one prop, whose cost thus ballooned from the initially budgeted $15,000 to over $150,000, became a media symbol of the bloated vaingloriousness of Cimino's enterprise. It is also, however, powerfully emblematic of Cimino's need, for his own good reasons, to connect his film with the material reality of the lived history his film sought to interrogate. (20)

With Heaven's Gate we at last meet with the "revisionist" Western in its fully blown, even definitive, form. Although Heaven's Gate was not produced until the end of the 1970s and so usefully stands as the culminating statement of that decade's revisionist project, Cimino's original script originated around 1973 at the high-water mark of Hollywood genre revisionism. As already suggested, the Westerns of the late 1960s and 1970s (by no means all of which, incidentally, are revisionist--John Wayne made elaborately traditional Westerns until 1976's The Shootist) are usually read in terms of the confrontation and subversion of the genre's traditionally affirmative mythemes in the context of the crisis of what Tom Engelhardt has called "victory culture" in Vietnam, the civil rights struggles, and the New Left. (21) This account is certainly not wrong, yet it is inadequate, failing as it does to take sufficiently into account the problem I have explored as the subtext in Ford and Leone, namely that as John Belton has put it, "antimyth has no substance beyond the myth it is consuming." Obviously some Westerns do acknowledge this to a greater degree than others, and one might even distinguish strictly "revisionist" Westerns that openly attempt a corrective intervention on the Western's contaminated ideological terrain, from parodic or "deconstructive" Westerns that tantalize the spectator rather after the fashion of Leone, threatening to introduce political and historical perspectives they ultimately withhold (e.g., Altman's McCabe and Mrs. Miller [1971] and Buffalo Bill and the Indians [1977], Penn's The Missouri Breaks [1975] and, debatably at least, Peckinpah's Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid [1973]). (An outright anti-Hollywood film such as Dennis Hopper's The Last Movie [1971] defeats such categorization.) All such Westerns are motivated at least in part by an anti-Establishment cultural politics that finds expression in transgressing this most "official" and normative of Hollywood genres.

The revisionist Western "proper" takes three principally different forms. One option is an aggressive reversal of the genre's traditional (white supremacist) narrative subject position, fostering an identification with Native American culture and damning white settler culture as genocidal, corrupt and mutilated: examples would include Tell Them Willie Boy Is Here (1969), fittingly enough directed by the blacklisted Abraham Polonsky, Penn's Little Big Man (1970) and Ralph Nelson's notorious Soldier Blue (1970). In all of these examples, Native Americans remain subjected to white pathologies: Polonsky follows numerous liberal Westerns of the 1950s in using the victimization of the Indian to comment on racial conflict in contemporary America, although the critique is more wholesale and the judgment more damning than in such "pro-Indian" Westerns of the postwar decade as Broken Arrow (1950), Apache (1954) or even The Searchers (1956); while in both Little Big Man and Soldier Blue the atrocities of the Indian Wars are transparent allegories of American aggression in Indochina. Another model is the "mud and rags" Western, epitomized by Philip Kaufman's The Great Northfields Minnesota Raid (1971) and Robert Benton's Bad Company (1972). These films take their cue from the squalid mining camp depicted in Peckinpah's Ride the High Country and portray the West as a verminous, barbarous melee in which the notion of a Western "code" or value system is a bleak joke. And then there are the films that attempt simply to "tell it as it was"--to offer an unvarnished, unillusioned account of the daily realities of Western life in films such as Tom Gries' Will Penny (1967), Blake Edwards' Wild Rovers (1973), or Dick Richards' The Culpepper Cattle Company (1972)--all of which emphasize the unromantic hardness of working life on the range, but without the compulsive unpleasantness of the "mud and rags" school.

Heaven's Gate incorporates elements of all three branches: the rewriting of violence not as the reluctant necessity of the classic Western but as the integral coercive requirement of a fundamentally conflictual society marked by enormous imbalances of power and wealth, and the stress on the ready complicity of the state in the infliction of that violence by the powerful upon the powerless, bespeak the post-Vietnam, post-Watergate critique of contemporary Establishment America. The dust (actually extremely expensive and specially imported fuller's earth), filth and correspondingly pervasive moral squalor align the film with the "mud and rags" school. And perhaps most obviously and memorably, there is the maniacal rage for authenticity exemplified by the locomotive but visible in every frame of the film (no one ever questioned where the film's vast budget went).

The key problem with Heaven's Gate from a strictly generic perspective is neatly encapsulated in the change in the film's title from the indubitably Western original, Paydirt, to the more broadly evocative and certainly grander Heaven's Gate. Essentially, Michael Cimino did not especially want to make, and did not think he was making, a "mere" Western. The film's self image, as the Harvard prologue suggests, is of a much more serious and rigorous investigation of national history and identity than would presumably be possible within the Western's generic confines. And yet Heaven's Gate in its every significant aspect is legible primarily (one might even say only) as a critical rejoinder to the tradition of the Western rather than, as Cimino might prefer it, to the Western tradition. The ending of the film, in which Cimino's passive anti-hero James Averill reflects sorrowfully on the squandering of his, and America's, promise, acquires whatever force it has primarily from its aggressively untraditional setting: not only the East (a title locates us off Rhode Island) but on of all things a boat! And Averill's arrival in an already urbanized Caspar--above all the massive visual overkill of a long shot of the townscape, with smoke pouring from multi-story buildings, an image so dense as to be almost illegible on a first viewing--functions as a reversal of the traditional scene of arrival in a barely-constituted township so carefully re-enacted by Leone in Once Upon a Time.

Yet the problem goes deeper still. The packed immigrants riding atop the cattle cars on the train in the first Wyoming scene are a jarring sight because they are as generically as they are geographically dislocated: the history of the West as an immigrant (rather than a migrant) history is barely glanced at in the generic corpus in such marginal figures as the Jorgensons in The Searchers. Beyond that, however, the juxtaposition of Eastern European immigrants and cattle cars (notwithstanding that in Heaven's Gate they are riding on top and not penned inside) inevitably calls to mind images of the Holocaust, as do the subsequent disembarkation scenes which appear to be consciously modeled on some well-known photographic images of Jewish deportations and of arrival at Auschwitz. What could Cimino be trying to suggest with such an association? Perhaps the implication is that the immigrants seeking freedom are about to meet with genocidal violence or metonymically to create a link between the violence facing the new immigrants with the real genocide of the land's indigenous peoples. Or more ambitiously still, to bridge the carefully nurtured imaginative distance between the cruelties of the Old World and those of the new--in other words, to challenge the notion of "American exceptionalism." Yet this is surely a straightforward impossibility within the generic frame of the Western. Whatever dialectic of history and mythology the Western may have to offer, it is specifically and solely a dialectic of American history and American mythology. As I have been arguing, the Western is in any case generically indisposed towards the replacement of myth by history, since history is in any case always already present and encoded as myth within the Western. By requiring the Western to go yet further and locate its own historical 'reality ' against still other realities that altogether exceed the Western's imaginative terrain, Cimino is in the most evident way asking the impossible. Heaven's Gate pushes the immanent critique of the revisionist Western to breaking point and beyond. Seen in this light, the film's box-office death that pulled down United Artists and the Western along with it seems almost inevitable.

Postscript: The Western By Other Means

This essay has argued that the concept of genre with which the revisionist filmmakers were operating was fatally inadequate to the project in which they were engaged, and that the "project" of genre revisionism to which a variety of filmmakers throughout the late 1960s and 1970s contributed was inevitably condemned to the spectacular failure that eventuated in the shape of Heaven's Gate. Paradoxically perhaps, it is the earlier filmmakers--Leone and even more surprisingly, Ford--who appear to manifest the more subtle and reflexive awareness of the complexities of generic and ideological interpellation with which they are engaged. In the absence of such a nuanced sense of the immanent and imbricated blindnesses of the genre and of the ideologies they sought to challenge, the failure of the revisionist filmmakers was an indeed classically over-determined outcome. Nonetheless, the Western in this period remained a vital space within which critical positions, not on American history but on contemporary America could be presented in transparent code precisely because it was an imaginative and not a historical space. With its apparent disappearance--and this essay has no stake in the vexed debate around the "death" or otherwise of the Western--it is legitimate to ask where if anywhere the vitally contested imaginative space the Western offered the Vietnam era is to be found today. At the time of first writing this essay, another Texan President was busily conspiring with his Vice President from Wyoming (scene of the Johnson County Wars, the historical basis for both Shane and Heaven's Gate) to launch a series of devastating assaults on non-Western nations and apparently to usher in a new era, less of pax Americana than of bellum Americanum. By the time of its publication, the international community has been compelled to accept the vigilante justice of the Old West of George W. Bush's imagination--"Wanted, Dead or Alive"--as a new hegemonic model for contemporary international relations. If this prospect is to be properly understood, let alone challenged, we--Americans and non-Americans alike--may turn out to need the Western back, and rather urgently at that.


(1) J. Hoberman, "How the West Was Lost", in Jim Kitses and Gregg Rickman, ed., The Western Reader (New York: Limelight, 1998) 85.

(2) Jurgen Habermas, Legitimation Crisis (Boston: Beacon, 1975) 15.

(3) The recent history of the Western is concisely surveyed by Steve Neale in Steve Neale, ed., Genre and Contemporary Hollywood (London: BFI, 2002) 27-34.

(4) Habermas, Legitimation Crisis, 15-16.

(5) As Tag Gallagher puts it: "a virtual anthology of gags, motifs, conventions, scenes, situations, tricks, and characters drawn from past Westerns, thus consciously revisiting not only the old West but old Westerns as well, and reinterpreting at the same time these elements for modern minds". John Ford: The Man and his Films (Berkeley: U of California P, 1986) 208.

(6) See Rick Worland and Edward Countryman, "The New Western American Historiography and the Emergence of the New American Western," in Edward Buscombe, ed., Back in the Saddle Again: New Essays on the Western (London: BFI, 1998) 182-196. Examples of "post-Westerns" might include The Quick and the Dead (Sam Raimi, 1995), Dead Man (Jim Jarmusch, 1995), The Ballad of Little Jo (Maggie Greenwald, 1993), Posse (Mario van Peebles, 1993). On the "post-Western", see Diane M. Borden and Eric P. Essman, "Manifest Landscape/Latent Ideology: Afterimages of Empire in the Western and 'Post-Western' Film," California History 79 (2000) 30-41.

(7) See Edward Buscombe, ed., The BFI Companion to the Western (London: BFI, 1991) 15-17; Steve Neale, Genre and Hollywood (London: Routledge, 2000) 133-135; Barry Langford, Film Genre: Hollywood and Beyond (Edinburgh: Edinburgh UP, 2005, forthcoming).

(8) Hayden White, "The Fictions of Factual Representation," in Angus Fletcher, ed., The Literature of Fact. Selected Papers from the English Institute (New York: Columbia UP, 1976) 33.

(9) See Robert Ray, A Certain Tendency in the Hollywood Cinema 1930-1980 (Princeton: Princeton UP, 1985).

(10) Charles Dickens, Dombey and Son [1848] (London: Penguin, 1976) 213.

(11) Fredric Jameson, The Political Unconscious: Narrative as a Socially Symbolic Act (Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1981) 85.

(12) See Lynne Kirby, Parallel Tracks: The Railroad and Silent Cinema (Durham, NC/Exeter: Duke UP/U of Exeter P, 1997).

(13) Jane M. Gaines and Charlotte Herzog, "The Fantasy of Authenticity in Western Costume," in Buscombe, ed., Back in the Saddle Again, 172-181.

(14) One has to treat such numbers with some caution, particularly in the context of an overall shrinkage of production following the restructuring of the film industry in the early 1950s; yet when one sees that just ten years previously, in 1952, 108 Westerns were released, it is clear that the decline is as marked in absolute as it is in relative terms. The percentage figure for 1962 of Westerns as just 10% of all US feature production, compared to 33% a decade earlier, makes the point even more forcefully. See Buscombe, BFI Companion, Appendix I.

(15) A fate echoed by the death of the sacrificial mute Billy in Peter Bogdanovich's adaptation of Larry McMurtry's comparably disenchanted modern Western The Last Picture Show (1971).

(16) See Garry Wills, John Wayne: The Politics of Celebrity (London: Faber, 1997); "Shoot-Out at the Genre Corral: Problems in the 'Evolution' of the Western," in Barry Keith Grant, ed., Film Genre Reader (Austin: University of Texas P, 1986).

(17) See Christopher Frayling. Sergio Leone: Something to Do With Death (London: Faber, 2000).

(18) The specific reaction Leone sought, on Fonda's own account, was "Jesus Christ, it's Henry Fonda!" See Spaghetti Westerns: Cowboys and Europeans from Karl May to Sergio Leone, 2nd rev. ed. (London: I. B. Tauris, 1998) 141-145.

(19) Quoted in Frayling, Sergio Leone, 357.

(20) See Steven Bach, Heaven's Gate: Dreams and Disasters in the Making of Heaven's Gate (New York: Morrow, 1984) 133.

(21) The best sources for this account are Tom Engelhardt, The End of Victory Culture: Cold War America and the Disillusioning of a Generation (Amherst: U of Massachusetts P, 1998), and Richard Slotkin, Gunfighter Nation: The Myth of the Frontier in Twentieth-Century America (Norman, OK: U of Oklahoma P, 1998).

Barry Langford holds degrees from Cambridge University and Columbia University and is currently Lecturer in Film Studies and Critical Theory in the Department of Media Arts at Royal Holloway, University of London. He is the author of Film Genre: Hollywood and Beyond (Edinburgh University Press, forthcoming). Published work includes studies of Holocaust film, Siegfried Kracauer, Chris Marker, and suburban sexuality.

Barry Langford

Royal Holloway, University of London
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Title Annotation:Special In-Depth Section; essay
Author:Langford, Barry
Publication:Film & History
Article Type:Critical essay
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jul 1, 2003
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