What do we see through that doorway, to the endless expanse of the prairie… the horizon, the sky, the abyss? One with the meditative atmosphere, and yet at odds, across the landscape rides the icon. The myth. The cowboy.
It is not enough to say now that that mythic figure, that Perseus or Luke Skywalker of the American west, has changed and grown along with society. One must examine the overarching elements of that evolution, the greater contextual aspects of its metamorphosis. And so here we focus on a prime example of a revisionist Western text: Unforgiven.
If we are to follow the systematic evolution of film as art in its generic terms as suggested by Thomas Schatz, then what we have before us is an evolutionary pattern by which any genre begins in an experimental stage, moving on to classical, revisionist, and finally baroque. Schatz describes it as essentially “a genre’s progression from transparency to opacity—from straightforward storytelling to self-conscious formalism.” (Schatz, 1981)
At its heart lies the idea that any form of art, here specifically film, will grow increasingly self-conscious and aware of its own methods as it evolves. To this end, the experimental stage will consist of the establishment of the conventions of the medium or genre. The classical stage is that stage in which the thematic and formal structures of the film are utilized in order to convey the message of the film as directly as possible. In this way, content is still more important than form. In a genre’s revisionist stage these conventions, which have at this point saturated the audience, are turned on their heads, and we find that both the thematic and formal structures of the film become refined. Elements of the genre are revisited and subsequently revised. If a genre is essentially about asking the audience “Do you still want to believe this?” then revisionism is the audience responding, “No. That’s too infantile a form of what we believe. Show us something more complicated.” (Schatz, 1981)
As we progress we move out of an age of formal transparency and into formal opacity, to a period in which form is more important than content, in fact often taking the place of content. To this end, many experiments with the structures of a genre emerge. In the case of Westerns, here we see the rise of films such as Blazing Saddles. This is the stage known as baroque.
In 1992 Clint Eastwood directed Unforgiven. And in many ways it is, arguably, with the exception of perhaps Lonesome Dove, the apex of revisionist Westerns. And yet in it we find also many elements of the baroque, specifically minor plot points which hint at a formal acknowledgment of the film’s greater context. When Eastwood’s William Munny attempts to mount his horse, he succeeds only in falling to the dirt. And that moment instantly references countless Westerns in which the cowboy simply leaps atop his steed and rides away. When Munny is unable to shoot a tin can without resorting to blowing it to bits with a shotgun, there is an acknowledged intertextuality there that can be felt and understood by audience members at all familiar with the genre.
The prototypical Western set the stage for the classical structure, the storyline most think of when they hear the word “Western.” A lone stranger comes into town, finds trouble, usually in the form of villains, posing a threat to the town. The stranger cleans the town up, saves it, often from itself and its own misguided societal ideologies, ideologies such as the subordination of its women. The stranger, having righted the town’s wrongs, then rides off into the sunset, having won the respect and admiration of the townsfolk, and often the love of a woman.
It is essentially the long arm of Homer, reaching across time and resculpting ancient mythic motifs in new forms so as to comment on today’s society. If anything, this is what myth has always done: provide a structure, not only for society, but for the way society’s stories are told. Lévi-Strauss wrote of the recurring themes and motifs present in the myths of geographically and historically separated cultures, using as an example a myth of the Iroquois and Algonquin which he claimed to bear a strong resemblance to the story of Oedipus. Dominic Strinati sums it up by writing:
If these myths are fragments, cultural manifestations of a meaningful whole, an underlying and causal logical structure, then this element should also be there even if it has been transformed. (Strinati, 1995)
And so what is the cowboy if not the modern manifestation of the knight, the samurai?
If the interactions between individuals, and subsequently the ways stories are told, are structured by the institutions of society, then what we find in post-World War II America is a growing conflict as to how to reconcile societal values and the requirements of industry. As the country’s mirrored self, the Western explored this issue by means of a metaphorical conflict within the individuals of the story. In short, the ethics of the society, or rather the institutions of society, were wrong, while the ethics of the lead character, the “outlaw,” or “cowboy,” were right and just.
In Unforgiven, the character of William Munny seems drawn to action for what is ostensibly a noble motive: to avenge the mutilation of a prostitute at the hands of two cowboys. And yet his primary motivation is the bounty put up for the heads of the cowboys. When Munny learns of his friend Ned’s murder, his entire motivation becomes instead revenge against the corrupt sheriff who killed him. And so in one dramatic arc Eastwood’s character virtually embodies the most significant stages of the cowboy icon. As a reflection of society, then, what is a Western like Unforgiven trying to say about a modern knight who has forsaken nobility and instead chosen a personal code of ethics? This archetype has become a servant to no greater sense of morality.
He is instead a self-serving anti-hero,
akin to the title character in the Kurosawa samurai masterpiece Yojimbo, which was, of course, remade in Western form as Fistful of Dollars.
Fistful was a film that accented the role of the cowboy at outcast, revisiting ideas as old as Stagecoach and yet suggesting that this outcast would not be able to join society. Eastwood’s Man With No Name would not succumb to domesticity, as had John Wayne’s Ringo Kid in Stagecoach, but rather would tear the town apart. In a genre now post-High Noon, the traditional role of the ethical hero had already been warped, as the town typically saved by the hero had been exposed as being not worth saving. There, as in Fistful, the corruption was so deep, that the only thing that remained to be done was let the citizens destroy themselves. Eastwood’s nameless stranger, however, was going to make money by playing one warring side against the other. Subsequently, this is a film that exposes the innate violence of the glorious Western image. Leone would not portray a world one wanted to be a part of. This was a world drenched in blood, and as such took the revision of the Western iconography to another level.
For all intents and purposes Unforgiven is a revisionist film, and yet it takes the revisionism of a film like Fistful to another level in that these characters not only commit unspeakable acts of violence, but they subsequently experience regret at their own actions. When the “Schofield Kid,” who has spent ninety minutes promoting himself as a cold blooded assassin, actually kills a man, he breaks down in tears and swears he’ll never kill again.
In an intriguing story-within-a-story parallel, Unforgiven presents us also with the character of English Bob, an infamous English outlaw know for preaching the superiority of English royalty to the American Presidency. When we are introduced to the character, he is accompanied his biographer, Mr. Beauchamp, who, as the story progresses, learns from town sheriff Little Bill that the stories of Bob’s greatness are nothing but exaggerations. Bill tells Beauchamp the truth, and as a result Bob emerges as little more than a frail, lucky old man. The story of English Bob, then, is an example of a myth that cannot survive in the face of reality. It is an idea that must change and evolve as the knowledge and subsequently the ideologies of society (Beauchamp) change.
Today we find ourselves awaiting a new revision of the traditional Western iconography, as we absorb more baroque offerings such as Shanghai Noon. One might argue, of course, there truly is only so much revision a genre can undergo before it actually becomes another genre entirely, and so we may see as the baroque stage moves forward.
We can, of course, still watch a film like Stagecoach and accept its reality. We can still take it seriously. But how? And why? It seems to hinge on an acknowledgment of the film’s cultural context, so as to prevent it from collapsing into absurdity in a society as jaded as ours.
So it is with all Westerns. So it is with all genre films. So it is with any form of generic art. And so, by extension, it is with us. For what is art if not a mirror of the society which creates it? And yet gaze into a mirror, and who is to say which side is truly the reflection?
Sources Cited / Consulted
Campbell, J. (1988). The Power of Myth. New York, NY: Doubleday.
Coyne, M. (1997). The Crowded Prairie. New York, NY: I.B.Tauris Publishers.
Frayling, C. (1981). Spaghetti Westerns: Cowboys and Europeans from Karl May to Sergio Leone. London: Routledge.
Grant, B. K. (1995). Film Genre Reader II. Austin, TX: University of Texas Press.
Lenihan, J. H. (1980) Showdown: Confronting Modern America in the Western Film. Chicago: University of Illinois Press.
Schatz, T. (1981). Hollywood Genres. Boston, MA: McGraw Hill, Inc.
Strinati, D. (1995). An Introduction to the Theories of Popular Culture. New York, NY: Routledge.
Wright, W. (1975). Sixguns and Society. Berkeley, CA: University of Berkeley Press.