HELP NEEDED: A question for you serious western scholars


(lordradish) #1

I am scheduled to teach a history class at my community college next semester, one about the American west. I want to include a section on films, and I need some advice. I want to touch upon three predominant themes, and need film suggestions for each, as well as why you might think this film is suitable for that theme.

Film 1 should be an example of how Hollywood romanticized the west. I’m figuring a John Wayne film would probably be a good option. Regardless, something that epitomizes the unrealistic mythologizing of the west is what I need here, most likely something pretty well-known and of good quality.

Film 2 would be an example that deconstructs the myth. I’m thinking a spaghetti might be a good one, but remember, the audience here is not accustomed to spags, so it would need to be something rather high quality, and not too strange (as in not something with a lot of bad overdubbing, crappy acting, etc.). I’m maybe thinking a Leone film here, but which one, and what specifically about it tears down the sacred cows of the Western myth? It doesn’t necessarily need to be a spag, maybe the Wild Bunch?

Film 3 would exemplify the modern western… but what does that mean? What do modern westerns say, both about the art of the Western film, and of the historical West? I’m thinking Unforgiven or something of that caliber.

Now, I’m pretty good on history…after all, I’m a history teacher. However, aside from spaghettis, I’m not too knowledgeable about the serious artistic and philosophical underpinnings of western films, so any advice any of you could give me would be greatly appreciated. Also, any resources (books, sites) that might help would be great, too.

Thanks in advance!


(Cat Stevens) #2

http://books.google.com/books?id=4pdTBKaum_UC

http://books.google.com/books?id=QNbJDWtMs_sC

Film 1: The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance can be seen as a meta-commentary on the mythologizing of the west: “This is the West, sir. When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.”

Film 2: The Great Silence plays against western types. Set in a snowy environment, and good loses out to evil in the end.

Film 3: I might pick something here that uses the trappings of the western form to comment on contemporary society. I have in my head something like Taxi Driver, but more recent, but can’t think of an exact example right now.


(lordradish) #3

Ok, good. I was thinking of “Liberty”, as well. I’ll take a look at those books. Thanks.


(El Topo) #4

Well I’m a frustrated Historian myself who end up as an accountant ::slight_smile:

Any of cat answers are pretty much OK, but here are mine

  1. My Darling Clementine a true western legend so true that as been put to screen many times, this one a classic

  2. Well here I thought of a Zapata type of SW A bullet for the general or Duck you sucker, but those are already set in XX century, even if pretty much good for a history class (with the background of the Mexican Revolution, and we may ask? who’s more important the revolution or the men who fight in her name), but then I thought maybe Sollima’s Faccia a faccia would be just perfect for what’s intended. On a different perspective Peckinpah Pat Garret and Billy the Kid would be ore than perfect to the propose of the classic western deconstruction, I think even better than the Wild bunch.

  3. The third film would be the most difficult to choose I guess, if you wanna be radical The Good The Bad and the Weird would be a good choice, maybe not so effective, Soldier blue a bit violent and not that recent, or Eastwood Pale Rider, on a different perspective Carpenter’s Assault on Precinct 13.

Anyway good luck with your project


(Commissioner) #5

I would think:

Film 1: My Darling Clementine. I really can’t think of a better example.
Film 2: The Great Silence doesn’t seem a bad choice to me either. I suspect you could go back to the 50s if you liked too; Man of the West springs to mind. I’m going to disagree with Cat Stevens and say that The Man Who Shot Liberty Valence might be better in this slot.
Film 3: I can’t disagree too much with Unforgiven. I know you said film, but maybe Deadwood would fit here too? Depending on what you mean by “modern western” you might consider The Three Burials of Melquades Estrada or something of that ilk.


(Phil H) #6

Film 1. Agree with Cat that TMWSLV would be a good choice here for all the reasons he mentions. But if you think this is too self referential and are looking for something which epitomises the romantic myth of the west as created by Holywood perhaps something like The Westerner with Gary Cooper would be a possibility. Coop epitomised the laconic western hero for his generation and this film epitomises that persona. You also get Walter Brennan as a semi comical Judge Roy Bean which is a study in romanticising a genuinely troubling figure on its own.

Film 2. A couple of possibilities spring to mind here. First off, something which overturns the whole white man / red man thing would seem appropriate. Any number of ‘revisionist’ western from the late 60s to mid seventies would probably fit the bill here but Soldier Blue might be an obvious choice. Alternatively, if you are just looking for something which debunks the romantic image of the westerner, perhaps a spaghetti would be the best bet. TGS, as suggested by Cat, would certainly be an option here or, maybe something as straight forward as Fistful of Dollars. Eastwood’s cynical anti hero is a pretty good contrast to the white hatted guy who thinks there are some things a man just can’t ride around. (That’s stolen from Randy Scott of course but the sentiment is the same)

Film 3. Unforgiven would certainly work here as it openly questions the themes of the old western yet still, ultimately, delivers all the genre expectations that a western audience demands. In a way it says “Revenge is pointless and violence is not clean or easy. As a modern audience we know this but still enjoy the trappings of our old fantasies.” Perhaps it is this self awareness that epitomises the modern western. Just an idea. Very possibly complete tosh.


(Phil H) #7

Completely forgot the book part.
Here are a couple I have and which I would recommend:


(lordradish) #8

Phil, those are all good ideas and concepts. I’m hoping if enough of you chime in, I may have my curriculum all set!

One other thing to remember… this is a lower-level college class, and students might not be familiar with westerns, and almost certainly will know little about cinematic terminology and theory. It’s very basic.


(Stanton) #9
  1. One of the great westerns of 1939 would be fitting.
    Dodge City or Union Pacific or Stagecoach are perfect imo.

These 3 are very basic and are more romantic, while My Darling Clementine is already much darker, but also possible.
Shane is another idea. Realistic and glamourizing at the same time.

  1. Liberty valance clearly belongs to the 2nd category. But here a Peckinpah film would be perfect.
    Ride the High Country or Pat Garrett.

Another good idea is a revisionist “Indian” western like Little Big Man or Hombre. Maybe Hombre is for starters the perfect choice.

  1. That’s difficult. E.g. Unforgiven is a typical # 2 film.
    But what is a modern western?. The problem of most of the recent westerns is that they are not modern, that they are dwelling too much on the past, instead of trying to renew the genre.
    Maybe OUTW is the perfect modern western. One that (like the whole SW) should have made after the deconstructing of the myth. After Peckinpah, after The Shootist, after Heaven’s Gate. But for a modern western OUTW is a pretty old one.
    So maybe Deadman or The Assasination of Jesse James or The Good The Bad and the Weird or The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada.

And Horizon’s West by Jim Kitses is a pretty good book about Ford Mann, Boetticher, Peckinpah, Leone and Eastwood
And these 2 which contain a lot of different essays by different writers and span the whole genre:
The Western Reader (edited by Jim Kitses and Gregg Rickman)
The Movie Book of Westerns (edited by Ian Cameron and Douglas Pye)


(Commissioner) #10

Based on this, my other possibility (and this is only half a sensible suggestion) would be:

  1. My Darling Clementine (as before)
  2. Hour of the Gun
  3. Tombstone

I’m not too happy with Tombstone there (the definition of modern western’s still quite vague, but tombstone may not be it). The advantage of this list is that it’s all the same story, which makes comparison pretty easy. The disadvantage is that it may be possible to get bored of the OK Coral.

Otherwise:

That’s probably true actually.

I’d argue Ride the High Country could almost go in category 1. Pat Garrett would do well for category 2.


(Stanton) #11

[quote=“Commissioner, post:10, topic:2673”]Based on this, my other possibility (and this is only half a sensible suggestion) would be:

  1. My Darling Clementine (as before)
  2. Hour of the Gun
  3. Tombstone[/quote]

That’s a good idea. You can also choose Gunfight at the OK Coral in connection with Hour of the Gun to see how differently one director can deal with the same story, or the more extreme Doc instead of Hour of the Gun.

Also my choices Stagecoach and Hombre have a lot in common. In the revisionist Hombre the Indian is in the Stagecoach and the white folks are weak or bad.

Ride the High country is clearly a #2 type of western. The first of its kind in which the “real” west is contrasted with the mythological one. It started the cycle of the so called Twilight westerns, and for that it is one of the most influential westerns ever.


(Commissioner) #12

True. I only picked Clementine because I like it more than Gunfight.

Good point.

I sort of see it as between #1 and #2. I guess my feeling was that in Ride the High Country the mythological west comes out on top: in the end everyone does the right thing and justice prevails. I was about to argue that the characters are even signposted by hat colour, but having looked up some pictures, it turns out they really aren’t.


(kit saginaw) #13

I don’t think I’d bother using films in a History-class. Too distracting. There was so much ‘history’ transpiring simultaneously (1810 to 1910).


(El Topo) #14

Well it depends on the propose, the kids could maybe focus on a mater by starting from something they normally like and are used too, and not that they are going to view Transformers or something of the kind, that probably they have already seen. I remember watching Nothing new in the Western front in history class once, and did me no harm.

In any case and if we take in consideration that we’re talking of a History class, on film 2 I still believe that a film like Faccia a faccia would fit the bill perfectly (Duck you sucker might be a bit heavy).


(Stanton) #15

Yeah, but the character who dwells on the mythological west by trying to preserve the old values, the ethical code of the west, not only dies in the end, he also becomes in between almost inhuman in his self-righteous and inflexible abiding to the code.
In the original screenplay, before Peckinpah turned it into a personal statement, it was the other way round and the good/bad guy died, just like in hundreds of other Hollywood films before.

Everything in this film is about the dying of the west.


(lordradish) #16

Oh, remember, this is community college… in the US, that means there are a lot of ‘non-traditional’ learners, i.e. older students. They have the attention span -f they can’t watch three movies that don’t have tons of flashy special effects, I don’t think it bodes well for their education in general.
I think it’s folly not to use film when teaching about the west, because so much of the modern-day mythologies were propagated by Hollywood.


(Stanton) #17

Depends how you define the term “Modern Western”. It was called the starting of the “Adult Western”, but The Iron Horse (Ford, 24) or Billy the Kid (Vidor, 31) or Law and Order (Cahn, 33) or The Plainsman (de Mille, 36) are not less adult than Stagecoach.

But if Ringo is also already an anti hero, then there weren’t much heroes in the history of cinema.


(Cat Stevens) #18

I wouldn’t say clearly. I think it’s somewhere in between. Like I said, it’s sort of a meta-commentary on that era of mythologizing westerns, by a director who built a career out of building the myth. You still have your stoic hero in John Wayne, your black hat in Liberty Valance, and ultimately the might-makes-right ideology that Stoddard opposes is reinforced by the film (it is on the fame of shooting Liberty, after all, that he becomes senator). I think of the three categories, you don’t have to stick as closely to what you’re trying to represent in this one, as the mythologized west is the west that we know. The semiotic structure of the mythologized western, and the symbols therein, are now embedded in American culture (though I may be assuming incorrectly on Radish’s location) – white hats, black hats, duels at high noon, saloon girls with hearts of gold, etc. have become archetypes. If I were teaching the class, I might have students start by creating an outline for what they imagine as the “typical” western to examine what instincts they had in common, and to tease out the question of why (but then, I’m getting my doctorate in media studies, not in history).

With The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, I think you could kill two birds with one stone because it both mythologizes the west, and draws a spotlight on what it means to mythologize the west. Although My Darling Clementine is a great suggestion too. Another suggestion, if you just wanted to show the reduction of the west to polished types, would be to look at some old serials, or Roy Rogers flicks. A final suggestion might be to show clips instead of full films. That way, for instance, you could look at each part of the structure of the mythologized western and demonstrate how filmmakers both play off of and against archetypes (for instance, for “The Duel,” I would show the climax of Terror in a Texas Town, where Sterling Hayden brings a harpoon to the gunfight).


(lordradish) #19

Lemme just chime in real quick… this is a learning experience for me, and I’m reading lots of fantastic theoretical concepts in this thread. Don’t interpret my brevity as disinterest. Y’all are awesome.


(scherpschutter) #20

I don’t know how serious lordradish is in relation to this term ‘deconstruction’, but it seems to me there’s some confusion about the meaning of the term. If you ask me, lordradish is more looking for revisionist, demythologizing westerns, and a deconstructionist western (if such a thing exists) is not the same as a revisionist western. Stanton proposes Peckinpah’s Ride the High country, and says about it:

“Ride the High country is clearly a #2 type of western. The first of its kind in which the “real” west is contrasted with the mythological one. It started the cycle of the so called Twilight westerns, and for that it is one of the most influential westerns ever.”

Might all be true, but ‘contrasting the real west with the mythological one’ is not a thing a deconstructionist is after. The whole idea of a “real” West, relates to a concept of “truth”, which is alien to the philosophy of deconstruction. To a deconstructionist, “reality” or “truth” are mere representations, constructions. Every representation exists among other representations, they all interfere, that is: refer to each other (and not any possible ‘reality’) (This is more or less what Derrida’s Il n’ya as de hors-texte means). The aim of the deconstructionist is to de-construct the construction. He peels off layer after layer, reveals preconceptions, and his work is interminable, every peeled-off layer reveals another layer, reveals other preconceptions, and so forth. Deconstruction is a process, a never ending process, and in that sense no film, western or other, can ever be genuinely ‘deconstructionist’: it can only be part of a deconstructionist approach, instigate the process.

Anyway, the meta-westerns mentioned by Cat Stevens come closest. They are concerned with the idea of construction and de-construction, and the idea of ‘representation’. The Man who shot Liberty Valence is a good example, but a deconstructionist would oppose to this opposition of truth versus reality that lies at the heart of the story. The suggestion is made that what Jimmy Stewart’s character tells to the newspaper man is ‘the truth’. Those flashbacks ‘reveal what really has happened’, they literally bring us back to the real events. But what is presented as the truth (and opposed to the myth) in this movie, is also a representation, a construction, we have to de-construct. All kind of preconceptions lie at the base of the representation, and even if we get to the truth of Liberty Valence, it’s only the truth of the movie, which is, of course, a mere representation, a mere construction in itself, that must be deconstructed. And so forth. And. So. Forth.

It can be very interesting to look at a movie like this. It can be very instructive to distinguish several layers, and note what semiotic language (see Cat Stevens’ post, last post, page 1) and which preconceptions are used to illustrate the idea of truth and myth. In Austin Fisher’s article on politics in films like A Bullet from the General you’ll find a few very interesting remarks too, especially in regard to the camerawork (the way characters are ‘represented’). But again, I’m not sure that this is what lordradish is after. It’s my experience that people who have no academic background, quickly get bored (or worse: irritated) by a similar approach.

(I am, by the way, not a deconstructionist)

Austin Fisher’s article:
http://www.spaghetti-western.net/index.php/Go_West,_Comrade:_Unearthing_Politics_in_the_Spaghetti_Western