Tag Archives: Once Upon A Time In The West

Criticizing the critic: Judith Hess had a problem with her parents, not with western movies

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So, if you follow the blog and podcast, you have probably figured out that I like to try to figure how the Spaghetti western genre works, how films are related to each other, and why audience liked (and still like) them. I think some of my ideas are interesting, but I always like to find other people’s ideas. So I decided to read Judith Hess’s influential 1974 article Genre film and the status quo.

Hess proposes that we look at the cultural and political function of film genres like the western:

I think that we may see what genre films are by examining what they do. These films came into being and were financially successful because they temporarily relieved the fears aroused by a recognition of social and political conflicts. They helped to discourage any action which might otherwise follow upon the pressure generated by living with these conflicts. Genre films produce satisfaction rather than action, pity and fear rather than revolt. They serve the interests of the ruling class by assisting in the maintenance of the status quo and they throw a sop to oppressed groups who, because they are unorganized and therefore afraid to act, eagerly accept the genre film’s absurd solutions to economic and social conflicts. When we return to the complexities of the society in which we live, the same conflicts assert themselves. So we return to genre films for easy comfort and solace—hence their popularity.

Hess argues that genre films simplify the conflicts that people face, reframing these conflicts in a distant setting (the Old West) and providing a simple resolution to deep contradictions in the society. Genre movies, like the western, ultimately make audiences politically quiescent.

About westerns specifically, she writes:

The western centers on the violent act and ascertains when, if ever, it becomes morally right.

I agree with this point. In fact, in a post from yesterday I said essentially the same thing when I was talking about what makes a Spaghetti Western protagonist an ‘anti-hero.’ Usually, they do exactly what John Wayne or Gary Cooper would have done (That would be a great bumper sticker: “What would John Wayne do?”), but in films like Fistful of Dollars they  don’t bother explaining away their actions by pointing to grand narratives of law or justice. Even in Once Upon A Time In The West, Harmonica’s revenge is not justified in terms of the coming of ‘civilization.’ Leone goes out of his way to say that Harmonica, Frank, and Banjo all exist before the justifications that society must necessarily bring with it.

Frank: Morton once told me I could never be like him. Now I understand why. Wouldn’t have bothered him, knowing you were around somewhere alive.

Harmonica: So, you found out you’re not a businessman after all.

Frank: Just a man.

Harmonica: An ancient race. Other Mortons will be along, and they’ll kill it off.

Frank: The future don’t matter to us. Nothing matters now – not the land, not the money, not the woman. I came here to see you. ‘Cause I know that now, you’ll tell me what you’re after.

Harmonica: …Only at the point of dyin’.

Frank: I know.

This is the main difference of between the Italian western and the Hollywood western. These movies strip away the origin myths of the American frontier and reveal the underlying mythic structure. It is after this happens that you begin to see more and more movies in which the hero or villain even becomes supernatural (Django Kill, High Plains Drifter, Dead in Tombstone, etc . . .). The genre changed profoundly in 1964.

Hess continues along this vein:

The problems posed by these contradictions are solved simply. The western decrees that the violent act can become morally right when it occurs within the confines of a code which allows for executions, revenge killings, and killings in defense of one’s life and property. In the microcosmic western society everyone’s code is the same; thus absolute guilt and innocence are possible because social and moral goodness are the same. . .

In order to flesh out these assertions it is necessary to examine each of the genres in some detail. The western male is dominated by a code of honor which prescribes his every action; violence by lynching or shooting, amorous advances, or friendships are determined by some fixed rule. One lynches cattle rustlers but not petty thieves—one runs them out of town. One sleeps only with bar girls, not eastern school teachers. One never shoots a man in the back; one is utterly loyal to one’s friends, defending them physically and verbally at every possible opportunity. At a certain mystical point in the interaction between two opposing forces, the western version of the duel becomes morally acceptable. Both the villain and the know immediately when this point comes as they do not exist as psychological entities apart from the code—rather, they embody the code. The earliest westerns afford the clearest expression of the workings of this code. In these movies the heroes and villains are like chess pieces moved about to depict the code’s intricacies. In a great many westerns you will note the eerie occurrence of two phrases which are as far as these movies go toward positing motivation: “I have to…” and “All I know is… “ These phrases express how the code provides motivation, not the person himself. Westerners act together in absolute, unthinking accord. Westerns examine those aspects of the code which determine the westerner’s response to situations which demand violence. The compartmentalizations of the code—one treats bank robbers one way and friends another—allow for situations which involve contradictory responses. What happens, for example, in THE VIRGINIAN (Victor Fleming, 1929), a movie that Robert Warshow calls “archetypal, “ when a captured rustler is at the same time a friend? Gary Cooper, a chess-piece representation of the code, is caught on the horns of a moral and social dilemma. Although he must bow to the will of the other members of the posse, for whom the situation is not complicated (the rustler is not their friend) and assist in the lynching, and his friend exonerates him, Cooper must work within the code to redeem himself—to rid himself of guilt by balancing the books.

And, there is a single, simple solution. His friend has been drawn into rustling by the film’s real villain, Trampas. Cooper must wipe him out, at the same time showing the restraint demanded of the westerner. He must wait for that mystical point in time at which the showdown becomes morally and socially right. And, Trampas, because he is a villain and thus cannot act any other way, provides Cooper with sufficient injury and insult, and is thus shot in fair fight. Several violent actions are condoned in the movie: traditionally sanctioned violence demanded by the group (note that Cooper never questions the lynching, he only suffers because he is forced to abandon his friend); violence which is brought about by repeated attacks on one’s character (Trampas indicates that Cooper is a coward) and which redeems the violence Cooper has been forced to do to his friend. These acts of violence have complete social sanction. Only Cooper’s eastern schoolmarm girlfriend fails to condone Cooper’s actions; she has not as yet been assimilated into western society.

In the western every man who operates solely with reference to this strict code lives and dies redeemed. He has retained his social and moral honor. The code provides justification; thus it allows for a guiltless existence. On the other hand, we do not know ourselves when, if ever, violence is justifiable. We have great difficulty in forming a personal code and we cannot be sure that this code will conform in any way to the large, impersonal legal code set up to regulate our unwieldy, decaying economic structure. The westerner’s code is at once personal and social—if a man lives by it he both conforms to social norms and retains his personal integrity. It is evident whence comes the satisfaction we get from the western. Momentarily we understand the peace which comes from acting in accord with a coherent moral and social code and forget our fragmented selves. Many critics have seen the western as a glorification of traditional American individualism. On the contrary, the western preaches integration and assimilation and absolute obedience to the laws of the land.

Then she closes out with this:

We may trace the amazing survival and proliferation of the genre films to their function. They assist in the maintenance of the existing political structure. The solutions these films give to the conflicts inherent in capitalism require obeisance to the ruling class, and cause the viewer to yearn for less, not greater freedom in the face of the insoluble ambiguities which surround him or her. He or she is encouraged to cease examining him/her. He/she is encouraged to cease examining his/her surroundings, and to take refuge in fantasy from his/her only real alternative—to rise up against the injustices perpetrated by the present system upon its members.

This article has been hugely influential. It distilled the attitudes of the Marxist influenced academics and critics of the late 1960s, establishing a foundation for the way that genres are studied in the university in disciplines like Cultural Studies. But I must admit that I find this type of criticism nauseating.

There are a number of issues that I have with this perspective, but the one I will briefly discuss here is this: Hess disagreement is with the values of a previous generation, not with genre films. Given that the factory system in pre-1960s Hollywood was so centralized, it makes sense that the movies they produced would have a very limited perspective on the world. Indeed, many of them did resolve conflicts in an unrealistic way. But that is not a characteristic of the genre film, but instead of many genre films made in Hollywood at a particular time.

If you look a little deeper, you find that this argument about the function of genre films begins to fall apart. First, many of the psychological westerns of the 1950s presented a much more ambiguous, complex view of the world. . . and they were following film noir in this anxious uncertainty. Second, outside of Hollywood there was a vibrant B-movie industry independent of Hollywood’s centralizing tendencies. Many of these movies were very transgressive.

Finally, if we look at the Italian film industry, we have an almost anarchic industry churning out films to meet the public’s taste . . . very irreverent tastes. Audiences are not passive. They choose what they want to see. In the 1940s and 1950s, the many international audiences (and great filmmakers like Kurosawa) gravitated to the worldview of John Ford and Howard Hawks (as well as Roy Rogers and Wild Bill Elliot). In the 1960s, they still loved westerns but instead loved the playful irreverence of the Spaghetti western. And still later, the troubled nostalgia of the revisionist western was preferred.

Hess is too simplistic. She had a problem with the beliefs of her parent’s generation and blamed it on western movies.

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Learning to see beyond Django: Christopher Forsley of PopMatters on “Minnesota Clay” (1964)

minne clay

At PopMatters, there is an interesting review of Sergio Corbucci’s second western Minnesota Clay (1964) by Christopher Forsley. Since Quentin Tarantino popularized Corbucci’s Django (1966) among film geeks and hipsters, the ‘other’ Sergio has been a great deal of attention. Here is what Christopher had to say:

It’s hard not to compare Minnesota Clay (1964) to A Fistful of Dollars(1964). Not only were they filmed at the same time, released the same year, and both made by men named Sergio—Sergio Corbucci in the first case and Sergio Leone in the second—but they also used the same source material to tell similar stories. The source material used was Dashiell Hammett’s early hardboiled detective novel, Red Harvest (1929), along with Akira Kurosowa‘s cinematic samurai version of that novel, Yojimbo(1961). The stories told involve marksmen who, after arriving to towns in turmoil due to on-going gang wars, pin one gang against the other to bring gold to their pockets and peace to the citizens.

Minnesota Clay and A Fistful of Dollars are also two of the earliest offerings from the two greatest Spaghetti Western directors. But whileA Fistful of Dollars became an international sensation, launching and then guiding the genre in the years that followed, Minnesota Clay was in comparison a quickly forgotten box-office bust. One reason for its failure was the bad-timing that left it in the shadow of Leone’s groundbreaking film, but another was its mediocrity, which becomes especially obvious when you compare it to Corbucci’s later triumphs like Django (1966), The Great Silence (1968), and Companeros (1970).

 

He continues:

Structurally, Corbucci tells his story with just as much craft as Leone, and the plot of Minnesota Clay, like A Fistful of Dollars, is an entertaining one. But unlike A Fistful of Dollars, nearly every element surrounding the plot is bland. For most of Minnesota Clay’s 91 minute runtime, I felt as though I was watching one of the many nondescript American westerns that the Hollywood studio system shitted out during the ‘40s. The costumes are too clean and colorful, and the sets are too well lighted and swept.

 

While Forsley is a bit harsh at times, he does admit that the film isn’t terrible, only that he found it bland.

51jSFOzUAgL._SL500_SY300_What I found interesting about this article was not its analysis. I differ with Forsley’s conclusion about the film, but I would not have when I first started watching Eurowesterns. As with most people, my introduction to the genre was through the Dollars trilogy, then Once Upon A Time In The West (1968). In the early 1990s, you simply couldn’t get your hands on most other spaghetti westerns. I was able, however, able to get my hands on a couple of VHS tapes including a washed version of Day of Anger (1968). When I first saw this film, I was disappointed. I wanted to see another film like For A Few Dollars More (1964). But this movie was “too clean and colorful, and the sets are too well lighted and swept.” The hero was clean cut Giuliano Gemma. The music was a little cheesy (I thought then).

Later, when the internet became ubiquitous, venues like the Spaghetti Western Web Board allowed me to trade duped tapes with other fans. Since then, there has been a Renaissance of the genre in DVDs, peer-to-peer sharing, and even Youtube. Seeing a wider range of films, I slowly was acculturated to the genre. When WildEast released their great DVD version I gave Day of Anger another chance . . . and it is now a favorite.

In other words, I had to learn to see beyond Leone.

If Forsley continues to pursue the genre, I predict that he will eventually have the same experience. He will need to see beyond Django and CompanerosMinessota Clay is a decent b-western effort with the first appearance of a number of Corbucci’s recurrent themes. It does look a bit like an American b-western, but there a number of films made in this imitative aesthetic that are enjoyable: In A Colt’s Shadow (1965), Gunmen of the Rio Grande (1964), Bullets Don’t Argue (1964), etc. If you are willing to accept these films for what they are — and not reject them for what they are not — you will find that they are enjoyable, decent b-westerns (and Day of Anger is a classic . . .).

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Once Upon A Time In The West

Films added to Rating the Eurowesterns pages will generally include a few comments about each. As they are added, I will post these comments to the main blog page along with other content. Below is my rating and comments about the Sergio Leone’s masterpiece, Once Upon A Time In The West.

10 of 10:

Once Upon A Time In The West (Sergio Leone, 1968)

Once Upon A Time In The West is not only the stunning Eurowestern, but it can be viewed as the culmination of the Western genre across all mediums including film, radio, television, and literature. I won’t say too much about the movie but instead will refer you to Christopher Frayling’s great book about Sergio Leone and his films, Something To Do With Death. Using the sweeping, epic style of John Ford, Leone made a metawestern combining the inverted elements from dozens of classic Hollywood westerns. In the sense, this is a movie about movies, a Western about Westerns, or a myth about the making of myths. Few films have ever woven together music and images so flawlessly. It is a masterpiece of cinematic rhetoric and form.

It is interesting to note that The Good, The Bad, And The Ugly (GBU) tends to slightly edge out Once Upon A Time In The West in IMDb’s ratings and in the Spaghetti Western Database’s Top 20. Of the two movies, GBU is better loved.

 

 

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