The Western Image and Influence

If there is a single keynote to contemporary discussion of the western it lies with Henry Nash Smith. He sees two broad symbolic clusters hanging over the treatment of the West in American culture: the 'Garden of the World' and the 'Great American Desert'. Although the symbol of the Garden has predominated, that of the Desert has been a potent force. The imagery is truly dual. Now Nash Smith is not concerned with cinema, and it is fair to say that most applications of these ideas to film have retained their spirit rather than their detail. The imagery of Garden and Desert has been invoked as a critical cue to trigger off whole series of more specific contrasts. Kitses suggests eighteen such pairings arranged in three sub-groups of six: the sub-distinctions are those between individual and community, nature and culture, west and east, while the whole set fall under the master distinction between Wilderness and Civilisation.

This more complex analysis points up the simplifications inherent in taking the straight Garden-Desert contrast, or, for that matter, the familiar moral-heroic image of the westerner so well expressed by Robert Warshow. The western deals in more complex distinctions than this, though its very familarity may delude us into underestimation. The Wilderness may be a context for an agrarian dream (as in Wagon Master or Drums Along the Mohawk the Mohawk), or an intrinsically antagonistic desert (as in Fort Apache). Civilisation may be both the community spirit of the pioneering township (the 'Sunday morning' sequence of My Darling Clementine), or unwanted 'control' from back East (the military high-ups unseen but felt in Rio Grande or Fort Apache). The simple distinction between Wilderness and Civilisation is a key; it is not also the whole melody. The western is richer than that.

One thing, though, is immediately notable: all the examples just quoted are films made by John Ford. It is a remarkable characteristic of the western that one director has figured so prominently in it. From his first feature, Straight Shooting, in 1917, through to Cheyenne Autumn in 1964, he has charted most reaches of the genre. And where he has led the rest have followed, many of the characteristic images and interests of the western deriving from Ford's particular articulation of American history. To trace the changing shape of his westerns is to follow the contours of the genre from its beginnings in romantic dream to the progressive souring of the sixties and seventies. So, inevitably, Ford provides the standard example for the Garden-Desert conception. The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance straddles the two images; its twin heroes encompass the contrast. Doniphon ( John Wayne), the pragmatic, individual, man of the west, loses the girl and his dream of a ranch, finally dying a pauper. His fate is sealed by his unselfish actions: he shoots Liberty Valance in such a situation that Stoddart ( James Stewart) is credited with the success. On this basis Stoddart wins both girl and a successful political career; he is the eastern-trained lawyer and through him Civilization is brought west, but only at the expense of Doniphon and the individualistic integrity for which he stands. One recurrent image binds the elements together, uniting in itself components of both Garden and Desert: the cactus-rose, its final sad resting place on Doniphon's coffin.

They grew liberally around his projected ranch, and this was his dream, to keep the best of Garden and Desert, Wilderness and Civilisation. The film's poignancy lies in the demonstrable impossibility of preserving the western spirit in the face of Civilisation. In The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance and The Searchers Wayne finally sees out the earlier aspirations of Ford's Henry Fonda in Drums Along the Mohawk and My Darling Clementine.

In this context it is easy to see why Nash Smith's conception has proved so attractive. It is a general formulation which makes sense out of a number of facets of the western. In one straightforward conception it is possible to capture the typical environments, social structures, and themes which inform the genre. The frontier spirit, the creation of 'civilisation', law enforcement, subjugation of the 'natural savage', and the wagon train, are all quite sensibly linked within the master conception.

Even so, to start by abstracting Garden and Desert invites a highly selective view. And although selectivity is unavoidable it must be possible to start with more open parameters than this. The risk in reducing the genre to this 'master theme' is that we by-pass inflections which are thereby rendered insignificant. Revenge, for example, is one of the most common narrative patterns of the western. As such it has no particular affinity with the Garden-Desert conception. Yet it has been central to many westerns; the code of honour that it represents is an integral part of the western landscape. It would be a very limited account which failed to include such an important element. So, although the Nash Smith imagery has surely been established as an important part of any analysis of the western, it is not all. It is a useful backdrop against which we can consider the history and content of the genre.

There was a good deal already to hand when the movies latched onto the western. Some of the popular conventions had already found expression in the dime novel and other fiction of the period. The familiar image of the cowboy was already established. Besides, action was predictably proving a great attraction in the new medium; what else in moving pictures? And what better context than the largely imaginary world of the silent movie frontier? The very first influential story film, Edwin S. Porter's The Great Train Robbery, was a primitive combination of a roughly western setting with a good deal of action interest. That was in 1903. But what Jacobs refers to as 'a flood of western pictures' came round 1907 when some film companies moved west. As in the other movies of the time the primitive story line was all-important. It was sufficient to make exciting narrative sense. But year by year the movies became more sophisticated. By the time the westerns shift out of the tworeelers and into features we are in the era of Bronco Billy, William S. Hart, Tom Mix and Hoot Gibson. It was in this situation that the historic cowboys overlapped with those in the movies -- Ford talks of meeting Wyatt Earp and a number of friends from Tombstone. And it is in this formative period that the pattern of the genre was first outlined. Here the morally scrupulous cowboy hero comes to the fore. The western is born.

So far the success of the western seems largely immanent to the genre. The proven capacity of the medium for exploiting action, plus this idealised historic and geographic context, seem just as important as any thesis invoking 'national identity'. Following Alan Lovell's excellent discussion we can see that it is later, in the early twenties, that more generally significant developments come. In Cruze's The Covered Wagon and Ford's The Iron Horse begins the shift from a handily located action picture to a celebration of the historic move west. The crudely developed cowboy hero now had the beginning of a fitting context. With these films the genre was opened to '. . . the full force of Western history; inside it played all the themes, legends, and heroes associated with that history'. A romanticised history could now go hand in hand with a romanticised hero. The classical period had begun; its climacteric, Lovell argues, lay in My Darling Clementine, a western integrating all the basic elements. Which is not to say that the two intervening decades showed no changes in the genre. One thing evident as early as The Covered Wagon was a certain 'documentary' inclination, a detailed and realistic surface to the film. This injection of realism -- 'naturalism' is a better word for it -- has stayed with the western for most of its development.

The 'French thesis' on the western tends to see increasing realism in the thirties as a response to the concerns of the depression, and it is obviously true that some films of the period, not just westerns, betray a concern with 'realistic social issues'. But a large part of the naturalism of the western must surely have derived from a combination of growing technical accomplishment applied to the historical and physical context of the movies. The events and settings of the western demanded naturalistic treatment; for years they were almost the only films shot anywhere but on tawdry sets. Western naturalism must owe its development as much as to the internal requirements of the genre as to outside social and political factors.

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