The Western: a genre in need of a giddyup

The dirty violence of Seraphim Falls, with its vengeful cowboys, snake oil saleswomen and grizzled war veterans, is more 'gorno' than John Ford.

Graham Barnfield

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It is said that times of crisis shed new light on the Western film genre. Because of its close proximity to US national identity, the Western is oddly prone to thematic mood swings. But this begs the question: what if the Western itself is in a state of crisis?

When critics from 1950s film journal Sequence lionised their favourite John Ford Westerns, they differentiated their favourites from the studio fodder they saw as little more than the commercial expression of a crude patriotism (1). Ideological flexibility – within patriotic limits – meant that Stagecoach (1939) could carry a prototype New Deal coalition for John Ford while High Noon (1952) articulated timely hostility to McCarthyism from a nostalgic, Popular Front vantage point. Yet not long afterwards, it seemed as if this American-originated entertainment was headed for Boot Hill.

In the early 1990s, the success of Dances with Wolves and Unforgiven led to speculation that good times lay ahead for the genre. But with a bunch of duds, projects that served only hardcore fans – like The Quick and the Dead (1995) – and general public indifference, it was a false dawn. A bad run of form became worse thanks to recent oaters, which have tended towards worthiness and painful attempts to incorporate present-day themes. Others are basically reworked brat-pack movies going straight to DVD. After a steady tide of mediocrity punctuated by box office unfriendly classics such as Lone Star (1996), there’s a clutch of new Westerns riding over the hill. Will these be sufficient to re-establish the unpopular genre?

First in town is Seraphim Falls, co-written and directed by David Von Ancken. After a critically successfully tour of the US festival circuit, and a limited US release, this existential Western hitches its horse in British cinemas. On the surface, all the revisionist basics are in place. There’s a deliberate toughening up of inhospitable landscapes and cast members, none of whom could be called pretty-boy actors. There’s a willingness to show the consequences of violence and revenge. Firearms, horses and even basics like water supplies are unreliable. Brutality emanates from both sides and the maturity of the antagonists is an intentional source of shock, as middle-aged actors go at it and give no quarter.

It seems that Von Ancken and fellow screenwriter Abby Everett Jaques opted for something naturalistic in the way of a screenplay, giving Gideon (Pierce Brosnan) a full half hour of grunting and groaning in place of dialogue. Thankfully, this saves us from the exposition and monologues associated with many a cowboy film, where the phrase ‘you killed my…’ precedes a list of victims. ‘If you gotta shoot, shoot, don’t talk’, as Tuco reminds us in Sergio Leone’s The Good, the Bad and the Ugly.

The works of Leone are a good jumping-off point for any discussion of the fate of the cowboy film. It is now generally accepted that ‘the violence of the Italian Western… became the norm in the genre, and altered forever the face of the American Western; and, most significantly of all, audiences had the impression that they were being presented with something closer to the real West’ (2). As Hollywood struggled to convince with its own cowboys, their European counterparts were revitalising the genre on both sides of the Atlantic. While Italian directors made the genre their own, Americans seemingly abandoned it (except when poaching from Rome and Milan). By the time Hang ‘Em High was on general release in 1968, it was clear that the gritty and explosive treats of a Leone epic were being decanted into mainstream US feature films, akin to a constant transfusion of fresh energy, if not fresh ideas.

As well as looking more Italian, Wild West movies performed parables that were critical of US foreign policy, which in turn was hitched to the wagon of Manifest Destiny and the extermination of indigenous tribes by white settlers. Taken together, Unforgiven and The Quick and the Dead represent the last resting place of the post-1968 approach to the horse opera; big budget turkeys Tombstone and Wyatt Earp (1993 and 1994) became virtual tombstones, deterring a future Western revival so that only mutant off-shoots like El Mariachi (1992) have prospered outside the mainstream. Yet the decline of the Western is not just the product of box-office economics.

It is no coincidence that the Western went south, in more ways than one. Formerly a celebration of American power, many Westerns now expressed growing discomfort with the entire project, to the point where the phrase ‘many Westerns’ became something of an oxymoron. Sam Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch (1969) was but one of several flashpoints of temporary revitalisation which stranded its ageing gunslingers down a blind alley. They had literally nowhere to run.

This capsule history brings us nicely to Seraphim Falls. There’s an epic struggle played out over several equally inhospitable landscapes. Carver (Liam Neeson) leads a band of disreputable-looking mercenaries played by veteran character actors across riverbank snowscapes – captured in an Oregon location shoot – and down into the increasingly hostile New Mexico badlands. Along the way they meet a range of central casting stock archetypes, shot through with assorted frissons seldom shown in John Wayne movies. As the narrative progresses, these grotesques acquire a hallucinatory character, giving an inscrutable ‘water man’ (Wes Studi) and a sinister snake oil saleswoman (Anjelica Huston) the whip hand over the surviving antagonists.

It is bloody and brutal, with battle techniques torn from a survivalist’s handbook. If Gideon’s various victims were helpless teenagers instead of grizzled war veterans, parts of this movie would come close to the post-Hostel ‘gorno’ genre. Here we see a key revisionist trope in action, namely the use of untidy, unconventional violence for dispatching the henchmen, far removed from the clean kills of John Ford or stylised, light-speed Italian gunplay. And it’s here that the movie starts to disappoint.

What Von Ancken has delivered, despite getting the most out of his lead actors, is a mash-mash of earlier revisionist Westerns. Flickers of Dead Man (1995), Dances With Wolves and especially Unforgiven lap at the edges of the screen. From Italy comes more than a smattering of Sergio Corbucci’s Il Grande Silenzio (1968). And for many audiences, lurking in the background is the knowledge that HBO’s series Deadwood has successfully combined filth and brutality in far stronger measures, showing perhaps that the small screen is now where the Western is making its last stand.

Gideon’s alleged atrocities are reciprocated in Carver’s lengthy revenge quest. Like the thoughtful Westerns of old, the idea that seeking revenge ultimately destroys the avenger starts to sink in. Carver’s vengeance trail will prove his undoing. Okay, so a slew of postmodern revenge flicks – Irréversible, the Kill Bill circus – makes this a somewhat quaint plotline (although not a bad message for Britain’s ‘bring back hanging’ brigade).

When a series of flashbacks finally gets us to the heart of Carver’s motives, an unhelpful vision takes hold. What led Gideon to burn women and children, and Pierce Brosnan to jeopardise his relatively clean-cut cultural cache in process? Prior to becoming a fugitive, Gideon was an officer in the Union army. Worryingly, in an echo of recent epic-length worthiness such as Gangs of New York and Cold Mountain, the idea that the American Civil War can only be understood through the ‘war is hell’ paradigm gets rehearsed in Seraphim Falls. Whether this viewpoint is grounded in Carver’s obsession or Von Ancken’s creative vision is not made clear. But the real net benefits of a Yankee victory in an often contradictory war are easy to sweep aside in a non-committal and nihilistic age like our own.

Film is seldom an adequate guide to history, and it should not be criticised on these grounds. But when audiences learn solely – think JFK and Schindler’s List – from the historical undercurrents of movies like Seraphim Falls, then it’s time once more to fight those battles of ideas.

Graham Barnfield blogs at the Loneliest Jukebox.

Read on:

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(1) See Karel Reisz by Colin Gardner (Manchester University Press), 2006: pp. 19-22.

(2) See Italian Cinema: Arthouse to Exploitation, Barry Forshaw (Pocket Essentials), 2006: pp. 88-89

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