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The Western: The Neutral Zone Between Wilderness and Civilization

Kato Mikiro

The Renaissance of the Western
The Pure Americans
The History of the PC Westerns
The Unforgiven Gun Control

The Renaissance of the Western
The Western cinema is like a genre once sentenced to death. It was the most prosperous genre before and after the advent of sound; in 1925 and 1935, it was at its peak. The western was in decline in the 1940s and the 1950s, although it still fared well: 108 Westerns were made in the year 1952. It hit its lowest ebb, however, in the 1960s and 70s. In 1977 (a quarter of a century after 1952), there were only seven Western films . The genre was, as it were, near death in the 1970s and finally listed in the obituary columns in the 1980s. Curiously enough, though, it has made a successful comeback coinciding with the coming of the 1990s.

Since then, several major Western films have been produced:
1. Dances with Wolves (director: Kevin Costner, 1990)
2. Unforgiven (director: Clint Eastwood, 1992)
3. The Last of the Mohicans (director: Michael Mann, 1992)
4. Posse (director: Mario van Peebles, 1992)
5. The Last Outlaw (director: Geoff Murphy, 1993)
6. Geronimo: An American Legend (director: Walter Hill, 1994)
7. Maverick (director: Richard Donner, 1994)
8. Wyatt Earp (director: Lawrence Kasdan, 1994)
9. Tombstone (director: George P. Cosmatos, 1994)
10. Bad Girls (director: Jonathan Kaplan, 1994)

The above list is a mixture of the good and the bad, but it should be noted that most of these films relished commercial and critical success. For instance, the first three films won nearly ten Academy Awards in total, including Best Picture and Best Director.

In the seventy-year-long history of the Academy, the Western has entered the spotlight at long last. Dances With Wolves was the first film in the genre to win the Best Picture Oscar in sixty years; no other film had won the award since Cimarron (director: Wesley Ruggles, 1930/1931), the first Western to do so. Furthermore, Kevin Costner was the first to win Best Director in this particular genre. We were to see a repetition of this miracle two years later with Unforgiven. Looking back on the history of the Western, it was, indeed, a miracle. Even John Ford, the great director called ‘the God of the American Western,’ was awarded neither Best Director nor Best Picture for his Westerns. The 1990s, therefore, should be remembered for the outstanding comeback of the Western. It is not too much to call it the Renaissance of the Western.

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The Pure Americans
I refer here to the history of the Academy as a preliminary to discussing the Western in terms of its political revision or amendment. The Academy’s judgment, in a broad sense, has been in fact colored by political preference. The films listed above can be considered as ‘politically correct.’


Films were originally regarded as transient products. They were shown in the theater for only a short period before they were replaced by brand-new ones. Naturally, films slipped from the memories of most spectators with the exception of a few ardent film fans. There was actually no trace remaining of any film in the community. Under these circumstances, people came to organize institutions for the purpose of establishing American cinema within the history of the community: the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, film archives, and departments of film & TV studies in universities. Among them, the Academy Awards have functioned to politically judge films, the winning of Oscars denoting that the film is politically correct. The Westerns which have treated black Americans, Indians, and women cruelly, thus, have always been left out of the selection. In other words, the Academy, throughout its history, had not publicized the social injustices committed by the Western in terms of gender and race. It might have been, in a sense, a sensation that the Western, Dances With Wolves, won both the Best Director and the Best Picture Oscars for the first time in the Academy history. In reality, however, the selection simply reflected social conditions of the early 1990s, when people became aware of the unfair issues of the past. The Oscars the film won signify that the Academy merely added the Western to their PC (politically correct) category. Regrettably, it does not mean that the film was a faithful record of history.


When the production staff of Dances With Wolves launched its advertisement campaign, they placed great emphasis on the point that the film precisely portrayed the lives of Native Americans. The film allegedly adopted a Native American language on a scale unprecedented in the history of the Western. (In Hollywood, they no longer called them ‘Indians,’ but ‘Native Americans,’ a change in name which also reveals this political revision.)


Dances With Wolves actually won the favor of some Native American activists, including one whom I came across in California in 1990. He, from an ‘expert’s’ point of view, regarded the film with the greatest admiration due to its accuracy in every detail, e.g., language, customs, and manners. His esteem for the film was spontaneous as well as strategic, since he expected that it would give an impetus to his own movement. He was planning to distribute an independent production (anti-Hollywood Western) film which dealt with genuine Native Americans throughout the state of California at the time. He wished to appeal to the American public to recognize the identity crisis they had undergone. On the other hand, some people strongly criticized the film for having failed to represent Native Americans, just like other Westerns which had given a distorted account of Indian culture.
The main point here is the fact that Native Americans have strategically used and criticized Westerns for as many years as the history of the cinema. In order to protect their own identities as Native Americans, that is all they have been able to do and nothing more. They still have very little voice in the political, cultural, and financial decisions of the United States.


The narrative films in which capital makes major investments are meant to depict whatever the community believes is correct. In the case of Hollywood cinema, whether it is correct or not is up to the decision of the majority. Consequently, what they consider is correct always reflects their political judgment, whereby they can turn a deaf ear to the opinions of the minority.
Dances With Wolves, accordingly, was not an exception but rather a logical extension of the Hollywood system explained above. Even before the film, many Western filmmakers alleged that their films were politically correct. For instance, D. W. Griffith, the director who was called variously, ‘the father of film technique,’ ‘the man who invented Hollywood,’ and ‘the cinema’s first auteur.’ Griffith directed more than 74 Westerns at the American Biograph Company from 1908 to 1912. He had some of the titles supplemented with sentences stating that the films had adopted genuine Indian customs. The advertisement campaign for Dances With Wolves was only a repetition of a proviso made eighty years before the film. The majority of Western filmmakers, in fact, have made a point of professing realism and genuineness, while in fact making films that were far from the empirical truth for all their bold announcements -- as in the case of Dances With Wolves.


The revisionist Westerns certainly regard the Native Americans’ intelligence and culture highly. Nevertheless, none of the filmmakers present the dark side of the history of white Americans, the empirical truth that their ancestors committed genocide upon the innocent Native Americans, such that approximately three quarters of the whole population were massacred. The Native Americans’ customs and long tradition were forced to an end, which recalls, to some degree, the Nazi Holocaust in the Second World War. As a matter of fact, the Western cinema has been a coherent mythology of the white Europeans in America, not of the Native Americans. The Hollywood visions of the past does not need to conform to facts, and this is what has established the Western genre. The American Indians have been exploited, not only in reality but also at the symbolic level, as embodied by another PC Western, Geronimo: An American Legend (director: Walter Hill, 1994).

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The History of the PC Westerns
Before I make an analysis of these Westerns, I would like to refer to the history of the so-called PC (politically correct) Westerns. This particular history is also the history of films against racial discrimination, and equally, of the leftist filmmakers in Hollywood. In the history of the PC Westerns, Broken Arrow (director: Delmer Daves, 1950) and Devil’s Doorway (director: Anthony Mann, 1949) should be remembered as the first page. The former was initially Joseph Losey’s project and Albert Maltz was in charge of the script. Nonetheless, they were left out of the staff when the film was completed. Owing to anti-Communist hysteria created and exploited by HUAC (the House Committee on Un-American Activities) in the 1950s, they and other distinguished filmmakers were fired by the studios and no longer permitted to work in Hollywood. Among them was a most talented director, Abraham Polonsky. He was made to live in obscurity for years until he directed a PC Western, Tell Them Willie Boy Is Here (1969), with which he finally made a successful comeback. The history of the PC Westerns, therefore, reveals another suppressive aspect of Hollywood besides its ill treatment of Indians.


Broken Arrow was, afterwards, drastically changed by Darryl F. Zanuck (the ambitious Twentieth Century-Fox executive producer) into a romantic action film. Its sentimental overtones remind us of a Western masterpiece, The Last of the Mohicans (director: Maurice Tourneur and Clarence Brown, 1920). The film was first planned as a postwar ‘social-consciousness’ picture, dealing with the marriage between a white American (James Stewart) and an Apache woman. The result symbolized nothing but a Hollywood fantasy, as typified by their wedding and first night sequence.


On the second page of PC Western history, John Ford, the most prominent director in the genre, should stand out. He directed Cheyenne Autumn (1964), a saga in which each individual episode was smoothly linked by means of the symbolic act of smoking a cigarette. The film described the pitiful Indians suffering discrimination from the egoistic policies of white Americans. It was a complete reversal of Ford’s attitude toward Indians. The Indians whom he had depicted in most of his Westerns were bloodthirsty devils, what some called ‘Hollywood Indians.’ Some critics, consequently, consider Cheyenne Autumn a notable exception, whereby the auteur made amends for the past. Ironically, the characterization in the film was rather dull: neither the white Americans nor the Indians were portrayed with much depth, just like in the biopic film, They Died with Their Boots On (director: Raoul Walsh, 1941). The prosaic Indians are hardly distinct from the ones in Drums Along the Mohawk (director: John Ford, 1939). If Ford really aimed to honor the Indians, he should have referred to his past film, Fort Apache (1948), in which the Indians justifiably kill the U.S. Cavalry troops. These Indians, however cruel, performed brilliantly.


It is not fair enough, of course, only to praise blindly the Native Americans’ nobility. Nevertheless, the third page of PC Western history is filled with these kind of self-complacent films, as represented by Dances With Wolves.


The first example should be A Man Called Horse (director: Eliot Silverstein, 1970). The film was made in the period called the New American Cinema. From the late 1960s to the early 1970s, a spate of low-budget youth culture films, such as Easy Rider (director: Dennis Hopper, 1969), were distributed, which created anti-establishment heroes.


In A Man Called Horse, the Indians were characterized as noble and generous savages, in compliance with the worn-out concept made up by white Westerners. It was a story of generosity, dignity, and despair: a European man of noble birth (Richard Harris) traveled to America for hunting and suffered hardships, so as to form lasting mutual trust with the ‘noble barbarians.’ In the film, the Siou did not speak English but Siou, a practice Dances With Wolves later followed. In addition, their way of living was manifested a lot more precisely than in Run of the Arrow (director: Samuel Fuller, 1957). The realism, however, had a sentimental inclination which patronizingly glorified the Indians. The filmmakers had neither the intention nor the courage to display fully the history of the Native Americans’ lives. There are differing views about the degree of accuracy of even this cultural anthropological ‘realism.’ That is, the Native Americans appeared authentic to the spectators who were unfamiliar with their culture, but were hardly pleasing to the eyes of experts. After all, the mutual trust between the European and the Native American was only plausible in the perverted process of A Man Called Horse: the white man, caught and called by the Indians ‘a horse,’ was required to verify that he was a human being as well.


In addition to A Man Called Horse, Soldier Blue (director: Ralph Nelson, 1970) and Little Big Man (director: Arthur Penn, 1970) were other pro-Native-American films, reacting to the past and to the Vietnam War (the U.S. military’s massacre of innocent Asians). In the 1970s, they explicitly denounced the ferocity of the U.S. Cavalry troops, which marked a considerable change in the history of the Western. The portrayal of the Native Americans, though, had not significantly changed: it was still far from being ‘realism.’


It is nonsense, however, to discuss the quality of each film in relation to ‘reality’ because no kind of Hollywood film (including the Western), in the first place, aims for a documentary about minorities, Native/black/Asian Americans, or even women and children. There is no sign of ‘truthfulness,’ but at best political revision or amendment.


In other words, obvious in the Hollywood film is the pragmatic structure of the cinema, not veracity, and this is the central issue of this chapter. It is absurd to question how faithful a film is to empirical truth. Most important is to be aware of the reality of the cinema itself (the structure and history of the system), not the reality-like world that the cinema presents. The reality of the cinema is a representational system recreating a ‘reality,’ so that there is no point in discussing the degree of realism on the screen. If ‘realism’ is a top priority for you, you should not go to the cinema but to actual places and people. Nonetheless, you might like to go to the cinema. In that case, you should figure out the reality of the film, not the reality projected on the screen.
From the above point of view, the following essay will make an analysis of the texture of each film, in order to define the Western, the representative genre of the American cinema.

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The Unforgiven Gun Control
Unforgiven, which was highly regarded and monopolized most of the Academy Awards in 1992, including the Best Director and the Best Picture prizes, also originated from political amendment: its winning owed a great deal to the PC boom. Actually, Pale Rider (director: Clint Eastwood, 1985) was more deserving of the Oscar than Unforgiven in terms of the quality of the film (its reality).


Unforgiven spotlighted those people discriminated in terms of race and gender, which had been Eastwood’s direction since The Outlaw Josey Wales (1976). In Unforgiven, as the subject of political amendment, Eastwood selected a black gunman, Indian women, and white American prostitutes, all of whom had been treated unjustly in past Westerns.
As exemplified by Stagecoach (director: John Ford, 1939), prostitutes had been manifested as nothing but contemptible creatures. They had been devoid of speech and none of the shots had ever employed their viewpoints. Half a century after the film, however, Unforgiven displayed a complete reversal: the prostitutes were no longer patient, but vigorously protested against the patriarchal community which unfairly despised them. The reversal is worthy of remembrance. Nonetheless, this unprecedented characterization became possible more as a result of social and political pressure rather than the director’s spontaneity (as in the case of Bad Girls [director: Jonathan Kaplan, 1994], a tedious Hollywood film which depicted prostitutes in revolt against men).


Another social and political pressure apparent in Unforgiven was gun control. In 1987, just before the production phase of the film started, a gun control bill called the ‘Brady Bill’ was introduced in Congress. The Brady Bill was named after James Brady, the Presidential Press Secretary who was involved and critically injured in the attempted assassination of President Reagan in 1981. (President Reagan, whom the assassin targeted, survived all right, an event which reminds us of his acting career: he had always saved himself from a bullet wound in numerous Westerns and war films.)


Clint Eastwood, who directed and starred in Unforgiven, had been well-known for his performance in a series of ‘Dirty Harry’ films from the 1970s to the 1980s: Dirty Harry (director: Donald Siegel, 1971), Magnum Force (director: Ted Post, 1973), The Enforcer (director: James Fargo, 1976), Sudden Impact (director: Clint Eastwood, 1983), and The Dead Pool (director: Buddy Van Horn, 1988). Dirty Harry was the detective whose role was a sort of judge and executioner; the inference was that the films were against gun control. If the law forbade the possession of a gun, they insinuated, the American people would not be able to maintain their own ethic. This political and ethical message was consistently conveyed through Dirty Harry and even reinforced in Unforgiven.


The Hollywood Western cinema has been established on an extreme ideology: if some unreasonable violence befell you, you could justifiably eliminate it. Its logic became naturally representative of the largest American pressure group, the NRA (National Rifle Association), in the 1980s. Strongly against the radical Brady Bill, the NRA insisted on the prompt distribution of guns as the most effective way of self-defense. In the United States, more than sixty innocent people are gunned down by criminals every day.


In Unforgiven, Clint Eastwood came to a small town in the West, where the possession of a gun was strictly forbidden. This all-out gun control framed the story of the film, and was unusual in the history of the Hollywood cinema. In a small community of the West, however, it was not rare that people created self-imposed restrictions on guns. Eastwood, playing a solitary professional gunman, shot a white sheriff to death, in revenge for his torturous and abusive treatment of the black gunman and the prostitutes. Eastwood, afterward, left the terrified residents and disappeared into the heavy rain. The white sheriff, who had advocated gun control for his own profit, lay dead holding a gun, the so-called peace-maker. In the ending of the film, it was obvious that no one would ever come out in support of gun control in the community.

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A slightly altered Japanese version of this paper was published in "Eiga Janru Ron" (Heibonsha, 1996).

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