No matter how close they might hew to reality, movies can’t help but be a reflection of the people who made them. Despite ostensibly being set in the same city a couple years apart, the New York of Woody Allen’s Manhattan is not the same place as Scorsese’s Taxi Driver. The former is a city of grand romance, the latter is seething chaos beneath a thin veneer of civilisation.
More than anywhere, the expanse of the Wild West has been the canvas where directors have painted portraits of American idealism, imperialism, violence and chaos. The first ever western, 1903’s The Great Train Robbery depicts a violent crime spree brought to justice. Similarly, the Hays Code era Westerns (between the years 1930-1968) such as The Magnificent Seven, Rio Bravo and Shane show the Wild West as place where good men (it was always men) needed to assert control over a chaotic landscape to create and preserve civilisation. Chaotic forces, often in the form of bandits, Native Americans and natural disasters would have to be overcome to preserve townships and protect Judeo-Christian values. Sin was punished, virtue (as defined by a code that outlawed the portrayal of miscegenation – “sex relationships between the white and black races”) was rewarded and no one swore. Not even the bandits. When Don Siegel showed John Wayne a cut for what would be Wayne’s final film, The Shootist, Wayne demanded a key scene be re-edited, claiming “I’ve made over 250 pictures and have never shot a guy in the back. Change it.”
Later directors would use many of the same settings and archetypes – the saloon, the lone gunman, the bandit, the corral – but to entirely different ends. For Sergio Leone, one of the pioneers of the Spaghetti Western, the descriptive words that were so vital to his forerunners, specifically “good” and “bad”, were meaningless. “It seemed to me interesting to demystify these adjectives in the setting of a Western. An assassin can display a sublime altruism while a good man can kill with total indifference.” This philosophy led to the creation of complex stories with problematic protagonists and real stakes. His characters weren’t constrained by any puritanical moral code, they were independent agents out to maximize their own wealth and happiness, and would do whatever it took to do so. “With John Ford, people look out of the window with hope. Me, I show people who are scared to even open the door. And if they do, they tend to get a bullet right between the eyes. But that’s how it is.”
A new generation of American directors, meanwhile, were creating Revisionist Westerns like Little Big Man and The Wild Bunch that were nakedly anti-establishment, openly questioning the government’s role in the slaughter of Native Americans and even making comparisons to modern day military activity in Vietnam. The heroes of the classical western tradition, like the cowboys and lawmakers, were often portrayed as power hungry murderers blinded to their moral failures by the lie of manifest destiny. At times this re-imagining of the Western myth led to a place of pure violence, where any claim to moral authority was completely ceremonial. In Alex Cox’s savage masterpiece Walker, the eponymous protagonist goes from thoughtful idealist to murderous warlord in the course of a few scenes, his humanity to never return.
Westerns at their core are often about the negotiation of the social contract without the arbiter of law. Is it possible to preserve your values in the face of violence and chaos? The answer to that question says a lot about a Western director.