The American West is an imaginary landscape, a shared myth that communicates ideas about reality rather than the reality itself. In recent years the wild west has shifted from the realm of history to that of myth, a foundation upon which we tell stories about ourselves and our so-called civilization. The Revisionist Western exists as a direct response to the conceptually ‘black and white’ Classical Western, where the good guy always wins and order is always restored. In this Classical mode, the myths of the West run rampant over the historical reality. These stories developed in the earliest days of cinema, growing out of the travelling performances put on by the likes of Buffalo Bill.
The Revisionist Western refutes the ideology of these early entertainments by foregrounding moral complications: negative representations of violence, destruction of culture, of races, and the absolute chaos and degradation upon which civilization is built. To revise is to re-examine, to re-consider the intentions and beliefs of the past, and this is precisely what the Revisionist Western sets itself to. It is different from the Acid Western (eg. The Shooting, El Topo, Dead Man) since it does not share its propensity for surrealism and philosophical contemplation. The Revisionist Western holds a mirror up and asks us to contemplate the reflection of our society against the often nightmarish world portrayed within. It’s not always grim, as these films are overflowing with talented actors and directors, and are fondly remembered as some of the most entertaining and engaging films of all time.
If you’re looking to have a marathon at home, here’s five films that make a great introduction:
The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962)
A defining Auteur of the Classical Western, director John Ford’s (Stagecoach, The Searchers) later films would increasingly question the ideology of his earlier works, complicating them and denying the traditional cathartic impulses of the genre. In The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, Ford envisions the conflict between civilization (order) and wilderness (chaos) with a clarity that has been rarely matched, as James Stewart’s city lawyer becomes caught between the old school cowboy, John Wayne, and the villainous Liberty Valance, Lee Marvin.
The Great Silence (1968)
The desert is only one part of the Western myth, a dominant and iconoclastic feature. But the frozen tundra is the inhospitable end of the west, where only the most ferocious of men with the most barren of souls can survive and thrive. In Sergio Corbucci’s Spaghetti Western, it is as if a great ice age had come down upon the earth, freezing the fish in their streams and sealing the sprouts in their graves. Corbucci’s highly politicised vision sees the lofty ideals of civilisation being snuffed by the oppressive weight of the wilderness. What little remains of society in the ever shrinking town of Snow Hill is at the mercy of power hungry men who commit bloody murder in the name of the law. Featuring a deliriously evil performance by Klaus Kinski and an anti-hero damaged beyond repair, The Great Silence is a startling masterpiece.
The Wild Bunch (1969)
Sam Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch is a synonym for violence. Its stoic men of action are dominoes loaded with explosives, slowly careening towards the ultimate end, where only a wave of blood can possibly right the wrongs. Of course, we know this is not how solutions are found, and the opening credit’s troubling sight of children torturing insects sets the paradigm of everything that follows. Peckinpah evokes the end of an era, as the last of the cowboys give way to the machine age, where even death can be de-personalised and mass-produced.
Alex Cox’s powerful film revises our concept of the West by flattening history onto a singular plane so that contemporary culture and technology are exploded into the Western tableau, and vice versa. Joe Strummer blasts across the soundtrack and helicopters rip across the battlefields in an anachronistic re-telling of William Walker’s (Ed Harris) invasion of Mexico in the 1850s and his subsequent militarized ascension to President of Nicaragua. Cox weaves a complicated tapestry of historical biography, Western mythos, contemporary American politics of expansion and domination in South America. It’s a little bit punk, a bit apocalyptic, and angry as hell.
Any Western that argues that directly conflates Manifest Destiny with cannibalism is worth a look. When it manifests in such a gleefully hedonistic and aggressively comedic form, with unforgettable performances by Guy Pearce and Robert Carlyle and an off-kilter soundtrack by Damon Albarn and Michael Nyman, it becomes a classic. Once again snow bound, Ravenous metaphorically revises the tropes of the West by having its blood thirsty ‘heroes’ literally hunger for human flesh as it is a source of augmented strength and vitality. The colonial white hero becomes a devouring beast, forever hungry for more and with a glint in his eye that says “You’re either with me, or you’re within me”.
For those hungering for a revisionist western experience on the big screen, The Hateful Eight Roadshow will be playing at The Astor in glorious 70mm Ultra Panavision till the 24th January.
One thought on “Revisiting the West”
Have you seen Bone Tomahawk? Now THAT is a revisionist western on steroids !