Wednesday, December 20, 2006

The Superwestern

Bazin defines the superwestern as a “western that would be ashamed to be just itself, and looks for additional interests to justify its existence – an aesthetic, sociological, moral, psychological, political, or erotic interest, in short some quality extrinsic to the genre and which is supposed to enrich it.” 1 Here we will compare some “classic westerns” to the superwestern. What are their differences and similarities? Is the superwestern following the formula of the western but just adding some ingredients, or is it just the natural evolution of the genre?

The western genre has a particular formula that has been followed for many years and has proven quite successful. The superwestern film such as the ones discussed in this paper being: Fred Zinnemann’s High Noon, (1952) King Vidor’s Duel in the Sun, (1946) George Stevens’ Shane, (1953) Howard Hawks’ Red River (1948) & Delmer Daves’ Broken Arrow (1950) do not steer off path of the classic western as much as Bazin would say. They contain all the classic ingredients such as its location. They are all shot in the wide-open American west. However these do have something different in terms of its location. For example we are often treated to magnificent scenery in Shane, but the beautiful scenery here is metaphorical and is used as a location for the “good” characters. They are in lush green surroundings. We often see snow covered mountaintops which is vastly different from the classic western scenery of the desert dry Monument Valley. The “bad” characters in Shane are shot in the nearby town and here the absence of bright color is apparent and looks more like a typical western town.

The presence of water around Joe’s ranch and the other rancher’s is not something we often see in a western. The lack of water is usually a problem. Usually having to travel quite a ways to get it such as in Broken Arrow (a superwestern in its own right but this being a classic Western theme within the film.) In Duel in the Sun Pearl and her horse stop to drink out of a muddy puddle of water on her way to kill Lewt. Water is often something the cowboy will camp near after a day of traveling the open land such as in Red River (again another superwestern containing a classic element of the genre). However in Shane the horses are often seen running through the shallow streams.

Further on location High Noon differs from the classic western location as it all takes place in a town. The location here acts as a metaphorical character preventing Will Kane from leaving the town until he puts everything right. Even at the end of the film he is not seen riding on horseback with his bride in the wide-open country, free at last which is what would be typical of a western. He is just seen leaving town with the embarrassed town people surrounding his horse and carriage.

After the war (1945) many changes started happening to the western. The world conflict was influencing the themes in western cinema. Bazin says that history, which was formally only the material of the western, will now often become its subject. For example, the treatment of Indians such as in Delmer Daves’ Broken Arrow. Indians used to be the “bad guy” in the western. The enemy that had to be conquered or they were merely a bump in the road on the way to their desired location such as in John Ford’s Stagecoach. (1939) In Broken Arrow they are the entire story. James Stewart’s character Tom Jefford’s even weds the chief Cochise’s daughter.

The idea that a woman is the star of a western is different as well. Jennifer Jones gets the first credit as a star in Duel in the Sun. More due to her about to become Selznick’s future wife but nevertheless Hollywood would not give top billing in a western to a woman. In High Noon Helen Ramirez owned a fair share of the businesses in the town, not something you would typically see in a classic western. But the superwestern makes this little fact known. Helen Ramirez is also an immigrant to the country as well, so the fact that she is a prominent businesswoman and not a worker in the brothel is different. She also displays a great deal of power over Lloyd Bridges character Harvey. Harvey forces himself upon her and she slaps him. In a traditional western a woman would be afraid of being shot if she slapped a cowboy.

Bazin says “Love is to all intents and purposes foreign to the western” and that “eroticism may be seen to be at least an indirect consequence of the war, so far that it derives from the triumph of the pin-up girl.”2 Duel in the Sun may be seen as a superwestern as it heavily incorporates the element of eroticism. Pearl bounces back and forth between two men, professing her love for both of them, yet trying to put up a front of a proper lady.

Although we might see love as part of a story such as in John Ford’s Stagecoach where the lovers ride off into the sunset together, Bazin is right in saying that love is often absent from the classic western. Yet these superwesterns all include love as the driving force of the main characters. Love motivates Tom Dunsun to go make a cattle ranch in Red River (although this motivation is taken away early in the film). Love motivates Tom Jeffords in Broken Arrow to bring peace between Cochise and his people and the cowboys. Duel in the Sun revolves around the concept of love and lust. We actually hear a Gregory Peck’s character Lewt utter the words “I love you” to Pearl at the end when he is in danger of loosing her. Not something a man would say in a classic Western script.

The influence of a woman is not often the driving force behind a man’s decision to act in a certain way in a classic Western. Pride and ego are the main motives behind a man’s decisions. However Joe’s wife Marian in Shane plays a big part in the decision making process of this cowboy. Love is a conflict in this film as to whether Joe will go into town and kill Wilson & the overbearing cattle farmers who want to overtake the valley. Shane later fights Joe for the right to accomplish this task. Shane then again becomes the cowboy on the move, not being able to settle like he may have wanted. He did what he did for the greater good. A typical western attribute.

Love sets the tone for Red River right at the beginning when John Wayne’s character leaves his love behind to be killed by Indians. It sets the nature for his tortured soul.
The conflict of love is apparent early in High Noon. Gary cooper’s character must decide whether he leaves town with his new bride knowing a criminal is coming to kill him or go back to uphold the law. Here love does not win out, it is his conscious that tells him he must do the lesser of the two goods.

Religion is often brought up in the superwestern. Duel in the Sun mixed it with eroticism as well. When Pearl comes to meet the priest in the middle of the night she is naked covered with her sleeping blanket, which for the time would be very controversial. A woman’s uncontrollable lust is rarely the centerpiece of a western film.

Red River was a pioneering western in terms of its main character feeling remorse after killing someone. John Wayne would always say after killing a man “bury him and I’ll read over him in the morning.”

High Noon would revolve around the idea of what is right and wrong. Should Will Kane stay and save the town he is leaving anyway from some outlaws? His new bride thinks so and does not understand the concept that he is willing to take the lives of other men for the sake of good. Yet the religious / Quaker character of Grace Kelly kills in the name of love at the end of the movie as well.

Something else that seemed out of the ordinary for these Westerns is their acceptance of the North. In Duel in the Sun Jesse was for the idea of having the train expand further into the south. It was only the father who objected to these new ideas of having folk from the north settling in the south. The father was the traditional racist Western character. Forbidding his son from marrying a “half-breed”.

In High Noon Gary Cooper gives a speech in the church to the villagers that people from the north are looking at this town and might set up factories to bring jobs to them.

Normally in a traditional western there would not be much reference to the country as a whole. The country was divided by East, West, North, and South, even going as far as to label each other as a “Texan” or a “Virginian”, never an American. I would not single out a western film as being a superwestern for this attribute alone. This is a sign of the changing times, civil wars had ended and the concept of history follows the development of cinema.

The shootout which is classic in westerns seems to be lacking in these superwesterns. At least they are not in their classical tension building forms. In Red River Tom Dunsun walks over to Matthew in what looks like might be a dramatic moment. Half of the movie has been building up on the promise that Tom is going to kill Matthew. Yet the shootout breaks into a fist fight only to be broken up by a woman who gives them a tongue lashing; which would seem out of place in any western, it would normally be the other way around.

Duel in the Sun has quite a disappointing shootout sequence between the two brothers as well. Lewt says that he is going to walk over to the hitching post, turn around and shoot him. In a classic western this would not happen, it might be the opposite. Yet he does exactly as he says. No tension building classic shootout. There is usually a clear winner at the end of a classic western as well. Duel in the Sun does not give us a winner. Pearl shoots Lewt to soon crawl over to him and die along with him in his arms. No happy ending.

Bazin states that the Western “has been and will be again subjected to influences from the outside – for instance the crime novel, the detective story or the social problems of the day – and its simplicity and strict form have suffered as a result.”3 High Noon would be the perfect example of what Bazin is saying, although I would not agree that the film has suffered as a result. Fred Zinneman brings in the notion of McCarthyism into the story (this being Bazin’s social problem of the day). The ending of High Noon is shot more like a gangster film than a western. Gary Cooper is running around the town taking cover behind building shooting at the villains. (This is Bazin’s idea of the crime novel’s influence)

The classic western has faithfulness to history, although they are not concerned with historical accuracy they still tell a story, sometimes being of the classic Western Villain such as Billy the Kidd, Jesse James or Wyatt Earp. Bazin states that “High Noon – have only a tenuous relation to historical fact. They are primarily works of imagination.”4 This is true for all of the superwesterns discussed in this paper. Duel in the Sun, Red River, Shane and Broken Arrow are all based on fictitious characters and have fictitious stories. These films do not give a history lesson to its viewers like many classic Westerns do.

Many thought that the superwestern was the beginning of the end for the genre. The Village Voice states “the filmmakers were not so much rethinking Western conventions as streamlining the format in order to point it in self-destructive directions"5 Maybe these westerns were developing a sense of their own rituals, and knew what made a classic western. The genre has a need to outstrip itself, as all classicisms must to finally dissolve itself. The fact that High Noon brings in the concept of realism in time is not something that has been done in a Western before. ‘The amount of time that expires in the movie is identical with the film’s literal duration”6 The fact that its action takes place within a delineated period of time, and that the film quite carefully observes this dramatic unity, is its defining feature.

The superwestern contains many elements of the classic western and we can conclude that bringing in outside elements such as eroticism, social allegory and alien themes are just the natural evolution of the genre. This is why it has been able to last so long and continues to be respected as one of the longest lasting genres in American cinema.

1 Bazin, Andre; The Evolution of the Western; What is Cinema Vol II; 1955
2 Bazin, Andre; “The Evolution of the Western” ” from What is Cinema Vol II essays translated by Hugh Gray University of California Press London 1971
3 Bazin, Andre; “The Western: Or the American Film par Excellence” from What is Cinema Vol II essays translated by Hugh Gray University of California Press London 1971
4 Bazin, Andre; “The Western: Or the American Film par Excellence” from What is Cinema Vol. II essays translated by Hugh Gray University of California Press London 1971
5 Kitses, Jim Rickman, Gregg “The Western Reader” -Limelight Editions New York 1998
6 Film Criticism, Winter 1976/77


Hillier, Jim; Wollen, Peter. “Howard Hawks, American Artist” BFI, London 1996
Bush, Niven. “Duel in the Sun” White Lion Publishing, London 1971
Drummond, Phillip. “High Noon” British Film Institute, London 1997
Countryman, Edward. “Shane” British Film Institute, London 1999
Bazin, Andre. “What is Cinema? Vol. II” University of California Press, London 1971
Kitses, Jim; Rickman, Gregg “The Western Reader” Limelight Editions, New York 1998
French, Philip. “Westerns: Aspects of a Movie Genre” BFI, London, 1977
Simmon, Scott. “The Invention of the Western Film: A Cultural History of the Genre’s First Half-Century” Cambridge University Press, New York 2003
Dirks, Tim “The Western Film” 2005 (Feb 2005)

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