When I think of Westerns, the first thing I think is “Old.” The heyday of the western was before even I was born. The settings are from before my grandparents were born. We watched The Lone Ranger on Saturday mornings, and avoided Bonanza on weekday afternoons. I think there were John Wayne movies on TV, but we never watched them. And then there was this guy:
But as I got older, late teens I suppose, I grew interested in Sergio Leone’s work. The pace took some getting used to, but the visual style and Ennio Morricone’s soundtracks kept my attention. I liked Eastwood’s westerns too, but always came around to them late.
Now that I’m even older, I find them interesting as objects of study – the cinematic technique, the allegories, the relationships of the films to the time and places from whence they came, what they say about us and our history, and how we are perceived. Leone has a famous quote:
In my childhood, America was like a religion. Then, real-life Americans abruptly entered my life – in jeeps – and upset all my dreams. I found them very energetic, but also very deceptive. They were no longer the Americans of the West. They were soldiers like any others…materialists, possessive, keen on pleasures and earthly goods.
I think of the old westerns as adventure stories with heroes, and morality plays with good guys and bad guys. In later westerns things were different. You can see Leone’s upset dreams played out. Is Blondie really “The Good?” A more critical look at the genre shows stereotypical racism and sexism, as well as violence and greed.
I recently finished reading Scalped. I was drawn to it as a crime/western/noir graphic novel series, and I liked that the main characters were all Lakota. It was widely acclaimed, but had issues as well which I tend to agree with. The stereotypes were different from Tonto, but stereotypes nonetheless, depicting the reservation as skid row. It’s also a long way from the westerns of old. I don’t know if we consider South Dakota to be a part of the west anymore, and the time frame is over a century after the traditional western setting. So we can take an expansive view of the genre. Maybe there’s more to it than cowboys.
For some reasons, reading about Sergio and how he adapted American stories with a European mindset that then translated back to American cinema (borrowed from Japanese film) reminded me of early Green Day, when they admitted they were Americans coping punks from England who borrowed from the Punks of America … and so it goes, right? Around and around, the art flows. Remix it.
The secret seems to be that these white film cowboys were from European roots. And these early Europeans went West to America. They were pioneers before the West was discovered.