The Future of the West in Film: A Quarter Century Perspective

 by Carol Antill

The story of the West was once told as an unbroken series of triumphs--the victory of "civilization" over "barbarism," a relentlessly inspirational epic in which greed and cruelty were often glossed over as enterprise and courage. Later, that epic would be turned upside down by some, so that the story of the West became another--equally misleading--morality tale, one in which the crimes of conquest and dispossession were allowed to overshadow everything else that ever happened beyond the Mississippi. The truth about the West is far more complicated, and much more compelling.

For a definitive profile of the West, both as a region and an era, one need look no further than Ken Burns' documentary, "The West." The young producer who revolutionized documentary filmmaking with his award-winning PBS series "The Civil War," merges historical and dramatic elements in a montage of paintings, photographs, and passages from diaries that reveal both the beauty and savagery of the unique era and landscape we call the West. Burns' chronicle frames the century that gave birth to this concept of the West, beginning with exploration of the great American northwest--a region of hope and excitement for Americans as they heard of the vast resources discovered there--and ending with exploitation of one of the region's most valued resources. From the 1803-1805 Lewis and Clark expedition to the 1904 scheme of California real estate speculators Mulholland and Eaton, the drama of expanding horizons includes acts of bravery and treachery that found a new medium at the beginning of the 20th century. Whether history records their deeds as courageous, such as Lewis and Clark's trek across the Northwest, or scandalous, as Mulholland and Eaton's transformation of California's Owens Valley into a desert in their quest to bring water to the insatiable population of Los Angeles, the elements that define the West owe much to twentieth century western films.

The year 2003 marked a milestone in the making of western films: One hundred years earlier, audiences saw the first narrative western, a 10-minute silent film produced by the Edison Company. Though it was filmed near Dover, New Jersey, far from the geographical designation of the American West, "The Great Train Robbery" is generally credited as the origin for trademark elements of classic westerns. In West of Everything: The Inner Life of Westerns , Jane Tompkins examines themes such as death, language, and landscape as elements that became formulaic for the popular westerns. From the classic saloon scene where confrontation turns into a bullet ballet to the train robbers' escape by horseback into the woods amid pistol fire and smoke, "The Great Train Robbery" enjoyed popular and critical success in its day. This review of the rise and fall of western films over the past twenty-five years uses some of the elements examined by Tompkins to illuminate the evolution of this genre of film.

As illustrated by "The Great Train Robbery," elements of the western film evolved from a tradition of melding historical events and the American public's ideal of the West. Foremost of the elements Tompkins explores is the treatment of death: "The ritualization of the moment of death that climaxes most western novels and films hovers over the whole story and gives its typical scenes a faintly sacramental aura" (24-25). Of westerns produced in the past twenty-five years, Clint Eastwood's "Unforgiven" (1992) and Robert Redford's "The Milagro Beanfield War" (1988) capture this aura in pivotal scenes. Death can be literal, as in the climax of "Unforgiven," when the anti-hero Bill Munny dispatches the ultimate villain, Little Bill, or figurative, as in the death of a culture (farmers vs. urban sprawl) in "The Milagro Beanfield War." Kevin Costner's "Open Range" (2003) embraces both, with the literal murder of a simple drover and the figurative death of the era of freegrazing.

The film opens with a sense of family established among four cowboys on a cattle drive in the vastness of unfenced plains and mountain country. Despite constant exposure to unpredictable weather and the physically demanding work, the cowboys of "Open Range" are content. While they have little in the way of material things, they also have no burdens to speak of, responsible only for each other and the herd that will pay for the few things they can't barter or procure otherwise. When dwindling supplies force the more experienced men to depart for a nearby town, the other two, a teenage boy and gentle cook, stay behind. The story predictably takes its ominous turn as the less experienced cowboys safeguarding the herd are attacked by locals opposed to freegrazing. The gregarious giant of a cook is killed and the teenager is seriously wounded and left for dead. The cowboy's death is ultimately avenged by the trail boss and his protégé, played by Robert Duval and Kevin Costner, with the revenge motif played out in town between the morally corrupt locals and the freegrazers, reminiscent of Clint Eastwood's mysterious stranger taking on the whole town in more than one spaghetti western. The final scene reflects a traditional, romantic view of the West: As the trail hands ride toward an open horizon, away from the town that caused their misery - metaphorically named Harmonville- the final scene depicts optimism about their future because they have survived against incredible odds. What the conclusion lacks is any allusion to the end of the open range era or to the inevitable death of a way of life for men whose work not only defined how they lived but who they were. Such an optimistic conclusion may account for the relative success of the film with audiences who crave the "ride into the sunset" glow of happy endings popularized by serials of the thirties and forties.

By contrast, "The Missing" (2003) offers a much grittier conclusion to a story of brutality and survival in a landscape of similar rugged beauty. The film balances the power of religion and retaliation in its depiction of white slavery among renegade Indians led by a shaman who practices dark magic. What makes the film more complex than most westerns is the contrast between good and evil from both the white and Native American perspectives. Both "Open Range" and "The Missing" are driven by the theme of retaliation, but as estranged father and daughter, Tommy Lee Jones and Kate Blanchett convey shattered emotions with a depth never approached by the major characters of "Open Range." Yet even as it earned praise from Native Americans for its accuracy in using Apache dialect and for not stereotyping the "bad Indian," the film failed to garner the audience of "Open Range." As the man torn between families of two cultures, the ultimate act of sacrifice made by Jones rings true to character but brings closure to a story of pain and loss that is less than uplifting. In almost every genre, not just the western, filmmakers who want to boost their chance of box office success often steer away from realistic conclusions in favor of the happy ending. "The Missing" deserves a place among classic westerns for its realistic, if unpopular, approach.

In westerns that become classics, language takes on a structure of its own, with a minimalist emphasis on dialogue, accentuating the contrast between articulation and action. Tompkins maintains that while language "is allowed to appear in westerns and is accorded a certain plausibility and value" (55), words eventually lose any momentum within the story in the face of the more powerful elements such as death and landscape. No western in the past twenty years exemplifies this more than "All the Pretty Horses," a valiant attempt to bring the work of a major literary force in western literature, Cormac McCarthy, to popular film audiences. Though the film falls short of the powerful imagery and dialogue of the novel, its more memorable scenes depend heavily on the proximity of death as two displaced teens embark upon a quest to find the place where the lifestyle of the cowboy remains untouched by modern courts and decisions made on paper. Conversations between the two boys, John Grady Cole and Lacey Rawlins, project naiveté and wonder about the adventure that awaits them as they set out from San Angelo, Texas in 1949. Nevertheless, the dialogue is secondary to the country they pass through on their way to Mexico. When Rawlins confronts Jimmy Blevins, a young horse thief who has been following them, the exchange echoes the laconic tradition of cowboys throughout western literature.

Blevins: There won't be nobody huntin' me in Mexico.

Rawlins: Ya got any grub?

Blevins: Naw.

Rawlins: Ya got any money?

Blevins: Naw.

Rawlins: Yer just a deadhead.

(Blevins looks off)

Rawlins: Just tell me one thing. What in the hell would we want you with us for?

Blevins: 'Cause I'm an American.

Such sparse, simplistic dialogue resembles countless scripts of less literary attempts at depicting the West in film, such as the bulk of westerns which starred John Wayne in the 50s and 60s. As the adventure-hungry lads, Matt Damon and Henry Thomas, in reality a decade older than the characters of McCarthy's novel, convey the brotherhood but not the naiveté so vital to the story. As the foolish and doomed Jimmy Blevins, Lucas Black shines. His quirky expressions and Texas drawl solicit empathy, particularly when Cole and Rawlins find him wandering through a washed out canyon without his horse and his clothes after losing both during a violent storm. The combination of the wide-angle photography of the southwestern terrain and Marty Stewart's alternately passionate and poignant soundtrack between scenes of action and dialogue save this film from mediocrity. The seventy minutes cut from the final version may explain the unevenness of the character development and why the film fails to capture the essence of McCarthy's novel, a coming-of-age tale. "All the Pretty Horses" drew a modest audience; nevertheless it helped keep the western genre alive.

A handful of the westerns released during the last two decades embrace the critical elements of the western. While some developed a following after their release on video, others found a place on film critics' top ten lists but have remained virtually unknown to popular audiences. Films in modern settings like "Milagro Beanfield War"(1988) and "Lone Star" (1996) render a complex view of the West, where the elements of death, language, and landscape are blurred by social or political issues and a large cast of minor characters. Conversely, historical westerns such as "The Grey Fox" (1982) and "Tombstone" (1993), followed the more traditional depiction of the western plot. Even in their revisionist interpretations of the outlaw and the lawman protagonists, respectively, the plot is tightly woven by a thread of violence in a landscape of pristine beauty not yet marred by urban sprawl. An unusual entry in the genre, "The Grey Fox" delivers a multifaceted perspective of a turn-of-the century outlaw, Bill Miner, who served almost thirty years in prison for robbing stagecoaches. Making an honest effort to fit in, Miner is both awed and troubled by the society to which he returns. The horse and stagecoach have been replaced by cars and trains, which appear as dark and even menacing images in the film. After an attempt to earn his keep as an oyster picker, Miner finds the world at the turn of the century more of a prison than the one from which he has been released. Ironically, while watching "The Great Train Robbery" in a theater complete with piano player and an audience that fires pistols into the air, Miner hatches the idea for returning to the life he misses, one in which he is a professional and "takes orders from no man." Labeled by newspapers as the "gentlemen robber" because of his impeccable manner while holding up trains at gunpoint, the bandit is a complex, intriguing everyman in this film. The proud, aging outlaw cuts a sympathetic figure as he relies on an outdated mode of travel--horseback--to stay one step ahead of the law amid the chilling beauty of the mist-enshrouded mountains of the American northwest and old-growth forests of the Canadian border country.

Like "The Grey Fox, "Tombstone" offers some rare moments of unexpected insight to a historical figure, but delivered in a more traditional point-of-view, from the lawman's perspective. The film would be yet another story of violence spurred by revenge in the frontier setting of the 1880s if not for the performance of Val Kilmer as Wyatt Earp's one true friend, the mysterious Doc Holiday. Kilmer upholds the legendary status of the shortlived Holiday in a performance that eclipses the sizeable cast of experienced actors; he manages to appear totally vulnerable during bouts of drunkenness and tuberculosis-tinged fits of coughing yet cool and capable when the odds are against him and Earp. "Tombstone" delivers as much graphic violence as any film of its era but surprisingly manages memorable scenes of dialogue, centered on the relationship between Holiday and Earp. Kilmer's use of Latin during a gambling dispute while he clumsily twirls a pistol to mock the central villain, Johnny Ringo, brings a wry twist to the character. Early in the film it is apparent that Holiday is an educated man who seems above the thoughtless violence of the times and who would be dead if not for the protection of his lawman friend, Earp. Yet near the end of the film, when Earp has agreed to meet Ringo in a final showdown, Holiday unexpectedly appears. It is not the expected growl of Marshall Earp coming from a shadow beneath a large hardwood that brings a look of surprise and fear to the face of the killer but the gentle voice of Kilmer's southern-drawled Holiday, whispering "I'm your huckleberry." Kilmer's portrayal of Holiday as self-hating and amoral but loyal to the point of putting himself in death's path for his friend is no better defined in the film than by his trademark taunt, "I'm your huckleberry." Although the blend of character and drama in this revisionist story of Earp owes more to fiction than fact, it nevertheless echoes Burns' interpretation of the West as a complicated truth.

For all its interpretations, the West in film must inevitably be linked to a formidable landscape. Without that link to a region that conjures space and a sense of freedom of spirit, the western cannot survive as a genre. Beyond the requisite vast expanses of open country that lured homesteading immigrants and supported a nomadic way of life for hundreds of generations of Native Americans, the West in film and in literature encompasses a broad geography. The West includes a diversity of landscape, including the plains of Oklahoma, the Black Hills of South Dakota, the rugged passes of the Sierra Nevada, and the countless canyons of the Rio Grande as it traverses the desert terrain of the southwest. Just as writers of classic western novels blended character and plot with landscape, directors of successful westerns use cinematography--the marriage of great photography and great vistas--to snare an audience in the genre.

The most memorable westerns are visual. There is a reverence in the eye of the camera that frames a good western, imparting the beauty and savagery of the landscape simultaneously, as in the buffalo chase scene in "Dances with Wolves." Likewise, the juxtaposition of a hardscrabble farm and the almost verdant, tree-lined hills surrounding "civilization" is beautifully etched in the silhouette of Bill Munny in "Unforgiven" as he rides across a sunless, gray expanse from a peaceful, if lonely, existence toward a bloody resurrection of his past. When compared to other genres at the box office, these two films raised the bar in an era which for westerns could be likened to the unforgiving landscape of Death Valley. At the heart of each story is a pivotal revelation within the main character, yet both films balance the character development with the physical elements so revered by filmmakers before and after them.

More than a decade earlier, a film based on the Johnson County War of the 1890s in Wyoming paved the way for revisionist westerns to follow. Before Eastwood and Costner won acclaim for their cinematic versions of the West, Michael Cimino forged a western of mammoth vision in "Heaven's Gate." No western since has offered a frame of work that better contrasts the romance and violence of the West. From beginning to end, the film has a wide-angle approach that is both majestic and intimate. From the Harvard commencement speech followed by couples waltzing in a twilight-drenched courtyard to the roller-skating immigrants in a circus-size canvas tent on the Wyoming prairie, the film is almost kaleidoscopic in the swirl of images surrounding a tragic event in western history. To what could have been simply a reenactment of the conflict between poor immigrant settlers and rich cattle barons over the land that Charles Russell immortalized, Cimino adds a love triangle. The film's original length of 220 minutes includes pivotal character development that suffered when the film was shortened to please the stunted attention span of American filmgoers. The location-shooting in Wyoming through the dead of winter and attention to details of the period that far exceeded most epics--including transporting an original train of the era to the set--pushed the budget to an embarrassing expenditure for a struggling studio. The film would never recover from the backlash that ensued as a result of such excess. If "Heaven's Gate" had been released upon the heels of either "Dances" or "Unforgiven," it would have likely had a very different impact on American audiences. A year and a half after its release in American theaters, the uncut version of "Heaven's Gate" was shown in France, where patrons swarmed to the special showing and French media denounced the American press for its poor judgment of such a masterpiece.

Despite the critical and popular failure of "Heaven's Gate," the genre has remained alive, if only through the support of film critics and diehard fans. Upon the release of each new addition to the genre, film critics often include the inevitable question of whether or not the western is back for good. If determined strictly by box office tallies of the past two decades, the survival of the western looks bleak. Films brought to the big screen between the releases of "Heaven's Gate" and "All the Pretty Horses" are all but forgotten in the long shadows cast by "Dances with Wolves" and "Unforgiven". Between the December, 2000 opening of "All the Pretty Horses" and August 2003, when "Open Range" debuted nationwide, westerns were largely absent from the multiplex marquees.

Issues of the modern West do not appear to be a factor in bringing a popular audience back to the genre of western film. As a land of vistas and the variety of wildlife that was present during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the West appears headed for extinction. Recent headlines of High Country News, a valuable regional source published in Colorado, confirm that from both an ecological and cultural perspective, the West is under siege. Urban sprawl and corporate interests such as gas and oil drilling are only two of the dangers to the landscape. Wildlife that once ranged mountains and prairies in abundance now depends on the protection of national park lands like Yellowstone for survival.

Few films in the last two decades address these modern threats to the West, both as a region and a way of life for the ranchers and generations of residents such as Indo-Hispanos. "The Milagro Beanfield War" succeeds in foregoing stereotypes for characters of heart and humor in a story of conflict between a struggling agrarian New Mexican community and the developers who would turn their ancestral lands into golf courses and subdivisions. In slightly less than two hours, director Robert Redford manages to make the audience feel they have known this community for years. From Joe Montoya, the happy-go-lucky farmer who becomes an insurrectionist overnight, to Amarante Cordova, the forgotten elder of the community who single-handedly sabotages the developers' work site, the West survives, with a twist. Rather than allow violence and dogma to dominate the story, Redford chooses to follow the vein of John Nichols' novel and deliver a film of magic realism, where both sides believe that they will win but the land wins in the end.

The successful ventures of independent filmmakers and studios such as Touchstone Pictures and Miramax bode well for the future of westerns. But successful films almost always have a target audience, who to some extent determine the final editing of a film project, through sneak previews and exclusive screenings. Editorial decisions often opt for dramatic appeal over more realistic depictions of events, especially when the film is "based on a true story." As real events of the West recede further into history, that audience is less likely to connect with attempts at authenticity, i.e. the historical approach to landscape, language, and death. In addition to these attempts by independent filmmakers to keep the western genre alive, the West has another champion, a form of communication that has exploded in the past ten years: The internet. The information highway offers countless web sites that pique the public's interest about its historical roots and consequently fuel new interest in capturing the West on film. A web search using key words such as "pony express" and "wagon train" produces an amazing variety of recreational opportunities for those who want to relive the West. Web sites include such choices as signing up for a week-long pony express ride in Wyoming or joining the Cherokee Trail Wagon Train from Fort Bridger, Wyoming to Bent's Old Fort, Colorado. While increasing interest in "living history" invites sociological study for a variety of reasons, an observation made by an associate producer of the PBS series "Frontier House" (2001) may best explain the attraction of the West for people of all ages today. When cataloguing the families who applied to be on the documentary in which they would forego all modern conveniences for one year to live much as settlers lived in the late 1800s in an isolated setting in the West, Mark Saben writes,

People's motivations for participating on the project were fascinating. We had countless applications from people who felt that they were born in the wrong century. Many felt that the pace of modern-day life was dizzyingly fast and impersonal; they saw this as an opportunity to slow down, get out of the rat race, and try to discover what we might have lost along the way.

If for no other reason, the West in film will survive because Americans find it to be an escape from their own lifestyles that have ironically become too complex and fast-paced. Whether western films of the future follow the formulas of traditional westerns or aspire to a view as complex and compelling as the West of Ken Burns' documentary, they will always have an audience.


Recommended reading:

Bach, Steven. Final Cut: Dreams and Disaster in the Making of "Heaven's Gate." New York: William Morrow and Company, Inc., 1985.

McCarthy, Cormac. All the Pretty Horses. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1993.

Nichols, John. The Milagro Beanfield War. New York: Holt, Rinehard and Winston, 1974.

Tompkins, Jane. West of Everything: The Inner Life of Westerns. New York: Oxford University Press, 1992.

Ward, Geoffrey C. The West: An Illustrated History. New York: Little Brown and Company, 1996.


Recommended films:

"Heaven's Gate" (1980)

"The Grey Fox "(1982)

"The Milagro Beanfield War" (1988)

"Dances with Wolves" (1990)

"Unforgiven" (1992)

"Tombstone" (1993)

"Lone Star" (1996)

"The West" (1996)

"The Cadillac Desert" (1997)

"All the Pretty Horses" (2000)

"Open Range" (2003)

"The Missing" (2003)