Saturday, June 23, 2007

How the West Was Won: Part 2

Death is everywhere in the western – anytime a cowboy wants to settle his problem, he reaches for his gun. But ‘Once Upon A Time in the West’ has none of the basic ‘chasing injuns’ morality – it is men who know they are going to die, and who act upon their frontier instincts of greed, vengeance and honour. These are cowboys at the end of their time, at the brink of their era and having to lie down in the face of a new age. The evolution of industry and civilisation is symbolised in the film by the railroad – a major feature of both the mise-en-scène and the narrative. In the vast, empty landscapes of the desert, the black railway line could appear as an intrusion; something new and out of place in an untouched place. The worst enemy of the cowboy is the future – a threat to their old-fashioned methods and philosophies. But the representation of the cowboys in this film provides a sensitive and thoughtful depiction of a time that changed America. They are aged and weathered, and, to quote Leone, they “are conscious of the fact that they will not arrive at the end alive”.

This awareness of the presence of death allowed the film to be permeated with a sense of mourning and melancholy – a farewell to the old west. But the railroad is also present to signify change, and a progression in civilisation. One famous shot follows the film’s heroine Jill McBain as she steps off the train and leaves the station – the camera rises over the wooden shack to majestically reveal a half-built town, busy with activity and inhabitants. This is a pure example of how ‘Once Upon A Time in the West’ depicts its social context – right in the middle of a drastic change that killed one culture and ushered in many others. The final showdown between Harmonica and Frank is made all the more dramatic when we consider that these are two figures of the mythic Old West – and character types that have been seen in many westerns before this – that will soon disappear from their world forever. This shows how the vital link between the film’s signifiers of death, the railroad and cowboy culture allow ‘Once Upon A Time in the West’ to transcend its peers and become a classic.

Gender roles, too, are examined in the film. Traditional westerns had women firmly as secondary characters – distressed damsels, humorous squaws or homely mothers and wives. Claudia Cardinale’s Jill, however, is none of these. She is a New Orleans ex-whore who arrives in the Wild West to find her new family slaughtered, and at this point the story becomes hers – of all the characters, she bears the most responsibility and faces the most hardship – and she does so alone. Both maternal and sexual, Jill is the culmination of other female characters in westerns who is allowed to be just as strong as the men. The male characters seem to revolve around her, and although at times they move close to knights in shining armour, Cardinale never plays Jill as weak or vulnerable. Just as Harmonica, Frank and Cheyenne represent the Old West, Jill signifies a modern, 20th century America. She is burdened with the responsibilities of independence and technology, and is flung onto the brink of new civilisation. But she faces up to the task, and while the men reluctantly accept their fate and lose their place in the new world, Jill embraces it with her head held high. With complex cowboys and the first true heroine, the western genre is opened up and given a wider, somehow more mature, plain on which to roam.

And yet, for all it did to help the western, it has to be said that the film is responsible for killing a few cowboys itself. Dead were the heroes of John Wayne and Gary Cooper, puffing their chests and spouting lines about being a man in the name of America. After Henry Fonda has killed an infant, how could things be the same? Post-Leone cowboys were the bleak anti-heroes of Clint Eastwood and Sam Peckinpah – with a major emphasis on atmosphere over narrative. And although ultimately the spaceman replaced the cowboy, Leone’s influence is still felt today. The brutality and grittiness is present in David Milch’s foul-mouthed frontier-based TV series ‘Deadwood’, while the liberal use of violence and irresistible cowboy style (surely it’s only a matter of time before brown dusters come back into fashion) have been transferred to more colourful, futuristic TV shows such as ‘Cowboy Bebop’, ‘Samurai Jack’ and Joss Whedon’s ‘Firefly’. Cinema, meanwhile, has taken a quieter turn into the new century – new westerns are more reflective, almost bullet-less genre essays such as ‘Brokeback Mountain’ and ‘The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada’. These, too, it could be argued, only exist as they do because of ‘Once Upon A Time in the West’. Their pensive filming style and meandering pace – not to mention lush, location-heavy cinematography – often look as if lifted straight out of Leone’s west.

‘Once Upon A Time in the West’ is undoubtedly a classic – a master class in how to make a film truly effective. As if the countless pop culture references and tributes weren’t proof enough of its staying power, the film frequently appears in ‘Top 50’ lists, and is widely considered – alongside John Ford’s drastically different ‘The Searchers’ – to be the greatest western ever made. It is refreshing for a post-Tarantino audience to still admire film that treats the subject of violence so gracefully, and with such little self-referential irony. In its absolute conviction in itself and its inimitable style, ‘Once Upon A Time in the West’ signalled a significant change in the genre – this is the peak of the Spaghetti Western, the peak of Leone, one of the peaks of the Sixties – simply put, this is the best that cowboys ever got.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I wasn't going to watch all of that video, but I stuck with it and it is pretty great. I absolutely love the ending, ahahhaa :D