The Decline of the Western: Leone, Peckinpah, Penn, and Cimino
I wrote this essay about five years ago, having viewed several “revisionist” westerns in quick succession, including the much-lauded The Wild Bunch and The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly, and the much less generally admired Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid, The Missouri Breaks, Bad Company, and Heaven’s Gate, finding them all stimulating and vital films, leaving me to ponder why, exactly, a genre that still generated such creativity was declared dead at this end of this period, and why most of the efforts to revive it, including the overrated Unforgiven, have seemed half-hearted in comparison. My opinions haven’t changed much except that my admiration for Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid and Heaven’s Gate has only increased.
I. Exploding the Bottle
As Pauline Kael memorably described the impact of The Wild Bunch upon the Western genre, it was the new wine that exploded the bottle. The fine mesh of history, legend, and style that had previously sustained this specifically American brand of myth had received a most crucial blow in the shift of zeitgeist. Where the Westerns of the ‘50s and ‘60s had become increasingly complex and multi-faceted, they had never quite lost the formats that had made it the most popular of
The civilization celebrated by John Ford, weaving its threads through the wild, was however at war not just with the Titans that were the heroes of the Westerns, but with the psychological responses of those watching them. Kids found heroes, men found what they might have been in another era, women had in Western heroes for whom masculinity was something restrained and dutiful -as opposed to the villains who were usually rampant personifications of macho strife let loose - but still potent and capable compared to the town clerks, bankers, merchants and businessmen who represent on the on-rush of society. Yet the genre began to be dismissed through an absurd sense of dress-up play that the shifting pop culture of the ‘60s began to ridicule in the Western as a genre increasingly lacking direct relevance to the society whose fantasies it had once so well articulated. As so memorably articulated by Ratso Rizzo in Midnight Cowboy, by ‘69 the cowboy had become what was then the lowest, most sniggering form of cultural expression: camp.Yet it took some time for the Western to die, and ironically it was killed at the box office by certain films that rank amongst the best works of the genre. As a body, Westerns tend to be inseparable from the boyish fantasies of the male audience members - and critics - who adored them as youths; take Danny Peary’s dismissal of The Wild Bunch in favor of Once Upon A Time In The West, a choice I think only really to be justified as to which one speaks most clearly to your personal sense of myth. …In The West, is a shrine; The Wild Bunch is Jesus in the temple after the moneylenders. The consequence was an attempt to construct a new Western genre through the ‘70s, based not in the formal garb of morality play and penny-dreadful action, but in a luxuriant search for authentic feeling and experience on the edge of burgeoning post-war society, informed strongly by the Hippie movement, by the general tend towards more intensive, realistic historical study, even the early glimmerings of the Green movement. Consequently, ‘70s Westerns are often entirely at odds with the philosophical and psychological needs of the audiences that previously hungered for them, whilst still trying to court those whose tastes were formed by those earlier Westerns.
The American tradition of the Western was appropriated by Italian cinema in the mid-'60s. Who would have guessed, in days long before Joseph Campbell was a commonly dropped name for cognoscenti, the innate similarity between Hercules and Wyatt Earp? Suddenly the Western was no longer just a vessel for specifically American myths, but for the world’s myths. If there is one thing I would not wish on my worst enemy, not if he was as evil as Frank or Wilson, it's the tedium and tackiness of the average Spaghetti Western, which, outside of the works of its founding director Sergio Leone, is a woeful genre, and in helping win The Western away from its hard roots in a specific time and place, added to the sense of dress-up absurdity.
Yet, Leone did not kill the genre, and in fact along with Sam Peckinpah he was its final master, and the last film-maker to essay it in ritualistic form. The Leone and Peckinpah Westerns are fetishist in their evocations of time and place, brushing aside back-lot hamlets, Technicolor fantasy, and censor-board intervention, to luxuriate in a rough-hewn world of shanty towns, Figaro-type posters, harsh sensuality, eccentric yet accurate details such as the revolver-rifles in The Good, The Bad, And The Ugly, and an end to omnipresent cowboy hats. This shift seems closely bound-up with the growing cultural need of the early ‘60s for less processed, earthier perspectives on life and history.
When driven by implacable forces to a dead end, The Bunch get a chance to die noble deaths, going down like Spartans at ten-to-one ratio, momentarily turning the grotesque and hated technology of death - the machine gun - to their own advantage, but only revealing that the warrior identity has just come to an end in an over-efficient age. It is romantic and terrible and absolutely final, all at once.
Pat Garrett And Billy The Kid feels like the Kabuki remake of the The Wild Bunch. Many of the earlier film's themes and flourishes of recur in the follow-up, a work that prefigures several interesting Westerns of the coming decade, though in itself dismissed upon release and misshaped by studio cuts. It attempts to combine the romantic nihilism of The Wild Bunch with the elegiac spirit of Ride the High Country and The Ballad of Cable Hough. It essays the same basic story - a pair of old friends have become set as implacable enemies, driven to a conclusive showdown. Deke
Billy is not exactly a hero. He kills without concern with only interest in his own skin. Yet nor is he a villain, as we observe his impossible position and sense his moral disdain for the world, and, when Chisum has Billy’s friend (played by Emilio Hernandez) tortured and his daughter raped for no apparent reason other than helping Billy (perhaps another victim of editing), and Billy tries to save them, we understand his impotent frustration with a land ruled by despots. Tellingly, this scene causes Billy, who has set out for
Beyond this critique of authoritarianism, Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid is a fitful, often funny film that plays out like the fifth act of a severed epic. All the rules, plays, and necessary ends of the scenario are in place at the start, and we watch them click into place. We are introduced to Garrett informing Billy he has joined the law, and shortly after Garrett joins Chisum and others in ambushing Billy’s hideout. From here on the film is a series of small and select beauties, brief moments of transcendence and horror on a journey to a certain conclusion; these include Billy’s young boastful sidekick, played by eternal victim Charles Martin Smith, discovering a certain stoic grace on the point of death; Slim Pickens, reeling away full of holes from a gunfight, faces his tough wife Katy Jurado, and their silent, mournful recognition he is dying; the tight-smiling amicability Billy and Pat give each-other when Billy is temporarily captured; Billy’s blank, dutiful extermination of two lawmen when he escapes, one with a warning and the other, a religious fruitcake who bullied him, without a second thought. Peckinpah’s fascination with the moods of a fin-de-siecle landscape is the whole purpose here; old friends carelessly kill each other; rape and violence are casual; the more law comes to the land, the more violent and perverse a place it becomes.
Of curious status is Bob Dylan’s nervous, wiry presence as a youthful blacksmith, without an identity, calling himself Alias, who drifts through the film both as protagonist and watcher; the songs on the soundtrack may well be the character’s later commentaries on what he had seen, a chorus. His character votes his moral choice and gravitates towards Billy as a beautiful force of anarchy, and seems to celebrate Billy’s capacity for snatching brief joys before death. Rarely has film score been so well tied to the film it has been written for as Dylan’s music, swelling throughout, articulates the unspoken emotions and epiphanies of the characters.
Ultimately a woozy and sorrowful film, Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid is still a fascinating attempt at myth-deconstruction. It eschews melodramatics and causality for a mood of total, beautiful desolation, one where human warmth becomes more, and not less, important, where a woman’s skin and a friend’s smile are forces of redemption not to be disdained on the gallows’s trap. Where The Wild Bunch saves its heroes from the worst of fates - death by ignominy rather than glory - and gives Deke Thornton one last tilt at honor by heading off with the Villa rebels, Pat Garrett is tragically stuck in our world. Having, as even the bravest usually are, been forced to compromise with the rotten world, he is alive but a shell, his capacity for sensuality and joy finally sucked out.
Beyond The Wild Bunch the Western had thematically run into its own cul-de-sac. Without heroes, without trust in either the civilization myth or their eternal-outsider heroes, the Western looked both retrograde and formless in the cosmopolitan air of the ‘70s. The best Western of the decade, arguably, was Scorsese and Schrader’s Taxi Driver, where inside the common sociopath vigilante spirit of the time they located the beating heart of the cowboy hero; or perhaps the other way around, for in a contemporary context the heroic qualities of Western protagonist suddenly look anti-social, dangerous, even repellent. Not even the Wild Bunch repel us as Travis Bickle does; in fact the Bunch we come to like despite their brutality, perhaps because they want to get away from it and our sad certainty of their doom. Bickle represents the complete septic maturity of the Western code’s rot and refusal to take society for what it is.
If the Western’s standard form had been temporarily grafted onto noir subjects on the way towards eventual sublimation into science-fiction, the genre stumbled on in sub-divided spirit. Revisionist works, generally lacking either the iron spirit and romantic impulses of Peckinpah or the mythic humor of Leone, ran riot with settled notions; cavalry men slaughtered Indians, whores became the new heroines, and immorality reigned supreme. Eastwood’s Westerns continued to essay the Dirty Harry scenario of getting-what-they-deserved purification in The Outlaw Josey Wales before the flabby, silly, yet starkly beautiful Pale Rider. As the last few
The Mud and Blood oatsers’ story-telling seemed to chase the flickering quality of nostalgic moods, savored like a recalled scent not identified, their stories patterned more after the rambling comic quality of folk songs and tales, taking to a certain extent a cue from such backward-looking icons of ‘60s music such as Bob Dylan and Arlo Guthrie and the folk-music scene, as much from the traditions of Western film and literature - an aspect emphasized by Dylan's part in Pat Garrett and Billy The Kid and Leonard Cohen's contribution to McCabe And Mrs Miller. Perhaps because of Altman’s steadfast cult, McCabe And Mrs Miller is probably the most highly regarded of these today, though I found it a fuzzy and somnambulant work. Each of these films has a passive-aggressive refusal to play like a standard Western, even as they retain standard plot elements. There are still goodies and baddies, but the divisions between them tend no longer to be by such arbitrary and tinny symbols such a badges. In each the heroes are criminals and the villains are more ruthless criminals, usually with backing from the big end of town. In addition, each can be described as a comedy, fairly black ones at that. They take highly ironic views of the birth of American venture capitalism, and present smaller-than-life figures tramping awkwardly through landscapes of dust, snow, mountains, desert, and, yes, mud.
Arthur Penn’s experimentations with trying to capture the humor and homespun quality of folk songs and oral tradition, of populist mythology and underground history, began with Bonnie And Clyde (written by Bad Company’s Robert Benton and David Newman), which captured the folk-myth mood of a dream remembered by a million people. This continued through Alice’s Restaurant and Little Big Man, two quirky, counterculture-inflected American elegies that championed social outsiders, the peacenik sensibility, the transcendence of the radical. With a certain historical viability, recently continued by the TV show Deadwood, modern radical movements such as the Hippies are pictured as having roots in the West and its brand of ambling individualism, of natural communion, of good-natured lawlessness; and Penn’s world is Peckinpah’s world as enacted by Yippies.
The Missouri Breaks, Penn’s follow-up to Little Big Man and an expensive flop, is an irresponsible film, which presents to a public salivating at the combination of Penn, Jack Nicholson, and Marlon Brando, a lilting, almost action-free, determinedly unspectacular film. It is more interesting, less higgledy-piggledy than Little Big Man, continues Pat Garrett And Billy The Kid’s ironic inversion of the moral scheme of the Western, and disgraces it even further by refusing to take it seriously at first and then by not forcing the mood or pace when things become decidedly grim. As the laughing, slightly foolish band of rustlers discover their lives are worth far less than a bunch of horses, they respond by killing one of their persecutors. Ranged against them is the ailing paterfamilias David Braxton (John McLiam) and his hired gun, Robert E. Lee Clayton, who as played by Marlon Brando in one of his few character parts (despite top-billing), is an original and bizarre villain. A range-riding, accent-faking, long-distance killer, Clayton moves with smiling deliberation, apparently absurd, then destroying people as he does animals, with ruthlessly playful precision.
The film becomes a lake around a raft upon which Brando and Nicholson practice their craft. Nicholson gives a masterful performance in a sly and subtle key, knowing he won’t win against Brando in showmanship - what other actor of such stature would enter a film hanging sideways from a horse? One magnificent moment has Nicholson, upon realizing Brando has killed one of his friends, confronts the man in a bathtub, trying to provoke him out, but is faced only with Brando’s blubbery back and avoiding blather, an inspired piece of grotesquery. Whilst certain moments suddenly compact into urgency, as when Brando, who has pegged Nicholson as a nemesis, practices a little marksmanship-intimidation, others, such as Nicholson’s various scenes with Kathleen Lloyd as Braxton’s wilful, tomboyish daughter, weave a delicate spell. Nicholson’s characterization offers what little cohesion the story has, particularly in his late shift into dark revengeful mode, and his final act of revenge upon Brando is a chilling moment.
But it would be asking too much for a film like The Missouri Breaks, so utterly divorced from what general audiences went to Westerns for - or even to major, artsy productions for - to be a success. It did, finally, define the no man’s land the western had traversed since The Wild Bunch; what stories were there to tell in this setting, that weren’t the usual range of gunslingers and rustlers? The Western, long a vessel for the escapist fantasies of many kinds, from macho fulfillment to Aquarian devolution, was becoming irrelevant as a suitable conduit for any of these.
IV. Cimino and Heaven’s Gate
Heaven’s Gate needed to be a giant hit upon first release to justify its cost and studio-busting stature. It was a victim of circumstance - United Artists had long been heading for bankruptcy and it became a hot potato in negotiations for the studio’s sell-out to MGM - and then of cultural climate - audiences of 1981, and their appointed ministers of taste in the critical realm, were not in the mood for expansive, revisionist visions. They were flocking to Rocky II, Star Trek II, just about anything with a “II” in the title. It’s conceivable Cimino was given just enough rope to hang himself. The film’s star, Kris Kristofferson, is today blunt in his opinion that the film was a target for its unabashedly radical stance - hardly an offence a few years earlier, but verboten in the early Reaganite era, when radical fantasies were being subsumed into sci-fi parable, as in the Star Wars films. More importantly, it was an excuse to end the uneasy reliance by
And yet Heaven’s Gate is a superb film. There have been many films which, deliberate in form, have been hacked down with no care for rhythm, so the works become shapeless and confusing. Beyond this, the criticisms levelled at the film have become in retrospect quite lame. If the good guys and bad guys are too obviously pronounced (yes, the townsfolk seem a touch Fiddler On The Roof on occasions, and Sam Waterston’s mustachioed, fur-clad villain is bit comic-opera, but darn it, he does nasty well), then any number of films can be castigated for the same reasons. Despite accusations it had no plot, the film has a solid narrative, and actually fulfils the problem presented by The Missouri Breaks, in combining that film’s evocations with a solid and purposeful story. It simply does not provide Titan heroes and myriad sub-plots. It experiments with story-telling in a manner more like much smaller, modest films, with carefully-caught moments of character interaction, and well-textured pageant-like explosions of communal action, as with the opening Harvard graduation celebration and the wonderful scene where the Johnson County folk, following the lead of a brilliantly physical fiddler, make celebration on new-fanged roller-skates.
Whilst The Deer Hunter was a commercial success, it abandoned the first half’s inspired accumulation of detail, and passed up the chance to create a rare work of art based in honest visualization of people within their milieu. If Cimino had not had such a strong grasp of the conventions of
Their gentlemanly, classically educated style looks increasingly ineffectual compared to the rapacious greed of
In the spectacular, realistically chaotic finale, the marauding Cattlemen’s encampment is attacked, ringed by dust clouds, punctuated by fallen horses, writhing bodies, and gunfire. It’s hard to think of a more heroically American vision of grassroots resistance. The film’s mournful coda reveals Averill’s eventual relapse to death-in-life when, having returned to the East robbed of his love, resumes a life of worthless riches. Averill’s kind is on the way out, and left to always be wistfully, romantically looking backwards on a lost beauty, whilst the future is claimed by the new Americans he aided.
Composed 2005; revised 2009