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 Hollywood genres; they relied on action, and were formed by schemes of morality dramatized minutely by the action portrayed on screen. Heroes could be dark and conflicted, their situations despairing and riddled with moral threats, but always the plots revolved back to the classic plot patterns where the civilized life rolled on and the Westerner trotted off to unknown tracts.

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.

II. Leone and Peckinpah: Capital ‘M’ Men

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.

Peckinpah arrived first; his eccentric debut The Deadly Companions in some ways prefigures his later work better than the better-known Ride The High Country, which is something of a self-conscious crossroads, a specially-prepared generic funeral for two top stars of the classic form. The body of The Deadly Companions, and the background of Ride The High Country, is however the future of the genre, where the attempt to capture the sensations of the frontier experience is more important than the foreground events. In this regard he anticipates, and possibly influenced, Leone, for whom evocation is a triumphant need. Few films more exactly capture time and place than The Good, The Bad, And The Ugly or the gangster film Once Upon A Time In America, a film that makes the period sense of The Godfather films look threadbare. Peckinpah and Leone shared this common bond, yet really beyond this they were very different temperaments. Neither were very much concerned with the niceties of dramatics; their films never quite strike the familiar beats of classic Hollywood.

In Leone, this manifested as a mythic blankness. The hints of this in Shane become full blown in The Man With No Name. The Good, The Bad, And The Ugly casts itself immediately as the symbolic template for the genre; the Good and Bad provide the drama, the Ugly provides comedy and skews the drama off its predictable course. Leone’s Good guys and Bad guys have an interchangeable quality - a note played on today with some relish by Quentin Tarantino. Leone's heroes and villains are divorced from roots of home or society (some are detailed just enough to let us know how they lost these roots), all are phenomenally skilled to the point of being demigods, in conscious continuation of Homeric lore. They have become ranging supermen and hobgoblins, forcing the mythic scheme of the Western into a timeless frieze. This is the subterranean embalming of the genre, even as the surfaces of the Leone universe boil with restless life. It is a panoramic, messy, bawdy, funny world, filled with dirty ruffians, sleazes, sadists, cowering clerks, and mistreated women. The heroes and villains proceed with merciless intentness after specific goals for divergent reasons - usually, for villains, greed and satisfaction of sadistic impulses; for heroes, revenge. Often, watching The Man With No Name or Harmonica of …In The West, their actions seem peculiar for Good guys, until one conceives of them from a Catholic viewpoint; if they seem aggressive to society, a touch cruel and outlaw-like in their dispensation of justice, we realize it is because, in a totally corrupt world, everyone is essentially corrupt and deserving of being taken down a peg or two.

Clint Eastwood took this to a logical conclusion in his first Western as director, High Plains Drifter, in which the title character, defined almost directly as a supernatural avenger, proceeds to save a town’s soul by tearing its body to pieces; he casually rapes a woman five minutes after arriving, taking the increasingly brutalized vision of femininity in Westerns to a new height, and laying final waste to the need for the Western hero to protect the temple of womanhood as Henry Fonda’s Wyatt Earp had once essayed so decorously to his darling Clementine. By this time, the Western hero is entirely at war with society, gentility, and the anti-sexual quality of the traditional Western; the rape fantasy is in, and the villain is now the hero because his honest commitment to both his macho feelings and his moral eye is strength. The sexual rawness, even brutality of many of these films sparked the ire of the burgeoning feminists, and it’s worth considering how both viewpoints spring from similar wells, of increasing frustration with social roles. Later the Drifter arranges the town’s humiliating and brutal invasion by the very men he is supposed to protect it from. It is a statement of outrage and self-castigation by the traditional moral figurations of the Western upon modern American society.


Peckinpah’s westerns are rather different beasts to the Leone tradition, though they too display much anxiety and disgust over the direction of modern America. Peckinpah stated with the thematically linked non-Western, Straw Dogs, that it was his desire to rub audiences’ noses in the violence, to paint a vision of the ecstatic hell of violent release. This however only communicates a small aspect of Peckinpah’s efforts, and by a curious quirk of temperament, Peckinpah’s films are as elegantly styled as anything in popular American film. No other director would provide a slow-motion shot of leaping turkey with the same panache as a machine-gunning. He shared with Leone an almost obsessive interest in capturing a tactile sense of the frontier; unlike Leone, he was not at all interested in the myth. Or, more precisely, he wanted to reshape the myth to resemble himself, and vice versa.

If myth is a telescoping of human concerns, Peckinpah’s view is through the wrong end of the telescope. His heroes are ragged, slightly loopy, very human figures, often brutal, sometimes cruel, and despicable at times, they’re also capable of joy, loyalty, unruly shows of sensuality, even romantic wit. They’re not so far from people you might have known, maybe even been yourself; and Peckinpah better than any other director understood the possible relationship of the average male of the era to the Western’s heroic forbears who display a will beyond social redress to act on their suppressed desires and often less-than-decorous attitude to civilization. The kids of the ‘40s, chasing after the perfection of Shane, had grown to the angry men of the ‘60s, having found that far from rugged individualists they were made for the machine honed post-World War II world, now desiring the bawdy anarchy of the Wild Bunch whilst awaiting the inevitable apocalypse.


The Wild Bunch, despite being for famed for violence, is actually a study of life-lust and articulates the general state of American manhood of its time. It begs for pools of beauty, moments of peace in sexual and psychic release, for respect to passing heroes. The opening is a vision of hideous, mutually destructive violence, between two equal and opposite sides of power - the destructive, unruly outlaws and the capital-backed power-mongering assassins, who between them kill far more innocents than each-other. The Bunch, shirking off bitter, defeated, even cheated of their temporary cash prize, still muster a laugh and chase their accidental idyll in Mexico; as opposed to Albert Dekker’s harsh, totally unsympathetic railroad boss who has enthralled Robert Ryan’s Thornton and redneck cohorts, the Bunch are still in contact with the impulses that make them need to kill, and plunder; eat drink and be merry, for tomorrow, et cetera.

Mexico is an almost fantastical playground and psychic escape hatch in Peckinpah’s works, but it had been a consistent concept since The Magnificent Seven transposed Kurosawa’s feudal world there. Still ruled by iron fists, death cults, and machismo, Mexico is in such films the anarchic Yang to America’s iron-horse and greenbacks Yin. Here the machine of American progress and its eternal opponents the frontiersmen and outlaws, come to a halt at the Rio Grande, before a land rigid in poverty and long in memory of sorrow, with a culture entirely dedicated to the tragic transience of existence, the code which the Wild Bunch pursue half-realized. A leitmotif is Mapache’s mariachi band which plays all the time, even when they and soldiers are being shelled, and later during the Bunch’s march to death; a pure distillation of this sense of life. They have found it in an older world, where the monstrous forces are not implacably masked by capital and machinery but parading still in uniforms with medieval showiness.

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.



III. The Elegiacs: Later Peckinpah, Altman, Penn


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 Thornton in The Wild Bunch was forced by the world to hunt his ex-partner. Garrett does it by choice. Garrett has chosen the side of the world, for he knows his future is within it, as Billy is still dedicated to the outlaw life. In this way the film recasts the drama of Billy’s death. The traditional motif of the Outlaw tale, so well personified by William Bonney, is the inevitable fate of the transgressor, where we will not spare him no matter how much we sympathize with his reasons and impulses because he is ultimately too dangerous. This film presents Billy, who has in the past fought for the men of power such as the cattle baron Chisum and whom he still harries with useless fury, now set against them too completely in mind and spirit to ever contemplate a return, as sealing his fate in social rather than moral terms. In this frontier land, the Law is not, as in a fully developed bourgeois society, a clear-cut set of guidelines for the imposition of morality and order, but a selectively enforced, bought-and-sold force. The Law is Power, and Power is based in guns, which is why gunmen seem to swap sides of the law easily until they become, as Billy has, a famous figure marked for destruction for opposing Authority.

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 Mexico, to return to his inevitable death; the fantasy land is dead and there is only in unavoidable reality. Garrett’s lot is equally ambiguous. Increasingly hardened by his chase, committing harsh acts of violence all the way, such as when encountering a whore once both partial to him and Billy, he slaps her around to gain Billy’s whereabouts, before bedding her and a bevy of other prostitutes, swinging from one pole of almost dutiful violence to sensual self-indulgence. The hunt becomes a self-indictment for Pat. He is cut off from the wild and sensual world, frozen in his capacity for feeling. He chases Billy as much because he cares for him as because he is angry with him for killing his fellow lawmen. He knows Billy must be stopped, yet wanting the coup-de-grace to be brought by someone who loves him rather than the shadowy tough guys sent by the state. Pat shoots Billy down with swift lack of ceremony at the end, then refuses to let Billy’s body be mutilated. Finally he rides off, pelted with stones by a small boy, in silent certainty that he has bought his future comfort by killing his passionate self.


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 Wayne works such as True Grit and Cahill, U.S. Marshall lurched by elephantine, graceless and homely, and Eastwood ratcheted the anti-social violence up a few notches, the Mud and Blood westerns were born as sons of Peckinpah. Works like Robert Benton’s Bad Company, Robert Altman’s McCabe and Mrs Miller, and Arthur Penn’s The Missouri Breaks, were films dedicated much less to plot and expansive vision than to capturing elusive qualities of texture, mood, and character. Another influence was the audience-friendly hippie Western Butch Cassidy And The Sundance Kid, a work which though technically faithful to true-life detail, and satiric in points, appropriated the story arc of Bonnie and Clyde and distorted it beyond all recognition into a light and romantic fairy tale for flower children.


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 Hollywood on the Auteur model of film-making that had regenerated it, allowing it to proceed voraciously into a brave new world of blockbuster mass-production. It is worth noting that another big-budget, financially unsuccessful Western from the same time, William A. Fraker’s waste of Lew Grade’s money, Legend of the Lone Ranger. But that film wasn’t anything to upset the applecart, it was just crap.


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.

This scene, which flirts with improbability, nonetheless achieves several important functions. In the immediate drama of the film, it establishes the multi-ethnic inhabitants of Johnson County as an entity, a town, a populace. Their joy, their sense of communality in life, makes their endangerment more crucial. The choice of roller-skates makes the scene surreally modern, thus suggesting that contemporary suburban America directly owes it birth to these people, to group effort and life, rather than to archly capitalistic warrior-businessmen, fantasies embodied here by the villains. It also establishes that Heaven’s Gate is the first Western in a long time - in a way none of the other films in my survey achieves - to re-engage with the John Ford tradition of the genre, where the travails of heroes and villains are only an aspect of a much larger project, where reference in consistently made to rites of life and death - weddings, dances, births and funerals - as shared by a community. But the certain given values in those older films are inverted.

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 Hollywood filmmaking, he might have made something very special. Heaven’s Gate is a more consistent and successful realisation of his style, screwing its narrative detail and momentum along a slow arc, until the final act explodes. The main character is the decent but psychically defeated James Averill (Kris Kristofferson), sheriff of Johnson County, an aristocrat by birth and training but for whom, like Robin of Locksley, his definition of aristocratic responsibility means protecting and sheltering his citizens against the Baronial assumptions of the Cattlemen’s League, led by Waterston’s Frank Canton, and whose number includes Averill’s equally dissipated, disappointed school chum Billy Irvine (John Hurt).

Their gentlemanly, classically educated style looks increasingly ineffectual compared to the rapacious greed of Canton’s kind and the robust, freedom-hungry immigrants. The aristocrats can no longer rule and mediate in this free-for-all modern world, this gilded America. Averill competes with young, identity-challenged gunman Nate Champion (Christopher Walken), for the hand of local Madame Ella Watson (Isabelle Huppert). Nate, himself a second-generation immigrant, works for the Association, dispatching rustlers with brutal efficiency.

The central triangle plays out with subtle elegance, as Ella to choose the younger man whom she loves less because he is ready to make the commitment. Nor does the story play out in typical style: where one might expect eventual joining of forces, Nate becomes the first target of assassins and Ella emerges as the film’s true hero (Huppert’s performance, though odd cast, is quite excellent, balancing dewy emotionalism with a hardy spirit), attempting first to rescue Nate, and then mustering a resistance army of immigrants. Averill is stung into action as his friends die.
Heaven’s Gate builds relentlessly to a chaotic, terrible battle in which the townsfolk die by the bushel, but continue to throw themselves at the besieged villains with righteous fury, before a last minute by the cavalry – of the baddies. The social conflict of so many ‘70s Westerns at last hardens into a fully-fledged war; where Authority attempts a crushing final victory over the miscreants who stand in their way, they find a massed and more-powerful people’s army, led by Averill, played by the same man who portrayed that thoroughly destroyed rebel, Billy the Kid, a decade before.

Averill provides a bridge between the old world and the new, imparting to the immigrants a sense not just of fight but of war, of applied education, by stealing a Roman trick of mobile barricades to encircle and nearly destroy their enemies. This is what led the film to be described as the first Marxist Western, but really it simply deflowers a theme of the genre extant well before the ‘60s. Such various and classic old-school works as William Wyler’s The Westerner, even Shane, tell awfully similar stories. It is simply here that the romantic myth of the gunslinger has been replaced by the romantic myth of the people’s revolt.

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.


In retrospect, if the Western died, except for silly revivals such as Silverado and Tombstone, and self-conscious works like Unforgiven, it is not finally because the genre itself could not adapt: it was simply that the audience for it would not.

Composed 2005; revised 2009

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