27 January 2013


The Good, the Bad, and the Gunman.....

Now that you told him my name.....  Henry Fonda, the blue-eyed baddie

Well, there was this movie I seen one time,
About a man riding 'cross the desert and it starred Gregory Peck.
He was shot down by a hungry kid trying to make a name for himself.
The townspeople wanted to crush that kid down and string him up by the neck.

Well, the marshal, now he beat that kid to a bloody pulp
As the dying gunfighter lay in the sun and gasped for his last breath.
Turn him loose, let him go, let him say he outdrew me fair and square,
I want him to feel what it's like to every moment face his death...

Catharsis is a difficult term to define, as Aristotle, who used the term in his Poetics did not offer a clear explanation.  It has been variously interpreted as purification, or purgation, intellectual clarification, or release of repressed emotions. When ancient greeks went to the theatre they may have experienced catharsis through witnessing real or fictional sacrifice or execution, suffering, or death.  

The Lone Ranger as I never saw him (no one had colour tv then)

When I was a child, inspired perhaps by glimpses of the world of the Lone Ranger, or perhaps by the legend of Davy Crockett and other all-American heroes of the frontier and Wild West, I played at cowboys, and sometimes Indians.  I still have my Colt Apache cap-gun somewhere in the loft (probably worth something on Ebay?) and have never lost interest in the history and legends of North America, even though the nearest I have ever been is Puerto Rico on a stopover to Peru.

Waiting on a train - Jack Elam and Woody Strode on the railroad to nowhere

The western genre provides us with catharsis through the gunfight.  If Sophocles had had a Colt .45 he would surely have used it as a prop. If the Trojans had had Winchester rifles the Wooden Horse might have been match wood and Troy would still be thriving.  When Gary Cooper's timepiece struck noon, the ritual was about over.  Alan Ladd was too quiet for too long and soda pop was not the correct libation - bloodshed had to follow.  John Wayne's (or Jeff Bridges's) charge at the end of True Grit is a significant move towards cleaning things up..... 

In my outdoor games the adventures involved role play and fighting, and multiple killings, and left me quite calm and ready for lunch or supper (preferably beans round a camp fire.)  We went through hell at weekends in order to be ready for school on Mondays.

The "Western" in my youth was one of the most popular genres in Hollywood.  For the first fifty years of its life (it is now about 100 years old) it accounted for about one fifth of all films produced.  Some seven thousand westerns were made overall.  Many featured "Indians" and some the civil war - but most occupied themselves with the period between the end of the civil war and 1890, when the "frontier" was officially said to have disappeared. 

The plots used bank-robberies, outlaw gangs, hazardous territories, the railroads, gold-mining, ranching, and lawmen.  The best of the films, in the "A" category, featured major stars, directors and producers, and although tastes have changed, some of the finest films ever made belong to this genre.

John Wayne - Defending the right to supremacy on John Ford's Stagecoach with Chill Wills holding the reins

The "West" was not a specific location, though the drive for land, and gold, was essentially from the East coast, with its immigrants from hunger in Europe, towards the west, rather than to the cold of the north or the heat of the south. "Westerns" however range across the whole of the United States and stray down into Mexico (and even as far as Bolivia) and up into the snows of Canada and the Yukon.  Mountains and plains, rivers and canyons, forests and grasslands, all feature as the landscape became a part of the art form.  Unlike the theatre, here you could see real vistas,   hear the drumming of galloping hooves and the lowing of droves of cattle.  

Pain and Punishment - James Stewart is dragged through fire

Towns were shabby, one street places, featuring livery tables, saloons, hardware stores, barber shops, sheriff's offices, banks and sometimes a church. In the environs settlers lived on small holdings in wooden shacks or in expansive ranch houses which sometimes displayed vulgar baronial style.

Vengeance, with the Peacemaker.  A severely aggressive act, though the camera cuts as the pistol fires and you only see James Stewart's reaction.  "You scum!"

It is not surprising that men carried firearms. For those who fought in the civil war it must have been natural (my father kept well into my lifetime a lethal dagger with knuckle guard that somehow he had acquired from an American in Italy in WWII - thankfully he was never inclined to use it); for those who ran the risk of attack by bandits or aggrieved native Americans, it was pragmatic; and for those who lived off the land by hunting it was essential. Samuel Colt had developed his repeating pistol as a necessary development to counter the rapid bow and arrow fire from horseback of the Comanches. Initially the invention was a failure and he went into bankruptcy, but he was rescued by Samuel Walker in 1847 and the resulting Walker Colt was one the deadliest and most effective pieces of technology ever devised. Samuel Walker was killed by a sniper in the autumn of that year, but Sam Colt went on to improve his design, using thirty different calibres overall, and by 1874 16,000 units of the Single Action Army revolver using the .45 Colt cartridge (which was compatible with the Winchester rifle as well) had been produced.

The dying gunfighter -  Joel McCrea: Just like the old times

Gunfighters became a feature of the world. Lonely, embittered, desperate, they lived in a world which for some time had precious little law. The frontier was a land where the fittest, or quickest, survived. Sometimes the individual was cool, admirable, a stylist that others aspired to, who would eventually use his skills for the good.  

No name  The enigmatic man from nowhere

At other times the gunman was an elemental force for the bad, with virtually no redeeming features apart perhaps from a lamentable history and a savage laugh.

Lee Marvin, a real baddie

And there were the enigmatic, weird, maverick guys who populate the fringes of these films, firing almost at random. These were the dangerous ones, the ones who couldn't care. 

Robert E Lee Clayton (Marlon Brando) as Destroying Angel - in drag with a Sharps lever action falling block single shot breech loading Creedmoor rifle

Then there were the misfits, the ones who had little hope of finding themselves, or settling down, or ever developing social skills that would make them attractive enough to become family guys.

Confusion - Warren Oates wants to hurt someone in a freezing mining camp

Taken to the extreme, this is where the Wild Bunch, led by Pike Bishop, come in (though the film actually has three wild bunches: the pursued, the pursuers and the Mexicans).  The Gorch brothers and Pike and Dutch, together with young Angel, are a bunch of disreputable, failing bank-robbers. 

But the strength of their bonds and their heroic, though suicidal, final acts rise above the corrupt world they have inhabited.  Like Greek Warriors they go to their deaths with a certitude that empowers the witness.  The catharsis is ours.

The Wild Bunch (Tector, Lyle, Pike and Dutch) - Death Wishes

Sam Peckinpah, the auteur of this supreme film, did not invent screen violence, though his name is often thought to be synonymous with it. In fact the way Holly is shot by Pat Garrett is very similar (and Peckinpah acknowledges this) to the way that Shane (in Shane) dispatches the gunman Wilson. Shane's cool but rapid shot smashes Wilson back across the barroom and into a table and chair.

Slow motion death became characteristic, but only because Sam wanted us to see what would otherwise be almost subliminal. In Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid Peckinpah slows the action down but replicates the crashing fall to death in the corner. 

Artistic Licence - it's not really like this, (a) because the bullets - which leave the gun at approximately 300 metres per second - are not evident and (b) because it was impossible to fire two shots simultaneously with a single action colt.

Although there has always been violence on the silver screen (for example, Sergei Eisentein's Odessa Steps sequence in his 1925 film Battleship Potemkin) the turning point came in 1967 with Arthur Penn's Bonnie and Clyde in which rapid fire shootings were displayed with dispassionate exactness. This was so shocking to audiences that it was not uncommon to hear of faintings at the final scene. 

And nothing has ever really been the same since, even though The Wild Bunch came only two years after......

The Undertaker

Though Sam was not in it for the thrill of the bloodshed.  He was really a romanticist, recreating the West because he couldn't live it, and framing beautiful pictures along the way.

Billy the Kid - Reflecting on a lonely existence

One of the strangest scenes in his films has Pat Garrett (James Coburn) resting by a riverside tree when a family of drifters (literally) float past, with the father figure shooting at a bottle in the water. Garrett joins in; the Drifter shoots at Garrett, and Garrett draws a bead on the man, an easy target. But then he relaxes and the family drift on, into an uncertain future. The scene, cut from some versions of the film, illustrates the way guns are so much a part of the way of life, and how easily they may lead to pointless violence.

Pat Garrett casually exchanging Winchester shots with a drifter

Pat Garrett stands for many elements connected with the gunfighter. He is ageing, and so sells himself to secure some stability. This leads to his having to hunt down and kill his friend, but also leads to his being treacherously killed himself by those he trusted. At the time he kills Billy, he also shoots his own image in a mirror, attempting to erase his past and simultaneously to destroy himself as the killer of his friend. 

His insecurity is masked by his nerve. The death of Billy is an event that has been destined by the powerful and Garrett is a pawn in their game. It is that that we will feel most sympathy with, and so his violent defence of Billy's lifeless body from Poe accompanied by the words, What you want, and what you get, are two different things! echo as we understand how we are all trapped between desires and the attainment of those desires.

James Coburn, aka Pat Garrett, shoots himself in the mirror the moment after he kills Billy the Kid.  The good times are all gone

Going back to earlier days, another film that is based on real events, John Ford's My Darling Clementine, depicts the gunman as good guy. Henry Fonda stumbles into Tombstone on the trail and stays as Marshal. As a fundamentally decent chap he civilizes the town, partly by virtually eliminating the Clanton family at the OK Corral. Here the shoot out is a true purification, in Ford's version also finishing off Doc Holliday in the process. Sergio Leone, in Once Upon a Time in the West, employed Fonda as a baddie, manipulating his image as he destroys an innocent child (as in the image at the head of this piece). 

Pardon me?  Henry Fonda trying to get a peaceful shave

On the shores of Sicily, Archimedes steps out of his bath, not noticing that the water level drops. He dries himself, not noticing that his towel weighs more when he is dry. He dresses and then, with his slave Jango, he of the maimed left hand, he drives up to the theatre in Taormina. Etna puffs behind the stage like a man with a cheroot. Aegisthus guns down Agamemnon. The audience applauds. The audience feels better and leaves the theatre discussing the harvest.

At 35 too old for this world

In Delmer Davies's 1958 Cowboy, there is an interesting variant on a bullfight, in which Glenn Ford has to hook a loop over a bull's horn in a corral full of impatient cattle. I remember being at the bullring in Seville, the sun hard on the bleeding bull's shoulders. The toreador leaned forward, his embroidered belly almost touching the vicious horn, then lunged his sword down behind the shoulder, killing the animal instantly. It was primeval. The excited cry of the crowd. The smell of blood, and sweat, and animal. It could have been the Colosseum in Rome. It could have been the Oracle at Delphi. It was light against dark; symbolically good against bad staged in a bright arena.

The Good shoots the Bad (the Ugly's gun is empty)

Quentin Tarantino is the latest director to enter the ring, with his signature extremes. Django Unchained refers back to the Italian Western Django which was banned in the UK from its release in 1966 for twenty-five years. The Director Sergio Corbucci had Franco Nero dragging a coffin around which contained a machine gun. Much blood was shed.

Tarantino, famous for Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction does not stint the violence.  As Philip French writes in The Observer the film represents a transformative journey. Jamie Foxx, as the liberated slave Django, is led by an itinerant German, Dr King Schultz, on a search for his lost, humiliated wife. In a wholly unpatronising way, writes French, Schultz gives Django a sense of his own independence, channelling his anger against his exploiters but without tempering it with mercy..... Tarantino takes Schultz and Django on a physical, moral and psychological journey over a variety of evocative terrains, during which the bond between them is forged and the violence proceeds exponentially

Although the western genre is no longer in vogue, it is certainly not dead. The violence may be difficult to stomach,  but catharsis was never supposed to be easy. 

There was a movie I seen one time, I think I sat through it twice.

I don’t remember who I was or where I was bound.

All I remember about it was it starred Gregory Peck, he wore a gun and he was shot in the back.

Seems like a long time ago, long before the stars were torn down.

With grateful thanks to unknown corporations (from an amateur) for the images which are used here to promote these superb films.

Lines from Brownsville Girl written by Bob Dylan and Sam Shepard.

And thanks also to the following books:

Wensley Clarkson:  Quentin Tarantino, Shooting from the Hip

Philip French: Westerns

Jim Kitses: Horizons West

Paul Seydor: Peckinpah, the Western Films, A Reconsideration

Charles Portis: True Grit

Cormac McCarthy: The Border Trilogy

Larry McMurtry: Lonesome Dove

1 comment:

  1. You’ve taken me back once again. Nice to recall that despite being born and raised in black and white, there were episodes in colour, even if the Lone Ranger wasn’t one of them.