On my fifth birthday, which I celebrated in Washington, DC, where I spent part of my childhood, I received a cowboy outfit, which gave me so much pleasure that I can still remember its every fashion detail. There was a tasselled tan waistcoat, a shining sheriff’s star, a brown and white holster and a golden, long-barrelled gun. There was also an extravagant, wide-brimmed hat, half a pint passing for ten gallons, which I refused to take off for the entire day.
Younger readers may be surprised to know that I also received a second world war flak jacket, a scaled-down section of the Pacific fleet with detachable torpedoes, and a handful of grenades. I was a one-boy arsenal for the day. But these were different times. It was 1963, months before the JFK assassination, and there was a commonly shared moral clarity about the link between bearing arms, and the benign results of firing them. Guns were for good guys. It was the way they established order, brought civilisation to hitherto savage parts, vanquished wrongdoers. It was the American myth. And nothing suited the myth better than the western movie, where reluctantly violent heroes wrought havoc to bring harmony, and those beautiful cowboy outfits.
Though I might have dreamt of such a thing, I could not have known that, a decade-and-a-half later, I would nearly be in a western. Not any western, but the western that brought westerns to an end. A student at Oxford, I had heard that Michael Cimino was shooting some scenes for his new film in the university grounds and rushed to volunteer as an extra. Cimino was riding high on the success of The Deer Hunter (1978), and word on the gilded streets was that he was now making a western. He had wanted to shoot a scene at Harvard but was refused permission, so naturally he flew cast, crew and creative juices to Oxford, which, even as a student, struck me as extravagant.
I missed the audition for immortal extrahood (long story) but my accounting instincts proved spot on. Heaven’s Gate (1980) became the most notorious financial disaster in cinema history, bringing down a studio, Cimino’s reputation, the very principle of directorial authorship, and the most resilient cinematic genre in Hollywood’s history. Westerns died in the wake of Heaven’s Gate. Although the film has been critically rehabilitated, I can barely watch it, firstly for its eerily apposite elegiac tone, and secondly for the surreal spottings of my former college mates (at least one is now a banker) in the film’s majestic opening sequence.
Every so often, the western tries to make a comeback. This week sees the UK opening of Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained, a western set in the antebellum south, that is as far from Cimino’s solemn work as one can imagine. Slick, saucy and ultra-violent, Django Unchained is a jangle of trademark Tarantino touches, mashing up Wagnerian love story, bloody revenge fable, and a morality tale on the evils of slavery.
Django’s eponymous hero, played by Jamie Foxx, is given his freedom by a well-intentioned bounty hunter in return for helping him stalk his prey. Django lives out a fantasy life, riding into southern plantations, confronting white racist landowners, outquipping them, outgunning them. “I wanted to give black American males a western hero, a cool, folkloric hero who could actually be empowering,” said Tarantino in a Channel 4 News interview last week, moments before he appeared (remember: all is style with Tarantino) to lose his temper with his interviewer, Krishnan Guru-Murthy, who kept pressing him on why he thought there was no link between real and cinematic violence. (The exchange has become a YouTube hit, and is almost certainly the first time a Channel 4 News presenter has been told: “I am shutting your butt down!”)
There is a scene in Django that helps us understand why westerns no longer have any traction in contemporary culture. A Ku Klux Klan mob is out to capture Django and his German-born patron Dr King Schultz (Christoph Waltz). Tarantino gives the scene a terrifying splendour and plays the “Dies Irae” from Verdi’s Requiem for added effect. It could, at a pinch, be taken from a classic John Ford film. But then one of the mob’s number complains that he can’t see out of his hood’s eye-holes. Some of his fellow Klansmen agree with him; others don’t. The scene is played entirely for laughs, Tarantino at his most knowing, and his most irritating.
This is not how westerns were meant to be. Westerns were the mythological touchstone of American values. They were not to be played for laughs. The moral dilemmas of stiff-backed loners in haunted landscapes were the stories that helped define a young nation that was at once super-confident and existentially uncertain. Gary Cooper’s marshal in High Noon, Alan Ladd’s Shane: these were the world-weary gunfighters who symbolised the long and lonesome struggle to bring order to chaos.
The country debated with itself in those grand canyons and dusty saloon bars. “American westerns have simple but eloquent stories; America is a simple but eloquent nation,” said the comedian Rich Hall in his perceptive 2008 BBC documentary How the West was Lost.
American mythology was forged in the early part of the 20th century, in the overlapping years between the final days of the Wild West and the beginnings of Hollywood. Some of the west’s most fabled characters realised that the overlap could be fruitful: the famous lawman and Nietzsche-lookalike Wyatt Earp was a deft handler of his own public relations, while Buffalo Bill’s stage show, which the bison-hunting showman took to London and Paris in the 1880s, was an object lesson in how to dramatise the life of a cowboy, and an inspiration for early film-makers, whose uncomplicated take on subjects such as the Great Train Robbery found mass appeal.
It is both a boon and a curse for American civilisation to be the only one mythologised in modern popular culture. In a fledgling nation, this art form immediately resonated with a public anxious to establish an ethical code. The frontier: beautiful metaphor, scary place. America needed its heroes to be better, and badder, than the baddest guys in town. It needed expert gunslingers to persuade people that their future prosperity should not depend on guns. In that respect, the cowboy was a self-destructive hero, which doubly ennobled him.
But the symbiosis between America and its fables also posed a problem. Westerns lacked the gravitas of the centuries-old mythologies. The Greeks don’t mess about with Aeschylus. The words of Confucius continue to weigh heavily on the Chinese. But westerns, like all great popular art forms, swayed with the times. They were malleable, able to reflect subtle changes in social attitudes. The taciturn heroes of the 1930s turned into the light-hearted rebels of the 1970s’ Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid and then the redemption-seeking outlaw of Clint Eastwood’s Unforgiven. Westerns found themselves unable to remain constant in their moral viewpoints.
Around the time that I was waving my golden gun around the house, the western had already begun to mutate into something more than a simple morality tale. In Ford’s The Searchers, released in 1956 and still present in the lists of all-time greats, John Wayne played an ill-tempered racist with designs on his brother’s wife. In the early 1960s, Hud (1963) and The Misfits (1961) delved into the dark side of cowboy culture in their deconstruction of cowboy heroism.
The growing sophistication of the western did not go unnoticed among cinephiles, particularly those based in Europe. French intellectuals, easily seduced by girls and guns, became the western’s most eloquent supporters. “The evaluation of a western shares something in common with wine-tasting,” wrote the film critic André Bazin, sounding like a parody, in the New Wave journal Cahiers du Cinéma in 1956. “The wine-lover alone can discern the body and the bouquet, the alcohol content and the fruitiness, and all these nuances intermingled, where the uninitiated can only make a rough guess at whether it is a Burgundy or a Bordeaux.”
The snobbery was breathtaking: old Europe asserting its special insight into assessing the new nation’s growing pains. But the western was faced with a dilemma: it could adapt with the fast-changing times, but lose its vernacular appeal and visceral potency; or it could keep telling the same old story. Mel Brooks’s satirical Blazing Saddles (1974) hinted that the story was getting a little ridiculous; and Heaven’s Gate showed what could happen in the rarefied air of high art: nobody came to see your film.
It is in this chilly limbo that Tarantino places his new film. Of course he tries to have it all ways: to raise important social history issues, such as slavery, that remain scandalously under-debated; but also to revel in the post-western jokes that seek our acknowledgment that the genre is as barren as its remote landscapes.
The spat with Guru-Murthy did not come out of a vacuum. Last month the Hollywood premiere of Django Unchained was postponed out of respect for the shootings at Sandy Hook school, which killed 26 people. Here was some kind of link between cowboy violence and real violence: a recognition, at least, that sprays of cinematic blood are not what people want to see when true blood has been shed.
But the nature of that link, which Tarantino so vehemently refused to address, is part of the story of the western today. Is it OK to celebrate the triumph of gun law, even when it asserts itself on the side of goodness? It is said that George W Bush’s favourite film is High Noon, the ultimate a man’s-got-to-do-what-a-man’s-got-to-do parable. Should it concern us when his foreign policy statements seemed to be lifted from that powerful but simplistic movie’s screenplay?
The US has spent a tortured century reassessing its views on native Americans, African Americans, gun crime, slavery, sexism and racism. The original westerns – The Great Train Robbery, Jesse James – which did not consider any of those areas to be problematic, gradually transformed into something that helped shape a nation’s conscience. That was to their credit. But they have been overtaken by events. They are little more than a memory bank of images now, telling the story of that century with urgency and lyricism. None more poignant than John Wayne, holding up the Comanche-raised Natalie Wood at the end of The Searchers, whom he has vowed to kill, but finally decides to carry away from the guns, into the safe embrace of a peaceful home.
Peter Aspden is the FT’s arts writer