There was once a time when the western occupied the dominant position in American film production, with one in five films made between the 1910s and the 1960s defined not only by their historical and geographical setting, but also by quickly established narrative and thematic archetypes that whilst variably mutable, adhered to a cinematic vocabulary laid down by the original screen myth-makers of the west. This purposeful transmutability of storytelling within the genre was something that pre-dated even the experiments of Thomas Edison and Edwin S. Porter, whose Great Train Robbery (1903) created perhaps the first instance of western screen iconography, and can be traced so far back as to become almost contemporary with the historical events themselves. With their ‘Wild West’ revue show running alongside their appearances in hundreds of popular dime novels in the late 1860s, the likes of ‘Wild’ Bill Hickok and ‘Buffalo’ Bill Cody engaged in historical revisionism from the outset. Legends were made and broken and the West soon became the setting for a uniquely American genesis story, one painted solely in black and white, where a man was defined according to either his trade or his virtuosity with a gun.
If America laid claim to cinema as its most prolific and productive art form (and industry) from its inception, then the western as a genre is certainly the most illuminating example of how a nation chooses to define itself through retrospection. The writing, re-writing, erasing and revising of history on screen, from both a narrative and sociological perspective, is essentially unique to the genre. The horror genre (in the broadest sense) may offer up a telling subtext to reflect the time in which it was made, where a fear of the unknown may hold up a mirror to larger societal anxieties, but not to the same degree as the western, which possesses an unmatched proteanism reflective of both the time in which it was made and its attitude towards the past. If you follow the treatment of the Native American on screen as an example, it’s easy to draw parallels to socio-political attitudes contemporary to the film’s production, running the gamut of fear and overt racism in its early years to the later apologist and reconstructionist phase that took root later.
With so many films being made within the genre, it was inevitable that the western would one day come to eat itself. The same thing happened with horror cinema, when archetypes come to be seen as stereotypes, it’s a short road to parody, usually by way of a little deconstructive postmodernism. Horror travelled from Halloween (1978) to Scary Movie (2000) via Scream (1996), and the western from My Darling Clementine (1946) to Blazing Saddles (1974) via Johnny Guitar (1954). I’m not suggesting that these particular films are the singular titles which caused specific shifts, but they’re typical of the attitudes to their respective forms at those given moments. So where does genre go once it’s been through the parodic wringer? It would certainly be tough to sit through Shane (1953) with an entirely straight face if it were playing at the tail end of a double-bill with Blazing Saddles or Son of Paleface (1952). The simple answer would be that it takes a break, staying away from the cinema until a sense of nostalgia for the way things were is strong enough to make a comeback to popularity and profitability. If Sam Peckinpah showed us the West in its final death rattle with Pat Garrett & Billy The Kid (1973) and Michael Cimino essentially arranged its funeral with Heaven’s Gate (1980), it really was twelve long years before the man-with-no-name climbed back into the directorial saddle to give us Unforgiven (1992), which successfully re-imagined the traditional stylings of John Ford and Anthony Mann whilst simultaneously placing the genre in a strong enough position for a new generation of filmmakers to take us into the sunset.
This neo-traditionalism is typical of the current trickle of westerns emerging from Hollywood in recent years, seemingly less interested in social allegory or metaphor than the opportunity to pay respect to the formal classicism and inherently dramatic narrative archetypes which made the careers of the leading proponents of the genre. Of course, concessions still need to be made to an audience less willing to buy the all-American heroism of the western icons of the 30s and 40s (much in the same way that they’re less willing to pay to see Tom Cruise movies), so our western heroes of today need to be conflicted, troubled anti-heroes who succeed in spite of their supposed limitations.
Anti-heroes like Rooster Cogburn. A fat, cantankerous, unlikely hero as played by Jeff Bridges in the Coen Brothers’ True Grit, it’s the role which originally won John Wayne his sole best actor Oscar in 1969 for Henry Hathaway’s adaptation of the novel by Charles Portis. One can easily see the attraction for all concerned both then and now. Portis’ lean, muscular storytelling and idiomatic prose serves up a straightforward revenge yarn and a dastardly villain, but also that rare thing in the western film, a leading female character in the shape of Mattie Ross. Women in western narratives tended to be positioned as archaic variants of either mother or whore, but Mattie refuses to conform to any predestined notion of type, representing a subversion of gender identity that outwits most of whom she comes into contact with. Whether it be in the sale of her dead father’s horses or when confronting his killer, their pre-conceived ideas of how she will act/behave lead quickly to the undoing of both of them. Hailee Steinfeld’s portrayal is a thing of wonder, her sparring with Bridges and Damon belie her fourteen years, exhibiting a determination of purpose that quickly erases any memory of the precociously Disney-fied Kim Darby from the earlier adaptation.
Bridges wears Rooster’s boots well, inhabiting the drunken old bear of a marshall mostly on the right side of caricature. He’s an infinitely better actor than Wayne ever was, whose limited approach to character extended to merely external business, whilst Bridges’ Cogburn feels suitably lived-in, even if occasionally unintelligible. There’s an obvious respect for Portis’ source material, with much of the tone and flavour of the film coming from the particular stylings of the dialogue. Only a couple of moments in the narrative are additions by the Coens themselves (a body strung up high in a tree and the double-take of a horse seemingly ridden by a bear) and whilst not entirely incongruous, they do feel like an attempt to wrangle some kind of identity of their own from the film, to mark it with a suitably idiosyncratic ‘Coen moment’. In fact, even though they re-establish Portis’ original post-script to the narrative (absent from Hathaway’s film), there’s little here to surprise anybody familiar with the earlier incarnation. It’s handsomely made (someone just give Roger Deakins an Oscar already! 12 noms, no wins!), acted and scored, but somehow misses that intangible quality that makes the best of the Coens’ work resonate so much deeper (i.e. Fargo, Barton Fink, No Country For Old Men and A Serious Man), but here more engaged with replicating a desired tone or mood than anything else, a factor which has let the brothers down in the past (Ladykillers, O Brother Where Art Thou, Intolerable Cruelty and to a degree even Miller’s Crossing) and one they only completely got away with (and rather brilliantly) with Blood Simple. Their other quasi-western elegy, No Country For Old Men (2008) may have been their take on McCarthy via Peckinpah, but it also had a distinctly individual stamp of authorship, whilst True Grit, for all it’s John Ford framing references through doorways and mine-shafts, lacks the identity of the former, and comes nowhere near touching the individual beauty of my favourite recent westerns, Jim Jarmusch’s Dead Man (1995) and Kelly Reichardt’s exquisite Meek’s Cutoff (2011), both proof that the modern western needn't always look to the past for inspiration.
True Grit – 2010 – USA – 110 mins – Dir : Joel Coen & Ethan Coen