Watching Westerns in Old Europe

by: Patrick J. Walsh / Universität Passau

Americans are rich and they use the Western to explain why. So said one of my students in a class on the Western at the University of Passau in southern Germany. Inspired by Jane Tompkins’ wonderful book, West of Everything: The Inner Life of Westerns, I had planned to guide my students toward a consideration of American manhood. And to some extent, that happened. But at the very first meeting of the class, someone linked the word “cowboy” with President Bush and from then on the idea of American self-sanctioned violence never seemed far from the surface of our conversations.

Perhaps my students’ overwhelming dislike for the current president, and the fact that I asked them to think about what these movies suggested about the US, influenced their take on the films we watched. They seemed displeased by the Manichean logic of screen heroes like Shane and the Ringo Kid, men who were willing to kill without remorse, their vengeful, hateful violence cloaked in moral rectitude, courtesy to women and, a show of religious feeling. Both reminded my students of American politicians claiming the moral high ground as they allowed the killing of innocents in the name of “freedom.” There was also little appeal in the anti-heroes of films such as Fistful of Dollars (1964) and The Wild Bunch (1969). These men simply used violence to attain their goals, like a “classic” cowboy, but without the varnish of justification. (Watch clip: Fistful of Dollars [real player])

By far the two most popular films with my students were Mel Brooks’ Blazing Saddles (1974) and Fred Zinnemann’s High Noon (1952). Saddles appealed, I think, because in between fart jokes it looked directly at the destructive myths of the Western. High Noon was popular because its violence was truly in self-defense and, I think, because of its rejection of religion as a simple way of making moral choices. It is also a great flick: one student wrote movingly about how the tension in the film plays across Gary Cooper’s face, his body, even his hands. (Watch clip: High Noon [avi])

Despite the fact that I pleaded with them to find John Wayne cool, even replaying his walk through a herd of cattle in Red River (1948) for them so they could appreciate his amazing physical presence, I think it was the thoughtful Cooper (and, in Blazing Saddles, Cleavon Little) who really appealed to them. Given the timing of my students’ upbringing, at the end of forty-five years of national division and during the wrenching process of reintegrating the economically devastated East after 1989, it doesn’t surprise me that most prefer a variety of manhood and manly heroism quite different from those in Westerns.

Solving problems with a sanctifying burst of violence — although they have seen enough American movies to be more than familiar with the pattern — just doesn’t seem to be in my students’ cultural vocabulary. My wife and I are amused by the amount of dialogue on cop shows (and all programs) here and how rarely the detective draws his gun. A wonderful example of this is Der Kommisario, a German production based on the novels of an American, Donna Leon, who now lives in Italy. Long on conversation and short on action, Der Kommisario is, in the words of a friend, in the “firm German tradition of uneventful and relatively boring crime series.” Such deliberate shows seem more interested in the interaction and development of the characters than in the inevitable triumph of the criminal justice system.

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Westerns are not about people so much as about a people. For a century, Americans have used them as ways of explaining to themselves who they are. But, one student objected, Westerns turn history upside down, claiming that Americans had to defend themselves from hostile Indians and other forces arrayed against their innate goodness. Thus, seemingly every hero is beaten or loses his family, anything that will rationalize the coming bloodbath. (This is not limited to Westerns: think Dirty Harry, Death Wish, Die Hard, Patriot Games, and so on.)

In a surprising way, many Germans are more forward-looking than Americans. Are there such German myths? No, say my students. As an observer, it seems to me, that without national myths like the classic Western or stories of 1776, Germans have reason to see the past, present, and future in a much more whiggish manner than do Americans. The story of the Western, whether it be Stagecoach or The Wild Bunch, often looks at “American progress” with a jaundiced eye: the coming of civilization means the end of heroism, these legends tell us. The future belongs to merchants, ministers, and women. Americans must be reassured: in the debates last fall, both Bush and Kerry passionately stated their belief that America’s best days are ahead. One of our great national myths suggests otherwise, however, and my students thought it telling that the heroes of so many Westerns — like Shane, Ringo, Ethan Edwards (played by Wayne in John Ford’s The Searchers of 1956) — end up alone.

Is George Bush a cowboy, I asked? Many were convinced he carefully uses the dress and speech of this icon to his advantage. If he is the sheriff and bin Laden is the outlaw, then, given the logic of the classical Western, any violence is justified to bring the “bad guy” in. Then a student said something very interesting: to Germans, “the term ‘cowboy’ has a neutral meaning.” So does “Indian.” Germans are not invested in the historical need to valorize one and damn the other. Either can be a hero or a bloodthirsty killer. Bush tries to swing the image one way, but, despite recent fence mending, most Germans interpret his use of the rhetoric as that of the kind of cowboy who will let nothing stand between him and his goal, more like the maniacal Ethan Edwards of The Searchers than High Noon‘s sheriff Will Kane.

Most Germans are critical of the present administration as well as many aspects of American culture–what they perceive as needless violence, materialism, and environmental carelessness–in a fashion that is known here as “Amerikakritik,” a word carefully separate from anti-Americanism (“Anti-amerikanismus”). Germans are able to differentiate between a people and its government. My students did so regularly. And they are able to admire the United States even as they are critical of some of its dominant ideals. After watching a semester’s worth of Westerns, one student wrote that, “I regard the American society as a ‘Hau-drauf-Gesellschaft’ [a get-out-of-my-way society, in which] use your power, strength, elbows and violence to get what you want. In the end success will justify just about everything.” Even so, my students told me that they love American culture, like Americans, and do not define themselves in opposition to the US. Yet in times like these many Germans feel it’s clear that the American Dream “needs more than elbows.”

Image Credits:

Western Films

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