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.
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.”
Please feel free to comment.
Walsh’s classroom ethnography of the Western through the eyes of “old Europeans”is a creative questioning of that genre. The Western is as old as the history ofthe U.S. Walsh’s students recognize the Western as the quintessential US genreclosely related to its foundational mythology, themes, experience and identity. They equally recognize the full return ofwestern mythology in the saga of the war on terror. These Germans”Amerikakritiks” ,however, make clear their preference for “the stablemasculinity” of “old Europeans” rather than the “tough masculinity” of theWestern which perpetually encourages and condones violence. Needless to addthat the jury is still out on this issue.
It is interesting hearing the German interpretation of what Americans may take for granted as a part of the history of their country. Although the depiction of the “cowboy” and its representation in Westerns can be seen as false, the ideals surrounding the concept of the cowboy has shaped American culture. When asked to think of the term cowboy, many Americans, including myself, associate the term with “manly” or the stereotypical man. The first person I think of when I hear the term cowboy is John Wayne. Most of the time, Americans think of the cowboy as tough, protective, and will usually associate him with a hero. It is interesting that the students found Blazing Saddles and High Noon more appealing due to the violence issues and its dealings with religion. It seems as though the characters are portrayed more realistically as well. When thinking of the typical Western depicted cowboy, I find that I visualize a shallow personified character. The cowboy uses violence at his own will and tries to put too much seriousness in trying to make the American myth believable. It is also interesting that the students linked the term “cowboy” with President Bush. I had not thought about this before, and after thinking about the comment, I agreed that President Bush could be depicted as a modern cowboy, even stereotypically. For starters, President Bush is a native Texan and has a southern accent. The way he presents himself also seems more laid back and casual than those from America’s eastern coast. In addition to his appearance, President Bush is also the owner of a ranch in Texas. Because of this, President Bush could definitely be portrayed as a cowboy. One could also go further to say that his use of violence, whether necessary or unnecessary, would be against bin Laden and the Iraqis. It can then be seen that President Bush more or less is a representation of a modern cowboy. Therefore, the cowboy is a part of American culture and past. Although the Western plays this role out through myths, the role of the cowboy as a real person can be seen as admirable. This “real cowboy” is what can be linked to the American Dream instead of the Western depicted cowboy. Although the world may only see the cowboy depicted in Westerns, they should take this image of American culture and understand that it is exaggerated for entertainment through myths.
It was once suggested to me that the cowboy of Westerns was America’s equivalent of a samurai. I was initially skeptical but eventually came to agree. The classic Western battle is one on one, as are traditionally depicted samurai duels. No one tries to get the drop on the other; it is a test of pure skill and speed. I think the Western hero serves both as an American icon and as a paradigm for an ‘honorable warrior.’ As Walsh touches on, it seems that the need to have this warrior icon may be absent in German culture. Their heros are much much more cerebral and thoughtful. I think this tradition of conflicts and challenges of the mind can be seen running back to the Expressionist movement in German film. Worth mentioning I think, is that while these students use the Western as a framework for criticizing American mentality, there is a substantial body of achievement in the genre that is not of American origin. There are the ‘spaghetti westerns,’ directed by Sergio Leone and others. Even in Germany the author Karl May was hugely successful with Western novels, many of which were adapted to film.
When the west was being “won”, the idea of manifest destiny was prevalent in American society. The western movie can be seen as a way to justify the American seizing of the frontier. Westerns do, in fact, turn history upside down but it is to justify the actions of our forefathers in a new moral paradigm– they killed Indians and took their land because the Indians were brutal savages. I have heard it said that Americans as a people suffer from “frontier syndrome”; that is, our ancestors had the outlet of the frontier. If things were going wrong, they could always pack up and move out west where they were not known and could not be found. When the frontier was officially declared closed in the mid 1800s that outlet was taken away and Americans had to stay in “civilization” and face their problems. In my opinion that whole theory is subject to many questions, but I think that Westerns could be seen as an outlet for this feeling of entrapment– the Western hero is always someone who is a loner, outside of the civilized world but not quite in the uncivilized one. He fights for civilization but does not join it. He is a very attractive figure to Americans not because the depiction is necessarily accurate but because we share that feeling of being inbetween two worlds in our collective consciousness.
I think this is a very interesting article to read, contemplating how the images of the West and the Western hero are perceived. However, I personally have a much different feel about it. The Western film and the Western genre seems very imbedded as the typical American film and story. It is the only genre safe to say belongs exclusively to the United States. It is our story. It is our message. It came out of our experience, one that no other culture can understand but can only imitate. The Western movie and TV show is littered with macho men and cowboys, but they are not all the same. The driving force behind them all is justice. Whether one wants to admit it or not, regardless of all the talk of “equality” and “tolerance,” there is still an inate desire inside every human being to see justice accomplished. That is how life works. Touch a stove, get burned. As Americans, we do and always have relished in seeing the Western hero. The fact that they differ is what makes the genre even more intriguing. We are not always witness to the same thing. In one movie, our hero has a hidden past that he must try to figure out. In another movie, our hero has a troubled past that he must face and overcome. In another movie, our innocent hero comes face to face with reality. Yet in all of these stories justice is a central issue. Corruption and wrongdoing has occurred, and we want, no matter what anyone says, we really WANT to see justice win out. So is George Bush a cowboy? Absolutely. But I would argue that almost every male American has an eagerness within them to be a cowboy, as well. All of our fears seem melted away by the horizon and the setting sun. We want to ride the horse across the plains, we want to win the girl, and we want to enforce justice. It can be denied over and over again, but it is an inate feature within human nature…not just American nature. We are built wild at heart. And we are built to desire things made right. Time certainly has altered some of our presuppositions and opinions on what exactly happened in the conquering of the West and whether it was fair or not. Yet the point remains the same, the Western story is a very American story, and draws out the human features and desires within us to throw them against a large canvas of the West.
Walsh very aptly states that, “Westerns are not about people so much as about a people.” Quite true, Americans do use westerns and the ideal rugged hero as a way to define themselves. The trouble is that we don’t know any better. We see this myth as a positive view; after all we are talking about heroes. It is apparent through the eyes of these German students that not all people see our great Western ideals in the same view. Others don’t see a hero; they see a violent, quick-tempered man with a gun. Perhaps that’s what Americans have become, but we just don’t see it from behind the grip end of the pistol. Our current President has tried to invoke this image of a cowboy. He wants to be the western hero that the Americans know about. The trouble is that to the rest of the world he is not that hero, just the man with the big gun. And lets face it, America has the biggest gun there is compared to the rest of the world. As one of the German students pointed out, the great flaw of the western myth is that the hero ends up alone. This is sad indeed, but currently the U.S. is headed on that path. President Bush certainly hasn’t done much to help us gain any allies. At his current rate we won’t just end up alone, we’ll spend that last half of our existence that way. This is just not right, ending up alone does not sound like a good thing; it sounds more like the kiss of death. Perhaps our great myth needs some work. The western provides some wonderful fiction and great stories. It helps us to look into a view of our past, but it is quite possibly out dated. Perhaps it’s no longer the great American Dream, but the great American Delusion.
I find it interesting that students in southern Germany identify President Bush with the traditional American cowboy. Why shouldn’t they? Like Ethan Edwards, he chooses a path, presumably a path set against “evil,” and stays the course no matter what moral dilemmas arise on the horizon. In traditional westerns the protagonist almost always combats an inherently evil foe. No grey area exists, the conflict unfolds between clear cut manifestations of right and wrong, good and bad, just and unjust. In the real world, however, grey areas do exist. Like every other American war, our soldiers fight against men with families, values, ethics, and cultural perspectives as strong as our own. Whether the President’s decision to invade Iraq is right or wrong, I don’t know, but like the German students, I believe the problem lies in his approach to the war and America’s position in the war in general. In traditional westerns, the hero bravely perseveres against hostile savages, the wilderness, and downright evil men. In Red River for instance, John Wayne never thinks twice about gunning down the Native Americans. As an American he believes he has every right to move west and claim the land for himself. President Bush isn’t John Wayne, the lines aren’t clear cut, the good guy can’t just shoot the bad guy down, and the Middle East certainly is not the American west.
As I read Patrick Walsh’s article, I found it intriguing how that student linked “cowboy” to President Bush. The correlation of the “cowboy’s” masuline characteristics and rugged features fit Bush’s image. Bush’s claim of moral high ground as a way to kill in the name of “freedom” parallels the cowboy’s violent way of justice. His look, actions, and speech is “cowboyish.” Needless to say more that Bush is practically the modern day stereotypical classical “cowboy.” His speeches might as well start with, “shoot first and ask questions later.” Bush could practically star in a film such as Stagecoach and shoot down Indians all around him for not having the same political ideals or hunt down “the bad” in dark and random places in Sergio Leone’s The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly. Bush could ride alone as the members of the “Magnificent U.N.” drop out as he resolves his problems with vengence. No doubt that Bush is this classical cowboy who is running around with his six shooter and doing justice because we are supposely the “World Police.”Although, that seems like a cliche/stereotype to think all cowboys are violent that way. In Walsh’s article, the students response to their popular western was Blazing Saddles and High Noon. (I would add The Frisco Kid and Butchcassidy and the Sundance Kid.) The cowboys in these western films had other means of resolving their problem and other justifications for violence. As stated in the article, “the violence in High Noon was in self-defense.” Cleavon Little in Blazing Saddles pretty much out wits the bad guys in falling into their own traps. In the end, the classic cowboy is nothing less than a stock character. A hero triumphing over evil. We all like our main character to resolve the conflict with action and look masucline because it’s “bad ass.” The idea of trampling over evil with little good intensions and minimal restrictions to morality. It’s very much like you Punisher in Marvel comics or Batman in DC.
As a fan of many Westerns and not as objective aesthetes, like the German students approach the genre (not intended as criticism), I find Westerns somehow, despite the minimally varied landscapes, stock characters and plots, endlessly entertaining even if they’re bad. That’s one point this professor didn’t fully acknowledge — if the students found the films entertaining, regardless of their stance on representation/moral codes. It shouldn’t go unnoticed that you can hate shoot-em-ups without being bored by them (this transcends genre, as the professor pointed out); my guess is that his comment at the end about the students liking America and Americans betrays that unsaid thought a little bit. While I’m not surprised that European college students vehemently protest our current administration (whether or not Bush is a “cowboy” is, I think, answerable but beyond the scope of this article) as I do, their favorite Westerns and disliked ones also don’t surprise me. “Blazing Saddles” and “High Noon”, perhaps more thrilling entertainments than the others mentioned (that is arguable), seem to capture an immediately accessible but not blind moralism that is quite roundly appealing; I would also argue that Peckinpah’s “The Wild Bunch” and Ford’s later work like “The Searchers” use weary, hopeless, flawed heroes to probe the depths of and subvert past heroes who did no wrong. In the case of Ford’s “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance” and “The Wild Bunch”, copious violence is used to question and exacerbate bloodbaths in Westerns, not to simply exist for their own gruesome sake. I say this not to change their minds but to hope that whoever reads the article doesn’t take their assessment for enlightened gospel and avoid those equally great but less obvious Westerns that deserve exposure.
Westerns have become a staple on American society of how heroism and violence prevail as long as the moral victory is won in the end. This ideal is true of many early westerns but I find that in more recent years westerns have been portrayed in thier true colors, and thus could give a better example of how American society was defined. Clint Eastwoods character in Unforgiven was a character that tried to stay away from the pity side of the audience as it tried to make no glory out of any of the characters, whether they were defined ‘good’ or ‘bad’. I discuss this for the simple reason to say that Americans have turned around since the early 60’s and i believe have a different moral conduct as well as clear definition of character than earlier before. John Wayne, although a great physical on screen force, is fading from younger view as characters that clearly give lines between good and evil began to take hold in recent memory. I began to wonder how many films the germans have watched that over glamourize violence and great a falsified hollywood sense of the old west, example Young Guns saga, compared to the films were the moral problems are faced and most of the time the main character meets with an ultimate demise to end their reign on earth, like John Wayne in the shootist. I believe simply that Americans have gained the ability more recently to understand the truth behind the glamorized screen setting and can give a more valued face on the utter rawness of a situation, more than layering them with multiple levels of hollywood.
America is a Working Girl
It seems that there are many cultures who both idealize the warrior and have a history steeped in violence. A time before European civilization is farther in the past yet there are plenty of European ‘rough’ heros such as the Vikings and the Celtics, who may not be heros to the whole of Europe, but probably are to the individual cultures that spawned them. I think the idea is less that America is a society that tends to glorify its heros and animalize its enemies, and more that a time when America did this is simply more recent in our history. I found Walsh’s statement that American movies and ‘elbow shoving’ culture are hated, yet at the same time American culture is still liked to be ambiguous. I’d like a more specific answer to what his students liked about American culture. I have to wonder is it like Cameron says, American culture is a sort of guilty pleasure for Germans (as it is for many Americans)? And what part of our culture; simply media, or the ideals of the Constitution, our cut-throat business competition? American culture is widely ridiculed, and yet our tv and films are so popular around the world. I guess this makes America somewhat of a whore; everyone will take a piece of us but we’ll never have their respect. The book America Divided talks about the fear that Americans will not be able to empathize with poverty because most Americans have never experienced an empty stomach, leading to a kind of moral superficiality. I think the uniqueness of our situation is not our bloody past, but more the lack of a broader vision of the future.
Masculinity and cool
I think Walsh raised a really interesting point here with his comment that his students found Cooper and Little to be much cooler heroes than John Wayne, one of our historical stereotypical “tough guy” male heroes. We Americans should call into question more often exactly WHY we so widely consider heroes like the characters Wayne frequently plays in the western to be “heroes”. Are we really more accepting of men who resort to violence to solve their problems than people in other nations might be? Perhaps our national liking for such characters stems directly from their iconography that has been so coded into our minds. The German students Walsh discusses, as well as people in many other foreign countries, have not always grown up with the same images coded into their media. We as Americans have grown to see violent, tough-guy heroes as “cool” simply because we are exposed to them SO often in the media as protagonists and men who “get the job done”–whereas media consumers in other countries have not been programmed in such a way to look positively on these characters (not that they have necessarily been fed images of these characters as being bad people, though). So, whereas an American who is first introduced to the hero of a violent Western immediately thinks “Well he’s the protagonist so he’s gonna kick bad guy ass and save the day, how noble”, students like Walsh’s go into the film with less of a coded predisposition of Western character types. Thus, they may judge the different kind of heroes solely by the moral values they exude in the realm of their individual films.
I am not surprised in the least that the “classic” Western did not translate well with German college students; I speak from personal experience when I say that the classic western probably doesn’t translate very well with American college students these days, at least compared to ten or twenty years ago. I think they picked “Blazing Saddles” and “High Noon” because those two films are two of very few westerns that challenge the classic western mythology, rather than abiding by the same predictable conventions. I am surprised that they didn’t react more strongly towards “The Wild Bunch”;They most likely abhorred its violence, but the film might be the only Western to analyze the genre’s over usage of violence by exaggerating it to the point where it became distorted and satirical. The violence is offensive and its supposed to be, unlike in most westerns. That having been said, I think the western is a played out genre with tired values and ideals that can no longer connect with our generation, regardless of who is President.
Because I Say So
One line in particular struck me from this article:
“I pleaded with them to find John Wayne cool…”
I’ve had a discussion about Wayne’s “cool factor” before with my roommate. He had grown up watching John Wayne movies as a child. His father loved them, and they watched them on VHS together over and over. For him, the likes of THE ALAMO, FORT APACHE, and STAGECOACH were part of the iconography of his youth. I, on the other hand, had never seen a John Wayne western until I was about 15. And even then, I didn’t see the appeal. To me, John Wayne was a massive bucket of testosterone that had been left out in the sun too long and had spoiled.
So, I asked my roommate, “What makes John Wayne cool?”
His answer was a telling one: “The fact that he’s John Wayne.”
It’s cool because it’s cool. He might as well have said “Because I say so.” And you just need someone to tell you, and you too will see that he’s cool. Whether that telling comes in the form of growing up with your father watching him, or in the form of a teacher ‘pleading’ with his class. Loving John Wayne isn’t something that just comes natural. It has to be taught.
This is not to say that I find the “western hero” uncool. Clint Eastwood. Now there’s a badass. Take FISTFUL OF DOLLARS, his first leading role. He’s a wandering stranger in a dark pancho with a sun-worn face and the smoldering stub of a hand-rolled cigar clenched in his teeth. He rides into town with no intention of staying. That is, until he learns that there is trouble afoot. And then he makes it his goal to restore peace to this town. Justice is his motive. Even– nay, especially– if it means bad guys have to die.
Nobody has to tell you he’s cool. It is written all over him. Whereas, if you were uneducated about how cool John Wayne is, you might see one of his movies for the first time and be dumbfounded by the fact that you’re supposed to root for the mildly overweight guy who walks really slow and has an insufferable (and, I might mention, non-Western) drawl.
Granted, debating the cool factor of John Wayne versus Clint Eastwood may not be the most scholarly thing in the world. But the implications are pretty far-reaching.
Let’s take gender issues. MCCLINTOCK will be our case in point. A movie– a comedy no less– about a man attempting to exert physical control over his wife, described by one user on IMDB as “Possibly the best film the Duke ever did,” (I should mention at this point that I have never referred to the man as “Duke,” though I have called him by his birthname, Marion). Granted, the movie was made before the Women’s movement of the 1960’s, but even still, it borders on appalling. And yet, somehow, watching the movie, we let it slide somewhat. Perhaps because with John Wayne comes this stigma of “Because I say so,” we tolerate this movie about him physically assaulting his wife. But can you imagine Clint Eastwood in the lead of this picture? Eastwood’s character would hold a magnum to a man’s head and ask the punk if he feels lucky, but a comedy about him abusing a woman seems almost as ludicrous as Arnold Schwarzenegger becoming the governor of a state.
That particularly weak segue brings me to how this idea of “Because I say so” does play into politics. Especially (dare I say it at the risk of over-politicizing this comment? oh, alright) right-wing politics. Arnold Scharzenegger, like Ronald Reagan and John Wayne before him, was the star of many a “cool because I say so” action movie. Why do we believe in TRUE LIES that the guy with the thick eastern-European accent is a CIA agent working against, not for, the Soviets? Because we know that he’s Arnold. But if we didn’t know who Arnold Schwarzenegger was, we’d probably wish the producers had sprung for a dialect coach. Or another actor. But why do we accept him in the role? For the same reason we let the actor who played McClintock beat up his wife. Because he is who he is.
And on the matter of Ronald Reagan:
Reagan: “We can spend as much money as we want because deficits don’t matter.”
American People: “Well, that doesn’t make sense, how does that work?”
Reagan: “Because I say so.”
American People: “Yes Sir!”
And what, besides the “Because I say so”-factor do Ronald Reagan, Arnold Schwarzenegger, and John Wayne have in common?
They’re all Republicans.
So, interestingly enough, is my roommate.
Perhaps I’ve overstepped my bounds here. Perhaps it is a bit of an overstatement to suggest that the same sort of machismo that made John Wayne a star is something that draws voters to the right side of the spectrum. But maybe, just maybe, there’s a reason these German students called George W. Bush a “Cowboy.” And maybe there’s a reason they did it with such disdain.