The Decline of the Western

Wednesday, February 1st, 2017

Molly Brigid Flynn laments the decline of the Western, as she contrasts the original Magnificent Seven against the recent remake:

In the original Magnificent Seven, a Mexican village beset by bandits cannot count on the absentee rurales (mounted police). The Old Man advises the farmers to buy guns north of the border — “guns are plentiful there” — but they buy gunmen instead. The seven hired loners lead the village’s defense against Calvera (Eli Wallach) and his gang. The film displays the superiority of the quietly industrious village over the Old West town. Yet, the farmers’ settled, communal life requires defense by unsettled, strong individuals, naturally drawn to other goods.

In an early scene, a traveling salesman (ladies’ corsets) passing through the Old West town does “what any decent man would” — pays the coroner after watching people step over the corpse of Old Sam in the street. But some townsmen object to the Indian’s burial in the potters’ field filled with white murderers and robbers. “How long has this been going on?” the salesman asks. “Since the town got civilized,” the coroner responds, apologetically.

“I don’t like it,” he adds. “I’ve always treated every man the same — just as another future customer.” The mixed blessings of capitalism, encapsulated in a sentence. Whether from decency or morbid self-interest, the two businessmen rise above bigotry, but still need tough guys Chris (Yul Brynner) and Vin (Steve McQueen), who volunteer to drive the hearse past the shotguns. This one scene in the old movie packs more thought about commerce and civilization than the new movie’s entire 133 minutes.

In their youthful independence, Chris and Vin’s main objection to civilization is that it’s boring. But once their gang arrives to defend the village, the quiet life becomes charming, admirable, worth defending. The American individualists gradually appreciate its wholesome excellence. Like midlife, civilization has its goods — but so do youth and independence. Superior in one way, inferior in another, Chris and Vin ride off after saving the village, while Chico — in love — stays for the long haul of settled life.

Erasing these reflections on capitalism and civilization, community and character, Antoine Fuqua’s new Magnificent Seven hunts smaller game.

The new movie only superficially displays a contemporary liberalism. Much has been made of its ostentatiously diverse seven, “a rainbow coalition.” An African American leads the team, which includes a Native American, a Mexican, an Asian American, and a minority of white guys (all three die). As Anthony Lane comments in The New Yorker, “It was difficult to ignore the patronizing tone of Sturgis’ tale, in which helpless Mexican villagers in white blouses are saved and blessed by the intervention of American tough guys, so the new version is wise to recruit a Latino gunslinger to the front line.”

Here Lane betrays a common prejudice against midcentury America. In Sturges’ film, Chico is Mexican, “from a village just like that one,” and Bernardo half-Mexican, even though the actors playing Chico and Bernardo (Horst Buchholz and Charles Bronson) were not. Also, in Sturges’ version the problem was not that Mexicans cannot be “tough guys.” The trouble was that the wrong people were tough. Westerns often emphasize the fact — a truth across ethnicities and a difficulty for all civilizations — that good people are less likely to be good fighters. Worse still, lost on Lane and director Fuqua is that the 1960 film asserts the Mexican village’s superiority over the American town.


  1. Redan says:

    “Much has been made of its ostentatiously diverse seven…”

    Which one is the homosexual?

    Is there a kickass grrrl character?

  2. Graham says:

    Further reinforcement of the deep truth that the culture of our age is both created and critiqued by half-wits.

    On this, I recently watched a video on Youtube about the 10 most egregious whitewashings in movie casting. There was plenty to say on the topic but I was especially struck by a reference to Anthony Quinn as Auda in Lawrence of Arabia.

    Now, I get that Hollywood used to use Mexican actors as players for almost any Mediterranean part [consider Quinn himself as a Greek guy in both The Guns of Navarone and Zorba the Greek] including Arabs. I don’t know if Auda was darker hued than Quinn. [I do know that in all photos Prince Feisal looks much paler than the made-up Alec Guinness in that role...]

    But I idly wondered if anyone on the tube knew that Quinn was Mexican, and whether that means hip moderns think of Mexicans as ‘white’ again, enough for casting Quinn to be whitewashing.

  3. Slovenian Guest says:

    Speaking of westerns, were Terence Hill & Bud Spencer movies popular in the US? They are two Italian actors who starred in many spaghetti westerns and other comedies and are probably the most popular acting duo across Europe. At least they were back in the day. We loved that stuff here, them and police academy movies!

    Here is a great scene from one of their more popular movies, They Call Me Trinity (1970), or as it was titled here, The left and the right hand of the devil. Now that’s a proper title.

  4. Graham says:

    Of course the rot goes back a long way.

    I remember when Unforgiven came out [it is a brilliant film] and everyone swooned about how dark and revisionist it was.

    In terms of filmmaking style, use of light, angle, imagery, and sound, Eastwood did do things not too obviously found in most older westerns, but he had been developing the style since at least Pale Rider, and his dark characterization goes all the way back to his ‘spaghetti westerns’ with Sergio Leone a generation earlier [though I appreciate that he added more dark and subtracted the camp; I hate camp].

    But in terms of serious themes, the use of both myths and questioning the myths, there was nothing new.

    No western does more to tackle the west seriously than “The Searchers”.

    It ultimately comes down on the side of the settlers [as well it should from the perspective of those of us who live in civilization in North America and are the beneficiaries of how it was built]. But it shows not only the good side of them, but the side of how their world is made and defended by harder men. And that those men are divided into subsets- men like the Rangers, the hard edge of civilization but not at all beyond it, and men like Ethan, who has gone beyond that edge and become not unlike his enemy in order to defeat him. Unlike some viewers, I never did have much of a problem with some of the stuff Ethan says and does, and indeed he is merely practicing the cultural norms of his opponents on several occasions. But he is a self-made outsider of his own civilization, no mistake.

    The movie also gives the Indian his due. The virtues of his culture, even in its dying stages, are clear and represented, whether or not accurate in detail. His motives are the wholly understandable and praiseworthy ones of defending his people, survival, and revenge. Who does not see in Scar a tragic hero as well as villain? Who does not react with recognition when he turns one of Ethan’s remarks back on him- “You speak good Comanche. Someone teach you?”

    The ingrained post-frontier American admiration for the American Indian was on full display, without any added unrealism.

    Ancient tropes about civilization, barbarism, where the lines are on a frontier, and what is done to build civilization, all tackled.

    Similarly, High Noon was a paean to the individual lawman, sure, and an elaborate and misconceived political metaphor as well, but it did bother to suggest that maybe civilized American townsmen weren’t all embryonic heroes but could also be selfish and gutless. Or maybe it suggested they were just people with lives and families, too. Again, try to get such things addressed seriously and subtly in a modern western.

    One could go on. Seemingly numberless westerns in the heyday of the genre reinforced, challenged, or just played with or riffed off the myths and archetypes of the age. Even ones that took a more lighthearted approach found time to tackle town versus country, town versus ranch, west versus east, north versus south, civil war and reconciliation, America versus Mexico, and on and on. Even, shock, the strength and contribution of women, whether in old social roles or new ones made available on the frontier. One thinks of Ma Jorgenson ['wise matriarch of the land' archetype] in the Searchers, Angie Dickinson as Feathers ['modern self-defined woman'] in Rio Bravo, and I’m sure others if I wasn’t just pulling this out at random.

  5. Isegoria says:

    I first watched The Searchers 10 years ago. It famously inspired Star Wars‘ burned-out homestead scene.

  6. Isegoria says:

    Rio Bravo was made by Howard Hawks and John Wayne as a right-wing response to High Noon, which both men despised.

  7. Graham says:

    But nowadays you get cookie-cutter characters without depth or any characterization that isn’t pure trope, and hardly much personality difference among them — cocky action white guy, reckless action white guy, cocky but wise action black guy, action girl, and so forth.

    They all double down on their tropes, strike even more poses, perform even more unrealistic shooting tricks and wildly more unrealistic physical moves, without any of the depth. And have no diversity in any substantive elements of their character.

    But boy do they look diverse.

    And none could deliver the line “Yes. I have the most stylish corner of the filthy storeroom out back. That and one plate of beans. Ten dollars a day,” with the flair and venom Robert Vaughn put into it.

  8. Graham says:

    I didn’t know that about Rio Bravo. Interesting.

    I still rather like High Noon. I had seen it many times and even looked at it semi-critically before I read that it was a metaphor for the blacklist. I was a tad surprised. Of course, I think of communists in the US as the equivalent of the Miller gang, so I suspect the metaphor is rather lost on me…

    The Wikipedia page on the movie has a section on this- I had no idea of the permutations or the rift between Stanley Kramer and Carl Foreman during production.

    It also gives a good range of reactions- the Soviets criticized its ‘glorification of the individual’ but the American left took the blacklisting line. Wayne and Hawks hated it but Ronald Reagan was a fan. So was Bill Clinton. Zinneman compared it to A Man for All Seasons, which is interesting. Though I’ll refrain from getting started on A Man for All Seasons.

  9. Some Random Guy says:

    This could just as easily have been titled “The Decline of the West”…

  10. Adar says:

    “Generosity is always the first mistake.”

    “The wall is not meant to keep you out, the wall is meant to keep you in.”

    “That was the greatest shot I ever saw!” “The worst, I was aiming for the horse!”

    The Mexican government insisted on all the peons wearing brand new and clean white shirts in all scenes.

  11. Sam J. says:

    Unforgiven by Clint Eastwood. Great movie.

  12. Grasspunk says:

    We watched Rio Bravo on the recommendations of this blog a while back and it was great! Thanks.

    Funnily enough [given the theme of this post] our family with four kids hasn’t been able to sit through a single Western more modern than the Dollar trilogy.

    “Get three coffins ready.”

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