Part of an ongoing series that repurposes different ideas I explored as part of my graduate studies in the Environmental Humanities.
Wide Open Spaces:
Exploring Varying Conceptions of Place in the Western Film Genre
The small southern Utah city of Kanab is in a state of slow moving flux. Located near the Utah-Arizona border this small enclave was once trumpeted as “the Hollywood of Utah.” Today the Little Hollywood Museum sits not far removed from the Parry Lodge which was built in 1931 to accommodate Hollywood production companies and actors who trekked in to tell stories reliant on the unique red rock landscape that surround this place. But times have changed and despite an identifiable civic pride in the towns colorful history Hollywood doesn't visit this dusty corner of the southwest very often anymore. Instead, like most of Utah, Kanab’s economy has become increasingly reliant on the tourist dollars spent by recreational pleasure-seekers who have found it to be a handy stop in between Bryce Canyon (to the North), Zion Canyon (to the West), and the Grand Canyon (to the South). Movie memories in the form of photographs and mixed pieces of ephemera hang on the walls of several local businesses, but even these sites are giving way to the chain restaurants, hotels, and other assorted services that tend to grow rapidly in the wake of industrial tourism. In its own way this small Utah town provides a powerful example of the shifting and transitory nature of place.
Sense of Place and the “Old West”
Exploring the divides between how place exists not only as a geographic, physically bound area but also as location for ascribed human value is of central interest to environmental criticism. Conceptually place has a variety of built in assumptions and implications. Theoretical treatments of place open dialogues and debate to a number of questions and issues in need of consideration. Without firm place-based attachments do people miss out on something essential to the human experience? How does place as a concept continue to hold value in the face of mass migrations and meshing of humans and cultures that have acted to blur formerly held boundaries in our globalized world? And what does place truly mean in the context of a highly constructed and visual culture?
Many ecocritical approaches acknowledge the broadness and multiplicity of place, and it is often positioned against the idea of space as a way of framing. Lawrence Buell offers one general conceptualization wherein space merely exists as environment that lacks any ascribed human meaning. In this sense “up to a point, world history is a history of space becoming place” (63). This anthropocentric view presents place as a subjective phenomena. Because of this place must reckon with temporal forces that keep it from being a static “thing” and instead render it inherently unstable. As time passes place is subject to change and a centrally located issue becomes how it retains its relevancy in the face of inevitable alteration. Edward Casey argues that places are “something in process, something unconfinable to a thing. Or to a simple location. Place is all over the place, not just here or there, but everywhere” (337). An obvious point here is that regardless of its specific conception there are uniquely human feelings, ideas, and emotions tied to the development of a sense of place. This is to say that place has something uniquely human ascribed to it that acts to differentiate it from any other place (or space) on the planet.
But what of this issue of living in a wholly unique time in the history of our species when (via technology) we are able to “visit” and conceptualize places that we never actually enter into physically? And what to make of places that even more sinisterly have never truly existed? It is an issue that takes on special import within a globalized context. This blurring of boundaries that comes with globalized living troubles the issue of place further. In his argument for more versatile and adept conceptions of nature and ecocriticism, Timothy Morton pays specific attention to the idea of place as it has been traditionally understood in ecocritical thinking. Morton’s meditation leads him to wonder “what if globalization…revealed that place was never very coherent in the first place?” (170). This idea takes on special resonance in a world where the primacy of visual images in discourse has become increasingly ubiquitous. In a global context, (where images and ideas find immediate, widespread use) one critical question becomes what kinds of places are finding their way into the cultural imagination?
Films from the Western genre serve as a unique opportunity to explore this issue of place and some of its potential ramifications in a global setting. Western films are unique in their construction in that they are situated in a specific temporal location, but generally have little else to with the complex historical realities that lay at the heart of the place or time they are conveying. Being both ahistorical and simulacra, the Western genre has offered writers and filmmakers a wide pallet on which to paint their ideas. Central to this argument is the unique role environment plays in Western film narrative. As Lee Clark Mitchell points out “the landscape celebrated consistently in the Western [offers] opportunity for renewal...it always signals freedom to achieve some truer state of humanity” (5). In this respect the Western has a facet similar to many forms of nature writing that focus on particular insights and epiphanies that are assumed to only come through a retreat from civilization and a return to corporeal contact with nature. Furthermore Mitchell argues that “the joining of body and landscape persists as a central dynamic of the Western...because it helps define an ideal of masculinity” (173). But through this fusing of environment, characters, and ideals the Western place become a culturally constructed area riddled with a variety of conflicts and issues worthy of consideration.
Under critical assessment troubling questions about this culturally constructed “Old West” arise. Do the touchstone films of the Western genre convey certain shared values such as self-sufficiency, pragmatism, and heroic (mostly male) virtue? Or do these films perpetuate myths of white male dominance and the inevitability of Westward expansion? Do Western films offer an idea of “progress” that acts to justify and perpetuate hegemonic beliefs that are of central concern to many environmental and social justice theories? Contrasting the modernist film making of John Ford with that of postmodernist Sergio Leone demonstrates some of the central issues that trouble this idea of Western place. As important cultural touchstones they also provide a springboard into the analysis of contemporary projects that deal in many of the same tropes, environments, and ideas and force us to more deeply consider the complexity of place construction and whether or not they are truly areas we should esteem as a source of shared cultural value.
John Ford and Monument Valley
The malleability of place and its fractured implications are on full display in the Western films of John Ford. Over the course of a career that spanned six decades, and produced 54 Westerns, Ford relied heavily on the dramatic landscapes and natural architecture of Monumental Valley (on the southeastern Utah-Arizona border). As the distinctive landscape came to play a recurring character throughout his Western films a question becomes how iconic and fixed they are in the public's mind as the primary environment of “the West.” That Ford was fully cognizant of the importance of the geographically fixed Monument Valley in the construction of his narratives is evident when he states, “I think you can say that the real star of my Westerns has always been the land…I have been all over the world, but I consider [Monument Valley] the most complete, beautiful and peaceful place on Earth” (qtd. in Florence 37). This thread was picked up and perpetuated further by Ford's biographer, Andrew Sinclair, who wrote that “the landscape is truly part of Ford's technique in translating the Western into legend” (D'Arc 208). But obviously a cinematic narrative is not just a series of fixed images, and it is the thorny junction of environment, characters, attitudes, and events that become fertile ground for ecocriticism and social justice theory.
That John Ford was a modernist filmmaker is revealed in his reliance on narratives that convey a “grand narrative” that assumes the implicit rightness and progress of its protagonists. One way to conceptualize the meanings and motivations of Ford in this context is to consider three separate films that rely on the distinctive environment of Monument Valley as situated environment. Examining Fort Apache (1948), The Searchers (1956), and Cheyenne Autumn (1964) provides evidence of the troubled and conflicting aspects of John Ford's culturally constructed "West."
Fort Apache is a loose adaptation of the historical loss suffered by General George Custer at the battle of Little Big Horn. Starring Henry Fonda and John Wayne the film tells the story of brash Colonel Owen Thursday (Fonda) who oversees a U.S. Calvary unit in a mythical Western setting fabricated in Monument Valley. His low opinion of the neighboring Apache tribe and refusal to listen to the experienced advice of Captain York (played by Wayne) eventually leads to conflict and a suicidal military order that gets many of his men killed in battle. The film is unique in its portrayal of the hostile Indian nation as being something slightly more nuanced than violent savages, as they end up sparing the life of York who they esteem as an honorable warrior. However, the ultimate motivation of the film is not to provide critique of the complex and troubled relationship between U.S. military forces and Indian tribes, but rather a glorification of the regiments who died in battle. In this way it conveys a sense of the inevitable “rightness” of U.S. military expansion in the West and perpetuates a frontier myth that has deep, troubling roots in American culture.
Made eight years after Fort Apache in the same Monument Valley locale, The Searchers is far more disturbing in its overtly racist sentiment toward Indians. It stars John Wayne as Ethan Edwards, a man on a mission to hunt down a Comanche raiding party who has kidnapped his niece (Natalie Wood). Over the course of his five year search he has determined that the point of his mission is not rescue, but rather to kill the niece who he assumes has been fully assimilated into the Indian way of life. He is joined in his search by an adopted nephew Martin (Jeffery Hunter) who is part Indian. The overt racism exhibited by the Edwards character, particularly positioned against the attitudes of his young nephew, speak to the racially divisive context of 1950's America in which the film was made. Ford's portrayal of Indians in this film is far from nuanced or sophisticated which is fairly ironic as Ford was inducted as an honorary member of the Navajo tribe during its filming (D'Arc 217). At the end of the film Edwards rescues his niece and returns her to her family before walking off into the wilderness while a door literally (and metaphorically) slams shut on his receding image. This last shot is conflicted in its message, particularly in light of Ford's quoted views on Indian conflict. One could argue that in this final image Ford is making a comment that the attitudes and ideas of an elder generation portrayed by Wayne are coming to an end. However, Ford himself seems to refute this reading when he states, “the Indian didn't welcome the white man...and he wasn't diplomatic. We were enemies and we fought. The fight against the Indian was fundamental to the story of the West” (qtd. in Libby 286). Such a position speaks to a limited conception of the true cost of Westward expansion as well as the complicated historical context that lead to conflict. But, as Ford had a unique means to convey his particular beliefs and attitudes in the rhetorically forceful combination of word and image (and that said product has found international audience within a globalized context) the troubling implication of Western place becomes all the more significant.
Finally consider the curious example of Cheyenne Autumn which doubles as the final Western film Ford directed. It tells the story of a Cheyenne Indian tribe moving from a reservation in Oklahoma back to their ancestral lands in Wyoming. The U.S government perceives this move as an act of aggression and the film becomes an interesting commentary on failed U.S. policies toward Indian tribes as well as something of a departure for Ford in his usual treatment of Indians. Cast in a much more sympathetic light the Indians of this film are tragic figures that come closer to representing the noble savage trope that has a long history of use in the Western literary tradition. Traditionally the noble savage is a member of a vanishing (or lost) civilization who is imagined as having fundamental insights into ways of living peacefully and in harmony with each other (and nature) that have been lost in the face of colonial conquest and the march of progress. Positioned against the attitudes conveyed in Ford’s earlier films Cheyenne Autumn stands distinctively apart. And with the iconic landscape of Monument Valley once again serving as background it creates a very different conception of place than that provided by either Fort Apache or the Searchers.
So, what do these examples show about the modernist vision of John Ford’s West? Critic Jon Tuska contends that one of Ford's greatest flaws is found in his troubling treatment of Indians and the way “he couched his racism behind a facade of apparent paternalism” (61). By relying on members of the Navajo tribe in Monument Valley to fill in an assortment of Indian roles in his films one could argue that Ford's interest had absolutely nothing to do with conveying the customs and complexity of indigenous culture in a historically accurate sense. Another criticism that can be leveled at Western films in general (and Ford specifically) is their uneven treatment of women. Positioned against virtuous, heroic male characters Tuska argues that “that the roles assigned to women have been invariably prescriptive. All we can learn about women from the vast majority of Western films is what roles the patriarchy felt they ought to play, and nothing at all of the roles they really did play on the frontier” (235). However, these challenges to Ford are balanced against the technical skill and ability he had in creating “pictorial splendor and images of memorable composition and striking beauty” (Tuska 61). This visual component is certainly under heavy consideration in understanding how these stirring images and ideas have constructed and maintained a certain perspective of the West as a specific place in the cultural imagination.
John Ford’s West is unique in that it is a place of numerous characters and ideas often positioned against the same unchanging backdrop of Monument Valley. Critical analysis opens his films to the question of whether his portrayals reflect the rugged individualism, pragmatism, and self-reliance often associated with the Western hero. Or do said portrayals feed into Western hegemonic assumptions about assumed power relationships (between both sexes and cultures). Furthermore, in his treatment of native populations does Ford perpetuate a myth that reinforces the “rightness” of white settlement in the West? These are all troubling questions that suggest how the kinds of place presented in the Western film genre are conflicted and open for valuable ecocritical analysis.
Sergio Leone and the Spaghetti Western
Now consider the examples of a West in which the same formal elements and conventions that are a hallmark of Ford are used in wildly different ways (and in exotically distinctive locales). The spaghetti Westerns of Italian filmmaker Sergio Leone provides a premium example for comparison. As Neil Campbell posits in The Rhizomatic West, Leone's work provides a clear turn towards postmodern film making in the Western genre. Working outside of the American Hollywood system afforded Leone the opportunity to create Western film narratives that are familiar in their design but wildly different in their meaning and implications, in effect “creating rich and playful texts that...delve into and analyze established ideologies, iconographies, and histories of the West” (119). One example of Leone's ability to create a fractured sense of seemingly recognizable place is found by contrasting the iconic actor he often relied on (Clint Eastwood) against the figure so often associated with John Ford (John Wayne). In such Ford films as Stagecoach (1939) and She Wore a Yellow Ribbon (1949) the characters portrayed by John Wayne tend to demonstrate the rugged individualism and myth of heroic male virtue that are central to Ford's modernist vision. Balanced against the equally iconic Man With No Name characters portrayed by Clint Eastwood in the Leone classics A Fistful of Dollars 1964), For a Few Dollars More (1965), and The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly (1966), the central aims of Leone stand out in sharp relief. The characters of Eastwood are mysterious, ambiguous, and morally conflicted. “The Man” (Eastwood) often places his own needs and self-preservation over any assumed nobility or sense of community (both of which find resonance as tropes throughout the mythic Hollywood West).
Another point central to the argument of the ambiguity of place can be found in the simulacra environments of Leone that convey a place called North America, but that were in actual reality created an ocean away in areas of Spain and Italy. That these films have found reverberation with a worldwide audience and effectively convey a sense of the mythic North American West in question speaks to the shifty nature of place. This postmodern effect of knowingly twisting formal elements (such as environment) is played with to even greater effect by Leone in his masterpiece Once Upon a Time in the West (1968). In this film he pays homage to the film making of Ford by traveling to America and utilizing many of the same environments that Ford drew upon (including Monument Valley). However, as Neil Campbell explains the use of this environment is done while telling a story that is both similar in form and completely different in tone and meaning to a classic Hollywood Western (123-129). In the film Henry Ford is cast as the villain (an ironic choice as he was the tragic hero Tom Joad in Ford’s 1940 Grapes of Wrath) who is found working for an unscrupulous railroad baron. The “progress” and “connections” associated with the railroad and its assumed virtue in helping settle the West is presented as a conflicting element in Once Upon a Time in the West and in this way it presents a complex example of a filmmaker creating a new vision of place with wildly different expectations and outcomes than the type that has deep roots in the American cultural imagination.
Working firmly outside of the Hollywood system offered Sergio Leone the opportunity to reimagine and reconstruct the West in provocative and powerful new ways. That Leone considered himself firmly outside the American context that produced traditional Westerns “permitted...a unique 'outside' vision to emerge” opening up “a critical dialogue asking questions about the West as history and representation” (Campbell 149). This “participation without belonging” afforded Leone the opportunity to establish dialogism with the Western film genre in which he borrowed key themes, imagery, and ideas while alternately employing them in ways that offer powerful critique to American attitudes and assumptions that lie at the heart of the formal Hollywood Western. His critiques seemingly embrace subversive attitudes toward the assumed virtue of the male hero, the promise of inevitable progress, and the prescribed roles of various groups including women and Indians. Lee Clark Mitchell contends that the films of Leone “clearly spoof the classic Hollywood Western” and that the genre provided him “with a recognizable structure that freed him to express a surreal sense of dismay at the genre” (239). In this respect the spaghetti Westerns of Italy provide a fractured sense of Western place that offer a variety of challenges to the kind constructed by American filmmakers like John Ford. The questioning, rebellious nature of Leone's film and the ways they subvert and challenge assumptions that underlie many Hollywood Westerns fit well into the chaotic social context of the 1960's in which they were produced. It can be argued that they have ultimately proven more enduring over time than their American counterparts, and it is the effects of this fractured West offered by Leone and how his postmodern reinterpretations have found echo in the contemporary popular culture that we now turn.
A central question becomes how the West has evolved and changed in the cultural imagination since the Westerns of John Ford and Sergio Leone. While the genre has seemingly lost popularity (as evidenced by the sheer decline in the number of Westerns made on a year-to-year basis) the familiar forms and tropes continue to find use. One offbeat example of a deconstruction and mocking of the “Old West” imagined by filmmakers like John Ford is found in Mel Brooks’ 1974 comedy, Blazing Saddles. Filmed in California ten years after passage of the American Civil Rights Act, Blazing Saddles creates an ironic western place in which Bart (Cleavon Little), a black man, is made sheriff of the fictional town of Rockridge. The film ironically deconstructs notions of the rightness and inevitability of white progress and Westward expansion by portraying a black protagonist who ultimately proves wiser and more sophisticated than any singular white character in the film. In fact, the white characters of the film are largely portrayed as menacing brutes or bumbling idiots (while the Jewish Brooks makes one brief cameo as an Indian Chief!). In these ways Blazing Saddles presents a narrative that satirizes many of the assumptions and stereotypes that are central to copious American Western film narratives.
Another way to look at this twisting perpetuation of complex place is to turn to the Western films of Clint Eastwood, specifically his award-winning, Unforgiven (1992). Throughout his Western films Clint Eastwood demonstrates the profound influence working with Sergio Leone had upon him. This influence finds ultimate form in the story of his highly conflicted character, William Munny. Through back story we learn that Munny is a notorious killer who has tried to leave his past behind him and fashion a new family life as a frontier farmer. He is lured back into a world of violence by a reward being offered by a brothel of prostitutes who are looking for justice after violence is done on them by two passing cowboys in the fictional town of Big Whiskey. Throughout the film Munny is conflicted and at odds with the violent past he has tried to leave behind and the hope for a better life he can offer his children with the reward money. The film also provides an interesting and complex treatment of its female characters. The prostitutes of Big Whiskey show a greater degree of nuance than women are generally afforded in Western film, and the sense of community that exists between them ultimately proves stronger than almost any other human relationship portrayed. Much like the work of Leone, Eastwood recycles formal elements from the Western genre and in doing so presents a narrative that supplies a greater degree of sophistication in its treatment of Western place.
And as the example of Sergio Leone’s Italian-produced Westerns demonstrate, the forms and tropes of the genre have the potential to be lent vibrant new life outside of a strictly American context. One powerful example of this is found in Australian filmmaker John Hillcoat’s 2005 film, The Proposition. Taking place in the “wild West” of the 19th century Australian outback the narrative focuses on a morally conflicted criminal named Charlie (Guy Pearce) who is offered a pardon from his life of crime if he is willing to help colonial English forces track down his outlaw brother Arthur (Danny Huston). Couched in a historical era that is every bit as complex and conflicted as that of the American West, the narrative deftly moves between characters and imagery that are instantly recognizable as key to the Western genre. To escape the law of colonial forces Arthur has taken to the outback and found refuge with aboriginal tribes of the area (an indigenous group of human beings whose real life history of pain and persecution is remarkably similar to that of the American Indians). Ultimately Charlie kills his brother Arthur, leaving the viewer with a divergent set of emotions. In one respect the elements of colonial force and “progress” are continually portrayed throughout the film as sinister and wrong (making the film similar to the postmodern ideas and commentary offered by Leone). However, by the end the motivations that lead Charlie to side with the agents of this progress and kill his “wild” brother Arthur are complicated and unclear. One interpretation may be that the text is attempting to convey a tragic sense of the inevitability of violence and the fracturing of human bonds (like brotherhood) in the face of massive global change. In this way The Proposition demonstrates a potent way in which the tropes, forms, and imagery associated with the Western genre can potentially be utilized in new ways to provide not only new conceptions of place, but also the ramifications of globalization. Films like this have the power to raise questions about the cost of civilization as well as the assumed inevitability of Westward progress, which, in turn, has had profound implications for American (and global) culture.
One final example demonstrates how advancing technology has increased the number of available platforms for perpetuation of the fractured Western conceptions of place. With the 2010 release of the highly popular video game Red Dead Redemption on Xbox 360 and the Playstation 3, Rock Star Games introduced a new generation to many of the recycled elements and tropes that have helped inform a cultural sense of the West. Following a narrative thread that is more similar to the postmodern vision of Sergio Leone than the grand narratives imagined by John Ford, Red Dead Redemption relies heavily on a virtual construction of rendered environments that echo many of the Southwest locales that have become iconic and fixed in the cultural imagination. The protagonist of the game is a troubled anti-hero in the Eastwood tradition and the music and extended tracking shots used to establish mood and tone are hallmarks of Leone. Overall the game offers just one view of how Western place conception is finding new life, and thus why it is important to consider its construction and perpetuation in the future.
Returning to the Vermillion Cliffs outside of Kanab, this is an environment that has seen heavy use as a filming locale, from decidedly Western epics like Clint Eastwood’s The Outlaw Josey Wales (1976) to the otherworldly science fiction of Planet of the Apes (1968). The wide open spaces and unique nature of the land make it a source of almost limitless possibility and imagination. Local history attests that this is the literal ground for almost inexhaustible storytelling opportunity, and couched in this framework the idea of place as it has been conceived, constructed, and portrayed in the Western film genre takes on crucial weight. As Noel Sturgeon argues in Environmentalism in Popular Culture, many of the frontier myths and tropes that were once pivotal to the Western genre are now finding new life in narratives that reach beyond the borders of our planet and into outer space (54-57). That the physical environments used to construct and portray these new alien worlds happen to be some of the same Southwest locales that formed many famous Western films brings the argument full circle. It underscores the complex and shifting nature of place as well as the vital role a sense of place holds for human beings. The unique demands of living in a highly technological and globalized context make it imperative that we are critically aware and continually push ourselves to imagine and construct places that are truly worth inhabiting.
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Campbell, Neil. The Rhizomatic West. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2008.
Casey, Edward S. The Fate of Place. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1997.
D'Arc, James V. When Hollywood Came to Town: A History of Moviemaking In Utah. Layton: Gibbs Smith Publishing, 2010.
Florence, William R. “John Ford...The Duke...And Monument Valley.” Arizona Highways September 1981: 37.
Libby, Bill. “The Old Wrangler Rides Again.” John Ford Made Westerns. Ed. Gaylyn Studlar and Matthew Bernstein. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2001. 286.
Mitchell, Lee Clark. Westerns: Making the Man in Fiction and Film. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1996.
Morton, Timothy. Ecology Without Nature: Rethinking Environmental Aesthetics. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2009.
Sturgeon, Noёl. Environmentalism in Popular Culture. Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 2009.
Tuska, Jon. The American West in Film: Critical Approaches to the Western. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1985.