There is a compelling argument to say motion pictures began with the western. Or at the very least, the genre was around since the beginning. The Great Train Robbery, released in 1903, is among cinema’s earliest narrative films, considered a milestone with a then-whopping 12 minute running time. The meat pie (Australian) western arrived soon after, in 1906’s seminal The Story of the Kelly Gang, widely considered the first narrative feature film.
In her essay Saddle Sore, published in 1967, the great American critic Pauline Kael put forward bittersweet thoughts on what was, back then, the contemporary western. “It doesn’t much matter which one you see,” she wrote, because “the differences between them aren’t, finally, very significant,” and concluded: “Going to a western these days for simplicity or heroism or grandeur or meaning is like trying to mate with an ox.”
Perhaps the cookie cutter westerns Kael contemplated are comparable to the current crop of superhero movies, often formulaic and visually repetitive. A lot has changed since the ’60s. It’s perhaps no surprise that the sparse, open look of the western became a blank canvas onto which contemporary sensibilities continue to be projected.
Take, for example, Netflix’s new series Godless, which has something to say about modern notions of female empowerment through its representation of a town solely populated by women. This is La Belle, where all the men perished in a mining accident. The women need to hold their own, in his rejigged society, or compromise their newly found ideals.
There is nothing original about the rendering of a women-only society, though there is no denying the current zeitgeist informed creator/writer/director Scott Frank’s vision. As it did the recent TV remake of Westworld, which explores our fascination with the western by imagining it as a robot-populated theme park, where visitors can act out their wildest and most violent fantasies.
Godless (a seven-part series) opens strongly but becomes a clear-cut case of style over substance. That is not to say there is no substance, because man, there is a lot of style. Steven Meizler’s cinematography is what was once instinctively described as “cinematic”, before television’s technical properties caught up with big screen innovation.
Jeff Daniels plays the wickedly charismatic lead villain, Frank Griffin. His character has fine choice in media consumption, reading a rag popular in this show’s universe called The Daily Review. I must say that enjoyment of that particular tangent was dampened in episode two when Griffin delivered the news (sorry Ray) that “the crybaby editor of The Daily Review was found this evening in a puddle of his own piss and brains.”
Whereas the land in westerns once felt clean, beautiful and ripe with possibility, in the new western the landscape is rotten.
Folk nervously anticipate Griffin’s arrival, as they did another Frank, Frank Miller (Ian MacDonald) in 1952’s High Noon, one of my all-time favourite westerns (unfolding in near real-time, the film exists in the moment – and that moment lasts its entire duration). During several dangerous encounters in Godless, Griffin repeats the following line, which becomes a kind of mantra: “I’ve seen my death; this ain’t it”. His faith in his death has given him fearlessness in life.<
The purity of the John Ford style western, which Pauline Kael explored in her essay, is gone. Where the land used to feel clean, beautiful and ripe with possibility, in the new western the landscape is rotten. Corrupted land was explored recently in two fine Netflix films. They aren’t westerns, but western-ish in certain respects: the Stephen King adaptation 1922, and the prestigious racial war drama Mudbound. The land was cursed in the former, a kind of replenishing psychological terror, and politicised in the second, as racial allegory.
Its purity is gone in Godless also. And the narrative clarity of an old style western, like Stagecoach (1939) or The Searchers (1956) gone as well. Things are muddled. It’s easy to get confused by the plotting and distracted by the writer/director’s bits and pieces approach; the show feels cluttered.
The Australian western Sweet Country, meanwhile, which opens in cinemas this week, is the opposite. Riffing on the classic western theme of the doomed hero, the film is told with grace, purpose and clarity. It is the second feature from Samson and Delilah director Warwick Thornton, marking his second masterpiece: one of the best Australian films since the turn of the century, and one of the best westerns of the same period.
Descriptions of films such as Sweet Country, or 2007’s also excellent, if glib-by-comparison The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (from another Australian filmmaker, Andrew Dominik) tend to invoke the label “neo western” rather than just “western.” I like the new term’s two-handedness. The second bit, the “w” word, evokes the familiarity of a genre as old as the cinema. And the first, a sense of newness and revival. The western will stay with us.
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