I have discussed the importance of context in this column before. The way that movies match the era in which they are made â€“ and this is not just in plot, but also in tone and theme. Stanley Kubrickâ€™s Dr.Strangelove comes at the height of Â the Cold War and Vietnam protests. The 1990s, in an era of abundance and of optimism, were also an era of lighthearted comedies and romantic comedies â€“ Thereâ€™s Something About Mary and Sleepless in Seattle. More recently, weâ€™ve seen films that are darker, and more cynical: Children of Men, Rendition. I would argue that the predominant tone of todayâ€™s movies is that of fear, foreboding, regret, perhaps echoing sentiments felt about the administration or the war in Iraq.
So it is not without context that I view the seeming comeback of the Western. Western iconology is all about the bad guy vs. the good guy, but underlying this basic structure is always a more meaningful conflict of old vs. new. Old social norms meeting new social and technological structures. Civilization vs. frontier. Democracy vs. anarchy. It is not without reason that we are seeing Westerns enter public consciousness again.
In the 40s and 50s, Westerns celebrated the hero. This came on the heels of WWII and we, as a country and as a culture, sought to celebrate our war heros: our husbands, our sons, our fathers. Gary Cooper in High Noon kills a gang of murderers all by himself to save the town.
Then the 60s and 70s came. Anti-war protests, civil disobedience, cultural unrest. Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid â€“ two outlaws that become our favorite bad boys. Better yet, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valence in which upright citizen Jimmy Stewart comes out the good guy in the end, except that we all know the real hero is gunslinger John Wayne, and Stewart is merely taking the credit. Our definition of hero is turned on its head. Itâ€™s no longer the law-abiding or law-enforcing citizen â€“ itâ€™s the law breaker. The one who says, I know thatâ€™s what Iâ€™m supposed to think, but I think for myself.
Today, weâ€™re seeing Westerns more in line with those of the 60s and 70s â€“ not a surprise in the political atmosphere we find ourselves in. 3:10 to Yuma just came out in theaters to amazing reviews. Christian Bale helps the town catch and escort Russell Croweâ€™s infamous character to a train bound for jail, but only for the money and to prove his son â€“ who idolizes criminals â€“ that you donâ€™t have to rob and murder to be a hero. But thereâ€™s the catch â€“ itâ€™s already supposed that the heros are the outlaws. What does that say about our state of mind today? And in the end, theyâ€™re both heroes.
Itâ€™s not just 3:10 to Yuma, but also the Coen Brosâ€™ adaptation of Cormac McCarthyâ€™s No Country for Old Men, and the recently released Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford. Why the sudden urge to make and see Westerns. What about this struggle to define the hero, and this myth of civilization vs. anarchy is so appealing? Is it the return to a simpler life that we crave? Either you live or you die, but you do either by your own code, and everyone plays by the same rules? Is it a yearning to go back to the time without iPods and Halo 3 â€“ and subsequently without terrorists linking up on the internet, and easy access to bomb-building instructions?
At least in the mythological West, you knew the rules of the game. You go out into â€œIndianâ€ territory, you probably get shot. A gunslinger walks into the saloon, and you hope your woman isnâ€™t there for the taking. When did life get so confusing? When did we stop knowing who to call our hero?
Alex M., Movie Correspondent
Alex’s column, Sunset Boulevard, published every Friday to Gather Essentials: Movies, is a weekly summary of the movie industry’s biggest stories.
Alex is a film school grad working at a production company in Hollywood. She’s been passionate about movies since she knew what they were and always has an opinion (for better or worse).
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