As the proud owner of an original (if battered) 1969 copy of Kitses Horizons West, it’s good to see this seminal work being made available again. Edward Lamberti’s review on kamera.co.uk is spot on regarding the book’s strengths and weaknesses. If I had one criticism of the original version, it is that the focus on Boetticher, Mann and Peckinpah alone made the book seem like an auteurist selection box rather than a comprehensive overview of the Western genre. Bookending these three with the ‘founding father’ (Ford) and the genre’s final two auteurs (Leone and Eastwood) rectifies this shortcoming and makes the book as effective a history of the Western as one could ask for (though admittedly the absence of Hawks is a loss).
What strikes me in reading off these half a dozen critical names is just how long ago it is since the genre had anything valuable to say. One can see in both Leone and Eastwood the last vestiges of the modernising impulse, striving to add something fresh to the history of the genre. The Western had evolved from its glory days in the 30s and 40s, to the more pessimistic visions of Boetticher, Mann and Peckinpah (the one common thread linking these distinctive stylists) to the twilight years from The Magnificent Seven (1960) to True Grit (1969). In the mid 60s, Leone offered the only possible revitalisation of the genre, it’s complete subversion. At the time, the ‘Dollar’ films seemed incredibly violent, morally suspect, and lacking in good old-fashioned heroes. It is hard to sustain that view now, when the white-hatted John Wayne is more commonly perceived as a crypto-fascist, the model for Reagan, while the morally ‘ambiguous’ Man With No Name seems far more acceptably heroic and deserving of the words ‘Il Buono’ scrawled across the screen.
In his own films, Eastwood took Leone’s template and wrapped it around a sensibility informed by the social upheavals of contemporary America. His attempt to reconcile the traditional Western with the post-hippy communal dream is touched upon obliquely in High Plains Drifter (1972) but is most fully developed in The Outlaw Josey Wales (1976). More than just a modern reworking of Shane, Josey Wales sought to resolve the tensions between the community and the individual that lay at the heart of the genre, and indeed America itself. Whether you consider the film to be successful in this aim or not, Eastwood is to be applauded for not shrinking away from a hard-won resolution. He could have left the issues up in the air, but instead offers up a vision of ‘how things could have been’. With this definitive statement, Eastwood left the genre with nowhere to go and thus ensured its demise.
This is not necessarily to dismiss recent attempts at making a contemporary Western, some of which (such as Ang Lee’s Ride With The Devil ) are very fine indeed. But virtually no Western of the last 25 years or so, however good a film it might be, has any true connection with the genre as it was originally conceived, and does not advance the history of the genre one iota. Rather they are post-modern exercises in style, the result of a Director (or someone) making a conscious decision to ‘tackle’ the Western and try to make it a box office success again.
But if, post-Josey Wales, the Western became a historical curio, the one exception to this, I would argue, is Unforgiven (1990). Not because it is a better film than other dabblings in the genre (though it is certainly better than most) but for the important reason that Eastwood is now the sole surviving representative of the Hollywood Western, the only one who speaks with the voice of the Western film makers that thrived from the 20s through to the 70s. For many years (not including the slightly perfunctory Pale Rider ) there had been a distinct absence of Westerns that showed any sense of purpose beyond the display of generic visual trappings, until Unforgiven’s meditation on the nature of Western violence and it’s revenge motifs. The film consciously builds upon (and inverts) the conclusions reached at the end of Josey Wales to formulate a further disquisition on the genre. It is worth reiterating that the reason Eastwood is able to do this is because of his unique position as an integral part of the history of the Western, in contrast to coolly detached contemporary Directors like Lee or Kevin Costner.
In his review of Kitses’ book, Edward Lamberti quite rightly touches on the moral ambiguities of Eastwood’s work, something that casts a shadow over much of his ouevre, not just the Westerns. In the films where Eastwood directs himself there is a tendency for his own libertarian impulses to be sacrificed for the sake of audience-pleasing gratuitousness, the demands of the breath-taking set piece. To take a different example to Edward’s, look at the way in which the Stranger’s domination of the community of Lago is established in the otherwise superb High Plains Drifter by means of a crudely forced sexual encounter in a barn. While I wouldn’t wish to make excuses for this strain in Eastwood’s work, I would suggest that it may be the price we pay for the authenticity of his vision. The grandstanding and sensationalism are what mark him out as a Hollywood entertainer in the traditional sense and go hand-in-hand with the genuine insight of lived experience, something that the politically correct contemporary film maker cannot match.
We can dig further into these issues and speculate that Eastwood represents not only the last residue of the Western movie genre, but in a sense the final petering out of the history of the American West itself. It’s easy to forget amidst all the mythologising that the genre was born at the tail end of the very period of history that it depicts, that, to take but one simple example, Wyatt Earp was still alive in the 1930s. The way of life and the attitudes represented (and undoubtedly distorted) in the Hollywood Western have persevered in some form in many parts of America – just think of the ranchers at South Fork in Dallas for a conspicuous example. Only the all-pervasive globalisation and corporatisation of the world economy threaten to finally eradicate the remaining pockets that adhere to these ‘old ways’.
Where does that leave Clint Eastwood and the Western genre? Now approaching 75 and unlikely to be seen again as the gun-toting hero of old, Eastwood nevertheless remains the only person who might still have something worth saying within the confines of the genre. One might consider Unforgiven in exactly this light, that it was conceived as the last word on the Western. But another 15 years have passed and Eastwood himself is older and presumably wiser. Looking back from 2005, William Munny no longer seems as old and decrepit as he did in 1990. So there might still be room for the genres last surviving master, now genuinely in the throes of old age, to place the final full stop at the end of the history of the Western. I hope so.