28 CinÉireann / Issue 9
At one point in Black ’47, the English officer Pope finds himself riding in a train carriage out to the west of Ireland. By chance, he happens to share the compartment with a journalist from The Wexford Independent. The journalist has been dispatched to the other side of the island to investigate the causes (and consequences) of the Gorta Mór.
Pope has his own theories, directing the inquisitive journalist to the Bible. “Galatians Chapter Six,” he cites. “Verse Seven.” When his travelling companion cannot cite the verse from memory, Pope is willing to elaborate for him. “Whatsoever a man soweth, that shall he also reap.”
As an agent of the British Crown operating in a territory ravaged and devastated by imperial policies, Pope is completely oblivious to the dramatic irony of his observation.
The western is a peculiar genre. It is one of the defining cornerstones of American identity. Indeed, the use of the phrase “the West” rarely needs qualification of country or geographical location, instead conjuring up images of Monument Valley shot through the lens of John Ford, of cowboys and ranch hands, of marshals and bandits.
“The West” represents something of a foundation myth for the United States, the tale of how Columbus “discovered” America and how settlers from Europe “won” it. It is a story of a push westwards that is often frame in divine terms – suggesting “provenance” or “providence.” It is the tale of the expansion of influence and the solidification of political power.
“The West” exists as an abstract space, a huge swathe of wilderness that defines the North American continent. This is where identities are forged, and where men might test themselves against both nature itself and their own natures. At its most basic and its most romantic, it is the story of how a people found themselves thrown into a savage and perilous world, and found a way to tame it.
This explains the ubiquity of the western in American popular culture. It seems that westerns have always been part of the landscape. The use of the world “western” to describe a genre of film can be traced back to 1912 at the latest. This was only seven years after John P. Harris and Harry Davis opening the first nickelodeon cinema and codified popular filmgoing in the United States.
Along with gangster films, westerns were a dominant form of early American cinema. Chuck Anderson of The Old Corral estimates that the genre peaked with the production of 148 westerns in 1935. In the eight years between 1935 and 1942, inclusive, Anderson estimates that there were an average of 128 westerns produced each year; that is more than one new western every three days.
However, the western inevitably gives way, just as the mythic West ends in California, staring over the calm blue ocean where the romantic West surrenders to the (in its own way mythical) East. The genre would enter a decline in the middle of the twentieth century. There was a brief surge in 1949 and 1950, but the numbers of westerns gradually dwindled, barring revisionist and deconstructive spikes in the late sixties and seventies.
There are any number of theories about why the western went away. The most obvious analysis suggests that audience members simply grew tired of the genre, wary of the saturation of these films in popular cinema. Filmmakers like Steven Spielberg and Martin Scorsese frequently speculate that the contemporary superhero boom will go the same way based on that logic.
However, there may also be cultural aspects in play. The sixties and the seventies were an era of massive social change in the United States, with the emergence of countercultural movements and strong anti-establishment sentiment in response to crises like Vietnam, Watergate and other horrific betrayals. Perhaps the public were
Once Upon a Time in the West
Black '47 and the modern Western
Words: Darren Mooney