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Friday, 1 August 2008

When is a western not a western

Been involved in an interesting debate on one of the western forums I belong to - on what is a western? Are these modern westerns, No Country for Old Men and Cogan's Bluff to name but two, truly westerns? Is a civil war story a western? Do westerns set in the later part of the era and feature motor cars, telephones etc qualify as westerns?

Some claim that to be a true western a film/book has to be set after the civil war and no later than 1890 - there is some merit to that but the rules are too limited for the genre to truly thrive. To my mind No Country for Old Men is most definitely a western albeit one that should be categorised as a modern western. But films such as Ned Kelly and The Proposition which were billed as Westerns are most defiantly not part of the genre. To me setting is far more important than the era depicted and I think that works like the aforementioned No Country For Old Man can only made the genre stronger as a whole and maybe bring new readers/viewers into the fold. As long as a work is set in the American West then it is most definitely a western regardless of the time era.

But even that causes problems as films like Clint Eastwood's Honkeytonk Man would classify as a western. And it would be absurd to call his vastly underrated bittersweet tale a western. And yet another Clint Eastwood vehicle, The Beguiled is very firmly placed in the western genre and yet in the classical definition it is not a western. Using this rule to classify works would also make Mark Twain's Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn westerns when it would be insane to call them such.

So what is a western?
All of a sudden, I'm not too sure.

The word Western attached to a film or book does conjure up the classic set up - the mid to late 1800's, cattle drives, outlaws, gunfights, stagecoaches, the railways, Indians --you get the picture. And when a early motor car makes an appearance, such as in The Wild Bunch and Big Jake to name but two examples, it throws the viewer/reader. And yet these two films are most definitely westerns - BIg Jake even includes a motorbike chase scene but it's still very much a western.

All of a sudden I'm not so sure what is and what is not a western. Maybe the western is just too versatile to peg down in any one slot.

Not that it really matters - I think we should embrace the western in its myriad formats .


Ray said...

If you wander into the state of Victoria, Australia there is a place called Sovereign Hill - well worth a visit as it is a reconstruction of a gold mining town. No mistake but it is line walking into a town of the American West.
And part of the history runs along with paralell lines with the American West.
For many years the classic Australian 'western' was Robbery Under Arms. Then there is the myth of Ned Kelly.
So, yes, I can take 'Quigley Down Under'; 'Ned Kelly' and 'The Proposition' in the context of the historical side of Australia.
In Australia you will find Australian westerns alongside tales of the American west.
With regard to the American Civil War - my own 'Rebel Run' tells the story of a bunch of Confederate soldiers escaping from a Yankee P.O.W camp.
Two books by Ryker Frost: 'A Fortune For War' deals with how an ex-con from Australia helps foil a Confederate raid on the silver mines. And in 'The Battle Of Sun Valley' a small bunch of Confederates hold a vital bridge against the Union forces. All were published as Black Horse Westerns.
So, the question that arises is not so much as what constitutes a western but how the genre is perceived.
Anything pre-1850 I would say would be historical. 1850 - 1904 is the definitive western/cowboy book. After that then 'modern' western.

Gary Dobbs/Jack Martin said...

Some interesting comments - I believe western are very popular in Australia and they did have a wild west of sorts. But calling a story with western like themes set in Australia a western doesn't sit right to my mind. Maybe an Austrian is a good term.

Ray said...

Maybe just call them Aussterns.
Books written about Australia in the 'western' style.
Most of the Australian books and films take place in Victoria, South Australia and New South Wales.
Though 'Quigley Down Under' is the exception as it is set and filmed in Western Australia.

Danny-K said...

" . . . I believe western are very popular in Australia and they did have a wild west of sorts. . ."

That's set me thinking. I remember as a kid in the 1960's watching a weekly western on TV - only it was set in Australia.

'Whiplash' I think the series was called. Peter Graves starred in it. It always opened with Peter Graves riding a stagecoach and as per the show's title, cracking a whip. The stagecoach wheels thundered, the horses snorted in fierce determination and it all looked extremely exciting - but every episode was very tame. Each week I would long for some gun-play, but there was rarely any. Even as a kid you could tell from the opening credits it was set in Australia because their 'cowboy hats' had the brim of one side pinned up flat - only Aussies did that. All schoolkids knew that.

I agree with you that it really wasn't a 'western', however, just looked Whiplash up on IMDB and Whiplash is listed under the genre of Western, so that's official then.

But really, it wasn't a western at all. The opening credits made it look like one though.

Terrific write-up on the previous blog by the way ie., Brushy Bill

- would make a good drama or novel in it's own right, in a similar way to that film in which James Garner played an ageing Wyatt Earp, now retired to Los Angeles and teaming up with Tom Mix to help solve a murder, in the burgeoning Hollywood black and white movie industry. Had to Google it - Sunset - that was it.

Steve M said...

So, just out of curiosity, what would you call The Gunsmith book were Clint Adams goes to Australia - most of the book takes place there - is it still a western? The Gunsmith is certainly a western series.

Come to think of it there's even a Gunsmith book were he finds himself in London (for a gun expo), is this still a western or something else? - if memory serves he ends up hunting for the ripper (or a ripper like killer).

Sorry I don't remember which books these are but the latter maybe #97 Hands of the Strangler - a post at Frontier Times may well bring the answer if you want to know.

Danny-K said...

At the risk of talking to myself, seeing as how this blog is now a couple of days old, an article I read in today's Guardian also reminded me of things said in this blog and the subsequent posts.

Is the lifestyle of the western a dead thing from history that could only take place in the USA? According to the Guardian the western cowboy ethos has been re-awakened and reincarnated in the area that is the Pakistani borderlands.

"America has seen enough John Ford movies to get the point. Britain, too, had its fill of John Wayne. So why are we all so infernally slow to realise that borderland Pakistan is the old west reincarnated - except that we're not talking Apaches or Sioux now, just Bugti, Swati, Jadoon and Tareen in the realms of the Pashtuns and Baluchis?"

And goes on:
". . . gun supermarkets, smugglers' paradises, walled mansions and the rest - ritually patrolled by the tribes' own internal police. Ten yards off the Khyber Pass, Pakistan's national forces' LAW AND ORDER GIVE UP THE GHOST. Their writ doesn't run. Reservation self-preservation."

And what's this but a description that could be applied to that of the old wild west?:
"And the danger, time after time, is seeing Pakistan's far west in the way that ignorant generals from the east were expected to act (until James Stewart showed them what a fine chap Geronimo was). . . It isn't some simple terrain where the word of the PM goes. Nor is it a territory invaded and held by alien terrorist forces. What you've got, instead, is something fiercely autonomous but also anarchic - a world where the state called Pakistan barely exists."

Last weekend as usual I had to be up for 4:45am for my weekend work, and had the TV on, to catch the news and weather while I got ready for work. Round about this time you get weird news reports deemed to deep or boring for regular news broadcasts, and on Saturday about 5:00am they ran a piece on the lawlessness of the Pakistani borderlands, and the reporter, (with local protection) showed footage of people walking round openly with rifles slung over their shoulders. The police and army had been defeated and could be seen high up on the surrounding hills and mountains with binoculars looking down into the valley - too afraid to enter the town. The 'gunslingers', (my description), the report made clear were not Al Qaeda, or Taliban, but a polyglot of tribesmen and chancers alongside Taliban and Al Qaeda. No one single force ruled the area.

To all intents and purposes it came across as the wild west, with no law to protect the vulnerable, neither police, government agencies nor army - all had fled the area or been murdered.

The wild West is back - and its in the badlands of the Pakistani borderlands.

What's needed is a kind of hero depicted in Robert Hardy Andrews 'Halfbreed', which became the 1952 film starring Paul Newman, a hero who can flit between two cultures yet not quite fit in, belong, or be accepted by either.

So, if any novel set in a country not usually associated with Wild West stereotypes is acceptable then there's no reason why a western novel based on the badlands of the Pakistan borderlands shouldn't be acceptable either.

Here's the link to the full article in today's Guardian
('Where Writs Don't Run'
- hee hee! geddit?):

Danny-K said...

Correction: Sorry, Paul Newman was in the 1967 film 'Hombre' as 'the half breed', not 1952 as stated.

Danny-K said...

That link appears broken - try this:

That should do it.

Danny-K said...

Doh! Sorry 'bout this. Last try!

This link SHOULD work:

If it doesn't and you want to read the full article then Google 'Writs Don't Run' and look through until you see one with the journalist's name mentioned: Peter Preston.

Once again apologies for using up so much space.