By Liam Macleod
For a long time a common conceit among both filmmakers and film fans is that the Western, once the lynchpin of Hollywood’s output, is a dead genre. Oh, no one wants this to be the case. There’s still more than enough executive producers who remember the days when Westerns were big money makers. This is why every now and then we’ll get a big, bloated disaster like The Lone Ranger trying to sell the genre to a new generation of audiences…with poor results. So it’s a little strange that this week not one but two Western films are in cinemas; Quentin Tarantino’s The Hateful Eight and Alejandro Inarritu’s The Revenant. Two films set in the wilderness of the American Midwest both of which seem intent on stripping the Western of all idealism and romanticism.
The Hateful Eight, whose very title is a nod to The Magnificent Seven, features eight archetypical figures of Western fiction trapped in a confined space. Kurt Russell’s John Ruth is dressed for all the world like a frontier mountain man (e.g. Davy Crocket or Hugh Glass who we’ll come to soon). Samuel L. Jackson’s Marquis Warren is an emancipated slave turned bounty hunter in a nod to Tarantino’s Django. Michael Madsen’s Joe Gage is (seemingly) an early John Wayne caricature, a lone cowboy travelling east on family business, and so on.
Despite the setting, the film ends up playing out more like an Agatha Christie novel than a John Ford film. The gunfights are relatively sparse and far more time is spent pushing tensions and revealing the hateful group for what they really are. Ruth is a sadistic thug and blithering idiot, Warren is concerned only with tormenting and degrading advocates of slavery, and Madsen’s Gage is a bandit more accustomed to disposing of his enemies with poison rather than guns. In essence The Hateful Eight is about revealing the reality of the Old West, free of the mythology that western culture has since imbued it with.
Likewise The Revenant aims to tell the true story of legendary frontiersman Hugh Glass with all the pain and brutality it demands. After being mauled by a bear Glass was abandoned by the two men paid to watch him die and give him a proper burial. He was left with festering wounds, broken bones and no weapons or supplies yet somehow was able to crawl the 200 miles to Fort Kiowa. Over the course of over two hours Inarritu drives home the agonies endured by Glass with painstaking detail. Shooting on location in freezing cold weather, using only natural light and putting its leading man though a physical and emotional endurance test. In addition to famously eating raw Bison liver Dicaprio was required to swim in frozen rivers and sleep in animal carcasses for the role to be as authentic as possible.
Now the Western has long since embraced the violence of the era as depicted in The Revenant. However the films predecessors and contemporaries (such as Hateful Eight) have only used violence to simply reinforce the masculine power fantasy that the genre has always embraced. Now while The Revenant is certainly a revenge film you would be hard-pressed to call it a fantasy, it’s a film about suffering, about the horrors Glass-and indeed any frontiersman-had to endure simply to survive in this place and time. The Revenant has no desire to glorify Glass or his pursuit but to take us through his version of the Labours of Hercules.
This newfound commitment to realism in the Western is interesting because it allows us to draw parallels with a genre that went through a similar reinvention. Right through until the 1960s the War film was one of Hollywood’s most consistently popular genres. Its output during World War Two consisted largely of propaganda films made to encourage recruitment and highlight the atrocities of the German military. With few exceptions Americans War films were morally uncomplicated affairs that treat the conflicts they portrayed as binary cases of good versus evil. This would slowly wane as World War Two passed further and further into history and America would engage in far less justifiable military engagements, the tipping point being Vietnam.
One of the reasons behind the outspoken opposition to Vietnam War was that it was the first conflict to appear on broadcast television. Since the 1950s television sets were all but ubiquitous and for the first time American homes were filled with images of real-life firefights, bombed-out buildings and dead or injured civilians. It became harder for Hollywood to present warfare are something noble and just when colour technology allowed you to see the red blood of Vietnamese women and children. Few films about the Vietnam War were made prior to the late seventies and those few were independently made and acknowledged its controversial nature. The most famous of these – Full Metal Jacket, Apocalypse Now and Platoon – were morally complex works that tackled the futility of the war and its dehumanisation of new recruits.
Since then the War genre has only strove for greater and greater realism and moral ambiguity. Saving Private Ryan used handheld cameras and greater detail to give the film the illusion of authenticity. Jarhead, like Full Metal Jacket, looked at the effect a futile conflict had on the young men who enlisted to fight it. Kathryn Bigelow’s The Hurt Locker and Zero Dark Thirty have embraced the documentary style of fiction filmmaking to avoid ever glamorising the War on Terror. In short War films never died out, as has been suggested about the Western, they simply became more mature.
The key difference is that war has always been a part of our reality and so as it became more accessible it was easier to give it the authenticity it deserved. The realities behind the Western genre however have always been consigned to the history books. Westerns were always things of myths, or larger than life heroes, daring deeds and a treacherous environment that today is hard to come to terms with. Its maturing has been a slow process, a case of one big, hard-hitting revisionist film like Unforgiven or Brokeback Mountain or There Will be Blood every few years. The duel release of The Hateful Eight and The Revenant alongside each other may simply be the peak of this. Hateful Eight dressing down Western archetypes as the callous, sadistic, pathetic creatures they are and Revenant subjecting viewers to a two hour long endurance test of ‘real’ sufferings.
With any luck the success of both these films will put to rest the argument that the Western is a dead genre. Its future is still uncertain but with any luck the genre is returning to the forefront of Western culture. A little older and wiser perhaps and traditionalists may balk at its new values but it will be back again.