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April 03, 2007

The Western: Creating and Re–creating the Concept of Genre

The Western: Creating and Re-creating the Concept of Genre

Introduction

         Despite the severe decline in the output of Westerns since the early 1970s this section has been included to emphasise the historical importance of critical work using the Western as a case study through which much genre theory developed. The work on Westerns as a genre has established a research paradigm or set of limits of thinking about genre which arguably needs revising. Neale’s work on the Western challenges this paradigm and argues that instead of being thought of as a ‘closed’ genre, Westerns need to be thought as an open-ended genre which is both hybrid and multi-generic. As Neale (2000) points out Westerns have occupied a pre-eminent position in writing of all kinds on genre in the cinema:

...the Western still features centrally in introductory accounts and in introductory courses on genre in the cinema fed in part by occasional attempts to revive it in Hollywood and by the resurgence of scholarly interest [1]

         Neale’s recent analysis (2000) problematises this early critical work and suggests that overemphasis on particular key westerns amongst critics has biased the critical output so that other issues surrounding genre theory in general and the study of the western specifically have become obscured. Neale further argues that decline of Western production means ‘its role as a generic paradigm, as a model or starting point for the study of Hollywood’s genres, is even more problematic now than it was before’ [2]

The Western and the Construction of American Identity

         It is hard to underestimate the importance of Westerns in American society, helping to play an important role in creating an American identity through a host of representations about the chain of events recreating popular, but not necessarily historically accurate views of the emergence and development of the United States.

The Western has a special relationship to America’s geography, America’s history as well as the construction of an American identity out of the European migrations creating a polyglot ‘nation’ whilst subjugating the earlier inhabitants of the country. As a broad genre the western plays a similar role in American society to the often mythical representations of the past which have formed the basis of what are described as national cinemas in Europe as constructed by ‘heritage’ films.

        

The Western genre and surrounding discourses have blended in various ways to create a ‘mythology’ that has been:

uniquely central to US history, US culture and US identity. This mythology is grounded in the notion (itself as imaginative as it is real ) that there existed a moving western frontier in the US between the seventeenth and the late nineteenth centuries.’[3]

         Neale notes that frontier mythology is the framework for most Westerns but many touch on this minimally. There are many other films which contain elements of the frontier within them. There were hundreds of Indian (Native American) Westerns made in the late 1900s, 1910s and 1920s. Some have argued that they constituted a genre in their own right. These were comprised from a widespread number of themes. Some saw the native American originally described as ‘Indians’ as a ‘noble savage’. Others were about the loyalty and devotion of native Americans to the European settlers.

Problems with the Western and Genre Theory

         The central position of the Western in the development of genre theory has created two linked problems:

  • Work on the Western has strongly influenced theories about genre.
  • Research into the phenomenon of the Western films themselves has often been limited because of the dominant position of genre theory and criticism, which means that other aspects about Westerns such as their role in the construction of an American national identity has been largely ignored within film studies.

         The centrality of the Western in genre theory can be measured by its prominence in both conventional and unorthodox accounts of genre. There are problematic aspects of both the centrality of the western to accounts of genre, and problematic aspects of the western itself.

By using comparative research methods Neale has looked at a wide range of other films distinguished by genre methods of categorisation and comes to the conclusion that many of the characteristics of the Western are unusual rather than typical ways in which genres are constructed: ‘...this is especially true of its visual conventions , of its relationship to US history and US culture, and hence its susceptibility to various methods of formal, cultural, ideological and thematic analysis’ (Neale , 2000 : 66).

        

         Neale draws on Buscombe’s research of 1970 to point out that the visual conventions or iconography of the Western are highly distinctive and highly coded. Neale argues that this strongly marked set of visual codes is the generic exception rather than the rule. These exceptions of Western coding include the combinations of an iconography[4] or set of visual conventions including: clothing; decor; landscape. These conventions also include other aspects of its generic world such as the use of language and modes of transport. Overall Neale concludes that ‘ ... for all these reasons ...it [the Western] is hardly a suitable model for general conceptions and theories of genre (My emphasis)[5].

         This understanding of the range of visual conventions (iconography) has been seen as a very important aspect of the Western, playing an important role in linking the product with audiences and as well as being an important arena for doing case study work in developing genre theory. Neale’s survey of genres leads him to suggest that other critics who have written on other genres using iconography as a key element of their ideas have not been able to develop their arguments in such a convincing manner as those who have written upon Westerns.

‘Those attempting to write on the iconography of the gangster film, the thriller and the musical have usually been far less detailed, and therefore in my view far less convincing, than those writing on the iconography of the western itself’ (Neale, 2000 : 134).

         If Neale’s suggestion is correct, then visual conventions can be considered as a much weaker aspect of other genres than has frequently been argued.[6] This means that it is dangerous to use one model of genre as a model for all genres as it can close down ways of thinking about other generic categories. The logic of Neale’s argument also means that genres can be seen as both very specific in how they are constructed as well as sharing some common features.

Genre Hybridity in the 1920s Western

         Within the whole cycle of the Western genre hybridity - the sharing of other generic conventions - has been common. Neale draws on the work of Letraut, about 1920s silent Westerns. He points out that the films produced then were very different to later Westerns and therefore there wasn’t a ‘fixed nor substantive entity’ within the genre. There was a shifting array of differently stressed and diverse components and numerous alliances with other ‘genres, cycles and trends and from the specific and plural traditions these alliances call into play.’ [7]    

         These films sought to appeal to a variety of audiences ranging from children to adults and from the rural to the cities. There were a variety of hybrid terms used to describe the films such as :

  • Romantic Western
  • Western comedy drama
  • Western farce
  • Western mystery melodrama.

         It is also possible to discuss these films as a range of alliances utilising a wide range of cinematic conventions all of which are worthy of further research:

  • The alliance between the Western, visual action and acrobatic athleticism ( chases and stunts - rodeos)
  • The alliance between the Western, history and ‘realism’. These appeared in frontier epics with a stress on period detail and consistency, and in traditions of psychological characterisation and moral decision-making
  • Alliance between the Western and comedy [8]- comic sidekicks, comic situations, traditions of parody / satire / deployment of stunt and action regimes of bodily gesture.

         It is possible to see that a variety of themes traversed these hybrid genres - religious conversion, racial prejudice, revenge, land-grabbing villains. The relationship to the frontier myth is either distant or complex.

New Research Methods[9]: Reconstructing Genre Theories

         Some researchers have decided to avoid previously received wisdoms. For example, Stanfield in a partly published thesis in 1999 used different research methods based on archival research to re-explore the Western genre coming up with some quite different ideas to those written about previously which included an emphasis on the industry construction of the market. Stanfield’s research techniques included:

  • Archival Research:
  • Examining contemporary trade and newspaper resources
  • The films themselves
  • Cultural histories of the US of its popular cultures in the 19th and 20th centuries.

        

         As a result Stanfield argues that the role of the market [10] was very important. The B western was aimed at rural and small town audiences in which a variety of changing social and cultural relationships were examined through a variety of forms. ‘The singing Western’ was aimed at attracting female audiences for example. By comparison the A western appealed to metropolitan audiences and their concerns. The marketing ploy of romance through male lead stars to appeal to women was successful. This was a multi-generic approach.

         The market failure of Westerns in the 1930s was a combination of lack of romance, alongside an ill judged investment and deployment of new wide-screen technologies against a backdrop of depression. The subsequent relaunch of the Western included films designed to appeal specifically to women. A variation on this theme was the ‘City Western’ with well known male and female stars and dealing with adult themes such as drinking, gambling and sex.

         There was also a cycle of historical films which sometimes overlapped with the ‘city’ film. These were promoted as Americanised engagements with large-scale political and historical themes. They also helped to counter accusations that the censorship codes were preventing engagement with serious issues. They often managed to integrate romantic story-lines thus providing general appeal. The richness of content enables us to see these films as multi-generic.

Different kinds of research have provided a challenge to earlier models of our knowledge about ‘the western’ and upon our reliance on the use of the word ‘classic’ to imply that something which is pre-existent. As a matter of ‘common-sense’. The point about good research is that the of use different methods to allow for the possibility of opening up rather than foreclosing on generic categorisation. In this way previous knowledge can be refined or redefined dependent upon the research outcomes.

         Neale suggests that the models and terms devised at the beginning of the post-war period to discuss Westerns in which the hero’s troubled relationship with society undergoes modification are more straightforwardly applied to Westerns of this post-war period and the late 30’s such as Stagecoach (1939) which received its canonical status at this time.

         It seems doubtful whether these models of the Western genre can be usefully applied to films of the earlier period. This means that within what can be classed as a genre there can be huge shifts in the way these films are made, viewed and criticised. This is all part of contextual criticism [11]. In the post-war context some westerns were able to articulate contemporary post-war and cold war concerns such as:

  • Racism
  • The return of the veteran and their rehabilitation into civil society
  • The issue of national allegiance, especially in relation to the Vietnam war
  • The re-marketing and industry reconstruction of the genre using Elvis Presley and other rising pop stars to capture the growing teen market.

         Neale also raises the issue of whether critical preference for films such as The Searchers (1956) and The Wild Bunch (1969) has tended to obscure the existence of other socio-cultural and aesthetic trends and other film titles resulting in a closing down of research and discussion about westerns in recent years.

Conclusion

         Overall it can be seen from this section that the critical work around the Western has been foundational in the study of genre. At the same time this work has been rather one-sided in its approach to genre ignoring many features that are now increasingly recognised as important to genre studies. These include the notion of genre as process of negotiation between audiences and the industry. Westerns can be seen as both hybrid and multi-generic, as part of a widely differing marketplace and as forming an arena for public debate when socio-political events such as the Vietnam war became an important part of the popular consciousness. Soldier Blue, based on the story of a cavalry massacre of a native American village, is a good example of this. The film functioned to demythologise both the ‘history’ of the American nation established through the Western as well as relate to a current oppressive war through this exposure of the past.



1 [1]Neale, 2000 : 133.

2 [2]Neale , 2000 : 142.

3 [3] Neale, 2000 : 134.

4 [4]See also section on ‘visual conventions and genre’.

5 [5]Neale, 2000 : 134

6 [6]However the issue of mise-en-scene including fashion and stylisation in the section of popular culture shows that more complex research relating genre to visuality could usefuly be done.

7 [7]Neale, 2000 : 137

8 [8]See the section on Comedy and Genre for more on the workings of comic conventions in cinema.

9 [9]See also the section on ‘Methods and Methodology in Film Research’

10[10]See also the section on ‘Genres and Multiple Marketing Strategies’.

11[11]For more on contextual criticism see under ‘Methods and Methodology in Film Research’.


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