The Western & the Westerner

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** Notes on Robert Warshow’sMovie Chronicle : The Westerner

Title indicates that Warshow is more concerned about the westerner – the western hero-, than the genre itself. However, the western is pretty much defined by its hero and the hero, particularly in the western and in action movies, is the driving force of the film.

Warshow compares the hero of the gangster movie to that of the western in order to:
– Show the differences in both
– Discuss the parallel between both men’s use of guns
– Compare their positions as outsiders
– Contrast their melancholy and loneliness

The outcome shows that “the westerner” – the hero at the center of The western is:

1. A figure of repose
2. Sort of a zen character who understands the world and its code (comes as no surprise to us that Seven Samurai inspired The Magnificent Seven – where the samurai code is equivalent to the code of honor of the western hero)
3. His melancholy comes from the simple recognition that life is hard and serious.
4. Although we never see him working we recognize that there are no luxuries in his lifestyle, – that he has a hard life.
5. Love is not on his side in the sense that he is bound to be doomed and cannot settle for love – there tends to be something of a higher power that calls him
6. Usually the territory is lawless and the westerner is due to set precedent with his actions
7. He will protect those who are weak from the perils of the evil that surrounds the landscape and from the harshness of the landscape itself.

8. He knows his way around the country and can survive – he is a great scout!
9. We are meant to believe that he has a hard life although we rarely see the westerner at work. – this is why Warshow calls him “a man of leisure”
10. Poverty is all over but the westerner does not suffer from it, nor does The Western focuses on the social aspects of this. Rather it takes from it by implying that in the west wealth is irrelevant and richness comes from moral values rather than by gold or cattle (usually the rich man is corrupt and sponsors the criminals)
11. The classic westerner seems to posses a moral clarity very strong that contrasts the landscape of moral chaos. (New takes on western – like the HBO series Deadwood and even The Searchers, seem to question this moral rectitude)
12. The moral rectitude is somewhat Manichean as conflict between good and bad is often represented between two men, or whites vs. Indians. (in many cases)
13. The westerner fights for justice and order. A justice and order that needs to settle in the west as the societies are just establishing themselves. He is the Law! (if questioned, usually by a woman, he will answer “it has to be done”, as if he held a moral power beyond his humanity.
14. He defends honor and thus he is a gentleman (although not refined)
15. According to Warshow we cannot refer to him as antisocial, not because their is no criminality in his actions, but because we cannot fully call his surroundings social or society.
16. The westerner, seeks not to extend his dominion but to assert his personal value and his tragedy lies that this cannot be fully achieved.
17. This mature understandings of his limitations and the unavoidable guilt of using the force as a law maker, is what gives the westerner his “right” to his melancholy.
18. Doomed by his dentiny; destiny that perhaps no one else but the sheriff or the prostitute are able to understand – he can do nothing but play the drama of the gun fight again and again until the time comes that he gets killed or the one he loves does.
19. He can never settle becasue he has a moral obligation that prevents him from finding happiness.

The woman in westerns play a role that merely helps define the men of the western:

1. A “good” woman is usually unable to understand his motives: She is against killing and he, the westerner, usually fails to make her understand that this is his world, that this is the way things are.
2. Usually the woman comes from the East and she represents refinement, virtue and civilization.
3. The women who are able to understand the world of men are prostitutes – those who are quasi independent, they make a living and survive by themselves and belong to no-one.
4. Other women are equated to children, unable to look after themselves in a vast and violent (not only because its lawless but because of the landscape) territory
Warshow then asks – What is at the centre of the western? :

Western enters into the field of “serious art only when his moral code, is also seen to be imperfect”. Think of uninteresting westerns such as Daniel Boom and stuff, where there is no dilemma – Warshow argues that the “moral ambiguity” – the fact the he is a killer of men, despite the fact that he does so in the name of the law – “darkens his image and [in a way] saves him from absurdity”.

The western, the frontier, the conquest, the new world can be understood as freedom, expansiveness of life, the promise of a better place, later it reveals to us that the landscape, the openness does not hold its promise and it ceases to be the “arena of free movement” but becomes a burden with its great empty space, full of obligations (work the land, very very hard – dessert), the material bareness.

According to Warshow the western movie holds such a strong hold in our imagination because it offers a serious treatment of the problem / dichotomy of violence such as can be found no where in our culture.

The violence is presented up front – the gun is held outside in a holster and not in disguise. The gun shows us he lives in a world of violence and even that he believes in violence.

However, violence is not the driving force of the movie but a conflict that usually seeks resolution through a violent act. The drama is not that of guns being shot all over like in a Tarantino movie, but that of self –restraint: the moment of violence must come in its own time and according to “special laws” – otherwise it looses its value.

However, violence is not the POINT of the western movie, but rather a certain image of life style, a certain image of man that best expresses itself and himself through violence, and the conflict that precisely is born out of the use of violence.

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