Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Westerns: Stagecoach and The Unforgiven, Part II

As good as the movies are in themselves, I am even more struck by the enduring place the Western plays in American mythos. Even though made fifty-five years apart, both Stagecoach and The Unforgiven treat the west in the same way—almost as a character in the film. The American West has, for almost all of our history, been a place where character is revealed. Somehow the vast spaces and relative isolation serve, in our mythology, to more fully reveal character. Perhaps it is because with people so few that each person becomes more important, magnified and seen fully as an individual.

The west is where we go for a new start. The writer Wallace Stegner said of the American West that it is, “The native home of hope.” It’s the place where Americans go for new beginnings—from Davy Crockett to Tom Joad to Jack Kerouac. Rarely is the west seen as an easy and pleasant place. It is a harsh landscape without water. Monument Valley, the iconic western vista where Stagecoach and many other westerns was filmed, is dramatic and beautiful, but one of the most desolate landscapes in the country.

The inescapable drama of the western background thrusts the character dramas into the foreground. Taken out of any social context, people are free to become themselves, whether that is good or bad.

The choices characters make in there movies, to be brave or to be a coward, to choose violence or to walk away from it, to do or to do evil, are theirs alone. No rules of society, no religion, no counselors are available to guide their actions. America has always placed, more than any other country in the world, the responsibility for what you do squarely on the individual him- or herself. The West is America distilled.

Stagecoach, which is much more an ensemble piece than The Unforgiven, makes its distinctions between characters. Under pressure some characters reveal themselves as heroes, while others are cowards. Some come to fully express their humanity and others show their weaknesses. In The Unforgiven, the tension is much more within each character than between them. Good and evil is mixed in every character, and especially in that of William Muny, the lead character played by Clint Eastwood.

I think it is a particularly American trait to see good and evil as a purely individual expression; outside and independent of our relation to other people. It is, in all probability, both our great strength and our great weakness.

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