As with many other elements of silent film, early Western stars depended more on style for displaying violence than on elaborate effects. When Broncho Billy Anderson and William S. Hart shot someone, the effect was real. The audience would gasp, but not because of bloody wounds. It would gasp because the silent stars could convey the horror of the moment through gestures, movements, and facial expressions. An argument has often been made that for film audiences in the first decades of the 20th century, blood and gore did not horrify or make one squeamish. After all, the United States was still predominantly a rural culture, so audience members handled blood all the time when they prepared chickens for dinner, when they slaughtered hogs in the winter, when they hunted for food. So early film violence tended to be clean but effective. After sound and color arrived, bloody wounds were still rarely emphasized, and most violence was subordinated to trick riding, roping, and elaborate stunts. Early silent Westerns’violence was often much more shocking than the violence of the 1930s and 1940s. The 1950s, however, saw a different kind of violence in Westerns. While there had always been plenty of gunfire in older John Ford films, there was not much significant violence. But with Anthony Mann and Budd Boetticher, things changed. These directors portrayed violent acts by isolating them in the moment, by giving their films a certain sparseness whereby the violent acts, whether gunfire or fistfights, were underlined, so to speak. Boetticher’s Ride Lonesome(1959) and Comanche Station (1960) illustrate this well. In both films, Randolph Scott’s character is hard, not a soft spot in him except his sense of what is right and what is wrong. When he shoots, there is a certain gritting of the teeth and setting of the jaw that indicates this moment is right. Killing in a Boetticher movie is a philosophical consideration. Often it is casual, spontaneous. For Mann, violence is strained. It is difficult. But it is basic to human character. These trends established a context for new kinds of violence the rest of the century. In spaghetti Westerns, violence is bloody but fun. Trinity kills with style and with the least amount of effort he can manage. Django whips out enormous machine gun–like contraptions and lets loose— all to great laughs from the audience. In Sam Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch(1969) violence is life, and it is bloody. This film changed not just Westerns but all of film history with its unrestrained violence. After The Wild Bunch, graphic detailed violence became standard for all Westerns.
   For much of the 20th century, Westerns were nearly always considered the most violent of the film genres. That is no longer the case, but the issues of violence relating to Westerns are informative for all film studies. One of the main concerns about violence in Westerns concerns the question of which is more shocking: the quantity of violence in a given film or the kind of violence portrayed. The violence in The Wild Bunch is sustained, detailed, and pervasive. One of the common concerns about the film is that the more sustained visual emphasis on the blood and the impact of the bullet, the less attention is paid to the impulse behind the killing. The killing in such films, for all its quantity, may be less horrifying than the killing Lee Van Cleef does, pure evil in his eyes as he squeezes the trigger. There is just as much violence in many of Shakespeare’s plays as in any Western, but there is a significant difference: “In the Western violence is characteristically the hero’s means of resolving the conflict generated by his adversary; in Shakespeare it is the means by which the hero destroys himself or is destroyed...” (Cawelti 1999, 12). Violence and Masculinity. The cowboy herois distinguished immediately as a man with a gun. Westerns inevitably center on gunplay and the resulting violence. Alternative Westerns and postmodern Westerns regularly treat themes of the erosion of masculine potency in a turn-of-the-century culture that seems to devalue traditional masculine roles. Late 20th-century and early 21st-century Westerns, such as Young Guns(1988) and American Outlaws(2001), allow us to examine contemporary masculinity issues through the Western mythof man (not woman) against wilderness and savagery, fighting to establish civilization against tremendous odds. The man with the gun is able to confront threats to manhood decisively in a fantasy of times gone by. The gun becomes the ultimate phallic symbol, proving the power once again of male potency.
   Significance of Western Violence to Our Own Time. “Violence is as American as apple pie,” so goes the popular adage. The United States has always been a violent society, one that resolves conflict with guns. Some cultural critics trace such deeply ingrained attitudes to the fundamental myth of its culture, the myth of the West, and its emphasis on violence: “Not only does America, and the West in particular, have a violent heritage, it admires the heritage” (Calder 1975, 135). So, when it comes to the study of cinema Westerns, the question is: What can we learn about violence in our culture from Westerns? Perhaps because war in the 20th and 21st centuries has been seen as a prelude to annihilation, violence in fiction and cinema has been treated with increasing ambiguity. Certainly, such is the case with cinema Westerns. The cowboy hero and his gun help define the genre. “Perhaps one source of [his] appeal is the way in which he resolves this ambiguity by giving a sense of moral significance and order to violence” (Cawelti 1999, 41). “If you want to call me that, smile,” the Virginian (Gary Cooper) drawls as he diffidently stares down the cowardly Trampas in The Virginian (1929), a film based on Owen Wister’s 1902 novel by the same title. The cowboy hero knows how to use a gun, and he uses it with deadly effectiveness, but only as a last resort. His masculinity requires him to act his role as a man of honor, but honor demands restraint and self-discipline. The Virginian, as with all classic cowboy heroes, displays supreme self-control and shows no inner conflict, no doubts about the honorable course of action. The hero’s restraint suggests the difference between his violence and the outlaw’s violence. Restraint allows the hero to sublimate his aggressive nature and to indulge in controlled, legitimated violence. His control contrasts with the outlaw’s lack of control. His restraint provides significance, and his participation in the ritualistic shootout creates aesthetic order out of chaos. He kills, but he kills cleanly and fairly. He kills with a six shooter at close range.
   These ritualistic patterns mattered in the cold war 1950s and 1960s as the Western commented on international tensions. At the end of the 20th century, after the cold war, violence in Westerns became less restrained, less ritualistic, and less endued with moral significance. Purgation of moral impurities no longer dominated Westerns after Sam Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch (1969) and the Sergio Leone spaghetti Westerns. Instead, violence tended to reflect the jaded meaninglessness of end-of-the-century amorality. Skulls pop and ooze as they are stepped on (Dead Man [1995]) and bullets blast holes into bodies so wide that sunlight shines through (The Quick and the Dead [1995]). What does it matter? directors seem to be asking.

Historical Dictionary of Westerns in Cinema. . 2012.


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