Every few years, I take a step back, examine my taste in film and television, and realize how much it’s evolved. As a child, my favorite films and stories incorporated aspects of adventure, fantasy, and science fiction. As a teenager, my fascination with the juvenile humor found in raunchy comedies was a point in my life I now find quite embarrassing. I never get rid of the movies I collect, so I can take a look at my DVD collection (featuring some movies I never intend to watch again) and can see the changes.
In the last five years or so, I’ve found myself becoming ever more intrigued and fascinated by Westerns. While I’d like to think of my tastes primarily being influenced by my life’s stages, I know that culture’s impact on me is entirely unavoidable. The fascination I have with Westerns can probably be traced back to 2007, the year of 3:10 to Yuma, The Assassination of Jesse James, and No Country for Old Men. As I’ve delved deeper into the genre and its history, I’ve become enamored by the films of John Ford, Sergio Leone, and Sam Peckinpah. Along the way I’ve developed an affection for the Samurai films of Akira Kurosawa (which share many themes of the Western genre and were a major influence on its reinvention in the 1960s.)
My two favorite films of 2012 were Looper and Django Unchained, both of which share an influence from the Western genre (Looper more subtly than Django). Three of my favorite shows currently on television are Breaking Bad, Justified, and The Walking Dead. Unsurprisingly, I’ve found that each of these shows incorporate different themes shared in the Western genre.
So, what is it about this genre that captures my imagination? After a good bit of reflection, I believe a good part of it stems from the escapist way in which my imagination works. It can probably be traced back to the fantasy adventuring entertainment I loved as a child. When I watch a film, read a book, or watch a show, I’m looking for a way to be transported to a reality different from my own, and that tends to be what my favorite films allow me to do. As a kid, movies like Star Wars provided me with a window into another world, full of exotic locations, characters, and rules that did not apply to the world I lived in. As an adult, I think Westerns and Samurai films provide me with the same opportunities, while delivering them within the frame of historical context taken from my reality. Perhaps knowing that these situations could have existed in some way makes a part of me yearn for them in my own life.
Now comes the second question: why on earth would I want to live in or be part of that period in history (or at least its depiction in Western films)? In Westerns, the country is depicted as a huge expanse of wilderness which is ungoverned, while the people living within it battle nature, outlaws, and each other to survive. Small settlements and towns provide some security, but very little in terms of keeping murder and crimes at bay from outlaws who see fit to challenge an underwhelming amount of law keeping officials. It basically boils down to every man for himself, with helpless and innocent bystanders at the mercy of every gun-toting individual they come into contact with.
Yet, here’s the thing about most of those gun-toting characters: you always know where they stand and what they want. The rules and the characters in Westerns are generally pretty simple. I’m not saying that they’re all one-dimensional and without emotional complexity (though it can be easy to portray some of their archetypes that way). As difficult as it may be to live in, the people within this Western reality have wants, needs, and a way of life much simpler than the world in which we all live. Perhaps it’s a result of taking away life’s complexities, or it could just be a trope of the genre, but I find that the majority of characters within Westerns to be much more genuine and less deceitful than those in other films.
As I get older, I find it increasingly difficult to stomach human capacity for deceit. On a daily basis, I encounter countless people who are willing to put on different faces in order to get the things they want (respect, business, admiration, etc.). I know it’s part of human nature, and that this isn’t a new occurrence, but I do feel that it’s much more prevalent in everyday life than it has been before. Perhaps it’s my own wishful misconception, but I find that the majority of characters in Westerns stray away from this particular human quality. They wear their hearts on their sleeves and the color of their hats.
I mentioned earlier that one of my favorite films of 2012 was Django Unchained, which seems counterproductive to the point that I just made regarding my admiration for characters in Westerns. One of the major plot points in Django Unchained requires the film’s protagonists, Django (Jamie Fox) and Dr. Schultz (Christoph Waltz), to put on a facade in order to deceive Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio) into selling them Django’s lost wife. There are other instances in the genre of such deception being utilized by protagonists. In both Akira Kurosawa’s Yojimbo and its Spaghetti Western counterpart, A Fistful of Dollars (Leone), each lone protagonist tricks two gangs, who are at war within a town, into thinking he is on their side, while actually playing both ends against the middle for the benefit of the innocent inhabitants within the town.
I’m not going to say that good intentions are what justify means, because that leads down a very misconceived method of thinking. What makes Django and Dr. Schultz different from the men they are going after is their honesty about who they are with themselves and the audience. They don’t like what they are doing, but know that they must begrudgingly play by the rules in order to come out with Django’s wife. There are times when Django is forced to compromise his own morals in order to gain Calvin’s trust. All the while, he knows that his actions are for a selfish cause, and he knows that it will take a toll on his soul and conscience. Schultz is even pushed to the limit of his moral boundaries and is haunted by what he has allowed to happen, forcing him to sacrifice himself.
On the other side of the coin is Calvin Candie and his head house slave, Stephen (Samuel L. Jackson). Calvin puts forth his best hospitality and friendliest face in front of Django and Schultz, but only as long as it means he’ll be getting something in return. When it is revealed that Dr. Schultz isn’t there for what Calvin wants, his true face shows and his misguided beliefs are truly spoken, and his outward personality finally matches his atrocious actions. Stephen, while also being responsible for monstrous acts in the service of the Candie family, is guilty of a different kind of deception, self-deception. Over his years of service, Stephen seems to have become accustomed to being the authority over the plantation in Calvin’s absence as his right hand man. Stephen’s attitude toward every other slave indicates his feelings of superiority over them, and perhaps he yearns for a true place in the Candie family. Django calls him out at the end of the film for the traitor that he truly is to his own people, disillusioning himself into thinking that he could be an exception to the rules and prejudices that dominated the south.
When a character has nothing to hide from us and can look at themselves in the mirror without being disillusioned, there is a sense mystique and intrigue that is being sacrificed. Don’t get me wrong, I love it when wonderfully mysterious elements are used to great effect, yet every once in a while I like to escape into a world in which I know the rules (and yes, the moral codes) that the characters live by externally and internally. The mystery is gone, but it is replaced with a sense of humility and nobility that I feel this world could use more of.