For much of its history as a film genre, the Western has been most closely associated with America and with Hollywood cinema. As one of the first film genres to emerge in Hollywood’s silent era, the Western operated as a key environment for the development of cinematic techniques, film style, characterization and mise-en-scène. Its setting in the American West has likewise funded the development of the genre. As Jim Kitses notes, “American frontier life provides the milieu and mores of the western, its wild bunch of cowboys, its straggling towns and mountain scenery” (8). But the American context has provided more than just a geographical setting for the Western; it provides a historical frame for the Western – the period leading up to and beyond the civil war (1861-65) to the “closing” of the frontier roughly around 1890 – and in turn this historical frame, with its wagon trains west, cattle-drives and completion of the trans-continental railroad, inflects the Western with cultural, economic and ideological purpose.

The three main phases of the American Western – the early silent Western with its stark characterizations of good and evil, the classical Western with its magnificent scenery and more nuanced explorations of character, and the revisionist Western with its counter-culture politics and contrition towards colonial violence – give us a kind of “dramatic arc” via which we can view the development of the use the Western has been put to in the U.S. That is, what develops and changes over these phases is the political and ideological function of the Western; in the early Westerns and in many classical Westerns the genre was used as a mechanism of national identity and mythography, a means of seemingly justifying the territorial expansion and subjugation of Indigenous peoples that characterized America’s colonial period. In the revisionist phase, however, it is precisely this justification of colonial violence which is questioned, and the Western becomes a means through which to re-assess American history, and even to allegorise contemporary issues, to do with the Cold War or American foreign policy for example (see Corkin).

In this sense, the Western can be understood as a kind of medium, a vehicle which may be co-opted for a range of different purposes. Jim Kitses argues that the Western genre has operated as a structural set of possibilities for thematic development: “the model we must hold before us is of a varied and flexible structure, a thematically fertile and ambiguous world of historical material shot through with archetypal elements which are themselves ever in flux” (19).

It is this fertility of the Western, its thematic openness and recombinative structure, that has allowed it to break free of its purely American context. Thus Christopher Frayling writes that “after the ‘rules’ of the Italian Western genre had been established … a group of writers … managed to use the genre for overtly political purposes, manipulating audience expectations while putting over their ideas about American interventionism, particularly the role of the CIA in Latin America” (62). Further, the Italian Western is generally understood to have developed on the back of the highly successful West German Westerns, first produced by production company Constantin and director Harald Reinl in the early 1960s (Frayling 103).

These films, based on Karl May’s Winnetou novels from the late 19th and early 20th centuries, were romanticized fantasies of Western life and reflected the German “hobbyist” movement’s obsession with all things “Indianer.” Commentators on the hobbyist movement, the West German Winnetou films and their East German DEFA Indianerfilme counterparts, have read this culture as an historical substitution, where “der Indianer” operates as a fantasized projection of a lost German tribal identity that has been obscured by the 20th century’s more problematic relation to the notion of “the folk” (Lutz 172-3; see also Gemünden).

Approached in this fashion, the Western can be seen as a cultural “space” which may take the American West as an iconographic and thematic referent but which applies these iconographies and themes to a vast range of purposes and contexts. Thus not only do we have East and West German Westerns from the 1960s and ‘70s (the “Sauerkraut Westerns”), and Italian and Spanish “Spaghetti” Westerns, but we can also observe:

  • Polish Westerns (e.g Lemonade Joe, 1964, dir. Oldrich Lipský; Dead Man’s Bounty, 2006, dir. Piotr Uklanski), and a distinctly Polish contribution to film poster design (see Mulroy).
  • The French Lucky Luke comic series, which in turn has spawned numerous films and television series – see Pellegrin, this issue.
  • Australian Westerns; a long tradition of bushranger films, plus contemporary revisionist Westerns – see Cooke, this issue.
  • The Western genre employed throughout Asia – for example as postmodern Japanese Westerns (Sukiyaki Western Django, 2007, dir. Takashi Miike) or as melodramatic Thai Westerns (Tears of the Black Tiger, 2000, dir. Wisit Sasanatieng).
  • The incorporation of Western iconographies and themes into African cinema as a critique of globalization (e.g. Bamako, 2006, dir. Abderrahmane Sissako; Hyenas, 1992, dir. Djibril Diop Mambety).
  • The subversion of Western iconographies and racial representations by First Nations artists, such as the work of Canada’s Stephen Foster and Kent Monkman (and his alter ego Miss Chief Eagle Testicle).
  • Indian Westerns which re-purpose the Spaghetti Western (e.g. Sholay, 1975, dir. Ramesh Sippy) – see Mukherjee, this issue.

It is thus this global and contemporary Western that this issue of Transformations is designed to explore – through both analyses of the international spread and re-use of the Western, and also through contemporary re-readings of classic Westerns, which look again at the thematic and cinematographic innovations that underpinned the development of the Western during its most prolific period.

The issue begins with Chelsea Wessels’ discussion of transnationality and translation in relation to two films that relate to but depart from the Spaghetti Western tradition: Mario Camus’ 1970 La Collera del Vento (aka Revenge of Trinity) and Álex de la Iglesia’s 2002 film 800 Bullets. Wessels argues that, in different ways, both of these films take up the legacy of the Spaghetti Western but do so in response to quite different national contexts and issues; in Revenge of Trinity, the film co-opts the “Trinity” series of Spaghetti Westerns in order to depict a peasant uprising in Andalusia; in 800 Bullets, the Spanish contribution to what is frequently thought of as an Italian genre is foregrounded through setting the film in a Spanish “Wild West” film set that now operates as a tourist location. Wessels uses the notion of translation to show how the Western as an economic and cultural entity crosses national borders and circulates as a transnational entity.

The Spaghetti Western tradition is again invoked in Madhuja Mukherjee’s discussion of Ramesh Sippy’s 1975 epic Sholay, a film which in its visual aesthetics, soundtrack and gangster/revenge theme represents an explicit hybridization of the Spaghetti Western with the concerns of post-Independence India. Through an intricate visual and cultural analysis of the film and its contexts of production, Mukherjee demonstrates how Sholay must be understood as a transcultural phenomenon that transcends its appropriation of Western codes in order to speak directly to the complex dynamics of India’s political situation, in the 1970s, as a post-colonial nation.

Grayson Cooke’s article, “Whither the Australian Western? Performing Genre and the Archive in Outback and Beyond,” looks at the instantiation of the Western within the Australian context. Beginning with an exploration of the early Bushranger films, which are often understood as a uniquely Australian form of the Western which developed simultaneously with the Hollywood Western during the silent era, the paper examines the relative failure of Australian cinema to develop the Bushranger genre into a large-scale tradition of the Western. This examination is conducted in order to set the scene for an analysis of a live performance project, Outback and Beyond, produced by Cooke and sound-artist Mike Cooper. This project seeks to produce a “live Australian Western” out of archival footage of the Australian outback from the National Film and Sound Archive. Cooke discusses the project as an attempt to translate the iconography of the Western into an Australian context, and in so doing re-shape the historical consciousness and national identities that arise from archival records.

Still within the Pacific, Sarina Pearson examines the fascinating story of Samoan  writer John Kneubuhl, and his contribution as a writer for the 1960s sci-fi/Western TV series The Wild, Wild West. Kneubuhl was responsible for conceiving of one of the series’ villains, Miguelito Loveless, whom Pearson describes as “three feet ten inches of postcolonial malevolence.” In this paper, Pearson examines the Miguelito Loveless character within the context of Kneubuhl’s cross-cultural upbringing in Samoa as the child of Samoan and American-German parents, and the popularity of Hollywood Westerns in the 1950s Pacific. She argues that Loveless operates as a kind of postcolonial revenge fantasy, a vehicle for Kneubuhl to address both his own status as a doubly displaced ‘afakasi at the heart of the American media machine, and the colonial and imperial powers that structured the experience of life in the Pacific in the middle of the 20th century.

All of the previous papers explore, in different ways, how the Western interacts with national identities – at stake is the question of the power that arises from loading up a genre with the capacity to relate to the complex question of national identity. But individual power, and thus individual violence, is also a key aspect of the Western, and it this question of the violence of the individual – the power to kill – that Annick Pellegrin addresses in her paper on the French comic book series Lucky Luke. In this paper, Pellegrin explores the origins of the injunction placed on Lucky Luke’s character that he can never be seen to kill. The plot of James Huth’s 2009 film adaptation of Lucky Luke revolves around Lucky Luke’s inability to kill, and explains it by reference to a vow Luke made upon the murder of his parents when a child. However, Pellegrin sources a quite different root for this injunction; the 1949 passing of a law preventing publications for children depicting any criminal acts that “could demoralise children or young people.” Interestingly, as Pellegrin argues, this law was less about public morality and more about market protectionism, and was intended to stem the flow of violent American comics into the French market. Hence the underlying irony of this transnational phenomenon: a non-violent French Western that stems from the authors’ love of American Westerns, operates according to the dictates of a law against the violence of American entertainment.

The question of violence in the Western is again raised in Pete Falconer’s article “The night-time town as an alternative space in the Western genre,” which examines the function of violence in the Western in terms of night-time settings. Through an analysis of scenes in Hollywood Westerns including Duel in the Sun, Pursued, Rio Bravo, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, Falconer argues that a focus on night-time settings throws a different light on the function of violence in both classical and revisionist Westerns between the end of the Second World war and the early 1960s. Falconer’s main argument is that the night-time town presents a different space from the day time town; a space “in which different values and assumptions obtain, where conventions of the day time world are corrupted or reflected more pessimistically.” Gun fights in the night-time town do not take place according to the conventions of the duel, but involve deception, secretiveness and the breaching of the westerner’s code of honour. Interestingly Falconer notes that in the night-time shoot out, the hero is passive rather than active and that “his advantage comes more from his surroundings than from himself.” Indeed, in the night time shoot-out, a certain equality of chance prevails as each of the protagonists is reduced by the shadowy surroundings and by the suspension of the code of honour to opportunistic tactics in a ruthless fight to the death. In this case the hero becomes a much more “morally ambiguous character” than he is usually understood to be in the day time Western.

Helen Miller and Warwick Mules’s article “Anthony Mann’s Film Westerns: Mise-en-scène and the Total Image in Bend of the River” presents a detailed reading of one of Anthony Mann’s key Westerns in terms of a mise-en-scène in which the action is configured directly into the landscape. Drawing on Jeanine Bassinger’s concept of the total image, Miller and Mules argue that Mann’s innovative deployment of mise-en-scène constitutes a modernist turn in the development of the Western. Unlike the classical Western, which presents a theatrical mise-en-scène where the action takes place as if on a stage, Mann’s Westerns present the action as part of the unfolding of the film itself as a dynamic material becoming. The struggle of the characters is “a struggle with the resistive landscape as much as it is between men.” Through extensive figural analysis of specific scenes, Miller and Mules “draw out the way mise-en-scène produces the meaning of the film through a dynamic interrelation of human and non-human things. This production is mythic in the sense that the quest for a New World is actively realised in the film’s images through the landscape as an “event” of the film itself.”

David Baker and Danielle Zuvela argue that the dominant critical modality for considering the feminine in Westerns has been in terms of a basic conceptual distinction between East and West/Civilisation and Nature (derived from the seminal work of Henry Nash Smith), with the feminine tending to be placed squarely on the side of the East/Civilisation, resulting in a certain inflexibility in terms of analyses of gender in the Western genre.  In order to develop a revision of these basic assumptions, the authors draw upon the work of Jane Tompkins in exploring the notion of female acquiescence and Joanna Hearne in exploring the notion of female circulation in the genre.  Baker and Zuvela consider the relationship between female acquiescence and circulation in several early Anthony Mann Westerns in order to develop a mode of analysis which can overcome some of the inflexibility associated with earlier approaches, suggesting that although the feminine  routinely crosses clearly and routinely demarcated boundaries, this ‘transgressivity’ in the Western film does not necessarily involve unsettling or deconstructing of boundaries.

Finally, Birgitta Frello develops an analysis of John Ford’s seminal film The Searchers (1956) which focusses upon the often noted ambivalence of the main character Ethan Edwards (John Wayne).  Frello suggests that although ambivalent, the point of view of the film remains fundamentally “white” because it at no point seriously questions the fundamental hierarchy between White and Indian.  Using an analytics of hybridity, Frello explores the different forms of blending in the film, both legitimate and illegitimate, and in order to consider both the ways in which essentialised categories are destabilised and displaced as well as the ways in which blending determines the distribution of agency in the film.  Frello warns, however, that transgressing the racial divide does not carry any specific meaning in itself, and any particular hybrid position being read as powerful, critical or vulnerable depends entirely upon its meaning in a given context.
Editorial: Grayson Cooke, Warwick Mules and David Baker
Works Cited

Corkin, Stanley. Cowboys as Cold Warriors: The Western and U.S. History. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2004.

Frayling, Christopher. Spaghetti Westerns: Cowboys and Europeans from Karl May to Sergio Leone. London: I.B. Tauris, 2006.

Gemunden, Gerd. “Between Karl May and Karl Marx: the DEFA Indianerfilme.” Germans and Indians: Fantasies, Projections, Encounters. Eds. Collin G. Galloway, Gerd Gemünden & Susanne Zantrop. Lincoln & London: University of Nebraska Press, 2002. 243-256.

Kitses, Jim. Horizons West. Bloomington & London: Indiana University Press, 1969.

Lutz, Hartmut. “German Indianthusiasm: A Socially Constructed German National(ist) Myth.” Germans and Indians: Fantasies, Projections, Encounters. Eds. Collin G. Galloway, Gerd Gemünden & Susanne Zantrop. Lincoln & London: University of Nebraska Press, 2002. 167-184.

Chelsea Wessels
“Do I look Mexican?”: Translating the Western Beyond National Borders
> Abstract

This paper explores the migration of the western beyond national borders, specifically examining films that circulate amongst Spanish, Italian, and American contexts through translation. The films examined here are not traditional “spaghetti westerns” so much as films on the “fringe” of this well-documented and analyzed group of films. Revenge of Trinity, or La Collera del Vento, a Spanish-Italian collaboration, focuses exclusively on farm workers rights in rural Andalusia, transporting stereotypical western figures to the story of a workers uprising. 800 Bullets, a film that directly addresses the legacy of the spaghetti western from a modern Spanish viewpoint, focuses on the global impact of the western genre. Using translation as a critical lens, this article argues that it is possible to rethink the western as a transnational genre, where even films tied to a particular national context become products of the circulation and translation of generic elements.

Madhuja Mukherjee
The Singing Cowboys: Sholay and the Significance of (Indian) Curry Westerns within Post-Colonial Narratives
> Abstract

This paper examines Sholay (/Flames, dir. Ramesh Sippy, 1975), one of most commercially successful and ceaselessly popular Indian films, in order to comprehend the function of the popular within the political. The film was a self-conscious adaptation of Spaghetti-Westerns, especially Sergio Leone’s Once Upon a Time in the West (1968); moreover, a series of so-called Hindi B-movies like Mera Gaon Mera Desh (/My village, my country, dir. Raj Khosla, 1971) and Khote Sikkay (/Counterfeit coins, dir. Narendra Bedi, 1973), have seemingly inspired the making of Sholay. Therefore, this paper first refers to the historical significance of the film both within the realm of popular cultures, as well as within the chronicles of the political everyday. Secondly, it considers the visual style and the soundtrack, in order to make meaning of the multiple influences, as well as study the restructuring of a dominant Hollywood genre within Indian contexts. By presenting an overview of the Western influences this paper argues for the social import of the cult of Sholay. Briefly, the paper suggests that the film has the ability to tell us more about India’s cultural and historical transformations and thus, may be applied as a tool and a method through which one can read the burgeoning problems of a post-colonial state as well as its uneven growth and rambling conditions. In fact, its multiple excesses produce a framework by means of which one may consider the continuities and the breaks as well as the tussle over modernity within post-colonial contexts.

Grayson Cooke
Whither the Australian Western? Performing Genre and the Archive in Outback and Beyond
> Abstract

“Outback and Beyond: A Live Australian Western” is a live audio-visual performance by myself and Rome-based sound artist Mike Cooper. In the show, Mike’s soundtrack of deconstructed Blues and processed electronics is juxtaposed against a live re-mix of archival footage of the Australian outback cut from films in the National Film and Sound Archive. The result is a live “Australian Western,” a meditation on Australian iconography and mythography. Despite historical and geographical similarities to the USA, Australia has no cinematic tradition of the Western. Its archive is filled with images of harsh desert lands, of hardy Colonial settlers, of burgeoning communications technologies, the railroad and the telegraph, and encounters with native peoples; yet these images do not coalesce into “the Western” as such. In this paper I will explore the notion of the Australian Western in the context of “Outback and Beyond.” Why did Australia not develop the Western in the formative years of its cinema industry? And what does it mean to propose a live Western, built from archival materials?

Sarina Pearson
Hollywood Westerns and the Pacific: John Kneubuhl and The Wild Wild West
> Abstract

In the mid to early twentieth century Pacific, Hollywood westerns and their signature trope, the cowboy, were extremely popular (Pearson 157-160). Paradoxically the western’s unwavering commitment to hegemonic white masculinity and U.S. colonial domination appealed to rather than alienated Polynesian audiences. In Samoa, Tonga and New Zealand, westerns were preferred above all other genres (Keesing and Keesing 166; Keesing 441). Avid transnational consumption of white masculinity on remote islands at the end of Hollywood’s distribution chain presents an interesting contradiction but it is not the only way in which Hollywood westerns and the Pacific inter-related. John A. Kneubuhl, a writer of Samoan and German-American descent wrote stories and scripts for almost forty American television series in the fifties and sixties. Kneubuhl’s Hollywood career was by any measure extremely successful, but he dismissed much it as mere ‘craft’ (Vought 193). Nevertheless, his mid-century television work, particularly for The Wild Wild West and one of its chief villains, the diminutive dastardly Miguelito Loveless, expresses deep ambivalence about the transcendent masculinity of the cowboy and the colonial consolidation that westerns symbolized more generally. Kneubuhl’s writing for The Wild Wild West, offers unique insight into the cultural entanglements of the postcolonial Pacific. In this case an ambivalent Polynesian voice writes back to Hollywood not from the experimental or independent margins but from inside the industry using the most significant genre of the century.

Annick Pellegrin
“I Knew Killing a Man Would Kill You”: Lucky Luke Shaped by Myth and History
> Abstract

Robert Warshow describes western film as a genre that allows little variation and in which the hero “could not fulfill himself if the moment did not finally come when he can shoot his enemy down”. Although in many ways the comic book hero Lucky Luke corresponds to Warshow’s description, the fact that the former has never killed anyone is central to the plot of James Huth’s 2009 film adaptation of the comic series. When Lucky Luke, the “lonesome cowboy”, is tricked into thinking that he has killed someone, he hangs up his Colt and begins living the life of a family man. When Lucky Luke finds out the truth, the brains of the operation states: “I knew killing a man would kill you”. In reality, however, Lucky Luke has killed six men in the comic series: Mad Jim, Phil Defer and the Dalton brothers. If “[y]ou can’t live in the West without a gun”, and if Lucky Luke is “man who shoots faster than his own shadow”, why is it that he cannot kill in the film? Why was it possible for him to kill Mad Jim? How can a series feature duels and executions but almost no deaths? I suggest that the answers are to be found in the history and the myth of Lucky Luke. In this essay I therefore propose to explain why killing a man would kill Lucky Luke, by considering the historical context of the creation of this comic series, its inner workings and its myth.

Pete Falconer
The Night-Time Town as an Alternative Space in the Western Genre
> Abstract

This article examines the setting of the night-time town as an alternative space within the wider iconography of the Western genre. I discuss the ways in which this trope is used to complicate some of the conventions through which Westerns represent violence as meaningful and justified. I compare parallel moments in three Westerns: Pursued (Raoul Walsh, 1947), Rio Bravo (Howard Hawks, 1959) and The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (John Ford, 1962), in which a character is shot dead on the streets of a town at night. These movies use the night-time town to establish an alternative perspective on violence within the Western, departing from some of the genre’s more prominent strategies for portraying violence, such as the convention of the gunfight and its associated values. However, I argue that the complications and uncertainties around violence that are expressed through the trope of the night-time town can still be accommodated within the diverse makeup of the Western genre.

Helen Miller and Warwick Mules
Anthony Mann’s Film Westerns: Mise-en-scène and the Total Image in Bend of the River
> Abstract

This paper will explore innovations in mise-en-scène exhibited by the film Westerns of Anthony Mann. We will argue that Mann’s Westerns introduce an imagistic mise-en-scène that shifts the Western genre from theatrical staging of narrative action found in the classical-realist style of films such as Stagecoach and Red River, to a mise-en-scène that foreshortens landscape into a surface of hyper-real filmic affects. We follow Jeanine Basinger’s proposal to read Mann’s films in terms of what she calls the “total image.” The total image is a fusion of form and content so that meaning is produced out of the composition of elements in the film frame. However, our argument deviates significantly from Basinger’s. Instead of reducing the total image to an expression of the psychological state of the hero, as does Basinger, we understand the total image to be the film as a whole so that its parts are always working to produce the whole in a constantly adjusting process of figuration at the level of mise-en-scène. The paper will focus on one of Mann’s films: Bend of the River (1952), analysing the way it unfolds as a series of tableau images. Transcendent meaning is produced out of the interaction between the viewer and this unfolding tableau as a continual adjusting and rebalancing of the mise-en-scène. Character actions appear directly linked to non-human elements and to the landscape itself. At the level of transcendent meaning, these linkages produce a mythic event concerning the struggle with nature in a quest to establish a new community of free yeomen farmers, prefigured through the actions of the hero in his quest for redemption from a fallen past. Our paper proposes a reading of Mann’s Westerns as distinctly modernist in style, thus moving beyond the classical-realist style of film Westerns.

David Baker and Danielle Zuvela
Mann and Woman: the Function of the Feminine in the “Noir Westerns” of Anthony Mann
> Abstract

This paper considers the ways in which the feminine has been considered and theorized in the critical literature on the genre. We consider and explore the relationship between two issues in particular, on the one hand the problem of female acquiescence in relation to the “shoot-out.” We call this the “Virginian effect” due to its derivation from the climactic moment in Owen Wister’s seminal and hugely influential novel The Virginian (1902), in short the moment where the female who loves the male hero renounces her previous opposition to the hero engaging in a shoot-out with the villain. On the other hand the issue of female circulation in the Western, the capacity of women to move between differing and even opposing sides in a Western conflict. We explore the relationship between female acquiescence and circulation in three early Anthony Mann westerns.

Birgitta Frello
Hybridity, Agency and the Distribution of Whiteness in The Searchers
> Abstract

Hybridity, Agency and the Distribution of Whiteness in The Searchers John Ford’s highly celebrated Western The Searchers from 1956 is applauded for its critique of racism but also criticised for being racist itself – partly due to the ambivalence of the protagonist, Ethan Edwards (John Wayne) who is portrayed both as a hero and as a racist. The transgression of the racial divide between Whites and Indians is central to the narrative of the film, since the three main characters of the film all in different ways occupy hybrid positions between Whites and Indians. Through an analytics of hybridity the article contributes to elucidating the complexities of these positions by turning our attention to the construction of polarity, transgression and the distribution of agency. It sheds light on how the racial transgressions that drive the narrative both confirm and defy a simple racial dichotomy. Finally, it argues that the film is interesting today because the complexity of racial categories and their conflation with other socio-cultural categories that it displays makes it ideal for an ”exemplary” analysis of the tensions and contradictions that are often found in representations that struggle to overcome stereotypes and dichotomisations that are also part of the basic cultural narratives of their time and society.