By Oliver Farry
It wasn’t just Hollywood that reveled in the glorious adventures offered by the Western as a genre – Europe made its fair share, too.
The Western is one of those film genres that owes its survival largely to the enthusiasm of hardcore cinephiles. Since they stopped making regular appearances on cinema marquees sometime in the 1970s, there has been relatively little demand for Westerns and what films do get made are often quickly forgotten. Yet there remains a desire among filmmakers to tackle a Western – some have even been successful, such as the TV show Deadwood, Andrew Dominik’s poetically revisionist The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford and Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained, a tribute to the more scabrous of the Spaghetti Westerns, directed by Sergio Corbucci and starring Franco Nero. One can imagine though that a Western is a tough pitch to Hollywood – unless you can jazz it up some way with violence or comedy, it’s hard to see where an audience for cowboy movies might be. There’s hardly anyone under the age of 50 for whom Westerns were a constant feature of their growing up. For most, it was something from an earlier generation that their parents watched; bring the age threshold down to 25 and Westerns seem positively prehistoric.
Still, Westerns are a dominant part of the Hollywood canon, and people with a serious interest in film history and heritage tend to revere them. Screenwriters and directors figure large among this constituency, hence the periodic sorties into the genre by the likes of the Coen Brothers, Sam Raimi, Kelly Reichardt and Alejandro González Iñárritu, whose The Revenant is due out next year. Tellingly though, nobody since Walter Hill in his heyday has attempted to make more than one. The fact that Westerns are ineffably old-fashioned is the most obvious reason for their decline but changing political and social mores are probably a more determining factor. Just as jazz has, in recent decades, been condemned to an inexorable forward advance into the ever more arcane reaches of improvisation, neither can the Western be what it once was. The Old West is not viewed with quite the same fond indulgence as in the past, and portrayals of Native Americans as savage incorrigible enemies of America are viewed rather dimly these days, even in a country as conservative as the US can often be – even John Ford had come around to that realization towards the end of his career. The rise of the Western was built on the vivid mythology of the United States’ most recent past, and once that mythological edifice began to crumble, the Western fell from grace.
But Westerns are also notable for being blank canvases and sites of ideological contention. The Revisionist Western had gained a firm hold on Hollywood by the time the genre began to peter out, even if older mainstream Westerns themselves were far from being simplistic on the matter of dialectics – Howard Hawks and Ford, unreconstructed males as they were, interrogated the old codes in studio-era Westerns such as Red River, Rio Bravo, Fort Apache and The Man Who Shot Liberty Valence. It is this thematic suppleness of the Western that has long attracted European filmmakers, working outside Hollywood, to the genre. Their concerns sometimes intersected with those of “native” Westerns, more often they were at cross-purposes. Initially though, the attraction of the Western was merely its sense of adventure, which was in itself a bedrock of European popular culture in the late Imperial age.
The first European “Western” seems to be the Lumière Brothers’ two-minute short Repas d’Indiens (albeit of Mexican Indians), from 1896. Native American scenes and other depictions of the West continued to be popular among the European studios in the early days of single-reel films, such as the “Arizona Bill” series, filmed in Camargues in France from 1911 to 1913 (and later paid homage as “Arizona Jim” in Jean Renoir’s The Crime of Monsieur Lange (1936)). This was the first in a long series of European Westerns to be filmed in the old continent – the one thing about Westerns is that, once you found a wide-open landscape vaguely redolent of the American West, they were relatively cheap to make. Almeria in Spain, Montenegro, Ukraine, Bosnia, Israel and South Africa would all be used as locations for European Westerns. The French did attempt to get a foothold Stateside though – Pathé initially thought it was a good idea to film Westerns across the Hudson from Manhattan in Jersey City, before it dawned on them that Texas, and then California, might be better. They did pull off the coup of getting the renowned Native American producer and director James Young Deer to head their west coast operation before the industry shake-up after the Great War sidelined them.
Though the French were the pioneers of the European Western, it was the Germans and the Italians who would make the most forays into the genre. German-born directors such as Nicholas Ray, Fritz Lang and Robert Siodmark would all try their hand at Westerns while in Hollywood, but there were Westerns made on the home front too, even under the Nazis. The Kaiser of California (1936) was a paean to Germanic derring-do, being a biopic of Swiss-born John Sutter, whose sawmill was the origin of the California gold-rush. The Germans already had a novelist, Karl May, who was famous for his Westerns; there was a sense that May was searching out for unconquered territory in much the same way Imperial Germany was after its European rivals had divvied up the rest of the world among them. May’s muscular tales of adventure had an ideological foreboding – Klaus Mann called him the “Führer’s Cowboy mentor” however unfair that might appear to a writer who died in 1912. Béla Lugosi’s first screen appearances came in early silent adaptations and the appeal of May’s novels continued long after the war and a number of them were adapted for the screen by West German directors, including Treasure of the Silver Lake by Harald Reinl (1962) and Die Pyramide des Sonnengottes, by Siodmark in 1965. More canonical work was also sometimes adapted as Westerns, such as Schiller’s play Don Carlos as Carlos (1971), much as Michael Winterbottom would use The Mayor of Casterbridge to make The Claim in 2000.
Italy, another country that got in late on the scramble for Empire, became a major producer of Westerns in the 1960s, mainly through the work of Sergio Leone (whose father Vincenzo directed the first Italian Western in 1913), Terence Hill, Sergio Corbucci and Damiano Damiani, among others. Unlike their German counterparts, the Spaghetti Westerns made a breakthrough in English-speaking countries and they were revolutionary in the way they foregrounded Mexico and Spanish America in the genre for the first time. The Spaghetti Westerns, with their multiple aliases (Leone’s A Fistful of Dynamite is variously also known as Once Upon a Time…the Revolution and Duck, You Sucker!), their badly-dubbed voices, their sweaty, sunburned close-ups and their loud, redounding music, were both gothic and grand guignol. They could also be incredibly sophisticated amid all the alarum – Leone’s films got progressively more political as the years went by, while Damiani’s A Bullet for the General (1965) and Sergio Solima’s Face to Face (1967) are suffused with the left-wing politics that later exploded in the anni di piombo. Pier Paolo Pasolini even turned up in a cassock to play a Mexican monk in Carlo Lizzani’s Requiescant (1966), apparently because he owed Lizzani money. Italy’s contribution to the Western had probably an even more enduring effect than the old studio films did, but the Spaghetti Westerns too died out in the mid-1970s.
The Eastern Bloc nations were also sharply aware of the dialectical potential of the Western. Not surprisingly, East Germany led the way, with a series of ideologically sound Teutonic Westerns, starring the Yugoslav actor Gojko Mitić in Native American roles such as in The Sons of Great Bear (1967) and Tecumseh (1972). The films were intended as a counterpoint to the “Imperialistic” Hollywood portrayals of Indians and also to the works of Karl May, which were frowned upon in the GDR (Mitić would, however, end up playing May’s famous Indian elder Winnetou on stage in 2006). The Soviet Union had its “Osterns”, films which heavily borrowed from the Western but which were set on the Ukrainian or Russian steppe, but there was also the experimental comedy Western A Man from the Boulevard des Capuchines (1987), set in the US. Other “Red Westerns” came from Czechoslovakia – Oldřich Lipský’s manic pastiche Lemonade Joe (1964), which remains a cult favourite in the Czech Republic and Romania – Dan Pița’s Transylvanian trilogy (1978-1981) about Hungarian emigrants to the Old West. The latter is not unlike Jan Troell’s The Emigrants or Michael Cimino’s Heaven’s Gate, which, as well as being a criminally underrated film, is probably the most European of Hollywood Westerns.
The “Emigrant Western” is the form European essays on the genre often take these days, like in Thomas Arslan’s Gold (2013) starring Nina Hoss, which portrays the efforts of a group of naive and feckless Germans to get to the Klondike in 1891. Set and filmed entirely in British Columbia (meaning it is, strictly speaking a “Northern”) the film is a technically impressive slice of historical narrative but which nonetheless pales in comparison to Kelly Reichardt’s similar but more arresting Meek’s Cutoff (2010). Kristian Levring, one of the stragglers from Dogme 95, has directed what is probably Denmark’s first ever Western in the forthcoming The Salvation. Mads Mikkelsen plays Jon, a vengeful Danish immigrant in the West who in turn draws the ire of the local psychopath and enforcer Delarue (Jeffrey Dean Morgan). The film has a number of intriguing glimmers of historical detail (Mikkelsen’s character and his brother have fled Denmark following the disastrous defeat to Germany in the Second Schleswig War in 1865 and the rise of the oil wells in the film recalls There Will Be Blood) but the main reference is Sergio Leone’s earlier films. The history is soon relegated to a backdrop in favour of slick gun battles, which look disconcertingly like they were filmed with video games such as Counter-Strike or Call of Duty as an aesthetic base. It’s enjoyable enough as far as mid-range action movies go but it’s disposable stuff, suggesting that the contemporary European Western is prey to the same desire to jazz things up as its Hollywood counterpart.