The viability of the European western in the 21st century
By Jan Švábenický
Many books and journal studies often claim that the Western is a dead genre in national Western European cinematography, but the figures for the number of films made over the past eighteen years show a completely different historical reality. The Western has never disappeared on the European continent, just as it did not originate in the 1960s, as is wrong again. This genre has a long tradition in European cinematography and culture, and in addition to film, it can also be found in literature, theater, art and music.
From the beginning of the new millennium to the present day, the Western has found a new iconography, themes, plots, and, through ever-changing film technology, has acquired an audience-friendly form that reflects the interests of a wide audience. With changing trends, this genre is no longer just the domain of large production companies, but also emerges as an independent or intellectual spectacle seeking ideological and stylistic innovations of stories from the American West or the exotic environment of Mexico. Contemporary Westerns in the individual national cinematographies of Western Europe are characterized by similar genre playfulness and formal experimentation, which were characteristic mainly of Italian and Spanish films from the 1960s and 1970s. Many producers, screenwriters and directors still treat the Western today as genre hybrids and combinations that play with the audience's sensitivity.
Lonely comic riders from France
As in the 1960s and 1990s, many Westerns emerging in Western European cinematographies were mostly filmed as co-productions of several countries, in attractive natural locations and with an international cast. This approach is also applied by the creators of French Westerns, who are among the greatest representatives of the Western European model of the genre in the new millennium. The genre diversity pervading individual films is based on the concept of western as a refined play, sophisticated irony, and a nostalgic return to film history. Similarly to other national cinematographies, it has an established tradition of comedy Westerns in France, which oscillates between a spectacular narrative spectacle and varied forms of humor in relation to characteristic genre rules. For example, The Daltons (Les Dalton, 2004) by Philippe Haïm and Lucky Luke, (2009) by James Huthe, based on the comic motifs of the creative duo Morris and René Gosciny, deal with these recognizable elements. Both films give the impression of exotic color by choosing exteriors in Spain and Argentina that create a Mexican environment. When experimenting with genre combinations, producers and creators adapted the genre to a certain type of viewer. Co-produced with the U.S.A., Djamela Bensalah, Big City, is an adventurous family-style narrative with child actors designed especially for the same age range of its audience.
Some French Westerns refer directly or indirectly to older films of the same genre made in France in the 1960s and 1970s. Comedy films include Espen Sandberg and Joachim Rønning's Bandidas (2006), an action-packed adventure co-produced with Mexico and the USA. The film with the image of partnership and rivalry of two central female characters returns to two similarly conceived Westerns of Viva Maria! (1965) by Louis Malle and The Legend of Frenchie King (Les Pétroleuses, 1971) by Christian-Jacque. The creators used not only the motif of female friendship and rivalry, but also ironic exaggeration in depicting various cultural allusions. Even non-comedy films experiment with genre rules. The mysterious western Renegade (Blueberry, 2003) by Jan Kounen is intertwined with a story of revenge and spectacular action, Indian mysticism and elements of fantasy. With Spanish and Mexican exteriors, including Christian folk architecture, Kounen's film nostalgically recalls the era of the Italian westerns of the 1960s and 1970s. Jacques Audiard, the latest French western Les Sisters Brothers (2018), was developed in the Spanish and Romanian exteriors, developing the story of the adventurous journey of two sibling killers. In this film, too, the filmmakers combine the image of violence with sarcastic elements and ironic replicas as the central pair of characters.
France has always approached Westerns with the same fascination, nostalgia and irony as other national cinematographies of Western Europe, and has given the genre its cultural specifics and humor. In the new millennium, many French filmmakers focused not only on experimenting with genre rules and crossing their boundaries, but also on new stylistic possibilities bringing the development of modern film and digital technology. While some films such as Lisuja Alonso's Jauja (2014) are produced in a wide international co-production, other films are often made in collaboration with the US or Canada as The Homesman, (2014) by Tommy Lee Jones or Forsaken (2015) by Jon Cassar. American production companies and Hollywood producers are also investing in projects directed by French or other European filmmakers. This co-production model is evident in the films of the above-mentioned directors such as Jacques Audiard, Espen Sandberg and Joachim Rønning. Westerns in France are a spectacular spectacle competing in the same genre in Hollywood on a thematic, iconographic and stylistic level. Although the French filmmakers - like Italian and Spanish directors - pay great attention to the set, the props and the drawing of the environment, they maintain an ironic distance from the authentic image of the American West and focus on the variability of the exciting narrative.
The Mexican plains between Italy and Spain
Italian and Spanish westerns, whose greatest production intensity relates to the 1960s and 1970s, never disappeared, as producers and creators continued to show interest in the genre in the following periods. Although later titles competed with formerly proven and cult films, the Western in Italy and Spain from the 1980s to the new millennium found new genre and iconographic forms. Especially in Italian cinematography, its production has been rich since 2000, as it has also been targeted by independent filmmakers often referring to films from the 1960s and 1970s. The nostalgic return to genre developed in their Westerns Doc West (2009) and Triggerman (2009) in co-direction with Giulio Bas, director actor Terence Hill, who also refers directly to his acting films produced by Sergio Leon. This is My Name Is Nobody (Il mio nome è Nessuno (1973) Tonina Valerii and The Genius (Un genio, due compari, un pollo, 1975) by Damian Damiani. While Valerii and Damiani blend the dramatic and spectacular model of the Italian western with its comic variant, Hill focused primarily on linking the romantic, nostalgic and melancholic concept of this popular genre. Specifically, in the visual stylization of the costume and the props of the central character, Hill returns to the characters of the wandering gunslingers he portrays in the above films.
Cultural nostalgia and a filmmaker's homage to the Italian westerns of the 1960s and 1970s have found the greatest response in the work of independent directors, some of whom have gone from short films to long feature films. These include in particular director, screenwriter, producer and actor Emiliano Ferrera, who is in all these professions devoted to the creation of Westerns. After several short films Inferno bianco (White Hell, 2007), set in a winter mountain setting co-directed by Stefano Jacurti, Ferrera also focused on producing spectacular westerns. While in Sangue dallʼinferno (Blood from Hell, 2016) blends Indian mysticism with horror, the latest film Oro e piombo (Gold and Lead, 2018) draws on the historical events of the American indigenous massacre. Ferrera, who looks like Clint Eastwood, directly stylizes into an iconographic style in which the American actor appeared in the films of Sergio Leone. Other Italian filmmakers experiment with different genres of the Italian western. For example, Gianluca Sodaro conceives his Sicilian film Raging Heart (Cuore scatenato 2000), combining irony with violence and bloody effects, as a cultural reference to the work of Quentin Tarantino. Mauro Aragoni develops in the mysterious story Quella sporca sacca nera (The Dirty Black Bag, 2015) an episodic narrative structure evoking the literary style of a diary novel.
Contemporary Spanish Westerns are also going through various paths, which shows, besides the variability of the stories of revenge, also the legends of the Wild West. For example, the international co-production of Blackthorn (Sin destino, 2011) by Spanish filmmaker Mate Gil transforms the historical picture of bank robber and desperado Butch Cassidy, who survived a Bolivian encounter with the local army and leads a secret life in South America. In keeping with the popular genre tradition of the 1960s and 1970s, some films continue to develop explicit forms of violence and sadism, which serve as an authentic picture of cruelty in escalating relationships between characters. This model of Spanish western is represented by films such as Nubes rojas (Red Clouds, 2016) by Marina Darés and Parade en el infierno (2017) by Víctor Matellan. Some Hollywood westerns in Spanish co-production and the Spanish exteriors of Almería and Tabernas also pay tribute to Italian westerners. Tanner Beard and Russell Quinn Cummings' Six Bullets to Hell (2016), varying the themes of crime and revenge, where the creators also used archive works by Ennio Morricone and other Italian composers. Even in Spain, the Western often serves to nostalgically revive film history.
Gunfire Stories from Germany & Co.
German cinematography has a similarly long historical tradition in the production of westerns as France and Italy, and here the genre is also widely represented in literature. Compared to the 1960s and 1970s, it is no longer a continual production of exciting stories from the American West, but the Western is still an attractive show in Germany in terms of production, film and audience. At the beginning of the new millennium, a parody of a West German co-production series from the 1960s based on the novels of Karl May's Manitu's Shoe (Der Schuh des Manitu, 2001) by Michael Herbig was created. As in the case of France and Italy, some contemporary German westerns are presented at international film festivals. Thomas Arslan's Gold (2013), shot in Canada as a co-production with Canada, presents the genre as a psychological drama of gold diggers during the Gold Rush period in the Klondike. Andreas Prochaska's Dark Valley (Das finstere Tal, 2014) made in collaboration with Austria and Italy in the exterior of the Italian mountain region of Val Senales in the Trentino-Alto Adige region reverses the subject of revenge by a lone rider for the murder of his family. In particular, Prochasek's film evokes Sergio Corbucci's similarly conceived Italian western The Great Silence (Il grande silenzio, 1968) with a winter environment, explicit violence and film style.
Also in the U.K. Westerns are filmed in international co-productions and in attractive natural locations, which co-create the iconographic framework of the exciting spectacular spectacle from the American West. In Canada, The Claim (2000), Michael Winterbottom develops a historical and social picture of the California Gold Rush environment in the background of a story linked to the past of two women. In South Africa, Paul Matthews' action film Hooded Angels (2002) was shot, which, from a feminist point of view, looks at a group of women taking revenge on former Confederate soldiers for the murder of a small child. Matthews follows the trend of feminization of western in the national cinematographies of Western Europe, which was typical for this genre especially in the 60s and 70s. John Maclean's Slow West (2015) co-produced in Great Britain and New Zealand with New Zealand exteriors, features the western road movie genre. This story of a young man's journey from Scotland to the Wild West develops the image of an unequal partnership between a teenage boy and a bounty hunter, which, on a delegated level, represents the contrast of civilized Europe with the American wilderness. In contrast to French or Italian films, British Westerns tends more to the dramatic concept of the genre with an emphasis on the fateful stories of the characters.
Western has also found a specific national form in Nordic cinematography, where the creators innovate this genre by emphasizing the tradition of literary dramatization of narration and the stylistic elements characteristic of Scandinavian film. The internationally co-produced Danish film The Salvation (2014) by Kristian Levring, shot with South African exteriors, develops a double motif of revenge of the central hero and his antagonists. Here, the creators combine individual characters' stories with spectacular action scenes of violence and killing to create a visually appealing framework for a thrilling spectacle. The extensive international co-production, which also includes Sweden, produced the Dutch film Brimstone (2016) by Martin Koolhoven, which, like some of the above-mentioned films, stylizes western to the genre of thriller. This film enhances the thrilling spectacle of the American West with the theme of religious dogmatism and the character of a fanatical reverend who takes revenge on the town's inhabitants for their sins. These elements have appeared in the Westerns of individual national cinematographies much earlier. Parallels with Koolhoven's film can be found, for example, in the Italian detective western The Price of Death (Il venditore di morte, 1971) by Lorenzo Gicca Palli, where a masked reverend murders the townspeople during the night. Koolhoven also refers to the Italian western by the natural Spanish localities of Almería and Tabernas, where many popular films of this popular genre were made in the 1960s and 1970s.
A few notes in conclusion
In the context of contemporary national cinematographies of Western Europe, the Western is still finding new ways to reach the audience with thematic and especially stylistic innovations. Producers, screenwriters and directors, as in other historical periods, today often resort to a variety of genre combinations that add to the exciting narration and bring atypical elements to the spectacular spectacle. The artistic stylization of the genre can be found, for example, in Piotr Uklanski's Polish Summer Love (2006), co-produced with the USA, featuring Polish male Boguslaw Linda, Czech Karel Roden and American Val Kilmer. In particular, the visual style and concept of costumes refer to the Italian western Portuguese film Estrada de Palha (Straw Path, 2012) by Rodrigo Areias, co-produced with Finland, which uses Christian iconography and Romanesque culture to emphasize national recognition elements of the genre. Some filmmakers are struggling with production problems and distrust of producers in this genre. For example, Italian director Enzo G. Castellari has been looking for a producer for his project The Fourth Horseman (Gli implacabili) since the 1990s, which he intends to shoot with an international cast and in a large co-production in Spain. The Western has a strong creative potential in the long-term cultural tradition in European countries even today.