FILM / The Last Detail: The western is back. But whatever happened to the white picket fence?

Click to follow
The Independent Culture
I LIKE westerns. More precisely, I like westerns without Indians and without pretensions. Which ought to exclude, on the latter count, Clint Eastwood's Unforgiven. But since I found it as magnificent as everyone else apparently did, I would argue that, if you define pretension as 'overreaching ambition', then Unforgiven is indeed a western without either Indians or pretensions. (Dances With Wolves, of course, had both in spades.) And while I'm striking a strictly personal note, let me say that I'm also not crazy about westerns set in Mexico (with their fiestas and cantinas and Speedy Gonzales comic relief), westerns about fur trappers (boring), and westerns in which grizzled oldtimers sport long red underwear.

There's a point to this inventory of subjective prejudices, which is that, while I too welcome Eastwood's resurrection of the genre, it's perhaps worth recalling that it encompasses only one type of western, not necessarily the finest or most characteristic. This is the rural western of majestic natural locations, of desert and canyon, of lowering skies filling two-thirds of the screen and great sudden thunderstorms as if God had blown into a cosmic paper bag and burst it over the world.

There used, though, to exist another, humbler species, one without Indians, without pretensions and practically without scenery. Its action would be contained entirely within a one- street town, its topography as immutable as its iconography. The sheriff's office (with jailhouse). The livery stable. The telegraph office. The saloon. The schoolhouse. The schoolmarm's house (with white picket fence). The church. The funeral parlour (out of which, after a shoot-out, the local undertaker would rush with a tape measure). The plots, too, were more or less immutable, about justice and vengeance, mostly, and often rather noir-ish in tone: it's not by chance that, when the masterpiece of the genre, Rio Bravo, was remade, it was as a modern urban thriller, John Carpenter's Assault on Precinct 13.

The term 'urban', in fact, well describes this type of western, the type I like, the type that has truly died. Considering its deference to the classical unities of time, place and action, it could also be thought of as 'Aristotelian'. Considering, finally, the enclosed toytown artifice of its setting, the best word, paradoxically, may be 'theatrical'.