The final frontier

They're coming to get us. Three gimlet-eyed new Westerns. But hold your fire, says David Thomson. This is the 21st century. We do things differently now...
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The Independent Culture

That thing we call the Western is dead, and has been many years now. Yes, occasionally the ghost walks. Dances with Wolves won Best Picture in 1990, and Unforgiven in 1992. Now, there are three Westerns about to open - by which I mean films with bad Mexicans, worse Indians and steady conflict between ranchers and farmers: Open Range (from Kevin Costner, a man happiest in the epic landscapes of the West), The Alamo (that story again) and The Missing, the most interesting yet the most disappointing of the three, in that it offers itself up as company for John Ford's The Searchers.

But don't be fooled by the horses, the hats and the sunsets, where a persimmon bomb seems to have exploded. Such things are pretty enough. Horses are still adorable. There are actors who own land up in Montana who are always tickled to mount up, cut their dialogue to the bone and look out at the sky as if it portended wilderness. And I'm sure a few of our Johnny Depps are following the ongoing controversy surrounding the possibility that William H Bonney may have escaped Pat Garrett at Fort Sumner in 1881 and lived on to be Billy the Old Timer. That would make a fine black comedy in which the lethal Kid of legend becomes a sturdy businessman selling souvenirs of his own last shoot-out. Where is Preston Sturges when we need him?

So, let's agree that we do not do old Westerns any more. We can't pretend to shoot down the tribes when we nearly eliminated them from history; we can't honestly attest to the importance of heroes when we know how thoroughly the West turned into business; and we can't allow the old imagery of the patient, pretty, loyal woman waiting, waiting, waiting when we know how often women put up the shacks - and put them up again when fire, flood and wind took them down. You see, the Western was a dream, the one in which men go camping, talk to their horses and make a new world. The simplicity of it all! The splendour! And Shane riding away into the mountains instead of staying put, explaining himself, becoming domesticated and having his wound attended to. In the Western, man's wound of loneliness is never treated. It just becomes magnificent solitude.

Instead, let me propose a genre that we will call the New Western. One of its greatest works came out in 1974 (by which time the old Western was in forlorn retreat). It's a story set in California. There are horses in the film, as well as wide-brimmed hats. There is gunplay. And there is a great rancher, one of the pioneers, who thinks to make a new city, as well as his own fortune, by controlling the limited supply of water. So he finds water several hundred miles to the north in a sweet valley and brings it south. He rapes the land to build the future. And, because there is enough of the tyrant and the rapist in him, he rapes his daughter too so that his grand-child is just another daughter.

The film is called Chinatown (I hope you guessed), and it was even set in the past, the 1930s, when Los Angeles was a "wide-open town". I know: you're hopping around because you think Chinatown is a film noir, or a thriller, where the guys wear modern clothes most of the time. Let me just remind you of the essential definition of "the Western": "of pertaining to, living in, or characteristic of the West". Which means the West of the USA, although we'll come back to that.

Historically, the word and the idea of "the Western" were invented in the East. Part of the glory and warmth of the genre lay in the way wretched urbanites dreamed of that space, that eternal summer, compared to the infernal crowding and torturous weather of New York. William H Bonney was born in New York City. But there was a larger arrogance in the term, too, which meant: look, out there! The West, a promised land, and ours for the taking! It was a means of appropriation, which doomed the Apache, the Sioux, the Comanche and all the other tribes to exploitation and worse. It was - and I use the term modestly - a version of fascism that America sold to the world as an attractive fiction. And - here is the point - it was in so many ways antithetical to the beliefs that had inspired the new nation in the East: the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, and now about as moribund as the Western.

Among all the factors that conspired in the death of the Western, don't forget this one: that the vast empty landscape, the promised land, became so occupied, so built up and so littered with broken promises that the old white lies were shaming. Greater Los Angeles was home to 100,000 people in 1890. It's well over eight million now. All over the West there are cities that hardly existed 200 years ago: Phoenix, Salt Lake City, Las Vegas, Dallas. For over 50 years, since the massive industrialisation of the West on behalf of the Second World War, the American population has accelerated in its move westwards. That has only been augmented by the drive of poor Mexicans to get into "El Norte" and the enthusiasm of so many displaced Asian people for the Pacific Rim. In turn, the old industrial fortresses of the East - the original cities of the US - have lost their factories and a lot of their people.

You can measure this in terms of population shift, which in turn is reflected in electoral votes every four years. But there are more important attitudinal shifts. The presidential personality of the US is no longer Eastern. It's no longer of the original 13 colonies, or Washingtonian or even constitutional. It is pragmatic, rootless, restless, adventurous, reckless. Lyndon Johnson, Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan, George W Bush, the decisive presidents of modern times, are of the West and its raw newness, with every consequent hunch that the law is whatever you can get away with or whatever you say is the law.

This reappraisal of the Western is not meant to be amusing. Nor can it be confined to the study of the movies. Indeed, when I talk about the adventurousness of the presidential personality, I am thinking of the various ways in which fictional archetypes have influenced our leaders to the point of great danger.

Still, it may be helpful to point to a few other films of the modern era which, it seems to me, are best understood as studies of that which is happening, and guiding America, in the West: The Right Stuff, in which the old Gary Cooper hero is co-opted by technology and political spin to be spam in a can. Bugsy - not just the foundation of a unique Western city (Chicago) but the crucial step in both the digestion of organised crime by the American body politic, and the taking of gambling into the main stream. Traffic - a study of the economic ties between those "old friends", Mexico and the US. Erin Brockovich, in which Julia Roberts is Shane protecting the poor people of the suburban West against toxic waste. The Truman Show, located in Florida, the first foothold of the West on the eastern shore, in which television surveillance has imprisoned life. Independence Day, where, ironically, our one help against alien invasion from space may be in that grail of the Western legend, Area 51 in Nevada, where - we hope, or fear - that the government will make its last stand.

I can go much further in suggesting potential subjects from the new West. The building of the roads in Alaska to get at the wilderness where George W Bush is trying to smell oil; the fierce contrast in a state like Oregon between coastal liberalism and the forest interior that believes in logging and horsewhipping gays; the strange state of Hawaii, a tourist factory, yet the source of some of the most liberal ideas in the US; the campaign for the first Hispanic-born mayor of Los Angeles (Hispanics are on the verge of becoming a majority population in south California). And one more - far fetched, but go with it - a Germanic actor becomes governor of California and starts talking to the state in lines from his movies.

This proposal of a theory of the new Western is neither small talk, nor movie commentary. The essence of it is the way in which Western attitudes are increasingly affecting America's domestic politics and its attitude to the rest of the world. Whatever humour you perceive as inherent in such observations dies quickly when you realise that Ronald Reagan and George W Bush are themselves without irony or reflectiveness. They do not know that they are mouthing the tough stance of the John Wayne Western and imposing it on international problems.

You may say that this interpretation is broad and simplistic. Alas, that is exactly why it appeals to men like Reagan and Bush. Our current president was elected on the most delicate margin. In an old American democracy this would have called for the utmost tact, compromise and conversation in governing. Instead, this president has been the most arbitrary, unilateral and unthinking we have known. And it is complexity and its attendant thought processes that seem to me to alarm Bush the most and to inspire his reliance on action, tough talk and doing what a man has to do. You can't escape the malaise or the tragedy whereby the Western - then and now - may encourage the most fraudulent ideas about male identity and responsibility.

The old Westerns will never quite vanish. Films like The Missing will continue to portray Indians as the fiends from an earlier, sub-conscious dread. The old genres are as comforting as Beatles songs. What The Lord of the Rings has proved is our hunger for old legends and a chance to go into innocent battle again. A Kevin Costner may live like a cowboy and hardly notice the 21st century. So he'll exercise his horses, his cowboy clothes and his daft 19th-century notions of what a man is meant to do.

But what I am proposing is a new idea of the Western that is based on the untidy realities of America where the West is a battle between suburbia and that old dream of space. At last, for instance, Indians are gaining power in the US - because of the law that allows gambling casinos on their reservations under their control. Now, there's the basis for a great film, about a new Crazy Horse, who sees that the remote and isolated triumph at the Little Big Horn may be revisited, time and again, over the green baize - the new prairie - where all Americans achieve the ultimate equality: that of being suckers.