"Anti-Western" redirects here. For the political terminology, see Anti-Western sentiment.
The Revisionist Western or Anti-Western is a subgenre of the Western film. The idea traces its roots to the mid-1960s and early-1970s.
Some post-WWII Western films began to question the ideals and style of the traditional Western. These films placed the context of the Native Americans and the Cowboys alike in a darker setting. They depicted a morally questionable world where the heroes and villains often times resembled each other more closely than had ever previously been shown. The concept of right and wrong became blurred in a world where actions could no longer be said to be good or bad. Whereas in a majority of the classical western films the ethics were clear and defined in 'black and white', the Revisionist film looked to paint a moral 'grey' area where people had to adapt in order to survive. This led to depictions of outlaws such as Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid where the heroes of the film are outlaw bank robbers.
Hollywood revisionist Westerns
Most Westerns from the 1960s to the present have revisionist themes. Many were made by emerging major filmmakers who saw the Western as an opportunity to expand their criticism of American society and values into a new genre. The 1952 Supreme Court holding in Joseph Burstyn, Inc. v. Wilson, and later, the end of the Production Code in 1968 broadened what Westerns could portray and made the revisionist Western a more viable genre. Films in this category include Sam Peckinpah'sRide the High Country (1962) and The Wild Bunch (1969), Arthur Penn's Little Big Man (1970) and Robert Altman's McCabe and Mrs. Miller (1971).
Beginning in the late 1960s, independent filmmakers produced revisionist and hallucinogenic films, later retroactively identified as the separate but related subgenre of "Acid Westerns", that radically turn the usual trappings of the Western genre inside out to critique both capitalism and the counterculture. Monte Hellman's The Shooting and Ride in the Whirlwind (1966), Alejandro Jodorowsky's El Topo (1970), Robert Downey Sr.'s Greaser's Palace (1972), Alex Cox's Walker (1987), and Jim Jarmusch's Dead Man (1995) fall into this category. Films made during the early 1970s are particularly noted for their hyper-realistic photography and production design. Notable examples using sepia tinting and muddy rustic settings are Little Big Man (1970), McCabe and Mrs. Miller (1971) and The Culpepper Cattle Co. (1972).
Other films, such as those directed by Clint Eastwood, were made by professionals familiar with the Western as a criticism and expansion against and beyond the genre. Eastwood's film The Outlaw Josey Wales (1976) made use of strong supporting roles for women and Native Americans. The films The Long Riders (1980) and The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (2007) are revisionist films dealing with the James gang. Jeffrey Wright's portrayal of Black Confederate Daniel Holt riding with the Missouri Bushwhackers in Ride with the Devil tells the stories of the Missouri-Kansas Border War and Lawrence Massacre. Unforgiven (1992), which Eastwood directed from an original screenplay by David Webb Peoples, dramatically criticized the typical Western use of violence to promote false ideals of manhood and to subjugate women and minorities.
Main article: Spaghetti Western
Foreign markets, which had imported the Western since their silent film inception, began creating their own Westerns early on. However, a unique brand of Western emerged in Europe in the 1960s as an offshoot of the Revisionist Western.
The Spaghetti Western became the nickname, originally disparagingly, for this broad subgenre, so named because of their common Italian background, directing, producing and financing (with occasional Spanish involvement). Originally they had in common the Italian language, low budgets, and a recognizable highly fluid, violent, minimalist cinematography that helped eschew (some said "de-mythologize") many of the conventions of earlier Westerns. They were often made in Spain, especially Andalusia, the dry ruggedness of which resembled the American Southwest's. Director Sergio Leone played a seminal role in this movement. A subtle theme of the conflict between Anglo and Hispanic cultures plays through all these movies. Leone conceived of the Old West as a dirty place filled with morally ambivalent figures, and this aspect of the spaghetti Western came to be one of its universal attributes, as seen in a wide variety of these films, beginning with one of the first popular spaghetti Westerns, Gunfight at Red Sands (1964), and visible elsewhere in those starring John Philip Law (Death Rides a Horse) or Franco Nero, and in the Trinity series.
Main article: Ostern
See also: Gibanica Western
The Ostern, or red Western, was the Soviet Bloc's reply to the Western, and arose in the same period as the revisionist Western. While many red Westerns concentrated on aspects of Soviet/Eastern-European history, some others like the Czech Lemonade Joe (1964) and the East German The Sons of the Great Mother Bear (1966) tried to demythologise the Western in different ways: Lemonade Joe by sending up the more ridiculous aspects of marketing, and The Sons of the Great Mother Bear by showing how American natives were exploited repeatedly, told from the Native American rather than white settler viewpoint.
A Man from the Boulevard des Capucines (1987) was a sensitive satire on the Western film itself. It was also highly unusual in being one of the few examples in Soviet film of post-modernism.
List of Revisionist Western films
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Ever since John Ford admitted to printing the legend in his 1962 masterpiece, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, the traditional mythology of the Old West has undergone an extensive series of cinematic reappraisals. From The Wild Bunch to Heaven’s Gate, gritty revisionist westerns and so-called ‘anti-westerns’ have sought to counteract the romantic misrepresentations of violence, history and heroism perpetuated by the genre’s talented mythmakers in an effort to bring audiences an undiluted dose of the ‘real’ Wild West.
As the effortlessly cool protagonist of Sergio Leone’s seminal Dollars Trilogy, Clint Eastwood once helped usher in a new wave of westerns that would dispel some of the falsehoods of the John Ford era while popularising plenty of fresh ones. As the director and star of Unforgiven, he provided the final word on half a century’s worth of horse-mounted do-gooders and lone wolf gunmen. Neither the most disparaging nor most realistic of the various cinematic responses to the genre’s creaky archetypes, it is nonetheless gratifyingly direct and psychologically astute, stripping the gloss and pretence from the old tropes to reveal their raw, bloody origins in both American history and the modern day moviegoer’s own escapist needs.
Like the Leone westerns before it, Unforgiven takes place in a dangerous world full of rugged sons of bitches, killing each other for money, pride or in the name of vengeance. The key difference lies in our response to the brutality on display. Whenever Eastwood’s legendary Man with No Name dispensed justice, the questionable nature of his acts was rendered moot by the fact that his adversaries were always depicted as being more unambiguously wicked than him. In Unforgiven, when Eastwood’s retired bandit William Munny is hired to kill two men who cut up a prostitute’s face, their capital punishment is carried out in entirely joyless fashion.
At the same time, David Webb Peoples’ script is saturated with unnerving reminders of Munny’s own horrific, booze-fuelled track record. In a land where cocky gunslingers fraudulently brag about past murders (which either happened not as reported or not at all), Munny is the only one to actively downplay his own body count out of a sense of remorse for what he’s done – and fear of what he might yet do.
Of course, even in the era of Leone any suggestion of moral righteousness was mere window dressing to the real reason for watching these films. When stylish works like A Fistful of Dollars dragged the western into meaner terrain, the genre wasn’t de-romanticised so much as it was given a fresh shot of testosterone. This was a rougher wild west than the one John Wayne had inhabited, and so the heroes (and by extension the viewer) had to be even tougher in order to thrive in it. Unforgiven short circuits this arrangement by turning the implicit into the explicit – namely, that what this really all comes down to is men and their dicks.
When those men set the film’s grim events in motion by mutilating Delilah Fitzgerald (Anna Levine), they do so as a furious response to Fitzgerald giggling at her client’s “teensy little pecker”. By contrast, local sheriff Little Bill Daggett (Gene Hackman) tells the story of ‘Two-Gun Corcoran’, who earned his name from the pistol he held in his hand and the considerably larger weapon stored in his pants, recalling how bounty hunter English Bob killed Corcoran in a drunken act of jealousy. Combine these obvious phallic references with images of Munny struggling to mount his horse or his gun failing to fire, and suddenly his mission to avenge the damsel in distress doesn’t seem so dignified.
Sheriff Daggett, meanwhile, sees right through the performances of these arrogant, self-styled killers and conmen – yet he too is a striking subversion of a timeworn archetype. His ruthless response to the crimes of Munny and his contemporaries positions him as the primary antagonist of the piece, but it’s not hard to imagine Daggett being the hero of this story in the same vein as John Wayne, Henry Fonda and Gary Cooper. Like Marshal Will Kane in High Noon and Wyatt Earp in My Darling Clementine, Daggett is a steadfast, arguably well-intentioned proponent of law and order.
Nonetheless, his vindictive side emerges once trouble comes to his town, mirroring the violent sense of justice enforced by the very outlaws he beats to a pulp. While Daggett’s final line, “I’ll see you in hell, William Munny,” may read like a typical tough guy kiss-off, in the context of the graceless, primeval omnishambles that results from one woman laughing at a man’s dick, his words become a chilling admission.
In the 25 years since Unforgiven’s release, the western has thrived as an arthouse genre that continues to probe the themes explored by Eastwood’s film and other revisionist forebears – be it in issues of masculinity (Meek’s Cutoff) or mythmaking (The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford) – with even the most crowd-pleasing and action-centric of recent entries tending to contain some element of critique. It seems that any attempt to rejuvenate the screen outlaws and lawmen of yore now comes with a twinge of guilt. As for Eastwood himself, Unforgiven was perhaps the statement he needed to make in order to step away from the genre once and for all.
Published 9 Aug 2017
Tags: Anna LevineClint EastwoodGene HackmanMorgan Freeman