Oh good. My terrible titles are back. Must happen every Wednesday. Take note: Do not read on Wednesdays because of these titles. Well, only if you want to miss interesting article ideas, and I think today I have a good one. It may be months early, but we can’t be too excited for a new Tarantino film, right?
Django Unchained, as a title, is more than just a reference to the violent western Django and the many filmmakers that made films that had “Django” related names but had nothing to do with the original Django. It is also a statement on Tarantino finally succumbing to his love of western films. We’ve all seen his passion for this genre before and he hasn’t even made a western until now. The problem is that the western genre as we knew it, with its good old duels and uplifting, all American heroes is basically dying out. I mean, have you seen anyone even close to resembling a modern day John Wayne? Not really. This isn’t a bad thing, but it does say a lot about American cinema as a whole. John Wayne was the ultimate cowboy badass. He was rugged, a jerk, and stern, and he almost always saved the day with a change of heart and by putting himself on the line. This poster-ready star symbolized everything a Western was. Well, until the 60’s.
In fact, before the 60’s, Wayne controversially criticized a western film that has gone on to become an archetype in the genre: High Noon. He reportedly called the film “un-American” and a disgrace to the country. He bashed how the town didn’t help Marshal Will Kane to fight against the criminals and how they were unpatriotic. While we can start a whole debate about this and ask if his films, with their very bothersome look at the natives of America, are themselves patriotic, but let’s not and say we did. Bottom line is that Wayne did not like High Noon. Well, I wouldn’t call High Noon un-American but I could call it the beginning of the end of the American western. Genre wise, it is a bit different isn’t it? Will Kane isn’t a big unstoppable force. In fact, we’re scared for him because he could be killed at any second. He’s defenseless, alone and even somewhat terrified. No John Waynes here, right? Back to what I was saying about the 60’s, Westerns began to stray away from the American blueprints for western films even more so, especially with the huge rise of the spaghetti western. Spaghetti westerns were Italian films made in Spain, and, while the genre mostly has a cult fan base, a few films of this genre have grown to be some of the best western films ever made: The Good the Bad and the Ugly, Once Upon a Time in the West, The Great Silence, and yes, even Django itself.
These films were taking over, and one big reason why they were able to find their way to America is Clint Eastwood: A western favorite that, unlike Wayne, accepted change within the genre. He took part as the main, nameless character in Sergio Leone’s “dollars” trilogy. This American poster child is in an Italian series made in Germany. How strange. Could this series get any more “un-American”? What if it was based on a Japanese samurai film? The nameless hero is essentially “the bodyguard” from Akira Kurosawa’s acclaimed film Yojimbo, and the first film in the dollars trilogy (A Fistful of Dollars) is essentially a remake of this film. Just hang on, it’s about to get interesting. Kurosawa was also seen as an innovator in the film world, and Yojimbo, along with his other samurai films, is one reason why. See, these films are actually his own rendition of what westerns would be like in Japan. Again, you have the lone hero(es) that fight in duels against backdrops of a gritty, filthy, large environment, and themes of greed, struggle and eventual triumph (even if it was bittersweet, like in Seven Samurai).
Also, it’s worth noting that the American classic The Magnificent Seven is, right on, a remake of Seven Samurai (and damnit if that happy ending wasn’t just the ultimate insult to the flawless original). So, Kurosawa made films that were based on westerns that essentially influenced westerns? This is the start of what I will call the Kurosawa-filter: Films that are very well westerns but they play off as something else. You probably think this is stupid, but we have many examples of these, and some are far more strange than samurai films. In fact, let’s start off with a weird example and not screw around-Star Wars. Yes, Star Wars, the same one with Darth Vader and the death star and lightsabers and shooting and R2-D2 and all of that lovely stuff. This film was based on many genres and events that aren’t even close to being westerns, from the Vietnam war, Homer’s The Odyssey, and, you guessed it, westerns. The battles with the ships firing at each other can loosely be compared to the fight sequences in western films, but let’s look at a more obvious example. Let’s take Luke. Luke doesn’t have parents, is essentially alone if you don’t include the relatives he lives with, is surrounded by open space, heat, dust and sand, and lives on the planet of Tatooine, which is also home to the Tusken raiders.
Let’s not beat around the bush; The Tusken raiders are natives, plain and simple. Actually, what’s beautiful about the first Star Wars is the fact that each planet/location and plot point resembles its own concept that George Lucas was influenced by, including the-okay you’re not going to listen after my radical statement, so let’s continue on the same path. Han Solo famously shoots up Greedo in the cantina bar, aka the rebellious cowboy attacking an authoritative figure that is following him in what is more or less a saloon. There we have it. Luke Skywalker is John Wayne and the good old American western hero and Han Solo is Eli Wallach and the spaghetti western revolutionary. Can you notice their respective purposes in the story? Luke is more of a hero, but Han gets more things done his own way. Star Wars may be a good example, but believe me there are many more. In fact, let’s cut to more recent films that have their own Kurosawa-filter. Many of the films by the Coen brothers are pretty much westerns in disguise, from No Country for Old Men, Fargo, Blood Simple, O Brother Where Art Thou?, and even The Big Lebowski (why do you think “the dude” is the name he wants to be called, as it creates a sense of wanting to be nameless and distant from society).
When the Coens aren’t disguising western films as crime films, comedies, or even mysteries, they sometimes just make straight up western films. A good example is the recent True Grit which, luckily enough for me, can be related back to poor John Wayne way back up there in the article, as it is a remake of a film he was in of the same name. In fact, most people prefer the remake to Wayne’s, but is it surprising? Wayne’s film was well received because of its acting, in particular Wayne’s performance, but it was criticized for straying too far away from its source material (the novel of the same name) and it ended too happily for a story of that nature. With the concept of the happy ending in westerns almost completely gone now, the Coens stuck to a much more suitable, dark ending that went well with the atmosphere the original book had. That’s another thing. The few straight up westerns that are around can be so damn mean spirited. Just look at The Proposition and Unforgiven. Fantastic films, yes, but you can’t tell me that you didn’t want to cower in a corner after watching them. Speaking of evil, There Will Be Blood is another prime example of a Kurosawa-filtered film. Actually, it may carry on the idea Kurosawa had altogether.
There Will Be Blood is a film about the turn of the century in America, oddly enough, and it has a message that can be applied very easily to modern times about greed. Daniel Plainview is the lone warrior, but he doesn’t suffer. Does he get engulfed by the huge open space around him? Hell no, he builds oil rigs and tears the place up. Does he get intimidated by the people of the town and strive to be one with them? Absolutely not, he basically cheats all of them and makes their lives miserable. Does he ever duels? Not really, as every time he fights it’s an unbalanced match. Daniel Plainview is as anti-western as you can be in a world that existed right after the death of the “western” world as we know it, when technology was on the rise and cars replaced horses. How this film carried on the idea Kurosawa may have had is that it is still very much western influenced yet it tries to see how far it can step outside of the box without changing completely.
So with this in mind, the American western that John Wayne fought for is dead. Modern filmmakers are still making westerns, whether they be straight up western films or westerns disguised as other films. Even if any or every one of these films were made by Americans, are they truly American westerns, or are they so far from that ideal concept that they can’t be called that anymore? What if the ideal American western has transformed altogether, against John Wayne’s deepest wishes?
As I end, I will leave you with a final image. This image is important because, to me, it explains everything about what I just talked about. It shows a filmmaker that disguised a western film as something else. Men were named after colours and not adjectives that described their human nature. Greed stole from them and not the other way around. The huge world around them is closed off by their escape to an abandoned warehouse.
Django Unchained is more than just an homage: It’s the eventual acceptance a filmmaker had.