Friday, October 05, 2007
Once Upon a Time in the West
I just finished watching Once Upon a Time in the West.
It's a great film, full of style and pathos. An anonymous hero, 'Harmonica', and a good hearted bandit, Cheyenne, battle Frank - initially a hired gun of a railway magnate but later his own man. Jill, newly widowed ex-prostitute and owner of a piece of land that the railway can make valuable, provides an anchor for these characters to swirl around in their search for wealth or revenge.
I heard in it a lament for a wilderness lost. While the heroes and villains battle with such ferocity their world is being undone by the steady advance of the railway, and civilisation. While the railway magnate, Morton, is a cripple any of the heroes can crush beneath their feet his world is the future and that of the heroes inexorably retreating into the past.
I'm not an expert on Westerns, and it is quite possible I have misread Once Upon a Time in the West itself, but I almost wonder if you can draw broader lessons about the appeal of the Western from this analysis. They provide Americans with access to a time where theirs' was a wild and empty continent. Historical films focussing on the medieval period can provide Europeans with a similar link to a rawer past more in touch with their pagan roots. For all the glories and comforts of civilisation we need to remember when life had harder edges. If we forget there is a horrible danger that we will be left with the soul of a bureaucrat; weak and fearful.
Update: Edmund & Henry have pointed out that my final sentence wasn't right.