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.


Ruthie said...

What a lovely synopsis.

"They provide Americans with access to a time where theirs' was a wild and empty continent."

We need this.

Anonymous said...

seesm like a good review ( i think havn'et wathced the film!) but the last line is very weird "soul of a cleric: weak and fearfull"

a) I thought you were an atheist mr sinclar so presuam you do't belive in the soul or anything else permanant and continuous

b) soul of a cleric weak and fearfull? er? how? even assuming one could generalize about such a wide range what about Bohenoff, Livingston, Cranmer, Ridley, Latimer to go outside Chrisiaty Khomeni? None of them strike me as "weak or fearfull"!

c) Wen't there a lot of clerics in the middle ages?

please dont' tell me mr sinclair your about to become an Objectivist and bow before a portrait of Rand....

Gracchi said...

Good comment Edmund- I wanted to raise this with you too Matt. What was that point about- could you expand on it.

old and angry said...

I too have see the film.
Casting that all round good egg Henry Fonda and a ruthless murderer was a master stroke,he played it well,and hammed it up to the required degree.
You cound sense his pleasure in playing a villain for once!

Matthew Sinclair said...

Edmund & Henry,

a) Soul has an unscientific, secular meaning these days.

b) You're right, that wasn't what I meant. Bureaucrat is what I was getting at.

Matthew Sinclair said...

I believe I was thinking of "clerical staff", which does pertain to administrative workers. How did that division come about?

Anonymous said...

Good on Mr Sinclair for the change- I would say bureacruats can be brave but I do think it makes more sense particulary since it's a perjorative...

in the early middle ages clergmen did the administration... in the late middle ages and the early modern era particularly after the reformation the roles separated.

Gracchi can talk wiht more authoriyt than me on this.