Having literally just stumbled in from the Coen Brothers’ adaptation of True Grit, my gut reaction is that it represents two things. The first is, sadly, a rather disappointing film from one of modern cinema’s most original, audacious and brilliant double acts. The Coens seem to have been heading towards a traditional western since the intense and truly profound No Country For Old Men, and unfortunately this film doesn’t have the gravitas and dramatic power of the Brothers’ McCarthy adaptation. That isn’t to say that it’s a bad film, indeed it is in numerous respects fantastic entertainment; the screenplay is a typically accomplished affair, mixing humour and pathos in dialogue which perfectly captures the tone of the historical period the film inhabits; Roger Deakins’ cinematography is gorgeous, at times breathtakingly atmospheric; and the performances of Bridges, Damon, Brolin, and especially Hailee Steinfeld capture their characters with tremendous energy and detail. It’s certainly polished and highly watchable, but I suppose I just expected something infinitely more weighty and profound from a film which in the end fails to distinguish itself from the shadow of the classic John Wayne original.
But I said this film represented two things to me, and so far I’ve only talked about one. The other aspect of the film that intrigued me comes into play at the end, when a one-armed grown up Mattie Ross stands at the grave of Rooster Cogburn, musing that Le Boeuf would now be seventy going on eighty, and that time has started to run away from her to. It’s an interesting coda to a film which considers the young girl’s rite of passage, a time of suffering and tribulation precipitating the strength and titular true grit that is very much the formation of the woman she becomes. That the Coens utilise such a melancholy ending displays an affinity with a theme that directors increasingly use the Western genre to explore: that of the death of America’s mythologised history.
This idea is something that has become particularly resonant in recent years. Kevin Costner’s Dances with Wolves is a flawed film, but one which boldly subverts the idea of the dying Wild West into the more historically accurate notion of the dying frontier, a world which saw the near extermination of the Native Americans. The cinema of the United States has been guiltily neglectful when it comes to addressing the act of genocide which saw the birth of a nation, and Costner’s attempt to redress the balance is but one part of a wider revisionism of the romantic ideal of America’s self-fashioned mythology. It’s a self-fashioning the cinema is inextricably linked with, as the reality of dangerously lawless cities, harsh cattle drives and hunted native civilizations was warped, in the hands of Ford, Hawks and Leone, into a glorious past of heroic gunslingers and fantastical adventures. It is just this vision of the old West which the Coens rebel against, correctly emphasising the courage and fortitude of a young girl as a direct contrast to the reckless alcoholism of Bridges’ Cogburn and the untested upstart that is Damon’s Le Boeuf. It is also an ideal rebelled against in the greatest post-modern western made so far: Clint Eastwood’s Unforgiven. The quest featured in this film is the righting of a grievous and sexist social wrong with a hint of revenge and the reversal of the emasculation brought on by age. Eastwood, Freeman and Harris are placeless drifters in a world that is lurching towards a civilization they cannot adopt, or perhaps are unwilling to. The film’s Sherriff is a sadistic, murderous terror in the shape of Gene Hackman; the legendary English Bob is a self-promoting, pompous old sinner; our young hero is a whining fool unaware of the spiritual torment that ensues from murder; the heroine is a disfigured prostitute; and Eastwood’s gunslinger is a reformed horror of a man, whose inevitable fate is to reawaken the cruelty and ruthless maliciousness which never truly left him. Myth of the old west, consider yourself debunked.
It would be wrong, however, to attribute this re-examination of the western myth as a purely modern thing: it has its roots surprisingly far back in the genre’s history. Consider only the career of Sam Peckinpah in the sixties and seventies to see what I mean. What unites the tone and themes of The Wild Bunch, Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid, and Bring me the Head of Alfredo Garcia are their attention to the western landscape as a desolate and terrible wasteland, and their portrayal of supposedly mythic heroes who are denied the final blaze of glory they believe is owed to them, instead living increasingly meaningless and impoverished existences as they crawl toward death. What is Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid if not the odyssey of two idealised outlaws literally and metaphorically chased out of a world which has changed and can no longer accommodate them? Perhaps the most intriguing examples of this early revisionism come from the very directors who spent their careers creating the great Western myth. In John Ford’s The Man who shot Liberty Valance, the legend is printed instead of the fact, and history is written to show that James Stewart shot Valance. In fact John Wayne shot him, obviously, but Wayne is the lawless past and Stewart the civilized future: there can only be one hero, but his elevation to such a status involves the suppression of a different hero, a man whose only place now is to be confined to history and forgotten. In Sergio Leone’s Once Upon a Time in the West, the great railroads represent the uniting of a vast land, a new era of corporate control and a world owned by businessmen, and again the end of the outlaw. This heritage is one the Coens recognise and pay tribute to: a scene early in True Grit when Mattie Ross steps off a train, which moves away as the camera rises to reveal a fully recreated town of the old west, is almost a lift from an iconic scene in the aforementioned Leone film.
So this idea of the dying west, and the debunking of the great cinematic/historical myth of the frontier, is clearly a strong notion coursing in the blood of the genre, but why? Is it simply that filmmakers have sought more depth than offered by the traditional cowboys versus Indians set-up? Surely the complexity and enormous power of Ford’s The Searchers disproves this. Is it an attempt to address indirectly the destruction of the Native American way of life by showing the world that immediately replaced it to be similarly doomed? Or is it rather, as I believe, something wider concerning the deconstruction of dramatic archetypes? Whatever the state of historical accuracy accompanying westerns, the genre fundamentally presents an idea of a hero ripe for evolution, or degradation, into an antihero. Crushing the myth of the old west is the same as questioning the value of the archetypal dramatic hero, and whilst the genre necessitates that this idea is felt more forcefully in the western, it in fact resonates across all dramatic art, for example in the thriller (The Dude in The Big Lebowski) the comedy (Nicholas Cage in Raising Arizona) and the gangster film (Gabriel Byrne in Miller’s Crossing).
I won’t be writing again for another fortnight, by which time the Golden Gong show will have been and gone. All I have to say on the matter is that when Firth and Portman win it will be deserved, the title fight should be between Inception and Black Swan as opposed to The Social Network and The King’s Speech, and that Anne Hathaway will definitely look hot in that dress.