Those of you who have been regular readers for some time will know of my interest in Westerns. I have read a certain amount of non-fiction on the topic, just as I have read about the history and politics of ancient Greece. Yet, it is not the resurrection of the facts about the long-dead as much as the cultural artefacts they left behind that is my main interest. Aristotle, whom I find myself referring to often, said that “poetry tends to express the universal, history the particular”. I have a thesis which is largely in support of this amazing claim.
This is not my first attempt to come to grips with the Western. Nor, I suspect, shall it be my last. It seems as though the time of the Western has passed, of the Top 10 westerns, only one was made after the 1960s; and that was made by a man who earned his name in the Spaghetti Westerns which make up a disproportionate number of the top 10. It seems like Sergio Leone got the formula pretty much right.
My own initial experience was not with his work, but with those limp-wristed moral tales favoured by John Wayne. Some did have some bite; his version of The Alamo changed my understanding of the hero forever. The brave souls who died for an idea of freedom, truth and the like, were a far cry from the suave but ultimately invincible Bond. Their deaths set them apart, because they were human, their heroism tempered by their humanity.
It wasn’t until this year that I realised why the Iliad seemed so familiar when I first read it, back at high school: its context is that of the Alamo – a group of staunch defenders, fighting for what they believe in against a superior army… but this just doesn’t stand up to a close-comparison. There are too many differences. I’ll get back to that in a moment, but a momentary digression:
This is not only not the first time I’ve talked about westerns, but it’s not the first time I’ve talked about the Iliad either. Achilleus is the biggest martial bad-ass ever, his mastery of the battlefield is unquestioned – he was defeated by Apollo himself, giving flight to Paris’ arrows. We can tell he is the greatest because he defeated Hektor – the most viable alternative, for as Achilleus puts it at the start of his epic sulk:
a yearning for Achilleus will strike Achaea’s sons and all your armies! But then, Atrides, harrowed as you will be, nothing you do can save you – not when your hordes of fighters drop and die, cut down by the hands of man-killing Hektor! Achilleus, Iliad, 1.282
Eloquently, this is Achilleus building up the reputation and status of his great rival; a reputation bolstered as in Achilleus’ absence, Hektor cuts a swathe through the Greek armies. A very close reading of the text actually renders Hektor somewhat less fearsome than this, but the dramatic convention of Homer leaves no doubt as to his status. As Hektor’s status is built up, so is the status of the man who kills him.
And so, I return, to a lone gunman, entering a town under threat from a gang of rough men, the sort who will stop at nothing, whose morals are as creased and worn as their hats and clothes. Land-pirates, raiding at will, risking their lives to plunder other men. But who are these other men? The western will be at great pains to show you their infamous deeds, their iron control, their cat-like reflexes. They could be a John Herod in The Quick and the Dead; or an Indio in For A Few Dollars More. The role of the hero is to defeat the villain; and in the process to demonstrate their own arête/virtu. The Iliad stands not only at the head of western literature, but of Westerns. The structure of the work, building up one hero, so that they may be defeated by another, is the classical mode of the western.
If I have a motto though, it’s that ”if you’re a genius, the rules don’t apply”, and some of the greater Westerns go that way. There is no sense in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid of this adversarial definition of character – their heroism comes from an accumulation of more generic glory. Unforgiven works by subverting the stature of Bill Munny’s foe, Bill Daggett, stripping the hero of his kleos, and transforming the epic into a more human story.
So where have the Westerns gone? Handily resolving this question, as well as my earlier speculation on the place of mythology in the modern world, is the answer: Comics. Also, action movies. Comic book characters are defined by their nemeses, in some cases these are almost as recognisable as the heroes themselves. Is Batman really more famous than the Joker? More likely it was the infamy and notoriety of his enemies which catapulted Batman to his status as the most ubiquitous super hero. Superman is defined by Lex Luthor, Professor X by Magneto… is it a coincidence that obscure heroes like the Green Hornet are only famous in comparison to their foes? Even James Bond, transformed into a boiler-plate action hero by the movies, has a nemesis whose defeat defined his career in the books.
When you strip back the trappings of setting, the stylistic and dialectic differences between works, the medium in which they are conveyed, and the gaudy idolatry of character-worship… you are left to assign each work to a genre, to put like with like, on terms of structural purity. The Western discards its dusty trails and horses, its Texan patios and the cellulose on which it was pioneered; you are left with the study of a man without a name. He is brave, but not moral, he is strong, but not merciful. His life is defined by the death of his twin, and the appeal lies in the resolution of conflict: not in favour of right, but prowess.
Got round to signing up for KapCon today. My first since ’98. I’m running a horror game called Be Home By Dark which is just a really preliminary sketch at this point, but based on an idea I’ve been kicking around for a month or two.
Still looking for 2 players for my Pulp Gothic game. It will be modern-gothic in setting, with some horror elements, and a vein of action. Saturday sometime is seeming like the most plausible time.