P.O.V. No.24 - The Western

The Western Experience
Reflections on the Phenomenology of the Western

Edvin Vestergaard Kau
There's guns across the river aimin' at ya
Lawman on your trail, he'd like to catch ya
Bounty hunters, too, they'd like to get ya
Billy, they don't like you to be so free.
Bob Dylan. Billy 1

Fig. 1. Two stars: The location and the main characters. Frame from The Big Country (William Wyler, 1958).

Iconography and myth
A man rides down a hillside and out of the woods, a waterfall streaming from the cliff beside him. As he crosses the bottom of the silver screen from left to right, he turns his head and watches his group of men follow him. Next, we see them cross a river on their way to join the rest of the gang in a secret cavern. A Western has begun, and we, the viewers, will follow the hero's fate in the minefield between good men and bad guys, civilization and nature, the lovely lady and loneliness. Standard elements in a standard formula are in place, as many accounts tell us, in traditional genre descriptions. But is it really as simple as this tradition has it, and has the genre developed so unequivocally from almost naïve simplicity, toward growing complexity? In the following discussion and my analysis of characteristic elements of western examples I shall argue that this kind of description of the development of the genre is too simple. Furthermore, what are the title and the year of release of the film I have used as starting point? I shall come back to that in a moment, as well as to the discussion of the set pieces of the genre, or the media produced image of "the Western landscape." But first, a few words on the Westerns and the West.

In a good Western, landscape and people belong together, precisely as we see them in the example mentioned above. Nature plays its own part, and the characters have literally become one with their surroundings. "Western" is an American concept, and the Western has been described as the most American of all film genres. The West, about which we are told in the Westerns, is the North American continent. Even as the frontier closed, around the end of the 19th Century, its mythological concept was developed and coined, especially by Frederick Jackson Turner, as the westward-moving border between wilderness and civilization. Along this line the American way of life, the national character and ideas about freedom etc. were born, as different groups of people moved across the continent.

This main idea has even been incorporated in the John Ford Western The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962), in which the owner and editor of the local newspaper, Mr. Dutton Peabody, sketches out his version of the myth, trying to persuade the delegates to vote for Ransom Stoddard (played by James Stewart), as their Congress representative. Stoddard not only is a lawyer and a teacher, "a champion of law and order," he is also supposed to have shot the villain, Liberty Valance (even though this was done by another man). According to Peabody, the development went like this: Originally the land was a wilderness, with herds of buffalo, and wild Indians, and to this vast land without law and order came the pioneers, the buffalo hunters, and the adventurers. Soon, the cattlemen also reached the wild open ranges, and took it as their domain, and, according to them, the law was that of the hired gun. So, Peabody's conclusion is that ordinary people, the hardworking citizens and builders of cities, need statehood in order for their rights to be protected; therefore the delegates must vote for Ransom Stoddard. This frontier theory gave a kind of idealized picture of the development of the American society and its values, its heroes, and its villains. In fiction, from dime novels to feature films and television series, media versions of the pattern were cultivated into the Western genre as we know it.

Early nuances
Many theorists have described and analyzed the Western, and attempted to outline variations and developments within the genre and its history of approximately one hundred years. If we simplify a little, some of the key words have been the same as those used to describe genre and genre development in general: from the simple to the more complex, the naïve to the self-conscious, from one-dimensional fantasies to more realistic stories. One writer in particular has criticized traditional conceptions of the Western genre and its history. Tag Gallagher appropriately entitled his critical, and seminal, article "Shoot-Out at the Genre Corral: Problems in the 'Evolution' of the Western" (Grant, pp. 202-16). One of his criticisms is that too many genre critics

equate experience of a movie with analytic apperception of its narrative. Everything that can be, is abstracted into literature. An "icon" is catalogued, and is immediately stripped of its iconicity and transformed into a verbal symbol. […] Genre criticism seems almost endemically anti-phenomenological. […] It cannot recognize that extraction of a "narrative" is distant indeed from the experience of cinema, that narrative analysis of cinema, when divorced from a phenomenological approach, is virtually as irrelevant to cinematic criticism, as narrative summaries of operas are to music criticism. Literary critics exalt the "idea", but they regard its actualization as a mere illustration" (Gallagher, p. 213).

Gallagher, of course, regards all the genre theorists he criticizes as literary critics, or people with a background in literary departments, and he argues that we should look more closely for the actual experience of the cinematic world of the Western. I shall exemplify this by analyzing how the space of the western universe is staged in some examples; this means that I concentrate on the visual style of the films.

What Gallagher asks for is that theorists and analysts pay more attention to the movies' appearance, the aesthetic qualities that the viewers experience when confronted with a Western. The key text in the tradition of phenomenological approach to cinema is Maurice Merleau-Ponty's "The Film and the New Psychology" (Merleau-Ponty 1964, pp. 48-59), in which he develops the idea that a film is presented or played out to the audience as a gesture full of meaning. This means that the intentionally articulated cinematic meaning has to be examined on the level of style. The film stages a special look on its world, and this "viewing view" has been pointed out and theorised in the footsteps of Merleau-Ponty most prominently by Vivian Sobchack (Sobchack 1990 and 1992). Additionally this opens the field of the mutual interdependency between intention and attention, because what is shown as articulated space and time is what is seen as meaningful patterns by the viewer. The active viewer's meeting with the cinematic picture is at the centre of interest. The phenomenological approach points to the importance of analyzing and theorizing the level of style as the shaping of meaning.

Fig. 2 Fig. 3

The scene described at the beginning of this article is from the opening sequence of the William S. Hart Western, The Toll Gate (see Fig. 2 and 3; director: Lambert Hillyer, 1920), his first production in the name of his own company, after years of collaboration with Thomas H. Ince, and his biggest economic success. Hart wrote the script together with Hillyer. He directed a total of more than 70 other films, and Hart most probably also co-directed this one. The romantic tale of his good bad-man's (Black Deering) reformation, hopeless meeting with a good woman, killing of the bad guy, and return to the wilderness, is impressively, and perhaps surprisingly, realized without overt melodrama. As the boss of the gang of robbers, Black has an almost everyday, run-of-the-mill way of leading his men. Hart displays a rather downplayed acting style, and the use of locations is very functional, even economical. What we experience in Hart is not nearly the amount of sentimentality that some writers have accused him of practicing. Of course, it is stylized, but every Western is. The visual staging is the meaning, the film's gesture, to be received and interpreted by the viewer.

Fig. 4 Fig. 5

While being, on the one hand, chased by two posses - the sheriff's and that of the villain and bounty hunter who has betrayed him - and, in fact, on the other hand chasing the latter, Black is shown "at home" in nature (Fig. 4). Yet, in the shadow of the ominous "hanging tree," present in so many Westerns, he has a nasty fall with his horse (Fig. 5). The landscape plays the part of both the good and the bad.

Fig. 6 Fig. 7

Toward the end, our hero must do the right thing: Black decides to leave, instead of staying with the good (and very beautiful) woman and her son (Fig. 6). Characters, location, and visualization tell the story, while he departs and disappears on the mountain ridge (Fig.7).

According to Gallagher, the Western was not only already well established as a genre before the First World War, but it was also subdivided into a fine-grained set of variations, made possible and developed within a huge production. He writes:

By 1909, and during the next six years, there were probably more westerns released each month than during the entire decade of the 1930s. Hyperconsciousness of the genre resulted. Almost all the observations of [the writers Gallagher criticizes] were commonplace in pre-World War I writings on the western. More subtly, westerns were then divided into quite distinct subgenres, each of which was known to possess its own specific conventions - among them, frontier dramas, Indian dramas, Civil War dramas, western comedies (Gallagher, p. 205).

William S. Hart's production, as actor, director, producer, and writer, is an example of how he continued this very conscious approach. He knew the land and he knew about film; in his movies, he stylized his visual story-telling into romantic, but also down-to-earth and even laconic stories, the kind that bring the Western experience to the audience.

Throughout the history of the Western, the backbone of the genre has been this meeting: the land and the people in it, their surroundings, and their fate. This, I believe, is what gives the Western its tremendous visual power; gives the directors and their cinematographers the chance to excel in compositions of frames, which, as sensual experiences, tell the better part of the Western stories. Precisely because the drama, action, and themes of the Western are articulated and staged in space, film is especially well suited to the production and development of the western genre. Cinema becomes the privileged scene for the phenomenological encounter between the stylized world of the Western movie and the audience, as I have mentioned it above. The Western movie is the visualization of the land and the people in it. The film medium brings it to life as a pictorial show and involves the seeing audience. Through the history of the genre different directors have cultivated different camera gazes on the universe of the Western. Below I will point to examples of other directors' interpretations of the genre material and its aesthetic potential, specifically two films by William Wyler and Sam Peckinpah.

A big country
Above this article is a frame from William Wyler's The Big Country, showing the hero (played by Gregory Peck) watching a vengeful group, led by his father-in-law-to-be, leaving the ranch in order to come down on his neighbour and rival. Again, we see the conflicts and personal attitudes literally sculpted in the director's visualizations. Some of the sequences in this film belong to the most beautiful and effective in the history of the genre.

In some instances this film uses rather slow dissolves to combine some of the points to which I have drawn attention. The drama articulated through the use of elements such as landscape, other surroundings, characters and their physical positioning, special trees or cliffs, and so on - all this appears in new multilayered combinations within the time span of the dissolve. For instance, the main characters in the horse carriage on the free (and sometimes threatening) open range are brought together with a frame showing intimacy, see fig 8. Furthermore, Wyler combines this with yet another incarnation of the fateful "hanging tree," here in anticipation of their subsequent harassment by the bullies from the neighbouring ranch.

Fig. 8
Fig. 9. Wyler's articulation of a situation, where the female main character is in a gloomy state of mind.

"Billy, they don't like you to be so free"
Following Gallagher's contention, I find that it is fair to say that the experience of the Western picture of the world has more nuances and grey tones than often acknowledged. From silent films like Hart's, through every decade, the Western has shown a wide range of variations, from comedies to solemn works, from standard entertainment to self-reflective innovation. One of the connections between Hart's good bad-man of the old times, and later principal characters is that they too live, or have lived, on both sides of the law. The idea of freedom and the ideal of being able to do the right thing, even if your actions are not always right according to society, are part of the romantic world of the Western.

However, other interpretations of the Western universe put it in a different light, and cause the ideals to freeze into an almost defeatist, apocalyptic tableau. Of course, this is especially evident in later Western movies, such as Once Upon a Time in the West (Sergio Leone, 1968) and Unforgiven (Clint Eastwood, 1992), but the dark side of Western life appears in many earlier Westerns too. We may think of elements in works by Budd Boeticher, Anthony Mann or John Ford, and individual examples such as The Ox-Bow Incident (William Wellman, 1943), High Noon (Fred Zinneman, 1952), The Searchers (John Ford, 1956), Cheyenne Autumn (John Ford, 1964), and Will Penny (Tom Gries, 1967). The latter presents a tough and sensuous description of the cowboy's job and hard work, and neither the hero nor his rancher boss is young any more. Will is illiterate. Near-sightedness is seen more often, and the boss has to use spectacles when doing his paper work. Old eyes and an old body likewise are part of the Eastwood former gun-slinger in Unforgiven, and he even has a kind of family relationship to Charlton Heston's Will Penny, alluded to through his name: William Munny.

Sam Peckinpah is a director who takes this frozen picture of the romantic Western to an extreme, and the example I use is from Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid (1973), namely the scene which shows Billy against the setting sun, riding past a pond or a shallow river (Fig. 10 and 11). Peckinpah's interpretation of the mythology and ideas of the Western genre, complete with complexities and potential contradictions, is often built into visual compositions, which take the shape of beautiful, even stylish, tableaux. But they also contain a certain duality. The beauty demonstrates a positive valuation of something in the situations, but the very same gesture - that which makes the pictures supremely beautiful - creates a conscious distance to them. They precisely display the ideals which in Peckinpah's films often are too good to be true. This duality of presentation and refutation of the ideals generates the unrest and embedded threads in these shots.

Fig. 10-11. Billy the Kid mirrored as the dying myth of freedom in Sam Peckinpah's mise-en-scène of self-destructing ideals in the Western tragedy.

As we see, another member of the "hanging-tree"-family plays a part in this shot. The sinister atmosphere comes from the black, contrasting shadows, especially the silhouettes of Billy and the tree. (Pat Garrett has, at this stage, been hired by the cattle barons to hunt down and kill his old friend, Billy!). Billy moves along a curve from left to right, through the frame, and is shown in silhouette like the tree, before he becomes one with the black horizon on the right. Simultaneously his mirror image appears in the water. The reflection may be viewed as the myth-image of Billy, but at the same time represents the deadly flipside of the myth that can be said to be the "closing statement" of the film, and which is foreshadowed in the very composition and its chromatics. The shot is composed in the picture surface as well as in depth: Billy moves across-and-into-it, and becomes part of this classic Western-icon. It is also invested with consciously articulated meaning as a "Western-icon": a beautiful sunset with silhouettes against the sky, etc. The conflict between ideal life and prosaic death is embodied in the picture we meet on the silver screen. Like other Peckinpah films (and a number of other Westerns), this one focuses much of its reflection on death, the death of both people and of ideals. However, as his film heroizes both the people and the background of their death-wish and resignation, Peckinpah ends up with this heroic death under protest.

Film: Born to be Western
The Western is a visualization of variations of a vision, including the myth of freedom. That is, the idea of the open range, where heroes and heroines, together with ordinary people, set off, settle down, start a family and build a society. But it is also a type of cinematically articulated reflection on the confrontations inherent to this process, as well as the moral conflicts and nuances in the portrayal of the main characters. The basic material may be the same, and it may even be difficult to pinpoint a single linear development within the genre. But as I think my reflections and ideas of analysis show, the phenomenological approach gives a solid basis for a kind of close analysis that is indispensable as a basis of theoretical reflection. As suggested by the examples I have chosen, it is perhaps more appropriate to speak of variations in the attention that filmmakers pay to different aspects in individual films over time. Perhaps the universe of the Western is best described as a cinematic tableau (and a moral landscape), in which the filmmakers throw ever-changing spotlights on different elements and colours in their fictional worlds of ideas. It should be no surprise, then, that the most excellent realizations of the interplay between Man and Land of the West were created in the cinema, through the visual art form that actually places this meeting before our eyes, as the Western experience.


Buscombe, Edward. Unforgiven. London, British Film Institute, 2004.

Everson, William K. & Fenin, George N. The Western. From silents to the seventies. New York: Grossman Publishers, 2. ed., 1973.

French, Philip. Westerns. London: Secker & Warburg/BFI, 1973.

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Grant, Barry Keith (ed.). Film Genre Reader. University of Texas Press, Austin, 1986; pp. 202-16.

Jeavons, Clyde & Parkinson, Michael. A Pictorial History of Westerns. London: Hamlyn Publications Group, 1972.

Jeavons, Clyde & Parkinson, Michael. A Pictorial History of Westerns. London: Hamlyn Publications Group, 1972.

Kau, Edvin. "Comes a Horseman." .MacGuffin no. 31, 1979.

Kau, Edvin. "Billeder, billeder, billeder." MacGuffin no. 43, 1982.

Kau, Edvin. "If ever a film had its cake and ate it too, surely this is it" (About Edward Buscombe's book Unforgiven.) 16:9. Filmtidsskrift no. 7, 2004.


Kitses, Jim. Horizons West. London: Thames and Hudson/BFI, 1969.

Merleau-Ponty, Maurice. Sense and Non-Sense. Northwestern University Press, 1964.

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Sobchack, Vivian. "The Active Eye. A Phenomenology of Cinematic Vision." Quarterly Review of Film and Video 12, 1990, pp. 21-36.

Sobchack, Vivian. The Address of the Eye. Princeton University Press, 1992.

Wright, Will. Sixguns & Society. Los Angeles. University of California Press, 1975.

American Cinema. 100 Years of Filmmaking. No. 4: The Western. (Alain Klarer, television series, 1995).

The Toll Gate. DVD, Image Entertainment, 1998.

The Big Country. DVD, MGM, 2004.

Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid - 2-disc Special Edition, DVD, Turner Entertainment and Warner Bros., 2006.

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