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What Are The Codes And Conventions Of The Western? Essay, Research Paper

In this essay I shall examine the various codes and conventions which are present in the Western film. I shall examine three films. These are The Searchers, a film which includes as its hero John Wayne playing the part of Ethan, A Fistfull of Dollars, in which Clint Eastwood plays the part of the hero with no name, and Stagecoach, in which John Wayne is also present, acting the part of The Ringo Kidd. I shall examine the first sections of all three films, as to perform a detailed analysis of all of the three films is a task beyond the scope of this essay. Beforehand, however, I shall describe some common aspects of cinematography. . . A high camera angle is used to make the audience appreciate the significance of a character in the Western. This camera angle is used to make the person look ordinary or common, inferior to another character, or small in relation to another character in the script. A low camera angle is used to stress the importance of the dominant character. The person’s status within the film is very easily measured by how large they appear to be to the viewer at one particular time. If the camera follows one character in a film for example, this could provide a link between scenes in the mind(s) of the viewer. If the camera stays in a static position, and the person walks away for example, this could signify the end of a scene. Deep focus and wide angle shots of the desert are often used in the opening credits of the Western film, as they ensure that the viewer appreciates the full glory and magnitude of the desert enviroment. The set around the actors in a Western can be used to communicate different ideas to the viewer. A person in a bar will give the audience very different mental picture to the same person in a desert, just as a person wearing a poncho in a film will give the audience a very different impression when compared to a person who is wearing Western style clothes. The props are the objects which are put to use by the characters in a film, and which put emphasis on the plot (in a Western an example would be a six-shooter). Also, if different characters carry different props, this can put emphasis on characterisation too. An integral part of the use of props is the effective use of iconographic representations of objects commonly found in the Western culture. Various props can also symbolise survival, masculinity, manhood – e.g. the “macho” man in a Western will always carry some form of gun, whether it be a Winchester rifle of a Colt 6-shot pistol. Different props in the hands of different characters can mean different things, as the rifle in the hands of the Mexican mercenary will have a different meaning to the viewer compared to the pistol in the belt of the lone hero and the tiny pocket pistol in the handbag of the lady. The positioning of the characters, the props, and the set within a frame can all drastically alter the viewer’s perception of that scene. An example of this is that a person in the foreground of a scene is considered more significant than a person in the rear of a scene. The positioning of objects within a frame is always very well thought out by the film’s director and camera crew. Below are the main themes which are present in any Western film. Analysis will show that most of all of these are present in the three films which I have chosen. Desert Vs. Civilisation Anarchy Vs. Law and Order Freedom Vs. Responsibility A spiritual or physical journey Revenge There are many rituals in the Western, which include the gun/fist fight, the departure and return of the lone hero, and Western and Indian burials. The contrast between Western and Indian burials is discussed later in the essay. In a Western there is always somebody who symbolises Law and Order. This is usually the Sheriff, but can also be the cavalry etc. The so called “bad guys” in a Western are often from ethnic minorities, and are nearly always dirty, have bad habits which include spitting etc. They may also use expletives. The filmmakers make it very obvious to the viewer who the bad-guys really are, and the easiest way for them to achieve this is to use at that time unpopular groups of people, and use them almost as scapegoats. At the end of the “Searchers” film, the cavalry burn and kill the Indians, including their chief, Scar, and the Indian settlements. The two groups just cannot live together in the same country, and are always trying to kill each other. This is an integral part of most Western films, the intense hatred present between the two groups. The doll which Debbie (the little girl in the “Searchers” film) is holding at the start is to prove to be very significant. White people who are brought up as Indian women still clutch their dolls. They are their last link with civilisation, even if they themselves are no longer to be considered civilised. The grime of the desert contrasts very strongly with the cleanliness of the homestead in Searchers. This is to show what a hostile and forbidding environment the desert is when compared to the cleanly and welcoming environment of the homestead. Education is a very important theme in any Western – the more responsibilities the individual has to bear, the better educated they normally are. Hence Ethan from Searchers is better educated than Marty in the ways of the desert, and important and essential information regarding many items and things to do with the desert environment. Marty however is much more familiar with his own environment, which consists of the homestead, and civilisation generally. Ethan’s feelings towards his brother’s wife are very apparent at the start of the film – this is most probably why he stays away from the house during the rest of the film. Inference also plays an important part in the makeup of a Western – indeed, in the makeup of any film. It is up to the audience to fill in the gaps in the story for themselves in order to achieve a full mental picture of the film. Unless the film was to last for many hours, it would be impossible to show every single action in every single scene, and so the director ensures that just enough is shown of every part of the story that the audience can peace the rest together for themselves. This happens in all three of the films present in this essay. Ethan isn’t the person who actually kills Scar – instead he scalps him. Ethan could have killed Scar, but instead leaves this onerous task to others. The respect that he holds for the great Indian chieftain is too much, and rather than killing him, he actually scalps the chieftain. Scalping in the time of the Western was considered to be a mark of respect to the dead man. Scar, like Ethan, is a product of the desert, and Ethan gives him the respect that he feels is due to a “brother”. During the film Marty undertakes a spiritual journey. This journey is a choice between the desert, and the freedom which it offers Marty, and civilisation, and the safety and fellow civilised people it offers him. Marty starts the film as an uncultured man, and ends it as a gentle, sympathetic soul, having captured the heart of his darling. The physical journey on the other hand is the journey which has taken place over a five year period. The characters have thus developed over a long period of time, and the skill on the part of the filmmaker is to make this appear to be as real as possible to the audience, but still to keep the film to a reasonable length. The ruined Southern Gentleman is a character who is present in many Westerns. The revenge aspect of any Western is very important, and in Searchers, it is one of the main aspects. The revenge is over the death of the family and the burying of the homestead, but this is superficial when compared to the intense hatred of the Indians present in the minds of Marty and Ethan following the capture of Debbie, and their desire to get her back put of Indian hands. One of the rituals in any Western is the gunfight, or the fistfight. In the Searchers the fistfight occurs at the wedding between Charlie and his fiancee, whom Marty also loves. There are also gunfights in the Searchers, but fewer than are present in many other Westerns. In those gunfights present in Searchers however, there is always a barrier present between Marty and Ethan – white Americans, and the Indians. This could be a rock (in the gunfight where Ethan gets wounded), or a log (at the river scene). This is a “frame within a frame”. Ethan gets wounded to prove to the audience that he is not invincible, that although a product of the desert, he can still suffer. Following his wounding, something that doesn’t happen in many Westerns, but which happens in Searchers is the added human touch to the lone hero, Ethan actually relies on Marty, to help him up onto his horse. Ethan is now not so sceptical of Marty’s abilities. In some Westerns it is necessary for the lone hero to go through a spiritual journey – I believe that Ethan achieves this during the course of the film. At the end of the film Ethan departs, and Marty returns to the bosom of the family. Both have completed their spiritual journeys, and both have completed their physical journeys. Physically they have ended up in the same place, but spiritually, they are both now enriched. There are two funerals in the film, Indian and White American. The contrast in culture is immediately apparent, and is achieved, at least in part, by some very clever cinematography. The Indian funeral consists of the burying of the Indian underneath a rock with some of his belongings. Very few people would be present. At the Western funeral however there are many people present, and there is a lot more feeling devoted in the filming when compared to the Indian funeral. Low camera angles on Scar and Ethan make both look strong and imposing when compared to the majority of other characters in the film. Women on the other hand are filmed using a high camera angle to make them look weak and helpless. In the mind of the viewer there is the contrast between the worms-eye view and the birds eye view. This is in essence what both camera angles are all about. People ride into the desert dwarfed by the scenery present. Wide angled shots are present in the opening credits of most Westerns, and are also present, to a degree, at the start of Searchers. The reason for this is mentioned earlier on in the esay. The contrast between the entering and departure methods of Ethan into and from civilisation are a marked contrast. He enters on a horse, and he leaves by foot (at the start and at the end of the film). At the end of the film, Marty rides in on a horse, and then chooses to remain in a civilised environment. Ethan is not used to working with people, and the friction really shows when he is forced to work with members of the search party looking fro Debbie and her sister. Ethan shows that products of the desert cannot get along with members of a civilised community. There is a very marked contrast between the dust and grime of the uninviting desert, and the cleanliness of the very well kept homestead. Marty is unusual in that he is comfortable in both the civilisation and the wilderness. Marty has a slight Indian mentality, in that he believes in only taking for himself what he needs, rather than all that he can possibly take, a point which is well illustrated in the scene in the film where Ethan shoots as many buffalo as is possible in the time, whereas Marty shows some restraint. This is where the two characters show don’t show their normal stereotypical traits. Ethan exhibits an example of normal Western behaviour, which is wasteful, whereas Marty, the character whom the audience would consider to be the most Western, shows typical Indian behaviour. Ethan conflicts with Marty over many things. A serious example of this is when Marty prevents Ethan from shooting Debbie. If Marty hadn’t been there, Debbie would have died. Ethan’s hatred of the Indians is so great that he is prepared to kill his niece, because she has been held captive, and is now supposedly contaminated, and exhibiting examples of the Indian culture in her behaviour and appearance. Ethan kills Futtermann as self-defence – he was brought up to kill, and was threatened, and so reacted to the threat. A rational, civilised man would have explored other options before killing the man, but Ethan sees the only option laid before him as death. The other option open to a rational man would be to hold Fulemann captive, and take him to the Sheriff, but instead Ethan took a risk, by shooting him in the back. The theme in a Western I have named Anarchy Vs. Law and Order is very similar to Desert Vs. Civilisation, as the Desert can symbolise Anarchy, and Law and Order can be symbolised by Civilisation. In a Western, the Lone Hero will always work independently of Law and Order. Ultimately, the Lone Hero will do things which will contribute towards the common good, but in order to achieve this he will us unorthodox methods – i.e. he will work against the law in order to ultimately work with them. Most Westerns contain similar rituals – examples of which are the brawls within the saloon, and the gunfights. These tell the audience who the enemies of the hero are, and are a very useful cinemagraphical tool. The brawl itself achieves what could have been achieved using words, but it achieves it instead in a very exciting and absorbing way. The brawl between Marty and Charlie is an example of this (In The Searchers). In the film “A Fistful of Dollars”, the lone hero is corrupt. This is similar to the status of the lone hero in many of the so called “Spaghetti Westerns”. (The Spaghetti Westerns were filmed in Italy, using Italian actors in all but the leading role, and dubbed with American voices). The Spaghetti Westerns totally changed the face of the Western, as they became more and more violent – and the lone hero became a much more vicious character. When watching “A Fistful of Dollars”, the first focused image is the rocky, desert soil. Following this the camera pans and zooms in onto the lone hero and his horse. Heavy symbolism is being used here – that the lone hero is a product of the desert. The mise-en-scene here is great. All that the viewer needs to know in these early stages of the film is contained within that single shot. Early on in the film, should the film be paused, the long shots of the desert and the lone hero appearing small and insignificant therein will be barely encroached upon by buildings. The buildings will be only in the areas at the very edges of the shot, to show that in those times, the desert was vastly greater in area to the parts which had been built upon. The only good thing that the lone hero does throughout the course of the film is to save a woman. Everything else that the lone hero does (we never learn his name) is either killing people, or making money. One thing that becomes apparent is that this man’s only interest is in making money. One is always drawn to Clint Eastwood’s stare. He has an impenetrable and impregnable stare which seems to suggest that his soul is his own, and that nobody else can encroach upon it. He remains constantly inscrutable and expressionless throughout the film. This uniform expression (or lack of!) is marred only by the occasional chew on his cheroot. The image is completed by the wide-brimmed hat, ensuring that his face remains mostly in shadow for the duration of the film. He wears mainly dark clothes also, which seem to suggest that although he is supposed to be the hero of the film, he is not to be taken at face value. During the start of the film there is no dialogue (and this is true for many of the Spaghetti Westerns). The only sounds are the background noises which the audience would not normally expect to hear. This silence intensifies the atmosphere to near breaking point until the first word is actually spoken. Upon that first word, the viewer relieves all of that tension in a huge sigh of relief – this would be very much greater should the film be shown in a cinema! When the villains of the film are shooting at a child, Clint (for that is how I will refer to the lone hero from now on) never alters his expression. He is portrayed as utterly selfish, never doing anything unless it concerned him, or benefited him directly. The villains however are many times worse than the lone hero. They have no redeeming features to their characters whatsoever. In these films, as I have mentioned earlier, the villains are always the ethnic minorities, which usually means Mexicans. The mise-en-scene of a frame just after the first villain encounter is incredible. The tree only has one leaf on it (i.e. it is dead), and is situated on one side of the screen. On the other half of the screen is a noose. The lone hero is very small at the bottom of the screen – a long shot. This symbolises the reality of the storyline – the fact that the lone hero will face death many times during the film. The tolling of the bell is the image of death also, and is the equivalent of the visual scene which is described above. As the lone hero is a stranger in this film, the people in the community fear him. In the community a man sends a chill through the viewer when he states in a simplistic manner that in this area, everybody is either very rich, or very dead. This is to prove significant, and the whole film centres around this statement. Many men from the houses come out and surround Clint. They say that he will not get any work dressed as he is. He is an American, but is wearing a Mexican poncho, for reasons the viewer never knows. This is unacceptable in the minds of both the Americans and the Mexicans “families” in the community. At that moment Clint couldn’t count on support from either faction. In the Wild West, survival was the key, and morality came a second best. Both the Americans and the Mexicans shoot at the feet of Clint and the child. This establishes a link between the two. When Clint meets the Mexican who gives him some advice, Clint is seen as very much taller than his “friend”. The lone hero will always be the dominant character in the Western. The statement which is the most poignant of the film is the one in which an old man says – “Eating and Drinking and Killing. That’s all you can do, just like the rest of your kind!” This will stay in the backs of the viewers’ minds every time Clint kills, or drinks in a bar/saloon. The beginning of the film “Stagecoach” is a stark contrast to the beginning of “A Fistful of Dollars”. Stagecoach starts off to loud music. If the viewer had seen A Fistful of Dollars beforehand, during the first minute of the film, he/she would have known they were to be completely different. Another noticeable difference is that the film seems to have been set at a much earlier time than the Clint Eastwood film The film has been filmed in black and white. A drinking doctor, and a “tart with a heart” are present. (A “tart with a heart” is a prostitute/bar-girl who has some character, and who appeals to the viewer due to this). The doctor has got such a problem with drink that he even operates when he is drunk. They are both driven out of town by a group of socially prejudiced women. This sort of behaviour was the norm in that time – when if a person didn’t conform to a rigid set of social codes, that person was driven out of the closely knit community that they had once belonged to. The society is flawed at the lowest level. There is another man who is also present on the coach. This is a ruined Southern gentleman, who, as previously stated often appears in Westerns. The fact that he has been ruined can be associated with the American Civil War. (Many Northerners treated these ruined men with distaste, and sometimes open hostility). He has since turned to gambling to make a living, and is on the coach for reasons unknown. The name of the “Tart with a Heart” that was driven away by the group of self-righteous women is Dallas. (At the end of the film she will ride off with the character played by John Wayne). John Wayne’s character is due to appear in the film shortly, and it’s name is The Ringo Kidd. I am a year 7 in disguise There is also a banker present on the coach – he has stolen $50 000 that was entrusted to him at the start of the film. He is a man who had been looked up to as one of the pillars of the community, and now he has betrayed it. This also shows hypocrisy. There is a “lady” who is present on the coach. She is called Lady Mallory, and is due to meet her husband – Captain Mallory, at a rendezvous en route. This Lady is actually, although we don’t know it at first, heavily pregnant. Lady Mallory has very affected airs and graces, and finds it hard to get along with anybody on the coach apart from the ruined Southern Gentleman. All of the passengers in the coach “travel at their own risk” – to use the words of the coachman himself. The reason for this statement is that the coach is due to travel through Jeronimo country, which is Apache country. The coach will be accompanied at the start of the journey, but the coach cannot be accompanied by cavalry all the way. In the latter stages of the journey, the coach will be very vulnerable to ambush. As the coach moves further and further into the wilderness, the feelings of the coach occupants begin to show themselves. Soon the Ringo Kidd joins the stagecoach when he hails it, and the Sheriff, who is also travelling on the coach, demands that he hands over his rifle, a Winchester. He’s put under arrest. Ringo’s real name is Henry The doctor and the Southern Gentleman harbour strong feelings against each other, as they were on different sides of the rebellion (as the Northerners called it), or American Civil War. Lady Mallory and Dallas ignore each other, as they are on totally different sides of the social spectrum. The Southern Gentleman and Henry behave in a hostile way to each other. Lady Mallory behaves in a civil way to the Southern Gentleman and Henry and Dallas get along very well. Captain Mallory, Lady Mallory’s husband, wasn’t at the coach’s first stop as expected. Lady Mallory wants to make a detour to find the Captain, but the banker opposes it, stating that it will be too dangerous. This shows hypocrisy on the part of the banker again, because he has no rights at all – he is a thief. Eventually there is a vote, and as there is the support of the two ladies, the doctor, and the Ringo Kidd, the coach makes a detour in order to meet up with Captain Mallory. During the film, the snobbish trait of Lady Mallory’s will have to go, and it does eventually. There is a very strong Mise-en-Scene as the coach and the cavalry take different routes at the cross-roads. Both have set off at the same time, and then the coach branches out. The music changes now. The shot is of the high angle sort, (or top-over) and is very dramatic. Even more hypocrisy is shown by the banker as he discusses the high level of the National Debt. When Dallas offers the Banker the canteen (water bottle), he is rude to her. This will ensure that the audience feels sympathetic towards her, and feel sorry for her whenever things don’t go her way. She now has the audience “on her side”. Whenever the Southern Gentleman speaks with Lady Mallory, the music changes to the Romantic sort. This is a dramatic contrast to the music played whenever Dallas and Henry talk. The Banker, supposedly a pillar of society, is corrupt, and Dallas is kinder, and a better human being than the banker. A well thought out touch by the director is that whenever Dallas looks at Henry (she is immersed in her own thoughts), her expression softens. This really draws the audience to them. Lady Mallory is trying to keep up appearances, but has a basic human need for help. She is pregnant, and needs the help of a fellow woman, but when Dallas offers her some help, she refuses – presumably just on principle, and not because she thinks Dallas is particularly unsuited to the job. When the coach stops and Lady Mallory goes into labour, she has no choice over who helps her deliver her baby. Dallas and The drunken doctor is called in to help. He is made to drink black coffee to make himself sick, and then is shocked with cold water, to try to sober him up enough to deliver the baby. When the baby has been delivered, the doctor immediately starts to drink again. The bottle is in the centre of the frame, showing its importance in the mind of the doctor. Dallas and Henry have a conversation that is heavy with mis-en-scene – with the coral in the background, and both of them on the road in the darkness. The next morning, the coach occupants find that the Mexicans have run away with the coach’s horses. The Banker believes that his bag and stolen money have been taken, and gets very angry with the man who looked after his bag for him. Dallas has slept up all night with Lady Mallory, and this is a stark contrast to the doctor, who has spent the night in a drunken stupor. The doctor comes in the morning with several days of beard growth on his face. There is a sharp contrast between the two people. I can conclude from this essay that in all three films which I have discussed seem to follow the codes and conventions which I stated in the main body of this essay. Revenge, Law and Order, Desert Vs. Civilisation, Anarchy Vs. Law and Order, Freedom Vs. Responsibility. These are all present in each of the Western films which I have discussed. The main themes in each of the films are as follows – Revenge in The Searchers, Anarchy Vs. Law and Order in A Fistfull of Dollars, and Law and Order (at least to some extent) in Stagecoach.


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