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Representations of the Villain in Westerns have altered to meet the values of a changing society Essay Sample

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Representations of the Villain in Westerns have altered to meet the values of a changing society Essay Sample

Over time audience’s change and as a result of these changes film has altered, to reflect and appeal to the society. Audiences like genre because it plays on their expectations and allows them to predict and therefore be at ease with what they are viewing. The altering of key areas in the Western has allowed films to meet the needs of each new audience, so therefore pieces do not become static and formulaic; each reflects the views of the producers and society. The villain here is as important as the hero at illustrating society’s values. In order for narrative to be entertaining the introduction of a hero versus villain is necessary.

Villains are primarily important because they allow the audience to experience a vicarious thrill releasing them from their morals, cultural boundaries and allowing for moral escapism1 – so that we experience life through characters which have abandoned their own moral boundaries. By watching the piece audiences engage with the characters and enjoy being a voyeur to the journey which they partake in. A countercultural reading of a piece of media such as this is referred to by Stuart Hall2 as negotiated, as unless you, yourself are a villain you would never be able to fully understand the piece.

Altman also refers to this countercultural experience as abandonment from moral and legal regulations, so that an audience follows the plot and in some circumstances rather than identify with the so called ‘good guy’ can instead temporarily suspend their own morals to associate with a darker character. This way the audience does not feel uneasy about what they are watching and can still enjoy the film as the pleasure lies in the twists and turns of the resolution.

How far audiences feel a need to experience this effect is dependent on what they experience in their ‘real’ world, and it is these conditions which change this altering the viewing demands of audiences and filmmakers. A villain usually represents the disequilibrium stage of Todrov’s narrative structure, which is the disruption allowing the narrative to progress, and within this characters (good guys) progress by over-coming the disruption, and restoring the sense of equilibrium by the end of the text.

Another theory about narrative is the morphology of the folk tale by Propp: this theory can also be adapted to film texts because as the years have passed the art of story telling or folk tale has progressed into film making. So that old tales such as Westerns are made visual tales as the majority are based on historical events. The theory explains how each character can be classified into clearly defined roles and functions based on their actions i. e. the hero seeks something and the villain is simply there to oppose the hero during the stages of complication, transference and struggle stages.

Within the Western villains are also necessary to show binary opposition, this is because the make up tends to rely on conflicts such as law and order versus anarchy and civilisation versus the wild, examples of films which show this kind of behaviour include High Noon where there is one good guy upholding the law throughout, and as with most pieces law and order prevail. This film also illustrates and allegorical villain that contemporary viewers would have spotted. His lone stand against bullies is a metaphor for the McCarthyism of the time.

The Western villain or group who represent the opposition has seen a drastic shift over the past 100 years, and this has had a lot to do with a changing society. Early film productions, especially before the late 1950’s, within the genre cast Native Americans as almost extras in films, and hardly ever with real acting roles; These ‘Indians’ were shown stereotypically as savages, who went around burning homesteads, raping women and kidnapping their children, film makers who produced these westerns were doing so to meet expectations of a ignorant white society, who has disregard for other cultures.

The unfortunate images of Indians in pre-1960s westerns were virtually, universally negative. Indians in film did really stupid things, in such classics as Stagecoach; they rode right up next to the coach which contained John Wayne and his rifle. They jumped from their ponies to the wagon’s team, usually causing the harness to come loose and the wagon to fly off a convenient cliff, just after the hero helped the heroine to jump off, all of these images fit right in with the mid-twentieth century ideal of the new version of Manifest Destiny. White men reigned supreme in the movies and Americans felt good about themselves. In terms of 1956 the ‘Indians’ in film texts represent black people who were not considered to be truly American by the racist, southern whites who were apposing the ‘Brown Verdict’. The verdict however constitutionally forced racist Americans to adopt blacks as Americans, [just as Pawley-the part Cherokee in Searchers is given full rights of citizenship]. There were exceptions, of course, but as Phillip French said in Westerns: “Conveniently the redskin has been on of the hazards facing those bent on taming a continent and winning the West.

At best he was the noble savage of Fenimore Cooper, sharing the same qualities of primitive grandeur which resided in the challenge of the wild terrain and harsh climate. At worst he followed a tradition established by early Victorian melodrama: he was treacherous, bloodthirsty, uncompromising, threatening rape, mutilation, and death. Neither option is particularly flattering to the Native Americans of film; both portray them as something less than the full humanity given to white characters, even white villains. 78)” As America moved through to the 1960s, Vietnam, and the Nixon years, there was a great fear of communism, [McCarthyism started in the 50’s-linked to Korea and extended into the 60’s with the cold war]. This political ideology opposes that of the American dream as basic communism concepts are that wealth is shared among the state rather than people working independently for their own money; and this independence and making ‘something from nothing’ is a great part of American history and ideology.

Film makers began to release ‘story within a story’ texts, such as High Noon where there is an individual standing up for what he knows is right even though those around him are turning against him; much like the fear of communists [red fear]. During this time there was also an abundance of Sci-fi films [like IT and Them] released which showed invasions from other planets… much like that of communist invasions. The villain in these films is ‘fear’ or the alien-be it ‘Indian’, Mexican etc. The film The Searchers (1956) however shows a somewhat stereotypical view of Native Americans but satirizes the taboo subject of race.

The character played by John Wayne, Ethan represents the negative views of his society. Ethan is the villain/hero or antihero who is flawed and parallels the actual villain Scar. In the film Indians are portrayed as vicious killers, but they are also portrayed as victims too, for example Scar’s murderous rampage is also motivated with the revenge towards white people who had killed his sons. In the end both Ethan and Scar are like reflections of each other. The main issue for a racist watching The Searchers (and the Ethan character) is interracial sex or, to be precise the “violation” of white women by non-white.

Ethan is clearly less disturbed by the fact that his family was massacred by Indians than the fact that the women were raped in the process. His intent to kill Debbie becomes evident in a moment when he realizes that she is grown enough to be regularly taken advantage of as an Indian Squaw. Ford also shows a hypocritical nature of such racists when white men have sexual liaisons with non-white women (as hinted in a semi-humorous episode with Martins “wife”) Ethan is joking: when the situation is reversed he becomes angered.

The boundaries of the hero and villain in The Searchers is somewhat skewed, as primarily the Indians are the bad guys; in the sense that they are shown as savage burning the homestead etc, but the so called hero character also has villainous traits as he is hateful and mean towards those on his side especially the Part-Cherokee boy who sticks by his side throughout, and when he meets up with his surviving niece Debbie he decides to kill her because she is no longer part of the family.

The piece as a whole is emotionally distant, both in characterization and cinematography. There are two close ups in the whole film and the rest of the time we see a lot of long and medium shots. Ethan character seems to be based on enigma codes, as we never really get to know his motives for doing anything. He may be an outlaw; he may not. He may want to kill Debbie; he may not.

He seems to take up the mission because he has to, not particularly because he wants to. These traits are those of an antihero character, and this is quite unusual for a film of the time as in general hero’s such as the Gregory Peck character in Big Country were used in film, as they portrayed a stereotypical 50’s man; who fights for honour, and whose morals do not compromise to suit others.

This mirrors the societies views at that time as the male tended to be head of the family [as represented in film by a dominant male protagonist] and would keep everything in order [much like the Gregory Peck character who would stand his ground when it came to morality]. This type of hero also appealed to the women at the time, who would have dreamed of marrying a good man who would protect them. This was the last decade dominated by patriarchy.

The villains in Big Country were family gangs, squabbling over ‘the big muddy’ and this could be linked with American politics of time as there was a fear of widespread communism, Big Country shows one moralistic man trying to up-hold the law and also puts across of ideas of fighting for what is right even when those around you are turning against you- a scene in the film shows this well as a father shoots his own son for un-fair fighting, again upholding the American dream, and honour e. g. The rules of gentlemen.

Keeping with the changing of the western hero and cowboys Sergio Leonie’s westerns best show the rise of the ‘anti-hero’, who was played by Clint Eastwood. In the film The Good The Bad and The Ugly, Eastwood plays an anti-hero character who is referred to as The Good; contrary too this Eastwood’s character is by no means traditionally good, but is simply better than the other two characters in the film. The films show a darker side of the west where men killed for money, and when bullets were fired the audience saw blood.

The audience at the time of the film release were of an era where the government was generally right wing republicans (conservative: this was the time of Thatcherism in the UK and Reganism in the US) which made them more ‘out for themselves’, at this time the stock market really took off and free market was encouraged; therefore films which showed a hero who was only being heroic because he had to related to them. These changes also occurred for other stereotypical characters and iconography from early westerns.

The once heroic sheriff [from films such as high-noon4] who fights alone for his town becomes the corrupt sheriff who holds his town almost like prisoners, as show by the Little Bill character in The good, the bad and the ugly. Villains have developed over the years, and at this point 84% of all media comes from North America, this high percentage of films allows for American ideologies and cultural imperialism to be installed into film. This means that with such a large influence of film output that the representations of ‘goodies’ and ‘baddie’ can shift role to and from unpopular groups of people.

This is perhaps best illustrated by the rise of the ‘French’ villain in many current action films. France was decried by the Americans over their lack of support over Iraq and this has transferred to Hollywood in the form of the French villain. In western as the late 60’s America started to reclaim its Native American heritage the villain in westerns shifted from ‘Indians’ to Mexicans-the new unwanted immigrant, as seen in the Leone trilogy, and Magnificent Seven etc.

Similarly by the 70’s as America experienced political corruption with the Watergate etc the villain in the western shifts to the sheriff, and those in power e. g. : High Plains Drifter 1973 the mining company and new sheriff. The nomination of the dwarf as sheriff satirises the lack of respect for authority. Also because the western is a very American genre and therefore has a sense of cultural imperialism, because of this supreme attitude that America in general incorporate media pieces tend to reflect the countries political stance and show negative groups in real life as villainous characters in film narrative.

In the film A Fistful of Dollars Mexicans are shown as the villainous characters and this was mostly because at the time America had a problem with immigration of Mexican citizens over the border, due to this they were represented negatively in the media and also why the bad guy shifted away from Native Americans. Another type of film villain I am looking at is from the made for television film The Peacemakers, which was a pilot film created for the USA Network, so that a later series could be released in America to revive the television western.

The series later began on the network and ran for a period of months before being cut from the broadcast schedule. Unfortunately when producers looked into the audience statistics it was found that they were not getting the viewers they targeted; which was a young audience with an income so that merchandising could be cashed in on by advertisers. The show was still being well received but by a much older audience.

It seems that the show appealed to the older in society rather than the young, this could be because the main themes were moralistic and gave strong values about good always prevailing and criminals being punished, another problem however with western is also with its age, and this has had quite a lot to do with its decline in the film charts over the past 10 years. As westerns are based on history certain aspects can never be changed [e. g. .locations, time periods etc. which gives writers less scope for storylines.

This programme combined crime and western to create a hybrid series, unfortunately both genres target over 40’s. The film is slightly different from Hollywood movies because it is a domestic medium, made to be viewed at home “The ordinariness is precisely the intended effect of broadcast TV. TV needs to be ordinary because it is present in everyone’s living rooms; it is a domestic medium that is viewed while people are doing a variety of other things.

TV is a regular part of everyday life”. 5 It is slightly different than regular broadcast fiction, and is a bridge between television and film, although there are some subtle differences i. e. due to the size of the average viewer’s home TV screen in comparison to the cinema, so the attention to detail is a lot shots because innovative shots would not look good on most TV screens. Whereas with the Searchers the angles and shots have a grater range because it is meant to be viewed on a big screen.

TV film makers tend to make up for the lack of different shots with dialogue, so broadcast fiction relies heavily on a good script, with little or no silences in comparison to films made for the cinema which generally have longer periods of silence where the mis en scene can be taken in by a viewer. The villain in the Peacemakers pilot is played by a female. This is because society has allowed for a change in previous stereotypical views of woman.

Originally women in western had supporting stereotypical roles as either whores or loving wives, but like other aspects demanded a change with the liberation of females, and the introduction of more women friendly westerns: such as Unforgiven, where whores fought back at the men who had used and abused them. The women however would not be the only villain, just the first in a line of others that the series would show each week. It also creates a female newspaper owner link post 20th centaury value of equality into a 19th centaury setting.

The series format operates on Todrov’s narrative structure, with each episode ending in a form of resolution. Some aspects of sub narrative may be carried over but the main plot is resolved. In a series regular characters appear each episode and with the crime drama aspect there are new villainous characters introduced each week. The difference between a film villain and a television villain is that they are disposable, making way for a new villain and storyline each week, whereas in film the main villain sticks throughout so we get to know them [in most cases] in a bit more detail.

Peacemakers also has a fresh twist, which is the forensic aspect. This works on two levels. First, it feeds off the amazingly powerful fashion of the moment that’s the “CSI” juggernaut and its equally successful spin-off “CSI-Miami” have launched in motion. But it also celebrates the robust technology of the late 19th centaury world, a civilization with a fraction of the energy and technical power available now at the drop of a pin, but whose own resources in harnessing the resources of nature and unlocking its secrets were vastly more impressive then our history-deficient world today usually cares to remember.

By using forensic ideas and the introduction of different villains each week [due to its series format] the show would become almost a hybrid genre as there are crime drama conventions and villains. Villains have developed over the years, and at this point 84% of all media comes from North America, this high percentage of films allows for American ideologies and cultural imperialism to be installed into film. This means that with such a large influence of film output that the representations of ‘goodies’ and ‘baddie’ can shift role to and from unpopular groups of people.

Also the western is a very American genre and therefore has a sense of cultural imperialism, because of this supreme attitude that America in general incorporates media pieces tend to reflect the countries political stance and show negative groups in real life as villainous characters in film. Recent films such as Open Range and Missing (both brought out in 2004) have reverted back to the ‘Indian’ villain, this is because it is now politically correct to assume that in every race there are ‘goodies’ and ‘baddies’.

There has also been a dramatic increase in the number of globally released westerns since the terrorist attacks which occurred on September 11th, this change in media production has been a consequence of the terrorism as previous films had mimicked what have now became real life situations. It seems that when the media gets to closer to reality, or begins to predict it society reverts back into itself and the media reflects this by bringing out films which are based in the past… ecause the past has been and gone, and we do not fear that it could happen again. In conclusion the western has had major effects on culture [for example with gun laws and the right to carry arms] and has changed accordingly to meet the needs of a changing society with different values. Whether it is the villain, hero or otherwise elements of film are not static with genre. The flexibility of these elements allows the audience to be entertained and engaged by using the similar conventions in different contexts.

Read also:

The Crow – film review
How Peter Weir accentuates the gulf between the two cultures through the use of cinematic technique
28 days later – ‘The Hunted’

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