5 hours ago
Friday, November 18, 2016
On the Western
Westerns are Fantasies, not in the sense of genre fantasy, but as in taking place in a fictionalized milieu. This is obscured by historical fictions in Western garb, numerous Westerns loosely based on real events (My Darling Clementine and Doc are both about the OK Corral but just about all they have in common are the names of some historical personages), and the fact that even the most ahistorical Westerns use elements of real history like locations or Native American groups.
But beyond the disregard for strict historical accuracy (a World War II machine gun in the Civil War setting of Fist Full of Dollars or The Wild Bunch's fuzzy placement during the Mexican Civil War) common to films, we have the almost ritual performance of emerging statehood in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valence the mystery play of civilization arriving with the railroad in Once Upon A Time in the West, or the alt-history Tombstone of Forty Guns.All these films have in common a heavy use of the tropes and elements of "the Old West" without any specific historical references.
Scenery is More than Location. John Ford put the striking vistas of Monument Valley in a number of films and in doing so placed it all over the West--maybe even actually in Utah at some point! When Sergio Leone gets to make a Western in the U.S. he shoots there, too. I can't think of a single grim slaughter or dramatic shootout in a film in the shadow of say West Mitten Butte. That isn't the portion of the Matter of the West that is performed in that sort of place. Men tend to die in narrow canyons or scrub desert plains in California or maybe Spain. The enactment of the mythology does not respect distance or realistic topography. A perfect encapsulation of this is Once Upon A Time in the West (it's title suggesting its mythic narrative): The town of Sweetwater and the rail station are in Spain, but Monument Valley lies between the two. Frank and his gang hole up somewhere in the vicinity of Mesa Verde. The generic West must contain all this disparate real estate in days ride or so.
One gaming thought related to the above: Would a Western work devoid of much of those real world references (no matter how thin)? Could you set a Western in some Ruritania-esque fictional state or territory? Probably going to completely fictional stand-in for North America would go to far (without magic to signify genre fantasy), but maybe not.