Friday, November 18, 2016

On the Western

What follows are some observations on media in the Western genre (mostly film and tv, but comics and even novels are probably not exempt) brought on by a discussion of Westworld. These may be relevant to Old West gaming--if you want to evoke the feel of media rather than historic simulation.

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Forty Guns.All these films have in common a heavy use of the tropes and elements of "the Old West" without any specific historical references.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.

12 comments:

trollsmyth said...

Well, considering Red Harvest works equally well as Prohibition-era gangsters, Japanese ronin, and Western gunslingers, yeah, I think you can divorce the Western from its trappings. See also Outland.

Trey said...

Well, I would argue none of those things are actually adaptations of Red Harvest (which, of course, isn't Western) and only resemble it in some basic ways. Certainly basic action/adventure plots can be replicated in a lot of different drag.

Francis Lee said...

I always considered the location rather than the genre.

Uncle Sam said...

Interesting thoughts. I have one quibble though. The gun monkey/jerk in me demands it. The WWII machinegun in Fist Full of Dollars was actually a Mitrailleuse. Which went into production in 1866. Now if you are arguing the ammo magazine supply of the realistic volume of fire from such a device. I am totally behind you.

cgeisel said...

Apparently there are Westerns set in the steppes of Asia: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ostern

Anathemata said...

"Darkness on the Edge of Town." The setting is modern Ireland, the story concerns two young girls with an unhealthy relationship investigating a horrific mystery, but the film is a Western. It took me a while to figure it out, but it definitely is. I recommend you check it out, as perhaps a good fringe example of the genre.

Trey said...

@Anthemata - Sounds interesting!
@Uncle Sam - You are right (or at least its a fantasy combo of a Mitralleuse and a Maxim). Comes from writing posts from memory and not bothering to check my facts beforehand.

Deplorable Gaiseric said...

Why would that be too far? I've actually long thought that fantasy as a genre could do with another baseline besides Medieval swashbuckling action stories. Sure, sure—there are vaguely Asian and vaguely Middle Eastern and even vaguely African "traditional" fantasies, and more recently, we've even got modern day noir-like urban fantasy. Why not western fantasy in a completely fictional secondary world?

Trey said...

Your talking about genre fantasies (i.e. things with fantastic elements like magic or psi powers) set in a Western like setting. We've got that. What I said was without those elements. Like the Western equivalent of an adventure story set in a fictional country.

Smokestack Jones said...

Good post. I like the idea of all these locations within the territory of "The West." Tends also to teanscend time period too, as director Walter Hill proved, transplanting A Fist Full of Dollars to the Prohibition for Last Man Standing.

Also, I believe that was a Gatling Gun (which would be period-appropriate) in A Fist Full of Dollars, not a machine gun.

Gina Shelley said...

You absolutely can set westerns in a made up place. Sure. Firefly is definitely a western. I think westerns are more than just their setting.

Trey said...

Firefly is a "science fiction western" similar to how the Dark Tower is a fantasy western. Like I said in the comment above, my question was about a pure Western with no fantastic elements.