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November 1997, Week 2


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Kendall D'Andrade <[log in to unmask]>
Reply To:
Film and TV Studies Discussion List <[log in to unmask]>
Thu, 13 Nov 1997 06:33:28 -0500
TEXT/PLAIN (67 lines)
On Tue, 11 Nov 1997, Andrew Thompson wrote:
> the typical Western genre characteristics.  These would include a hero
> a strong code of ethics who stands alone and faces the problem (man against
> nature, lawlessness, greedy industrialist/ranchers) and  then resolves the
> situation by being the "fastest draw."  "Star Wars" would be an example.
Besides the issue of what should count as defining characteristics for a
genre (and what may be relegated to the status of commonly occuring but
not necessary), the fragment of Thompson's post I've quoted might be
interpreted as a preference for one period of the Western (and for those
Westerns which reaffirm that period's values).  That's the _classic_
Western, perhaps even the classic John Ford Westerns.  Because I'm a
philosopher, let me concentrate on a phrase which invokes my own area:
"code of ethics."  Ethan Edwards likely has a strongly held set of
beliefs, beliefs from which he unprepared to deviate even when the costs
are considerable.  [Of course we need to worry about who bears these
costs; _Hombre_ makes that distinction rather neatly.]  But are his
beliefs to be termed a code of ethics, which suggests they might have some
claim to at least our respect, perhaps to our respect for his pursuit of
the actions which support that belief set?  Or are they just that, his
beliefs?  And arguably a rather ugly set at that?
Alternatively, we could stress the word "strong", noting that many a hero
from the classic Westerns held to his beliefs without much regard for the
consequences, then claim that this trait was in itself admirable.  That
would suggest an existentialist analysis.  From that perspective we could
distinguish between the very few who had a firm (unshakable? unchangable?)
core of beliefs and those who lacked any such core.  The few would be
defined by their core, the many by their lack of any commitment strong
enough to withstand what happens in the story.  Nietzsche thinks the first
type of person special, perhaps even thinks him (and Nietzsche seems to
have thought almost all the members of this class would be males) superior
to the rest, to the common run of humanity.  Do we want to disagree?  _The
Searchers_ is a good test case; I would argue that only the presence of
John Wayne "in" the Ethan Edwards character keeps us from seeing just how
ugly he is.  But if we admire self-realization above all . . .
When we come to the revisionist Westerns, how many of the central
characters have such a strong commitment to anything beyond staying alive,
having fun, and not getting sucked into somebody else's foolishness?  If
that counts as a "code of ethics", why is that not stretching the term so
far out of its noraml area of meaning that it leaves us uncertain what it
might mean?
One last remark.  If we follow Thompson in the importance of both the use
of force to repell evil (defend the right, defend the weak, uphold
civilization, etc.) and its use by someone who is not the central
beneficiary of this act of violence (_Shane_ looks like a paradigm), I
wonder whether we have pointed to a defining aspect of a film genre.  That
looks to me like one of the basic beliefs of our culture; if it is, it's
not surprising that it should pop up quite frequently, nor that it should
be especially common in one of our society's most popular genres.  Nor
that we should be so anxious to defend the myths which have this as their
moral, even when our best historical inquiry tells a very different story;
for it is the very different moral which we are so concerned to deny, the
more so when the standard story is one of the defining moments of our
Kendall D'Andrade                       [log in to unmask]
Screen-L is sponsored by the Telecommunication & Film Dept., the
University of Alabama.