‘I Ain’t the Same’: Anti-Heroism and Violence in 21st Century Westerns

Delivered at the annual PCA/ACA National Conference in Seattle, Washington in March 2016

For much of the early twentieth century, violence in Westerns was differentiated along gendered and racial lines to construct an image of nineteenth-century frontiersmen as paragons of American exceptionalist excellence that defended white ‘civilization’ from non-white ‘savagery’ through selective acts of ‘noble’ violence.[1] These figures often occupied positions of authority as local sheriffs, marshals, rangers, deputies, and soldiers. Beginning in the 1960s, however, filmmakers came more and more frequently to critique portrayals of violence, gender, race, and government authority in Westerns at the same moment that many Americans were starting to challenge the role of such factors in the development of their nation.[2] As a result, Westerns in this era often focused heavily on the self-interested, mercenary motives of their protagonists. By the latter half of the twentieth century, a sort of synthesis was beginning to emerge: the anti-hero, a ‘knight-errant’-like figure that operates outside of the established status quo.

From the 1990s to the 2010s, this synthesis hit its stride, and anti-heroes have increasingly come to the fore of Western films just as they have in other genres.[3] These ‘knights-errant’ of present-day Westerns continue to defend the values they hold most dear through acts of ‘noble’ violence. Whereas in the early twentieth century such figures stood as representatives of law and order, however, the protagonists of present-day Westerns often stand in direct opposition to figures of authority as they work to defend their own personal moral codes. So, while the character and motivations of such figures has evolved considerably since the Westerns of the early twentieth century, their methods remain largely unchanged. In the end, then, I would argue that though the cultural definition of what makes a Western hero ‘heroic’ has changed over the years, the behavior expected of them has not. This evolution is especially apparent in films like the 2010 Coen brothers remake of the 1969 John Wayne film True Grit, the 2012 Quentin Tarantino film Django Unchained, and the Disney Corporation’s 2013 reboot of The Lone Ranger.[4]

The 2010 remake of True Grit, unlike its 1969 counterpart, was closely based on the 1968 novel by Charles Portis.[5] Like the novel, the 2010 Coen brothers venture is narrated from the point of view of the young Mattie Ross (Hailee Steinfeld), who struggles over the course of the film to achieve her ends – the avenging of her father’s death – despite the men who stand in her way. Among these men are numbered the protagonist from the 1969 film Rooster Cogburn (Jeff Bridges) – who refers to Mattie as a “harpie in trousers” – and Texas Ranger LaBoeuf (Matt Damon) – who at one point physically punishes Mattie for disobeying his directive to stay behind rather than accompany the men on their quest to find the villain Chaney (Josh Brolin). In the end, however, it is Mattie that saves the day. As opposed to the 1969 version – where John Wayne’s Cogburn ‘cleanses’ his soul by ending Chaney’s life – in the 2010 remake Mattie saves the lives of her male companions by shooting Chaney in the chest with a rifle after Cogburn is trapped under a wounded horse and LaBoeuf is knocked unconscious by Chaney with a large rock. By doing so, Mattie manages to uphold her own personal moral code rather than waiting for the figures of male authority in her life to reinstate law and ‘order’ through a ‘regenerative’ act of violence.

In the process, the 2010 remake helps to unveil the evolution of the Western genre from the early twentieth century to the early twenty-first from glorifications of authoritative ‘knights’ maintaining law and ‘order’ in the ‘Wild’ West to celebrations of non-‘traditional’ anti-heroic ‘knights-errant’ upholding their own personal moral codes. This evolution is perhaps nowhere more apparent than in the 2012 film Django Unchained, which follows the efforts of a former slave named Django (Jamie Foxx) to free his wife Broomhilda von Shaft (Kerry Washington) from the clutches of the capriciously vindictive plantation owner Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio) with the help of a German bounty hunter named Dr. King Schultz (Christoph Waltz) a few years before the American Civil War. Unlike other non-white characters from the Westerns of the early twentieth century, Django does not exist merely to contribute to the development of a white character or to serve as a symbol of the forces of ‘savagery’ against which the ‘civilized’ white protagonist must stand. Instead, Django is driven by motivations that exist independently from the white characters around him.

Indeed, rather than Django serving the purposes of those characters, it is they that contribute to the attainment of his goals. Early in the film Dr. Schultz purchases and frees Django to serve his own purposes (Django is familiar with and can recognize Schultz’s current targets because they once served as his overseers). Within the span of a few scenes, however, the relationship quickly reverses. Soon, Dr. Schultz agrees to train Django as a gunslinger and assist him in rescuing his wife. It is also Schultz that helps Django come to grips with the violent lifestyle of a bounty hunter. “You want to save your wife by doing what I do?” Schultz asks Django after he hesitates to kill his first target with the man’s son nearby, well “this is what I do . . . I kill people and sell their corpses for money.” “His corpse is worth 7,000 dollars,” he continues, because “he wanted to rob stagecoaches, and he didn’t mind killing people to do it.” In a few short sentences, then, Schultz is able to establish that Django’s actions are justified because they both serve his self-interest and uphold a code of behavior he has established as moral.

Later, when Schultz is killed after ending the antagonist Calvin Candie’s life, Django uses the training and moral reasoning his mentor has passed on to him in order to finally achieve his goals. After being captured in the wake of Schultz’s death and transported to the LeQuint Dickey Mining Company, Django manages to convince his jailors that a valuable bounty target is hiding on Candie’s plantation. After his captors agree to loose him from his bonds and accompany him to ‘Candieland’ in search of the bounty, Django quickly dispatches the men and continues back to the plantation on his own. Once there, he ends the lives of every one of Candie’s henchmen in rapid, well-trained succession. Then, he allows all but one of Candie’s slaves to run free. The last, Candie’s personal servant Stephen (Samuel L. Jackson), had consistently encouraged and assisted in the bouts of cruel whimsy his master directed at the large majority of his servants. Rather than allowing him to run free and perhaps continue his cruelties elsewhere, Django mortally wounds Stephen and leaves him to die in the plantation house (which Django had rigged with explosives just before the final shootout). Through these actions, Django demonstrates a complex understanding of a well-developed personal moral code. Those like the large majority of Candie’s servants who had suffered at their master’s hands were, in Django’s eyes, ‘innocents’ who deserved to continue living and, hopefully, gain their freedom. Those like Stephen who had supported the brutal enforcement of white authority, on the other hand, were considered complicit in the maintenance of an unjust system and thus deserved only death.

Over the course of its run in theaters, Django Unchained earned over $425 million dollars in profits, and went on to be nominated for five Academy Awards, earning two: Best Actor in a Supporting Role (Christoph Waltz) and Best Original Screenplay (Quentin Tarantino). The overwhelming success of Django Unchained stands in stark contrast to the underwhelming failure of another blockbuster Western released the next year: the Disney Corporation’s reboot of the classic Western franchise The Lone Ranger under the direction of Gore Verbinski. From its very outset, the film was plagued with controversy. This was particularly true after Disney’s announcement in 2008 that the iconic role of Tonto – the Lone Ranger’s (Armie Hammer) American Indian companion – would be played by white actor Johnny Depp (a casting choice that, though acceptable in the early twentieth century, has become considerably less so since the latter half of that period).

The film itself was a confused amalgam of half-hearted attempts to placate post-civil rights era demands for a well-rounded multicultural perspective in the entertainment industry and the perennial concerns of catering to a consumer base that has continued on some level to celebrate some notion of American exceptionalism. It should be said that the film’s quick repartee and even quicker action sequences might have served as the basis of a successful rejuvenation of the franchise. Unfortunately, its considerable potential for entertainment value was lost behind a wall of one-dimensional ‘noble’ Comanche ‘savages’ bemoaning their victimization at the hands of the ‘inevitable progress of American civilization’ in stilted pidgin English.

This lopsided characterization of race relations in the American West is perhaps nowhere more apparent than in one of the film’s most spectacular episodes of violence. In one of the film’s many high-octane action sequences, a band of Comanche warriors attack a detachment of United States cavalrymen defending a portion of the transcontinental railroad running parallel to a small creek. In short order, the cavalrymen form a firing line, unveil a series of hidden Gatling guns, and quickly transform the charging Comanches into a mound of moaning bodies. Throughout the scene, the creek serves as a literal barrier between the white American ‘progress’ symbolized by the guns and railroad and the film’s ‘sympathetic yet ultimately necessary victims’: the ‘savage’ and semi-nude Comanche warriors that continue to ‘illogically’ charge to their deaths with little regard to the apparent inadvisability of such an action. In a film that frequently attempts to address the idea of white American ‘progress’ with a sort of heavy-handed irony, such a scene serves as a literally visible confirmation of the very notion the filmmakers seem to have been attempting to critique.

When placed against the success of Django Unchained, the reasons for The Lone Ranger’s ultimate failure in 2013 may in fact hint at the evolution of the Western genre over the course of the twentieth century. In many ways, the reboot had much of what it seems to take for a Western to succeed in the twenty-first century. At the very least, it featured a ‘knight-errant’-like anti-hero as its protagonist, a man that used ‘regenerative’ acts of violence to uphold his own personal moral code. The film’s attempts to address racial inequities in American history, however, may have spelled its doom. Perhaps, had the film’s characterization of American history been somewhat subtler, it is possible that a viewership increasingly aware of its nation’s constantly changing social milieu might have been able to ignore it. If it had (as Django Unchained did) attempted to address the checkered racial past of the United States in an honest, unflinching way rather than in a condescending, half-hearted one (or perhaps acknowledged that non-white characters could be driven by motivations independent of the needs of their white counterparts) the film might have ended up as the blockbuster it was intended to be. Unfortunately for Disney’s profit margins, however, The Lone Ranger’s portrayal of the American West was anything but subtle. As a result, the corporation’s attempts to jumpstart a new era in Western franchising history were mercifully mothballed.

The Lone Ranger’s collapse in the box office can serve as a warning to any filmmakers hoping to dance delicately across the tightrope that has been established in the Western genre by the internal conflict that resulted from the political and social upheavals of the 1960s and 1970s. Twenty-first century Westerns must be able to simultaneously tap into American audiences’ perennial nostalgia for their nation’s past while acknowledging the ever-changing character of its future. The result has been ‘knight-errant’-like figures like Jamie Foxx’s Django: a man that challenges everything that the ‘knights in fringed leather’ played by John Wayne stood for while managing to seem ‘comfortingly’ familiar to audiences. While the actions of men like Django and the characters played by Wayne are rooted in very different motivations, both rely on ‘regenerative’ acts of violence to sustain a moral code that is recognizable to their respective audiences. So, while the faces, occupations, and motivations of the protagonists in Western films may have changed, the glorification of such characters’ ‘noble,’ yet violent methods have not. On the whole, the plots of many Westerns continue to revolve around the ‘noble’ acts of violence celebrated by the films of the early twentieth century. It would seem, then, that the violent defense of values like ‘truth’ and ‘justice’ remains an important pillar of national identity. It is this defense, perhaps more than anything else, which has separated and continues to separate presumably ‘civilized’ Americans from the supposed ‘savagery’ of ‘others’ in the national mindset, regardless of who those ‘others’ might be at any given time.

[1] Richard Slotkin. Regeneration through Violence; the Mythology of the American Frontier, 1600-1860. Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 1973.; and Richard Slotkin. Gunfighter Nation: The Myth of the Frontier in Twentieth-century America. New York: Atheneum, 1992.

[2] See, for example, Janet Walker. Westerns: Films through History. New York: Routledge, 2001.; and R. Philip Loy. Westerns in a Changing America, 1955-2000. Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2004.

[3] For an examination of the rise of the anti-hero in various genres, see Tyler Raymond Hayes. “The Rough Beast’s Hour : The Rise of the Anti-hero.” Master’s thesis, San Francisco State University, 2007.

[4] True Grit. Directed by Joel Coen and Ethan Coen. Performed by Jeff Bridges and Matt Damon. Paramount Pictures, 2010.; Django Unchained. Directed by Quentin Tarentino. Performed by Jamie Foxx and Leonardo DiCaprio. Columbia Pictures, 2012.; The Lone Ranger. Directed by Gore Verbinski. Performed by Armie Hammer and Johnny Depp. The Walt Disney Company, 2013.

[5] Charles Portis. True Grit. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1968.

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