What is a Western? (Pippin, 2009)

by cominsitu

John Ford Point001

What is a Western? By Robert Pippin

It is generally agreed that while, from the silent film The Great Train Robbery (1903) until the present, well over seven thousand Westerns have been made it was not until three seminal articles in the nineteen fifties by Andre Bazin and Robert Warshow that the genre began to be taken seriously. Indeed Bazin argued that the “secret” of the extraordinary persistence of the Western must be due to the fact that the Western embodies “the essence of cinema,” and he suggested that that essence was its incorporation of myth and a mythic consciousness of the world. He appeared to mean by this that Westerns tended to treat characters as types and narrative as revolving around a small number of essential plots, offering various perspectives on fundamental issues faced by any society, especially the problem of law and political authority. Bazin expressed great contempt for critics who thought that Western plots were “simple” and insisted that the right way to understand such simplicity was by reference to the “ethics” of epic and tragic literature, and he called the great French playwright Corneille to mind as a worthy forerunner. The Western, he said, turned the Civil War into our Trojan War, and “the migration to the West is our Odyssey.” One could go even further, paraphrasing a German commentator. The Greeks have the Iliad; the Jews, the Hebrew Bible; the Romans, the Aeneid; the Germans, the Nibelungenlied; the Scandinavians, the Njáls saga; the Spanish have the Cid; the British have the Arthurian legends. The Americans have John Ford.


see also: Hollywood Westerns and American Myth by Robert Pippin (2010)