Le western crépusculaire : mise en perspective de trois films emblématiques

Jacques Lefebvre

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Abstract :
What French film critics refer to as the « western crépusculaire » has no real equivalent in English. Such expressions as Adult Western, Anti-Western or Revisionist Western are commonly used by American film critics and these expressions point to a modern or even a postmodern approach to that particular genre whose origin may be traced back to the early fifties.As a matter of fact, there are already instances of revisionist themes in 19th century literature. The Western as a film genre drew on the chronicles, the dime novels and various stories by Stephen Crane or Bret Harte, among others. Owen Wister’s novel, The Virginian (1902), also played a decisive part in defining the themes of the genre.Significantly the emergence of the Western as a film genre corresponded to the end of an era as the American frontier had passed into history. The reality of the West was therefore « reconstructed » and the legend took over. There was hence a nostalgic streak due to the loss of some fantasized paradise.William S. Hart introduced the prototype of the rugged and upright cowboy; Gary Cooper had a more radiant personality but he was truly a man of the West and so was John Wayne, of course.High Noon by Fred Zinnemann (1952) is often considered as the first Adult Western but is preceded by The Ox-Bow Incident, William Wellman (1943) and The Gunfighter, Henry King (1950). By the end of the fifties, Budd Boetticher and later Sam Peckinpah, paved the way for what is now known as the Revisionist Western, a genre that questioned the myths of the West and also reflected the anxieties of their times. Sergio Leone also played a significant role in introducing the so-called Spaghetti Western. The only American film director who was adamant in his refusal of the Revisionist Western was Howard Hawks whose Rio Bravo was a rebuttal of Fred Zinnemann’s High Noon. The present article focuses essentially on three films which are somehow thematically interrelated: The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, John Ford, 1962; The Shootist, Don Siegel, 1976 and Unforgiven, Clint Eastwood, 1992. They portray the end of an era, debunk the myths of the West and highlight the discrepancy between facts and legend. But, in doing so, they replace the old myths by newer ones. Tom Doniphon (John Wayne) is actually « The Man » who shot Liberty Valance, but the glory goes to Ransom Stoddard (James Stewart) and so does the girl. The gunslinger’s era has become obsolete and the future lies in the hands of those who believe in democracy.In The Shootist, John Wayne plays the part of an ageing desperado (J. B. Books) who suffers from terminal prostate cancer. The film’s prologue shows a series of clips taken from John Wayne’s Westerns. It is both a tribute to the actor and a presentation of the character he plays in the film. J.B. Books belongs to a world that no longer exists and he is seen as an « old timer ». He has his own code of honor, which he adheres to: « I won’t be wronged, I won’t be insulted and I won’t be laid a hand on. I don’t do these things to other people and I require the same from them ». The Old West is outdated but Books is true to his words as he prepares his ultimate demise – he dies a legend.In Unforgiven (1992), Clint Eastwood, who also directed the film, plays the part of a once legendary but reformed gunslinger. He teams up with his old friend, Ned logan (Morgan Freeman) and a young would-be gunman, the Schofield Kid (James Woolvett) to avenge a prostitute whose face has been badly scarred by a cowboy. It is a tale of vengeance in a somber world dominated by violence. The themes of the Old West – law-enforcement, justice, revenge, honor, courage versus cowardice, myth versus reality – are both decoded and debunked.Clint Eastwood has claimed that Unforgiven is his very last Western or more precisely, that it is « the » last Western ever. It is not a preposterous assumption. Unforgiven is indeed steeped in the classic tradition as exemplified by the films of John Ford, but it is also influenced by the baroque style of Sergio Leone or Sam Peckinpah. Hence, Unforgiven may be seen as both a celebration and a reevaluation.There have been many Revisionist Westerns since Unforgiven came out in 1992 and their approach has often been sharp and stimulating. Still, some film directors have been tempted to revisit the genre by resorting to remakes that are often ironic. Such an approach may be seen as detrimental to the survival of the genre as it stifles the creativity of those film directors who can only position themselves in relation to a selection of specific models. Not to mention those western films that borrow from other genres such as action movies. To this day, Unforgiven remains « the » last Western as it is steeped in the classic western while its narrative and aesthetic styles are definitely postmodern.
Published : 2015-06-08

Citation

Jacques Lefebvre, « Le western crépusculaire : mise en perspective de trois films emblématiques », Cycnos, 2015-06-08. URL : http://epi-revel.univ-cotedazur.fr/publication/item/202