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Modern Westerns

Updated on July 17, 2014

The Legend in Westerns

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The Western as a Genre

The Western is often considered a dead genre. This is due in part to the limitations of the genre’s strict conventions such as the American west location with open spaces and bright light views, the expansionist period time setting, the rugged loner hero who is outside the law, the town or woman in peril, race relations between the people coming there and the people who have been there, and a climatic last stand scene that is either a duel, shoot out, scuffle, or strategic operation of a band working together. One construct for viewing the life cycle of a genre comes from Johanna Russ. Although Russ looks at genre from a literary standpoint, genre discussion can easily transcend artistic medium boundaries and be applied to film genre as well. Russ outlines three genre stages: Innocence, Plausibility, and Decadence (Russ, 48). The stage of Innocence is the initial stage where the conventions of the genre are just beginning to be established and these conventions are what enthrall the audience (Russ, 48). Secondly, the stage of Plausibility explores new ways that the conventions of the genre can be presented to the audience in a way that makes the story more developed in a rational sense (Russ, 49). In Russ’ final stage, Decadence, the original conventions or purposes of the genre become altered to serve another goal or to create “something else.” (Russ, 49-50)

Russ states that Decadence can happen in three ways. First, the genre films can become “petrified into collections of rituals,” meaning that film does not intend to excite the audience with fresh ideas but rather appeals to them in the sense that the conventions are familiar (Russ, 49). Petrified stories can also be seen as a parody of the genre if the conventions are over emphasized (Russ, 50). The audience knows exactly what they are getting out of these petrified genre films. Second, the genre films can become “part of a stylized convention,” meaning that although keeping to the rules of the genre is not ritualistic; there still is a set pattern of convention use. The genre films use the conventions to bring out the whole rather than straightforwardly looking at the part (Russ, 49-50). Finally, genre films can alter the genre in a way that takes former key conventional scenes and boils them down to meet some other metaphorical goal. The conventions still exist in these films, but their product differs from that of genre films from a different stage. (Russ, 50) At the Decadent stage where the genre reaches a broader audience. Russ states that it is possible for the genre itself to be two different stages, and the stage level applies more harshly to the works of the genre (Russ, 53). Although many people consider westerns a dead genre, modern westerns such as Shanghai Noon and Cowboys and Aliens show that the genre is in the Decadence stage of the genre life cycle because of their incorporation of the western genre conventions and outside genre elements to create a western whose goal is to move the audience in a new way.

The Searchers Movie Trailer

The Future of Westerns: Shanghai Noon, Cowboys and Aliens, and The Searchers

I will look at the modern western genre films Shanghai Noon and Cowboys and Aliens as well as comparing them to John Ford’s The Searchers, an iconic western from the genre’s Plausibility stage. Shanghai Noon was released in 2000 and directed by Tom Dey. This film Stars Jackie Chan as Chon Wang a member of the Chinese Imperial Guard, Owen Wilson as Roy O’Bannon an American outlaw, and Lucy Liu as Princess Pei Pei a member of the Chinese Imperial family (Imdb.com). Shanghai Noon is the story of Chon Wang’s quest to rescue Princess Pei Pei who has been kidnapped from the Forbidden City in China. During his search, Chon Wang runs into Roy O’Bannon several times. The two bond while escaping from jail together and decide that it is fate they partner up and Roy O’Bannon teaches Chon Wang how to be a cowboy. They rescue Princess Pei Pei only to find that she has a change of heart and wants to stay in America so that she can help the Chinese immigrants. In the end, they all stay and Chong Wang and Roy O’Bannon are made sheriffs.

Cowboys and Aliens was released in 2011 and directed by John Favreau. This film stars Daniel Craig as outlaw Jake Lonergan, Harrison Ford as Woodrow Dolarhyde a cattle herder whose business keeps the small mining town of Absolution alive, and Olivia Wilde as Ella Swenson a disguised alien whose race has been destroyed by the aliens. Adam Beach also plays a strong supporting role as Nat Colorado a Native American who Dolarhyde raised (Imdb.com). Cowboys and Aliens tells the story of Jake Lonergan and outlaw who wakes up in the desert with a metal bracelet, a mysterious injury, and no recollection of his identity. Jake makes his way to the nearest town, Absolution, where he witnesses Dolarhyde’s son Percy acting disorderly and steps in. Both end up in jail, Percy for shooting a deputy and Jake for being a wanted man. Before they can be handed off to the Federal Marshall, aliens attack Absolution and take many of its citizens as test samples in preparation of their upcoming invasion of Earth. Jake, Ella, Dolarhyde, Nat and some of the remaining town’s people band together to get their people back. The quest to get their people back proves very difficult. They run into a group of Apache warriors whose methods help Jake regain his memory. Jake now knowing the location of the alien’s base, leads the band now joined by the Apaches and his old outlaw gang to a last stand to save their people and the planet. This fight claims Ella and Nat’s lives but the town’s people are saved, find out there is gold on their land, and Jake, his work done, rides off into the distance.

The Searchers was released in 1956, and tells the story of the kidnapping of Debbie Edwards, played by Natalie Wood. After the Indian raid, during which Debbie is abducted and most of her family killed, Debbie’s uncle and last living relative, Ethan Edwards, played by John Wayne, leads a search team to find her. The team starts out with more people but as the search takes longer the team dwindles down to just Ethan and Martin Pawley, played by Jeffery Hunter (Imdb.com). Martin, Debbie’s unofficially adopted brother, was brought to the family by Edward before the Civil War after his Indian mother was killed. Edward and Martin have a strained father-son like relationship. The two look across the country for Debbie and discover that the Indian Chief Scar has her captive. By the time they track her down, Debbie has been assimilated into the Native American way of life and is at first unwilling to leave with Edward and Martin. Edward decides that she is better off dead and attempts to kill her. Martin becomes her protector until the final showdown where they go up against Scar’s group of warriors to get at Debbie. Edward and Debbie get separated and both have a change of heart and are reunited. The film ends with the triumphal return of Martin and Debbie, and Edward riding off into the horizon.

Shanghai Noon Movie Trailer

The Searchers

Still of John Wayne taken from The Searchers.
Still of John Wayne taken from The Searchers. | Source

We Begin with Standard Western Conventions

As modern westerns, Shanghai Noon and Cowboys and Aliens follow the typical conventions of a western and are reminiscent of the iconic western The Searchers. Both Shanghai Noon and Cowboys and Aliens have the typical setting of the United State’s open west in the mid to late 19th century during the expansionist period. Shanghai Noon is set in the time frame of 1881 in the deserts and forests of Nevada as Chon Wang heads to Carson City to rescue Princess Pei Pei. Cowboys and Aliens is set in 1873 and takes place in Absolution a small mining town in the Arizona territory. Both movies put in a strong effort to stay true to the styles of dress and architecture of that time. In Shanghai Noon Chon Wang begins in traditional Chinese clothes and slowly dresses more like a cowboy with a hat, cowboy boots, bandana, and vest as he becomes westernized. Jake is a great example of Cowboy’s and Alien’s attention to authentic costumes. The end of the opening scene where Jake steals the clothes off of the man he has just killed emphasizes his dress in cowboy boots, cowboy hat, vest, and gun holster. Shanghai Noon revolves around the quest for Princess Pei Pei, a woman in peril, and Cowboys and Aliens revolves around the quest to save the townspeople, presenting a town in trouble. Jake, in Cowboys and Aliens, fits the idea of a rugged loner outlaw hero perfectly. Shanghai Noon and Cowboys and Aliens also have the climatic show down near the end of the movie. In Shanghai Noon, the climatic show down is a shoot out in a church, and in Cowboys and Aliens, it is the battle in the canyon that holds the aliens’ spaceship.

Shanghai Noon and Cowboys and Aliens also make use of western conventions through their mimicry of iconic scenes, themes, and character development. In Shanghai Noon, Chon Wang accidentally gets an Indian wife. This scenario is parallel to the scene in The Searchers where Martin accidentally gets his wife, Look, from the Native American traders. Both marriages serve to show the characters blatant unfamiliarity with Native American tradition or customs. The train robbery scene where we are first introduced to Roy is an example of the use of iconic scenes from other westerns. We are presented that Roy is an outlaw from the beginning but we sympathize with him and think of him as somehow set apart from the others. The storyline of Cowboys and Aliens is reminiscent of The Searchers. Both films revolve around searches for abducted people. The role of Jake as the hero of Cowboys and Aliens parallels that of Edward in The Searchers. Both Jake and Edward are loners with questionable backgrounds who stumble into town just before the abductions and both take on the role of being the only person who can save them. In the end of the movies, despite the happiness of the settlements, things for Jake and Edward are much like they were before. It is iconic for them both to ride off into the distance, but they both end as they began, loner wanders. The relationship between Dolarhyde and Nat is also extremely similar to that between Edward and Martin. Both Nat and Martin are orphans with Native American blood and who have been taken in by white settler families. Both Edward and Dolarhyde are hard men with good intentions who have rescued these children. Dolarhyde and Nat and Edward and Martin have a father-son type of relationship and Dolarhyde and Edward have strongly influenced Nat and Martin as they have grown into men. Because of this parallel, Cowboys and Aliens brings closure to Edward and Martin’s relationship that was not present in The Searchers. In the scene where Nat saves Dolarhyde and dies in the process, Nat and Dolarhyde have a few heartfelt final words where Dolarhyde tells Nat he is the son he always wanted. This is the acknowledgement of the father-son relationship that we always wanted in The Searchers, but never got.

Cowboys and Aliens Movie Trailer

The Move Towards Decadance

Part of Russ’ description of stage three, Decadence, discusses how at this stage films parody films from earlier stages of the same genre. One way Shanghai Noon and Cowboys and Aliens do this is their use of character names. In Shanghai Noon Jackie Chan’s character’s name is Chon Wang. This fact is revealed in a very charming scene where Roy O’Bannon and Chon Wang are reintroducing themselves on friendly terms. Roy O’Bannon comments that Chon Wang is a terrible cowboy name. However, as Chon Wang is clearly a play on the iconic western name John Wayne, the audience is let in on the inside joke created by the writers. Jake and Dolarhyde’s names in Cowboys and Aliens are also parodies as they simply describe their character’s stereotypic role in genre films. Jake’s last name Lonergan states that he is a loner, which is typical for the mysterious hero, like Edward, of western films. Woodrow Dolarhyde’s last name indicates that he gets money from hides, which he does as a cattle herder. The emphasis on the dolar portion also indicates that he is important monetarily to the community. However, the symbolism behind their names is so simple that it is humorous and parodic of the roles of characters in the western genre.

Another way Shanghai Noon and Cowboys and Aliens fit into Russ’ definition of the Decadence stage is through their incorporation of other genres into the western genre conventions. Along with being a western, Shanghai Noon also contains the conventions of action comedy and kung fu genres. Jackie Chan has become a symbol of both action comedies and kung fu movies. Each of the fighting scenes is enhanced with Jackie Chan’s kung-fu fighting expertise. He dazzles the audience with this ability to take on more than one guy at once and with his improvisation. Chon Wang and Roy O’Bannon’s first encounter with Van Cleef showcases Jackie Chan’s talents. As Roy O’Bannon is about to duel Van Cleef, Chon Wang tries to slip out the back and encounters three of Van Cleef’s deputies. Chon Wang fights his way out with his martial arts skills and even improvises a kusari-fundo out of a bit of rope and a horseshoe as well as a throwing star out of a star shaped deputy badge. Shanghai Noon also contains both physical comedy and comedic dialog. The jail break scene includes both elements. As Chon Wang and Roy O’Bannon try to plot their escape, Chong Wang comes up with several escape plans, all of which are turned down by Roy O’Bannon. The final plan, which they almost successfully carry out, is to pee on a strip of cloth and use it and a chair leg to bend the bar. Roy O’Bannon inquires to what Chon Wang is doing, to which Chong Wang replies “wet shirt don’t break.” Roy O’Bannon scoffs and in comedic disbelief says, “10,000 years of civilization and this is what you come up with,” but as it works, Roy O’Bannon quickly changes his tune. Roy O’Bannon awkwardly attempts to help Chon Wang twist the shirt, but only uses one finger to push. That, the angles of Chon Wang and Roy peeing on the cloth, and Chon Wang trying to hand the peed on cloth to Roy are examples of the physical comedy of the scene.

Blend of Western and Science Fiction

Still taken from Cowboys and Aliens showing the blending of the Western and Science Fiction genres.
Still taken from Cowboys and Aliens showing the blending of the Western and Science Fiction genres. | Source

Creating "Something New" in Westerns

Cowboys and Aliens similarly incorporates conventions of another genre. It incorporates elements of science fiction into the film to create “something new.” These science fiction elements change the story from something that happened to something that might have happened (R 54). Incorporating science fiction increases the scope of possibilities for westerns. Cowboys and Aliens uses the primary science fiction conventions advanced technology, as with Jake’s bracelet, and alien encounters. The alien invasion is given purpose because the aliens are looking for gold, an important intergalactic resource. They come to the American west because of all the mining that is taking place there. Cowboys and Aliens uses the conventions of westerns and science fiction to make “something new” or at least rarely done, a sci-fi western.

Shanghai Noon is also an example of the Decadence stage because it uses the conventions of westerns to find a greater meaning beyond the western story. Shanghai Noon serves as a commentary on race relationships in the United States. It discusses Chinese immigration during the 19th century. In the beginning, Princess Pei Pei wants to go to America for a better life, in this case the freedom to choose her own husband. Once there she sees the reality of the desolate conditions that Chinese immigrants faced, and she decided to stay to help improve the conditions. United States Chinese immigrants in the 19th century faced heavy amounts of discrimination and extreme working conditions. However, this is a cycle that happens to all immigrant groups and one that should stop. Roy O’Bannon and Chon Wang’s relationship is always under scrutiny. When Chon Wang and Roy first enter Carson City, no one will meet Chon Wang’s gaze, although it is because they are afraid of him because he is a wanted man, Roy O’Bannon unsurprisingly guesses that it is because he is Chinese. He pats himself on the back and says “not everyone is as tolerant as I am.” Chon Wang and Roy O’Bannon also have a falling out because Chon Wang over hears Roy telling a prostitute, who questions their relationship, that he could not be friends with a chinaman. The audience is heartbroken over this betrayal and is forced to question whether they would say something like that or make choices based on race. In the end, Chon Wang and Roy O’Bannon overcome the odds of racist America and become great interracial friends and sheriffs.

Conclusions

The modern western examples of Shanghai Noon and Cowboys and Aliens prove that westerns as a genre is not dead. Using Russ’ genre life cycle model, Shanghai Noon and Cowboys and Aliens are examples of the third stage, Decadence, because of their use of western genre conventions, their parody of certain western elements, their inclusion of other genre conventions, and their ability to use the conventions to bring the film new meaning. Both Shanghai Noon and Cowboys and Aliens make use of the genre conventions such as using the American west as the location, the mid to late 19th century as the time, period costumes and architecture, and making use of iconic scenes from other western films. Both also created a parody on the genre through their use of characters’ names such as Chon Wang, Jake Lonergan, and Woodrow Dolarhyde. Shanghai Noon incorporates elements from the genres of action comedy and kung-fu movies. Cowboys and Aliens incorporates elements from the science fiction genre. Finally, Shanghai Noon uses the western conventions to present a commentary on racism in the United States. Although westerns are no longer exciting just for the sake of newness, western genre films still have a lot to share. Their Decadent status allows them to make the type of subliminal commentary like the one found in Shanghai Noon. This type of social commentary on a mass produced and shared level can help promote social change.

Works Cited

Works Cited

Russ, Joanna. "The Wearing Out of Genre Materials." College English 33.1 (1971): 46-

54. JSTOR. Web. 7 Nov. 2011.

“Shanghai Noon (2000).” Imbd.com. Amazon. December 15, 2012.

<http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0184894/>

Shanghai Noon. Dir. Tom Dey. Perf. Jackie Chan and Owen Wilson. Touchstone, 2000. Film

“Cowboys and Aliens (2011).” Imdb.com. Amazon. December 15, 2012.

<http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0409847/>.

Cowboys and Aliens. Dir. Jon Favreau. Perf. Daniel Craig, Harrison Ford, and Olivia Wilde.

Universal Pictures, 2011. Film.

“The Searchers (1956).” Imdb.com. Amazon. December 15, 2012.

<http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0049730/>.

The Searchers. Dir. John Ford. Perf. John Wayne, Jeffrey Hunter, and Vera Miles. Warner Bros.

Pictures, 1956. Film.

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