Second Breakfast: A Mythology for America

SecondBreakfast-01I’ve been in the desert. The New Mexican desert. I don’t know about y’all, but this scenery makes me think of one thing and one thing alone: the cowboy movie. I’m not basing this on any sort of well-researched fact or collection of statistical data, but I’m willing to bet all my prestige and credibility as an unpaid Internet movie critic that the Western, more than any other cinematic genre, shoots on location. In an age of rampant CGI overabundance and abuse, where landscape has practically become a thing of the past, the Western still finds its heart and soul not in the hats or the horses or the six shooters, but in the landscape.

Warner Bros.

Warner Bros.

Isn’t that refreshing? Look, whether you enjoy cowboy movies or not, there’s no denying that they represent an American legendarium. People like to underline historical inaccuracies, discrepancies, and anachronisms, but they kind of miss the point. I take two points of argument here. First, what the hell do you hope to accomplish by complaining about the historical inaccuracy of a work of fiction? If it portrays real people and events, sure, but if it’s a made up story about made up characters? We’ll let that slide, eh? Second: The Lord of the Rings. When J.R.R. Tolkien started work on his epic, his main literary objective was to create a mythology for England, because he felt his beloved country lacked the mythological background of other European cultures. Well, to quote The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, “When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.” Heading towards the end of John Ford and John Wayne’s careers, that line became a nice sort of justification for what they accomplished: they created a mythology for America. With that in mind, it’s nice that a piece of that idea of the West remains to be visited and filmed; the locations still, mostly, survive.

stagecoach-main-review

Walter Wanger Productions

Just like Tolkien’s Middle-earth inspired—and continues to inspire—millions around the globe with its fantastical retelling of English culture, the Hollywood Westerns of John Ford created a romantic, adventurous vision of America that appealed to audiences the whole world over. Cinematic industries in Italy, Spain, Great Britain, Mexico, Canada, Nigeria, India, China, Australia, and, most notably, Japan drew upon Ford’s vision to create similar stories for their own cultures. For a prime example of this, look no further than Japan’s seminal filmmaker, Akira Kurosawa. In the 1950s, Kurosawa rose to international acclaim with a series of top-notch samurai movies. In the wake of World War II, Kurosawa hoped to present a vision of Japan that people could be proud of, one that accentuated nobility, honor, honesty, and all those virtues that made Japan great in the first place. Samurai legends being what they are, he already had a rich cultural history to draw upon, but not one that translated easily to film (Japanese theater is awesome, but tough to put on screen and even tougher to sell on an international market). With American forces still occupying much of Japan (as beautifully captured in his early films Stray Dog and Drunken Angel), Hollywood movies dominated the cinema scene in Tokyo, Kyoto, and most other metropolitan areas. Before long, Kurosawa fell in love Ford’s cowboy movies, especially Stagecoach (1939) and My Darling Clementine (1946).

20th Century Fox

20th Century Fox

Take a look at the climactic gunfight from My Darling Clementine, which is—in this writer’s oh-so-humble opinion—the greatest gunfight in cinematic history. I watched it again recently and it struck me as the clearest synthesis Kurosawa’s entire directorial style in one short clip. It’s in the shot composition and pacing. The pacing is absolutely beautiful: five and a half minutes of mounting tension followed by forty-five seconds of action. Stagecoach’s climactic gunfight follows a similar pattern, with a minute and twenty seconds of buildup followed by seven seconds of action. Kurosawa shrunk this down nicely for Sanjuro: thirty seconds of quiet tension follow by half a second of action. Yojimbo does the same thing. Following Ford’s example and adapting his cinematic techniques, Kurosawa was able to accomplish a vision of samurai akin to Ford’s cowboys. In later decades, the cycle continued, with Kurosawa’s own films influencing Westerns (A Fistful of Dollars is a remake of Yojimbo; The Magnificent Seven is a remake of Seven Samurai) and other Hollywood movies (see The Hidden Fortress and Star Wars).

Toho

Toho

Myths and legends are important. They work in tandem with history to define a people. America is still a young country. Unlike the Native American tribes they encountered or the European countries they worked so hard to disengage from, Americans expanding West didn’t have centuries of lore to draw upon to define their cultural identity. They kind of had to make it up as they went along. By the 20th Century, we were still creating our own mythology, and I think the reason (once you take out various economic considerations) that the film industry took off in the US so much more than it did elsewhere in the world was because we needed it. That was our chosen medium to represent our legends, and we were the first country to use film in that way. The Western genre can’t be overlooked, because it is as relevant to American history as Arthurian legends are to English history, or Homer’s epics are to Greek history. That’s what John Ford created, and it’s still palpable here in the land.

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