March 05, 2010

Can you have Westerns without Indians?

Based on a previous discussion, correspondent DMarks and I had the following exchange about Western movies without Indians:Thinking about it, I am wondering if stories like the spaghetti western gunslinger flicks and "Dark Tower" get around the idea of "all Westerns having Indians, even if not mentioned" by not being Westerns at all. Many of these stories are other types of stories with Western trappings just added on.Well, clearly you can do a Western without any overt signs of Indians. But true Westerns usually have the "untamed" frontier as a character. That means danger--wild animals, outlaws, and Indians--just out of sight. Implicitly lurking behind trees and rocks or just over the horizon.

If people create a Western in Italy or somewhere foreign, you could say they're just going through the motions. That their characters are fake movie cowboys, not real movie cowboys. It becomes a deep philosophical question on the nature of reality. Can a movie that doesn't involve America or Americans be a true Western?

The same applies to other genres. If I'm making a Japanese samurai movie but film it in America using an American cast and crew, can it be a genuine Japanese samurai movie? Or will it be only an imitation Japanese samurai movie?Then there are also the stories that were Westerns, but aren't called that at all. Think "Road Warrior." It even has marauding "savages." I think that would fit the thesis very well.Right. There are lots of movies featuring "civilized" (usually white) people vs. "savages." The "savages" almost never have a real culture, even though everyone on the planet has some culture.

About all these pseudo-savages do is attack and kill people. It's as if moviemakers think "primitive cultures" are akin to a bunch of mindless zombies.

Zombies and Nazis and Indians

Which reminds me of what I said in Ups and Downs of Hollywood Indians. Whether it's the nature of humanity, our culture, or moviemaking, we seem to need an evil enemy. In the real world (and in movies), it's Indians, blacks, immigrants, Nazis, Communists, or terrorists. In fiction, it's the Devil, ghosts and goblins, vampires and werewolves, Darth Vader, or the Joker.

This enemy is usually pure evil with no redeeming characteristics. We can squash him like a bug and feel good about it afterward. A couple hundred thousand civilians incinerated by A-bombs? No problem...they were evil!

Indians have filled this role in our cultural mythology. We tested ourselves, proved our manhood, by taming the wild frontier. In other words, by taming the wild Indian. We're great because we proved ourselves greater than the most cunning, vicious, murderous savages in existence. We demonstrated we were righteous, even godlike, by vanquishing those devilish creatures.

That's why I say Indians are implicitly a part of Westerns.

For more on the subject, see Racism in King Kong and The Best Indian Movies.

Below:  The zombie-like culture of Skull Island in King Kong.

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