Not-So-Mini Essay | Magic Lanterns, by Nicolas Pillai | Part 1: The Frontier
Cinemascope – it’s only good for snakes and funerals!
Fritz Lang in Le Mepris
With his luxuriant moustache and shoulder-length hair, the old man looks like a painting by Remington. He sits in shirtsleeves, surrounded by avid listeners, tormenting them each time he sips at his whiskey. His face is cracked and his long frame whittled from harder wood than that of his young audience. This is a man who tamed the Old West, watched the railroad divide the country, chuckled at the first horseless carriage and cricked his neck looking up at aeroplanes. He cannot remember how many men he has killed.
His name is Wyatt Earp and he is probably lying through his teeth. But here, on a Hollywood backlot, it hardly matters. This is how the myths of America are born. One of his audience, the director John Ford, will faithfully transcribe Earp’s romantic version of the Gunfight at the OK Corral onto celluloid as My Darling Clementine.
Print the legend.
Hollywood has always perceived itself as a town for pioneers, rising from nothing out of the desert. And in that environment, the Western became a crucial genre, forever influencing popular culture. The movies propagated a folklore that expounded upon heroism and justice as lustily as any classical text. If you need proof of that influence spilling messily into life, look no further than John Wayne’s misguided involvement in the Vietnam war.
We’re told that nobody watches Westerns anymore, but their influence is everywhere. The cop film frequently draws on the tropes of the frontier town, while science fiction has always ridden the trail, on film and TV. Star Trek was pitched to Desilu as 'Wagon Train in space,' a connection recently restated by Firefly.
The Western is about movement out into the wilderness, the (usually masculine) venture into the wild untamed. It’s striking that these stories frequently showcase technological spectacle. Westerns were the testing ground for stunt techniques. The various widescreen process frequently worked best in the Western idiom. Along with snakes and funerals, add wagon trains, dusty main streets and burning desert skies. I’ve never visited but my guess is that Monument Valley is perpetually in widescreen.
Most recently, Avatar has revived this connection between the Western, science fiction and new technology. James Cameron used motion capture to recycle the plot of Broken Arrow (or, if you’re being less charitable, Ferngully) into a box office smash.
It’s that American dream not just of taming the wilderness but of becoming one with it. Not just conquering the Apache, but earning the Apache’s respect.