e live in a world with many Wild Wests. They are the myriad fragile communities—some aspire to democracy—emerging as the dust settles from major regime shifts and collapses, frontiers again. Agents of mayhem besiege them: warlords, crime bosses, and fundamentalist clerics. These are the Russian Mafia left after the Soviet Union’s collapse, African warlords like Liberia’s Charles Taylor, or the horseback riding janjaweed militia of Darfur. We find Wild Wests in the agonizingly protracted break-up of the former Yugoslavia. They prowl Iraq beyond the tiny fortified Green Zone, and the plains and mountains outside Kabul. Piracy upon the Indian Ocean has become epidemic. From beyond the closed doors of policy round-tables and security conferences comes the new buzz about “ungoverned spaces,” those territories outside the reach of nations.
We have long had a ready comparison in our popular cinema. But in recent years, another kind of Western has been emerging, one that responds differently to the burgeoning Wild Wests dotting the globe and challenges us to new perceptions about the Western genre and about our world. Three recent and fairly disparate efforts—two films and an HBO series—provide examples. All recount Western-style tales that occur specifically outside the U.S.. John Hillcoat’s 2005 film The Proposition is set in 1880s Australia and details the clash of the murderous outlaw Burns brothers with the flimsy legal authority in Banyon, a remote new Outback settlement. The Proposition opened to close critical scrutiny in New York City in May after successful runs at home and enthusiastic reception throughout Europe, is still playing little cinemas and renting briskly on DVD. Macedonian filmmaker Milcho Manchevski’s critically respected 2001 film Dust recounts an Arizona frontier rivalry between two brothers that travels abroad to the Balkans in the early 1900s, as told by an elderly woman in contemporary Manhattan. David Milch’s HBO series “Deadwood” wrapped up its third season just before Labor Day. This ensemble drama about a renegade gold-mining camp outside U.S. territory and how that community eventually handles entering the U.S. is based on the original, historic town in what is now South Dakota.
Second, these are post-war stories—in an accelerated world of undeclared clashes and lulls, “post-conflict” is more apt. When we say the Western is about the American myth of “starting over,” we usually mean survivors starting over after failure. These films portray such reinvention as civic and communal, not just individual. Here in the U.S., the Civil War was the foundational civic trauma—really a failure of democracy—that settling the Western frontier sought to overcome. In bare, new circumstances, settlers must improvise and work until they achieve self-governance. Despite the harsh, often brutal terms of such fragile new communities, these Westerns suggest that preventing corruption was at least as important as containing violence.
Third, these filmmakers turn away from genre conventions to emphasize authenticity, using primary historical documents from the era and locales they portray. They view many genre conventions as distortions or as too-literal equivalence between movies and history. Their stories include fuller, more complex portrayals of native peoples, immigrants, race relations, and women. They upset cherished genre types such as the laconic cowboy by recovering authentic language, and they appreciate that the Wild West was a self-conscious era—mythologized even as it occurred—its language rich, often profane and filled with performance. These filmmakers insist their province is storytelling, not documentary or propaganda.
Finally, these Westerns exhibit a quality of simultaneity. Their complex, ensemble-style stories are often hard to keep straight. As part of the larger breakdown of traditional narrative, this quality appears elsewhere in cinema as simply chopping up chronology. Here, it can be disorienting to audiences who expect of the Western a lean and linear basic tale of the lone stranger coming to town, restoring order, and leaving.
John Hillcoat sets The Proposition in late 19th century Australia’s frontier, when gangs called bushrangers combined banditry and mayhem with political and ethnic resentment. The town of Banyon is barely an oasis. The white picket fence and English roses (in that period called home-sickness gardens) surrounding police captain Morris Stanley’s house, with his wife Martha’s tea service inside, are as flimsy as the rule of law he’s trying to impose on this harsh, intractably wild territory. His own crude troopers and the wealthy landowner alike openly disrespect Stanley (Ray Winstone in a harrowing performance) with leers at Stanley’s wife (Emily Watson) that vary only in degree. Set against the Stanleys’ efforts to enact some shred of social gentility is this scene:
Into this dusty collection of shacks dwarfed on a vast, sweltering plain—hardly a town—ride three uniformed men on horses, roughly dragging a rope-tethered native man in rags on foot. Military spit and polish has eluded these bedraggled, greasy-bearded frontier men. Two are silent, watchful as settlers gather round. The third, Sammy, alternately shouts derisive insults at the prisoner and tells the crowd that he’s a loathsome renegade.From the twelfth and final episode of “Deadwood”’s second season, a more crowded scene:
Cut to the jail’s interior, where guards speculate on who these strangers are.
Cut back to the street. Sammy stage whispers, “How’m I doin’?”
“Just great,” says the leader, Arthur Burns (Danny Huston). The three dismount. All four enter the jail. They overpower the jailers and spring Mikey. This teen-aged boy was brutally flogged earlier that day and is the youngest of the Burns brothers. Arthur tells his brother Charley (Guy Pearce), who’s taking out the injured boy, “We’ll meet you at the captain’s house. Save the best for last.”
Then Arthur, who appreciates Sammy’s singing voice (“He could put a nightingale to shame!”) and is himself given to reciting poetry, takes out a large knife with which he will, just off-screen, begin carving up the guards.
From his second story porch overlooking the main street in the mining camp, saloon-owner Al Swearingen (Ian McShane) watches dancing in the street following the wedding of the Widow Alma Garrett (Molly Parker) and her business manager Ellsworth.
Everyone knows that Alma, a proper Victorian lady and owner of a rich mining claim, must have a husband; she is pregnant from a heated affair with the marshal, Seth Bullock (Timothy Olyphant), whose own wife has arrived suddenly from the East.
Trixie the whore, (Paula Malcolmson), whose home base is Al’s Gem Saloon, has worked hard for much of the second season to engineer this wedding and to manage several other situations, almost as much a protégé of Al’s in the camp’s public life as his male henchmen. He has also allowed her to learn book-keeping.
Al watches the results of his own engineering from above the street. The action cuts back and forth between festive dancing below and the convergence of several other plotlines of almost Talmudic complexity. These include a Mafia-style assassination in the Chinese quarter of an outside Chinese boss, agreed upon by Al and the mega-boss George Hearst (a real figure inserted in the series), the suicide by hanging of Wolcott (a Jack the Ripper-style murderer of prostitutes), and the deal negotiated in smoky backrooms about exactly how the camp will enter an adjoining U.S. territory.
For sheer power of cumulative dramatic convergence, however, two other “Deadwood” episodes rival the second season’s virtuoso finale. In the second season’s 11th episode a runaway stallion charges through the main thoroughfare, trampling and killing Seth Bullock’s young stepson, William. This turns out to be the same galloping stallion whose course through town has been the weekly backdrop for the opening title sequence since the show’s inception. It’s a visually lovely sequence that ties together glimpses of camp life. Since this stallion is photographed largely in pools of water mirroring his image, we begin to see the series itself as an intentional reflection of ourselves. When we recognize this horse’s suddenly expanded role—perhaps there all along, like a time bomb—his accidental deadliness is viscerally shocking.
Similarly shocking, in the 10th episode of the third season, Alma Garrett is shot in the main thoroughfare and Al Swearengen leaps to the street from his second-floor balcony to escort her safely inside. Alma’s attack was ordered by George Hearst, an historical figure inserted into the series that is trying to take over her mining claim against the backdrop of the territory’s first elections.
Milcho Manchevski’s wide-ranging Dust is set at both ends of the 20th century and both sides of the Atlantic: in the mountains of Macedonia, battleground of the disintegrating Ottoman Empire and warring local partisans, turn-of-the-century Great Plains Arizona, and New York City of the eve of the Millennium. An elderly photographer, Angela (Rosemary Murphy), holds her young, would-be robber, Edge (Adrian Lester), captive at the end of a six-shooter, recreating for him the transatlantic rivalry of two brothers that saved her life as an infant and brought her to America. Gradually Edge’s desire to find Angela’s hidden gold coins (there’s an angry drug dealer after him who’s methodically breaking one more finger each day Edge’s debt goes unpaid) gives way to fascination and engagement as she insists on his attention to her tale.
Following a shoot-out between bounty-hunting mercenaries and partisans resisting Turkish occupation at a sheep farm in the mountains, one of the bounty hunters, wounded and unable to flee, is captured by intervening troops. An American, this man comes bound before the Turkish commander, who has set up a rickety, makeshift court at his field encampment. Obviously educated and with some refinement, though capable of slaughter, the commander tries several languages on Luke (David Wenham), for they both seek the elusive Teacher, who leads the partisans.Back in New York for only a few days in the spring after completing casting for his third feature film in Macedonia, Manchevski elaborated a conversation we began last winter about Dust and the primacy of story-telling.
Luke has fled frontier Arizona after an affair with his brother’s wife, which provoked her suicide. The avenging brother, the preacher Elijah (Joseph Fiennes), is tracking him even to this remote spot and glimpsed him at a distance before the shoot-out erupted. Now Luke is surrounded by cavalry marksmen pointing rifles at him.
Angela turns out to be the Teacher’s daughter, rescued upon her birth from slaughter by Luke and raised by Elijah. As she relates this incident to Edge, he interrupts to protest that there couldn’t be that many troops.
Cut back to the mountain top where, one by one—to the great surprise of others standing there—many of the soldiers simply disappear in an immediate, literal edit.
“This film is ultimately about story-telling,” he had said. Manchevski is a small, energetic man who wouldn’t look out of place directing the MTV music videos that have been his bread and butter. “It’s about the thirst to tell stories and hear stories. Somehow that is how we learn about life, about society. So the film deals with various aspects of story-telling, with history and how the winner writes and shapes history, shapes what we think is the truth, and what it is to deal with images. They are not necessarily and not always documents. They can be part of faking history, which is another theme of this film.”
“I wasn’t thinking in time-specific terms,” he says. “I was hoping it would be more timeless than that. And I always address the individual, I address the person and their relations to each other. And then if it can be applied to a group of individuals, and to a very big group of individuals such as society, then that much better.”
He originally conceived of Dust as a re-make of The Wild Bunch. Sam Peckinpah’s 1969 film introduced some modern technology—cars and telephones, plus a rumor of planes. But Dust goes well beyond Peckinpah’s film. Dust also casts Manhattan, with its crime and disorder, as a bit of a Wild West too; the opening title sequence includes a mounted police officer in front of a giant US flag with a snatch of Jimi Hendrix’ electric guitar version of The Star Spangled Banner blaring. Initially held at gun-point by his would-be victim, Edge later has so bonded with Angela that he claims to be her son when trying to visit her in a hospital, and he keeps his promise that he’ll return her ashes to Macedonia.
In one remarkable scene, Elijah holds the newborn Angela in his arms in Macedonia and looks up at a modern airliner crossing the sky. With something like the same punch that careening stallion delivers in “Deadwood”, it’s clear this is the same plane that carries Edge and Angela’s ashes. Manchevski elaborates, “In the Wild East, the centuries do not follow one another, they occur simultaneously.”
Manchevski in particular expands the Western as terms of temporal simultaneity. At one point he said suddenly, “I have to tell you that one of my favorite Westerns is The Road Warrior—it has the heart of a Western.” Manchevski likes to say that a great many things occurred during the era we think of as overlapping the Western—the fall of the Ottoman Empire and the existence of a Wild East in the Balkans and elsewhere, the birth of Cubism in art, Sigmund Freud’s early work in psychoanalysis, and technology such as flight—but he now puts this in the context of our persisting desire as Americans to view the Western as something that “exists in a universe of its own.” He says this tendency to compartmentalize has to do with the Western’s function of providing a story in which Americans can start over, one of the more cherished aspects of the frontier myth. Setting apart—as opposed to integrating—is also one form by which the mind deals with trauma.
Starting over, for many, means setting aside (or forgetting) the past. In the U.S. this was explicitly a post-Civil War period—those starting over were leaving behind horrendous battle injuries, famine, and infamous prisons, as well as the disruptions and dislocations of labor riots in the Northeast and Reconstruction in the South.
Although some early Westerns referenced the Civil War and events east of the Mississippi—notably John Ford’s classic The Searchers—increasingly U.S. Westerns skipped over this historical fact—until the Italian spaghetti Westerns. Somewhat comically, film critic Stephen Hunter relates his own startled experience in Now Playing at the Valencia; he had somehow forgotten about the Civil War as a context for the Western until watching Sergio Leone’s The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, in which the characters dodge warring Union and Confederate troops that criss-cross the Southwest.
“This glossing-over is kind of a structuring absence, I think that’s correct,” says University of California Santa Barbara film historian Janet Walker, who has written extensively about the aesthetic expression of trauma onscreen in her book, Trauma Cinema. She makes extensive use of the idea of “the traumatic paradox,” in which omission or light, passing reference to traumatic material is itself an indication of unresolved pain. She began exploring this in work on the Western genre around such films as The Searchers, Pursued, Once Upon a Time in the West, and Lone Star. The spaghetti Western’s inadvertent role in replacing such lost material for American audiences doesn’t “constitute an utter change in the Western genre,” Walker says, “but rather a bringing to the surface of things that have always been there but hidden in US Westerns, there intuitively on the part of some of the artists. And maybe Leone Westerns are a little more raw, so the things that are under the surface in US Westerns come to the fore. You know, they sort of bob up amidst other material.”
Because the Civil War was so widely traumatic, both communally and personally, survivors needed some new project to redirect their attention—hence the particular power of starting over that the Western frontier bestows. The Western is a story we tell ourselves, so that part of starting over is leaving out, toning down, treating lightly, and domesticating the worst bits. It also becomes a way of viewing more compassionately the new, fragile democracies that now limp out of the rubble of overturned regimes, and that must improvise just as settlers did in the American West.
John Hillcoat had long wanted to make a film about Australia’s frontier history in which that “legendary power of the Western genre could be reinvented.” He and friend Nick Cave, the Bad Seeds singer-songwriter, had talked about this since they first met in Melbourne in 1979. Hillcoat eventually had Cave write the screenplay for The Proposition, which turns on a deal struck between a lawman and a bandit. This film’s plot also echoes that of Sam Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch, wherein former outlaw Deke Thornton must capture his old gang members to avoid prison. In The Proposition, Charley Burns (Guy Pearce) must kill one brother to save another. When asked about the genre in FilmMaker Magazine’s Spring 2006 issue, Cave related, “It seems like the Americans have a very black and white view of their history. You have your good guys and your bad guys. Australia has a much more ambivalent view of its history.”
Interestingly Cave seems disingenuous when he claims in the same interviews that film is “only art form where I don’t have to think,” that he largely disregarded the reams of historical research Hillcoat sent him and wanted to make this film since Australia “didn’t have any” other Westerns. This disavowal is similar in spirit, however, to the primacy on story-telling that Manchevski and Milch insist upon, since it’s the story part of art that heals. We should watch carefully in this next year for several upcoming fiction features about the Iraq war—Home of the Brave and The Situation both open soon—after a wave of documentaries about the war, with some still coming. Further undercutting Cave’s claim, The Proposition ends intriguingly with a montage of historical photos of Australian aborigines that is similar to montages capping two other frankly political films: Lars von Triers’ Dogville and the Australian classic Chant of Jimmy Blacksmith.
If The Proposition explodes any popular current American notion that “the West” only happened in our own backyard, Manchevski’s Dust is a direct hit at the collective habit of mind which allows us, through the Western, to forget the difficult, the unpleasant, the traumatic, and the historically inconvenient. Manchevski is adamant that in making Dust he is an artist, a storyteller, not a politician, a political theorist, or a propaganda writer. Though he told me he was fascinated to learn the Eastern politicians wanted to declare martial law in Dodge City because it resembled a modern war zone, he still insists that he tells stories about individuals and that he did not make Dust to comment on the break-up of the Balkans.
If that sounds gun-shy, it’s because he’s been shot at before. When Dust premiered at the Festival of Venice, British, German, and Italian critics charged Manchevski with anti-Turkish racism and attempting to block Turkey’s entrance into the European Union, as Marina Kostova relates in her article 2001, “The Dust Files.” Emotions were already inflamed by new fighting in Kosovo as Manchevski began on-location shooting for Dust in 1999. Both Manchevski and Hillcoat had previously made overtly political feature films. Manchevski’s Before the Rain (1994) explicitly portrayed the break-up of the Balkans and Hillcoat’s Ghosts. . . of the Uncivil Dead (1988), on whose screenplay Cave also worked, was based on a maximum security prison riot. Manchevski says he likes Dust better—“It’s more grown up”—and that audiences in Macedonia agree with him, where it was the best-attended film there in 2001.
Having just concluded shooting “Deadwood”’s third season when I spoke with him, David Milch—the former modern gritty cop show runner—was similarly adamant. He said, “As a storyteller, my first priority is the internal emotional coherence of the characters.” Nonetheless, Milch was “not opposed” to an analysis of “Deadwood” that includes the reflection the running horse suggests. About the many Wild Wests in a post-9/11 world, he added, “They’re very hard, these situations that you’re describing, to experience in a sort of even-handed, fair-minded way that might be useful, because we ourselves feel so threatened as participants. Certainly 9/11 was like that and the way we feel about Iraq is like that, as an extension of 9/11. And therefore the opportunity to sort of re-engage with those issues in a different setting is like a second chance, to be a little more fair-minded and compassionate and whatever else we can be. So frankly, in the aftermath of 9/11 that was why I wanted to find an historical setting different from the contemporary for my work.”
Since that conversation, Milch has published the volume Deadwood: Stories of the Black Hills, in which he discusses aspects of the series, similar to the extra feature discussions on the DVD editions of the first two seasons. He is much less skittish now about acknowledging that “Deadwood” is at once a “reenactment of the founding of our country” and written post-9/11 “to illuminate the present by setting it in the past.” And his discussion of the logic of gold and the space it creates on the frontier is especially trenchant.
“Deadwood” begins both in the wake of two events. It is post-Civil War but also just two weeks after Custer’s defeat at the Little Big Horn in 1876. It is set in an illegally-established mining camp in Sioux territory. “Deadwood”’s characters have invaded territory where they don’t belong and they act out in jittery, trigger-happy fear of the unfamiliar “savages” around them. Within the camp they struggle to contain and master their own unruly, greedy, anti-social impulses. Because they are operating in a lawless—that is, pre-state—environment, those who speak well are those who lead, because the capacity to exhort and persuade agreement is the first trace of democracy. Milch speaks in depth on the First Season’s DVD about what he calls the co-habitation of ornate Victorian style with thundering obscenity—the authentic language recovered from decades of muzzling in U.S. filmmaking by the Hayes Code—which finds its parallels in the charisma of the poetry-reciting Outback butcher Arthur Burns and the conversion of the petty thief Edge to Angela’s storytelling.
Attention to performance in Westerns is not altogether new. David Sterritt, for example, has written cogently about its importance in his essay on Brando’s One-Eyed Jacks, and discusses performance again with regard to Lee Marvin’s role in Who Shot Liberty Valance? on that film’s DVD extra commentary. But “Deadwood” addresses and dissects the range of forms performance takes rather systematically over its three seasons to date. Charlie Utter coaches Joanie Stubbs on what to say to Cy Tolliver to successfully leave his saloon and start her own business. As part of the camp’s first real effort as a community—to fight the epidemic in the first season—several of the characters gather as an impromptu editorial board with Merrick, the newspaper editor, to decide on the best wording to announce the plan. Eventually Bullock and others consider at length how to present themselves in speeches as political candidates. Calamity Jane is invited to tell the school children about riding with Wild Bill Hickock. This peaks in the third season with the arrival of a theatrical company based on the historical one in the town. Its director and Al Swearengen have some past connection that we’re never told, but it makes sense that Al might appreciate acting.
“Too much has been made of this stuff about centuries-old hatreds,” said Manchevski. “At least part of the shooting is about local strongmen being able to keep their fiefdoms so there is [sic] open roads for smuggling, the drug trade and who runs the brothels and gets first go. It is that basic for a lot of these guys with the guns. If there is no structure anymore because everything is going up in smoke then they are the bosses.”
Dust features violent shoot-outs, yes, and evidence of rape, but its men (Luke in Macedonia and the young robber Edge in New York) must come through what New York Times film critic Elvis Mitchell described in his 2003 review as “a series of tests to overcome selfishness.” In “Deadwood” there is violence, yes—incredible beatings and enemies’ bodies are routinely disposed by feeding them to pigs. As Milch says on the First Season DVD, Swearingen starts out wanting it “just stable enough so that he can rob everyone.” Over time, however, Swearingen, comes to resemble a sort of Founding Father in thinking for the whole.
While The Proposition seems about the perpetration of immense brutality, there’s not much actually onscreen. Hillcoat notes in FLM Magazine that he intended to focus instead on its aftermath. Since the very establishment of Australia as a penal colony was a consequence of violence in other lands, that leaves “everyone,” Hillcoat and Cave have both said, “morally compromised.” It is on such shaky ground that decent, deeply flawed Morris Stanley seeks to “tame this land.”
“Why don’t you ever stop me?” asks Arthur Burns of Charley at one point. Finally Charley does, because he has learned to stop himself. So it is in the Wild West.
Thanks to Peter Bloom, Jim Kitses, Milcho Manchevski, David Milch, David Sterritt, and Janet Walker for discussions during the writing of this piece.