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“Appaloosa” and what the Western is about

I recently saw Ed Harris’ Western, Appaloosa (2008), a traditional and unshowy contribution to the genre.  Whereas many Western of the past twenty years have attempted to be “revisionist” or “deconstructive”, often quite successfully, Appaloosa takes the staples of the genre and works through them with commitment and detail.

This is to say, I liked Appaloosa just fine.  It had a solid setting, decent story with strong characters, and fine performances from Harris, Viggo Mortensen, Renee Zellweger and Jeremy Irons (though his Boston accent sounded very odd).  It did not flinch from its portrayal of violence, which I think is a key ingredient to the Western, on which more later, and balanced that with a pragmatic sense of honour – a man gives his word in this world because it is in the interests of his own self-preservation, and another man accepts the word of the first because it is in the interests of his own self-preservation.  This way, the film gets around the potentially hokey idea of men trusting each other simply because “a man’s word is his word”.

The honour system is one of several genre clichés that Appaloosa deals with very effectively.  Another is the skill of the gunslinger – Virgil Cole (Harris) and Everett Hitch (Mortensen) are good at what they do because they have lived long enough to become good at it, and similarly being good at it has enabled them to stay alive.  Described as “peacekeepers”, they do not simply wander into town in search of someone to kill or avenge themselves upon, such as Clint Eastwood’s Man With No Name in the Dollars trilogy, or (sticking with Sergio Leone) Douglas Mortimer (Lee Van Cleef) in For A Few Dollars More and Harmonica (Charles Bronson) in Once Upon A Time in the West, or Eastwood’s other incarnations such as The Stranger in High Plains Drifter (Clint Eastwood, 1973) or William Munny in Unforgiven (Eastwood, 1992) (my personal favourite Western).  For Virgil and Everett, killing is what they do for a living, within the remit of the law, simply because in a lawless land, it is a good way to use one’s skills.

What worked especially well for me about Appaloosa was the parallel between the external struggle of Virgil and Everett attempting to bring down the crooked rancher Braggs (Irons) and the internal struggle of conflicted loyalties between the two partners and the woman who enters their lives, Alison French (Zellweger).   The film presents this struggle as a love triangle of sorts, initially appearing as a romantic triangle with both men vying for the woman’s affection.  The first scene featuring all three characters frames Ali in a shot between the two men, suggesting that they will compete for her.  Yet romance blooms between Ali and Virgil very easily, while Everett’s own relationship with Katie (Adriana Gil) suggests he is no worse off.  The only encounter between Everett and Ali seems a calculated attempt on her part to make Virgil jealous, but as Everett explains, “We’re both with Virgil.  What emerges therefore is a triangle that features Virgil as the object of desired association rather than Ali.  Everett could be read as homosexual but the film offers more evidence to support the importance of a homosocial relationship.  In different ways, both Ali and Everett value their relationships with Virgil very highly and each poses competition for the other.

This competition is the central thread that runs through Appaloosa, and the external conflict with Bragg ultimately serves to resolve it.  In the film’s final scene, Everett calls out Bragg to a shoot-out that Everett wins, and the film’s (perhaps unnecessary) final voiceover clarifies why: by killing Bragg, Everett outlaws himself from Appaloosa, leaving Virgil as town marshal and the responsible man who can be with Ali.  Everett himself has no place in this civilised town so must leave, the cliché of the Western given voice as Everett describes himself heading off towards the setting sun.

The different routes available to Virgil and Everett demonstrate what has been argued by critics as the central theme of the Western, and what I believe is the fundamental theme: the tension between wilderness and civilisation.  What a Western is is one of the most debated questions in genre studies, largely because it should be an easy question to answer.  Yet it remains contentious and any definition is open to attack.  I am not attempting to end this debate (where’s the fun in that?), but throwing my Stetson in the ring (because Stetsons are cool), I believe the conflict between civilisation and wilderness is the defining feature of the Western genre.  If a film does not have this theme, then it is not a Western.  Both classic and revisionary Westerns from Stagecoach (John Ford, 1939) to The Searchers (Ford, 1956), from High Noon (Fred Zinnemann, 1952) to The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (Ford, 1962), from Once Upon A Time In the West (Sergio Leone, 1968) to Unforgiven all feature this central concern.  Sometimes it is blatant, such as Ethan Edwards standing in the doorway but unable to enter the homestead.  Other times it is more subtle: what civilisation do we have in A Fistful of Dollars (Leone, 1964) when a town is run by opposing gangs?  It’s a town, everyone in it is oppressed by the gangs, and it takes a man like them in the form of No Name (or Joe) to free it – but of course, he has to leave, there is no place in a town now made civil for a man such as he.  Stagecoach has been described as a microcosm of American civilisation travelling through the wilderness; High Noon has the sheriff who defends the town against savagery but then decides it is not worth saving; Once Upon A Time In The West features the coming of the railroad which should be civilising but demonstrates that capitalist exploitation is just as savage as the wilderness; Unforgiven depicts a totalitarian civilisation that is torn down in the name of brutal revenge.  The conflict between civilisation and wilderness takes many forms: sometimes one is supported over the other and other times the conflict is not resolved at all, but this is the thematic debate that Westerns participate in. I have heard Star Wars described as a Western and I must disagree: it’s a war film (saga) in space.  There is no clash between civilisation and wilderness – it is a struggle for freedom from oppression much like The Lord of the Rings or even Snow White and the Huntsman.

To return to Appaloosa, Harris’ film has a parallel between its central characters similar to that of The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance.  Just as Ransom Stoddard (James Stewart) is a representative of the law (read: civilisation), so is Tom Doniphon (John Wayne) a force of savagery, ostensibly taming the wilderness but therefore a manifestation of it.  Doniphon acquiesces his position of authority in the town of Shinbone to Stoddard, knowing that it is time for civilisation.  Similarly, Everett performs the act of savagery that disqualifies him from civilisation, necessitating his departure from Appaloosa (Viggo Mortenson choosing exile?  Where have I seen that before?).

Throughout the film, Everett is presented as less intimately involved with civilisation.  He follows Virgil’s lead, allowing the other man to determine their involvement with the establishment of Appaloosa.  He lives in the town’s hotel, while Virgil takes the house under construction with Ali.  The fact that the house is under construction is highly significant – Virgil is literally building a new life, in his position as marshal, with Ali, and in their home.  Like Ransom Stoddard, he has built his place within society.  It is also Everett who rides out to meet the Apaches and present them with a horse, ending their hostilities.  Any Western can easily invite charges of racism, but the Apaches in Appaloosa are not presented as wild savages, simply people operating under different systems of civilisation than white settlers.  Everett’s easy interaction with them demonstrates less of an engagement with the law – while Virgil is very much committed to his job, returning Bragg to prison, Everett is more flexible and adaptable to their circumstances, which he demonstrates again when he calls out Bragg.  As noted above, the depiction of violence in a Western is crucial, and I think should be brutal and unflinching, as the engagement with violence is central to the theme of wilderness VS civilisation.

Like Tom Doniphon, Everett reaches a point at which he no longer belongs in civilisation (or is it the other way around?).  Unlike the earlier film though, it is love of a friend rather than love of a woman that motivates Everett.  In a very real sense, he loves Virgil and wants him to be happy, so he sacrifices his own place within the town so that he can let Virgil go.  The two men represent a force for civilisation in a wild, savage environment, but it is Virgil who ultimately accepts a role within civilisation.  For Everett, the place is still out there, a place on his own without his partner, who will now share his life with Ali.  As for Everett, and “for the unforeseeable, well, it was out there waiting for me”.  Civilisation or wilderness, it seems, will always be available for the Western protagonist.

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