The Rise of the Transnational Western

By  · Published on May 26th, 2015

Beginning in the early 1960s, the most inventive westerns – a film genre that is, in its classical form, quintessentially “American” for its reproduced myths and assumed values as well as its deep ties to domestic entertainment industries – came from outside the United States.

From inspired genre hybrids like Akira Kurosawa’s Yojimbo and its sequel Sanjuro to Sergio Leone’s remakes of those films beginning with A Fistful of Dollars and the greater “spaghetti western” phenomenon at large, reinventions of the genre made abroad posed significant alternatives to the western’s veracity at home. Thus, the American western floundered by the late-1960s. A generation’s collective political consciousness mobilized around identity-based advocacy movements meant that many of the genre’s driving political conceits could hardly persist against a growing understanding that “civilizing the frontier” meant a troubling history whose accounts of theft and genocide did not align well with the romance intrinsic to the classical western.

As a result, modern westerns either staged further reinvention of the genre by uncovering or subverting its classical political assumptions (think Little Big Man or Billy Jack) or self-consciously reproducing its classical mode, rekindling some recognition of the genre’s initial formulation (think ’90s Wyatt Earp movies or the Coen’s True Grit remake).

While the western is hardly as commercially popular as it was during its classical era, the political ambivalence with which the genre has been continually reworked during recent decades has inspired occasional films to bear remarkable insight into the early formation of the American empire. Three such films have been released this year, all of which bear a distinctive yet shared lens upon the genre.

Realizing that the western is only “American” to the extent that its setting follows a nation-building project taking place amongst conflicts between various immigrant and indigenous populations, these films embrace the western’s inherently transnational scope – something intrinsic to the story of “the West,” but rarely present in the western.

John Maclean’s Slow West opens with an introspective, bookish young Scotsman, Jay Cavendish (Kodi Smit-McPhee) making his way through an unspecified American West in search for the love of his life (Caren Pistorius). As we come to learn, she is a peasant, and he a noble whose relative was killed when her father attempted to come to her defense. Father and daughter have traveled westward not to conquer, find riches, or build a better life, but as exiles. As Cavendish eventually realizes along his journey with hardened bounty hunter Silas (Michael Fassbender), a price has been put on the heads of the fellow Scots he seeks. Here, the law, such as it is, knows no national boundaries, beholden only to the power of the international language of currency. Previous overseas conflicts thus become local means of employment.

Maclean directs his feature debut with an unnerving, almost bleakly comic sense of fatalism, with the West established from the film’s opening moments as a place of certain death. The film’s perspective of the West is not simply that of an outsider – as brief flashbacks show, Cavendish is no less in his element in the adopted land through which he trespasses than his national home – but portrays it as a profoundly alien place, examined through uncannily symmetrical framing. Mclean’s image of the west abounds with reverberations of the languages of immigrants, natives, and nativists whose lives intersect but whose cultures don’t.

The West, here, is a constant encounter with “the other,” but as a rejoinder to the proverbial melting pot, this encounter only results – one way or another – in further distance.

Former Dogme filmmaker Kristian Levring also tells a story of troubled migration with The Salvation. Focusing on a group of Danish immigrants who traveled across the Atlantic after the 1860s German-Danish war, The Salvation opens Jon (Mads Mikkelsen), an established settler who greets his wife and son upon their arrival to the New World. After both are murdered during a carriage ride into town, Jon seeks retribution not only on their culprits, but the source of power that lets their gangsterism go untouched, a landbaron named Delarue (Jeffrey Dean Morgan).

Supported by a burgeoning oil corporation and tied to the town through mutual economic dependency, Delarue makes The Salvation’s attempts at contemporary relevance clear with its emblem for corruption and injustice supported by structural and economic power. Jon’s role as the quiet lone ranger pursuing justice for its own sake thus takes on a slightly different meaning in its diasporic context: in order to find a place within a new land against an establishment that seeks only to exploit, subjugate, or silence him, Jon must create it on his own by removing the town of its central governing body, the owner of the town’s economy.

Thus, what begins as a story of assimilation becomes a story of survival, throwing into question the supposed values of Americanism that Jon could have assimilated into. The Salvation’s reworking of some of the genre’s basic tenets suggests that justice, for the populations not currently in power, has always been an uphill battle against power that benefits from injustice.

In addition to the its Japanese and Italian iterations, the western’s central conceits have proven readily transportable to numerous international settings in which it is still recognizable as a genre. Such is the case with David Oelhoffen’s Far from Men, an adaptation of an Algeria-set short story by Albert Camus that follows European Daru (Viggo Mortensen), a humble, neutral teacher who instructs his Algerian students in French, as he is forced to take Algerian prisoner Mohamed (Reta Kateb) to a local town for sentencing.

The western “road” movie, in which an unlikely pair bond over an arduous travel to a far-off destination, proves a fruitful invention in this case (the original short story took place only in its protagonist’s home). Oelhoffen’s decision inspires not only a North Africa-set iteration of the western’s panoramic vistas, but uses this setting as a means to ruminate on ideas about national identity, loyalty, and what one must do in the face of injustice.

The landscape here is as treacherous and beautiful as it is in any traditional western, but here foregrounds the genre’s themes of colonialism by following a European settler who identifies as Algerian as he decides on which side to stand within a nation divided between its people and its colonizers. Far from Men’s climactic moment beautifully illustrates this dichotomy when Mohamed stands at an intersection and decides whether to subject himself to French law or to his own destiny.

What’s so remarkable about visions of the western improbably connected between these films is that they sincerely bear out relatively new territory for the genre. They aren’t subversive reworkings, overtly tongue-in-cheek pastiches, or self-conscious reproductions of the genre’s classical style. The western’s concerns with themes of justice, loyalty, and overcoming the interpersonal and natural elements of the frontier are foregrounded between these films, but given new light through a lens that demonstrates how transnational issues have been hiding in plain sight within the genre’s setting all along, and how questions pertaining to national identity, immigration, and colonialism are a current that runs under the genre’s defining concerns.