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From East to West: The Western in the US and USSR

April 29, 2019

The Western is a genre of movie that does not get as much love as it once did. The last Western to win best picture was 1992’s Unforgiven. Digg.com has a great visualization of the popularity of genres over the years. Their charts show a steady decline in the prevalence of the Western. There are a few exceptions, Quentin Tarantino's Django Unchained (2012) and the Coen Brothers, The Ballad of Buster Scruggs (2018) stand as modern masterpieces. However the classic Western stands as both a uniquely American genre, and as one relatable across the globe. The Western serves as a coping mechanism with issues of empire, as well as celebrates an American mythic origin story. Yet despite this, the Western took hold in the United States seeming polar opposite, the Soviet Union.

 

Perhaps the first Western was a novel, the Virginian, by Owen Wister and published in 1902. Film quickly took hold of the genre, the first Western is largely considered The Great Train Robbery (1903). Almost as soon as the Western existed it existed both in print and in Cinema. The Western was often described as “pop” and without merit. This tension is showcased in James Joyce's Dubliners. In the story “An Encounter” the students have to hide the fact that they are reading Western novels from their teacher, who considers them a waste of time. This tension is also reflected in Orson Welles’s classic film noir, The Third Man (1949) in which a Western novelist is grilled with questions about what he thinks of James Joyce’s stream of consciousness techniques. Unable to answer, he is exposed as a literary hack.

 

Despite the supercilious nature in which academia at first looked at the Western, there is certainly substance worth examining. In the American context, the Western provides a national origin story. The films set after Westward expansion helped to show viewers “how the West was won”. It shows epic conflicts between “cowboys and Indians”. Stagecoach (1939) provides a classic example. John Wayne starred in his breakout role, in a loose strange adaptation of, of all things, Guy du Maupassant's short story “Boule de Suif”. In this version Wayne’s character shows compassion to the prostitute character, and instead of Prussians, Wayne has to deal with an Apache war party. He runs out of ammunition, but is saved by an advancing wall of calvary, which acts as a representation of the Westward expanding United States government. The Western, and Stagecoach generally show how America got to how it was today.

 

But how did the Soviets, whose first leader Lenin called Imperialism, “the highest form of capitalism”, come to find meaning in the Western as well. First off the wild landscape of Russia was not in the West, but in the East. Therefore Soviet Westerns were called Easterns (or Red Westerns). One of the most prominent Easterns was At Home Among Strangers (1974). Its director, Nikita Mikhalkov, remains influential in Russia today as an avid supporter of Putin. The film is set in the aftermath of the Bolshevik Revolution. This is similar to many Westerns, like John Ford’s The Searchers (1956), in which John Wayne plays a former Confederate soldier. Unlike the Western, however, the Eastern does not perpetuate the myth of the lost cause. Former Confederate soldiers are often shown as noble, whereas former White Army soldiers are shown as overweight, effiate villains, who are  attempting to deprive the people of money for food. The Soviet Union and the United States both shared a quality of vastness, and this is a major reason why the genre faired well in both places. Both genres also express a national origin story. The Soviet Eastern starts with the Bolshevik Revolution, because that was the start of the Soviet Union. Both genres also deal with important questions of what the country must do in the wake of war.  

 

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