The purpose of this essay is to analyse the western genre within a set of selected frameworks, to do so I will be comparing and contrasting two films that come under the western genre category and were released nearly seventy years apart, the 1939 classic Stagecoach, from director John Ford and the 2005 hybrid western Serenity, from director Joss Whedon. The frameworks that will be used to compare and contrast both films within consist of technology, gender and audience.
The Western Genre
‘The western is the only genre whose origins are almost identical with those of the cinema itself and which is as alive as ever after almost half a century of uninterrupted success’ (Bazin 1971, p.140). A classic western will adhere to ideals of the American frontier as drawn from a ‘fertile tradition of Wild West literature that had dominated the mass taste of nineteenth century America (Kitses 1969, p.14). Where civilisation and wilderness must ultimately clash, there is more likely to be breathtakingly beautiful scenery, residing in a vastly treacherous landscape that is fighting against impending civilisation.
‘The western formula emerged as American trends toward the frontier gradually underwent significant change’ (Cawelti 1974, p.57) resulting in the formation of recognisable set of iconic criteria such as the saloon, the jail and brothel and also costumes consisting of wide-brimmed hats, leather chaps, spurs and the Indians feathered head pieces. There is usually a plethora of weapons to be displayed throughout a classic western and the weapon of choice would generally be a gun or shot gun then there are knives, whips and a native’s bow and arrow (Buscombe 1986, pp.13-15).
Why Films Are Westerns
Both films are considered westerns, they depict their own version of the western frontier as ‘the meeting point between savagery and civilisation’ (Turner 2008, p.14), they each follow a similar plot progression, utilising classic genre iconography such as the saloon, the stagecoach and the showdown, though they do so in different ways ‘these things operate as formal elements’ (Buscombe 1986, p.15). Both films adhere to certain character expectations set out by the rules of the western genre, whilst Stagecoach conforms to classic depictions of the outlaw, the savage native and the vast landscape, Serenity takes those expectations and moulds them into an outer space setting that, although not classically western, still fits within the genre.
The main characters in each film have various similarities; Stagecoach’s Ringo Kid (John Wayne) and Serenity’s Malcolm ‘Mal’ Reynolds (Nathan Fillion) both portray the oddly handsome and unlikely anti-hero, an outlaw who has a conscience, he protects those who cannot protect themselves and will ultimately do what is right (Cawelti 1974, p.62). Both characters oppose the law in some way, the Ringo Kid is on the run, trying to avoid the cavalry who wish to arrest him, whilst Mal Reynolds wishes to live a life that is free from alliance of whom, he and his army lost a battle against. Each character’s costumes also follow basic genre conventions; they wear a classic western uniform of trousers, shirt, suspenders, boots and a low slung gun belt (Buscombe 1986, p.14).
Further characters that appear in both of the films also follow costume conventions, the women of Stagecoach wear ‘wide, full skirts and tight bodices’ (Buscombe 1986, p.14) whilst Serenity depicts women as being more tomboyish, often wearing clothing similar to that of their male counterparts. The majority of the main characters in each film carry some form of weapon, the depictions of weaponry in westerns often ensue that ‘violence will play a crucial part in the stories’ (Buscombe 1986, p.16) which is definitely the case in both films.
Stagecoach is a clear representation of most classic western genre conventions, from the apache Indians in full head dresses and the neatly uniformed men of the cavalry, to the incredibly vast landscape and the final showdown between the Ringo Kid and Luke Plummer (Tom Tyler). Serenity does not fall into the classic western category, it can however be considered a western hybrid managing to move beyond classic genre constraints whilst still abiding by them. An example of Serenity’s modern take on the western is in its depiction of the savage native, whilst classic westerns portray their natives as Indians (Buscombe 1986, pp.13-15), Serenity has created the Reavers; a race of savage creatures who attack those who must travel through their territory in space.
Serenity takes the western to an entirely new level without losing its western roots, stretching and moulding the classic genre conventions into a newly established and somewhat unconventional environment. Whilst Stagecoach focuses on the history of the American frontier, particularly ‘at the point where savagery and lawlessness (were) in decline’ (Cawelti 1974, p.74), like most classical westerns do, Serenity focuses on the future and moves the western to an entirely new setting; outer space.
The decision to release Stagecoach in black and white, and not technicolour, was most likely influenced by economic factors that were impacting the film industry during this period. The advent of technicolour during the 1930’s resulted in the release of numerous full colour feature films, primarily musicals that were quick to make use of the newly acquired technology, although it did not become and industry standard until the 1960’s (Lecture Notes 2010, p.6).
During the 1930’s, as the depression continued to take a toll on the film industry, producers were soon confronted by a steady decline in audience numbers and revenue. As the demand for technicolour grew its quality began to falter and this relatively new technology became unviable option for producers who were looking to lower costs (Neale 1985, p.133).
Serenity was released more than sixty years after the depression had ended and the invention and progression of television would finally provide ‘Hollywood (with) an economic incentive to make most films in colour’ (Belton 2004, p.901). Serenity was released in high definition colour during what is known as the digital revolution when film was ‘being driven by the lucrative home entertainment market’ (Belton 2004, p.902). The advent of a variety of new technologies such as digital sound and the digital camera soon became standard in the production of most new films, including Serenity.
The release of stagecoach predated most major technological advances in film, including wide screen, a technology that was introduced during the 1950’s and set out to ‘directly engage audiences in a new kind of motion picture experience’ (Belton 1990, p.185). Traditional movie screens, such as the one on which Stagecoach would have been screened, measured an average of twenty by sixteen feet and in comparison, the new wide screens could measure sixty four by twenty four feet (Belton 1990, p.185) a far greater size. Serenity was able to make use of wide screen technology which, teamed with its use of high definition colour and special effects, it would have had a great impact on movie audiences
The Masculine/Feminine Role
The role of women in classic westerns can go one of two ways due to an overtly masculine framework that the films narrative sits within. The female character may choose to, or be forced to, ‘stay at home or become the equivalent of men’ (Buscombe 1986, p.16). The female characters of Stagecoach take on an overtly feminine role, they portray the pregnant wife and the prostitute, both are visually attractive and physically weak, relying heavily upon their male escorts to protect them when it comes down to the wire.
In stark contrast, the female characters of Serenity are depicted as fiercely independent women who take on the somewhat classically masculine role of the aggressor. The youngest character River (Summer Glau), who is initially portrayed as a fragile seventeen year old girl, quickly pushes past those traditional genre constraints and becomes the strongest and most aggressive of the group when faced with opposition.
The role of women in film was also impacted by the social views of the specific time period. During the 1930’s, when a patriarchal society dominated, women were often seen only as the housewife, the mother or the young lady who must be looking for a husband, this was reflected in female film roles at the time. Passive female characters were often used in the western genre to add to the viewing pleasure of a predominantly male audience and thus women became objects that were ‘simultaneously looked at and displayed’ (Mulvey 2003, p.137).
The male characters of a western are generally aggressive and omnipotent and as such the depiction of ‘violence (as) the means by which men are encouraged to show their manliness’ (Mitchell 2001, p.177) has become an integral genre convention. Violence and masculinity go hand in hand when it comes to the western genre, many western hero’s ‘are knocked down, made supine, then variously tortured so that they can recover from harm in order to rise again’ (Mitchell 2001, p.185), this is reflective of both the main male characters of Stagecoach and Serenity.
Unlike the classic western female, the western male has a myriad of roles to play from the hero and the outlaw to the town drunk or gambler. Each masculine role is depicted by a specific set of costume conventions such as the tilted hat, knotted handkerchief round the neck or the ornate belt buckle, all of which are used to ‘invite and deflect our gaze’ (Mitchell 2001, p.174). Apart from the overwhelming use of violence to assert characters masculinity, the western hero does not ‘have the large vocabularies an expensive education can buy’ (Tompkins 1992, p.50), therefore creating a subtle intensity when he does speak, the mere image of the hero is used to create meaning in the western.
Stagecoach and Serenity’s male characters have striking similarities, a stark contradiction to the dissimilarities of their female characters. The main male characters of both films represent the classic ideal of the western anti-hero who is initially indifferent to the plight of others but will change position to align with them (Cawelti 1974, p.62). Both characters are similar in physical appearance, with strong facial features and costumes, they both harbour similar behavioural traits which follow in line with traditional genre conventions. The western narrative often ‘supports the man’s role as the active one of forwarding the story, making things happen’ (Mulvey 2003, p.138).
Audience Classification and Regulation
During the nearly seventy years that separate the 1939 release of Stagecoach and the 2005 release of Serenity, audience classification and regulation has changed a great deal. When comparing the extent of violence in each film it soon becomes apparent that Serenity is the most brutal by far, a direct reflection of the film regulation and classification of today.
The depiction of two similar scenes from each movie can be used to exemplify the vast difference between eras; when the travelling companions in Stagecoach reach Lee’s ferry station they find the place burnt down and discover the body of a young woman, the woman is fully clothed with no discernable wounds. Serenity’s scene follows the ship’s crew as they reach the mining colony of Haven they soon realise the entire colony has been slaughtered, bloodied bodies lay scattered including those of children and a sole survivor lies bloodied and dying.
Stagecoach tends to conceal most depictions of direct violence that may impact the audience by making use of various camera angles to depict the violence whilst concealing the effect. Serenity glorifies brutality by depicting scenes of violence in full view of the audience, these films fall into entirely different eras of classification. Stagecoach was released prior to any major development in regulatory and classification authority but reflected the moral views of society at the time.
Serenity was released in a year when brutal violence had become somewhat a normal occurrence within various forms of entertainment such as television, video games and music videos and as such audiences had become increasingly desensitised to the violent portrayals. The violence in filmed entertainment reflects the violence in society, with crime rates steadily on the rise. The violence today both in filmed entertainment and society is a far cry from the 1930’s when many people left their front doors open and could happily send their children off to the pictures without worry.
In conclusion the western can be understood as a set of intrinsic genre conventions that have allowed the genre to survive a myriad of social, economic and industrial issues to still be considered as one of the most popular genres of today. The role that gender, technology and the audience has played in the understanding of how the western has evolved over the past seventy years is of great importance when analysing the genre.