Westerns In A Post MPAA Rating System
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    Westerns In A Post MPAA Rating System Westerns In A Post MPAA Rating System Document Transcript

    • Cory Bohon
      Professor Caster
      Film 240
      10 Dec 2009
      Westerns in a Pre and Post-MPAA Rating System
      The Great Train Robbery (1903) could arguably be called the first film in the western genre. The western has made its mark on American culture throughout the history of cinema, and seems to embody the American drive for land expansion and exploration throughout the mid-to-late 1800s. John Ford’s The Searchers (1956) and Clint Eastwood’s Unforgiven (1992) are two such films in the western genre. Both films incorporate what could be called “western elements” – it’s the things that make you see that it’s a western just by looking at the screen and seeing the characters and props. According to the American Film Institute’s (AFI) top 10 westerns, The Searchers currently ranks at number one, with Unforgiven receiving a number four rating (AFI: 10 Top 10 Westerns). I would like to look at both of these films in terms of their mise-en-scéne , culture significance, and also how the switch from production code to the modern rating system has changed the genre throughout its history.
      The plot of John Ford’s The Searchers (1956) is set in Texas in 1868. In a nutshell, the film tells the story of a family whose “Uncle Ethan” (played by John Wayne) went to fight in a war and returned a few years later. Uncle Ethan then spent a few days with the family before joining the Texas Rangers in place of his brother Aaron Edwards (Walter Coy), and leaves the family to fight Indians who are threatening the small town. Indians later massacre his family and destroy their house, taking two of their daughters (his nieces). He then sets off, along with Martin Pawley (Jeffrey Hunter), to find “Scar” (Henry Brandon), the Indian responsible for the massacre. After a bloody fight, the Indians kill the oldest daughter Lucy Edwards (Pippa Scott) whose body is later found by Ethan, but spared the youngest daughter, Debbie Edwards (Natalie Wood). Near the end of the film they find Debbie and return home where Martin tries to marry Laurie Jorgensen (Vera Miles), but he gets into a scuffle with another man who has already offered to marry her.
      Clint Eastwood’s Unforgiven (1992) is set in Kansas and Wyoming in 1880 and features a slew of popular actors including Clint Eastwood (who is not only the director, but also plays William 'Bill' Munny), Morgan Freeman (Ned Logan), and Gene Hackman (Little Bill Daggett). The story follows Bill Munny, Ned, and The Schofield Kid (Jaimz Woolvett) as they ride to Wyoming from Kansas to kill two cowboys for a reward. The $1,000 reward is placed by a few prostitutes, one of which the two cowboys cut with a knife. The prostitutes are tossed around like they are property and the cowboys that “defaced” the property didn’t receive proper punishment and only had to bring the owner a couple horses. When Bill, Ned, and Schofield get to town all hell breaks loose as they fight and kill not only the two cowboys in a fierce gun battle, but also the prostitutes “owner” (W.W. Beauchamp played by Saul Rubinek), the Sherriff Little Bill Daggett (Gene Hackman), and many of the deputies.
      According to John Belton in his book American Cinema American Culture, mise-en-scéne, “Encompasses a variety of categories related to the staging of action.” The mise-en-scéne could be anything from costume design to actors to the lighting in the shot (Belton, 47). These two films, despite being in the same genre, offer up a huge contrast in terms of the mise-en-scéne they provide. One of the things I found interesting while watching The Searchers (1956) was that it had a theme song written by Stan Jones called “The Searchers” that summed up the whole plot of the movie and was played at the beginning, throughout, and at the end of the film. This technique is similar to the song that played in the film High Noon (1952) called “High Noon” (High Noon). Although “The Searchers” song wasn’t as prominent as the “High Noon” song was, which played in every possible place the director could squeeze it, even as part of the music in the saloon that was played on the piano.
      The mise-en-scéne in The Searchers seems to provide the classic western elements of open, airy, and dry desserts filled with cacti and other western themed plants. Overall, The Searchers seems to be a film that provides a bright, open view of the surroundings – a panorama of the landscape, almost showing off the surroundings more so than the actors and actresses. Unlike Unforgiven, The Searchers is set in Texas during an earlier time period (1868). This is demonstrated by the lack of man-built structures, the lack of law and order, and the glaring threat of Indians. In Unforgiven, the overall theme seems to be dark and dreary as the main plot of the movie is about correcting the discipline problem that is going on in town regarding the prostitutes and the cowboys that caused the problems. Despite this fact, Unforgiven was only the third western to ever win a best picture Oscar (Unforgiven IMDB).
      The opening and closing shots in both The Searchers and Unforgiven are almost identical to each of the films respectively, returning to their original concept with the same actors at the end of each of the two films. In The Searchers, a view through a doorway shows the family gathered around looking in the distance at the oncoming rider who turns out to be John Wayne (Uncle Ethan); in the end shot, John Wayne is once again in a doorway, but this time he’s walking away from the situation, almost as if he’s closing the chapter on a book that has just been written. In Unforgiven, Clint Eastwood is sitting underneath a tree beside his wife’s grave with a vibrant yellowish sunset illuminating the scene; the end shot is comprised of an almost identical composition. It is as though in both of these films nothing has happened in the middle if you were to only look at the beginning and ending compositions.
      Throughout John Belton’s American Cinema American Culture, he looks at films in terms of their cultural context of not only how culture has shaped the film, but also how the film has also shaped culture in turn. Take for instance the reoccurring statement spoken by John Wayne in The Searchers, " That'll Be the Day.” That quote, famously used in the film, was inspired by the Buddy Holly song that held the same title (The Searchers IMDB). This shows that films can take what might be popular at the time period and work it into the plot, even if the plot of the film is completely different in terms of genre or popularity. When you think about The Searchers in terms of a western, you don’t think about the popular music that inspired the saying. In a scene in the middle of Unforgiven, English Bob (Richard Harris) is on a train riding to Wyoming in an attempt to beat Bill Munny to the reward and is discussing the shooting of President Garfield. This scene takes the history of the time period the movie is trying to emulate, and puts it in the movie to make a better plot and make it seem as though you’re viewing a piece of history through this film.
      The Searchers was a film that was made during a rough time in America. Not only had America just got out of the Korean War conflict, but also a threat of an atomic bomb, and other military threats from around the world were prominent. These threats can be found in The Searchers in the scene where the Indians attack the house that Ethan’s family is in, and then Ethan (John Wayne) attacks back, but with a much more furious vengeance than was shone initially by the attacker. It is further shown when Ethan tries to shoot Debbie after finding out she’s living with the Indians, but Martin Pawley won’t let him shoot her. This scene seems to depict the rebellion of the younger generation that was beginning to form during this time period and would be brought into full force in the ‘60s, where the younger generation is more open to differences in race, culture, and attitudes than the older generation that is portrayed by Ethan’s character. A similar depiction can be found in Arthur Penn’s Bonnie and Clyde (1967) where Bonnie Parker (Faye Dunaway) went “against the grain,” so to speak, by running off with Clyde Barrow (Warren Beatty) robbing banks and killing individuals who were older and authority figures. The civil rights movement was also underway heavily during the ‘50s and ‘60s as black Americans were striving to gain the freedoms that they, and all Americans, deserved. The Searchers does give hints to this movement with Martin Pawely being an Indian raised by a white family. Ethan shows his hatred towards not only Martin, but also all Indians, when he talks about him not being a part of the family. I believe that the notion of not being a part of the family has the connotation that he wasn’t part of the United States, in the same way that many white people felt about black Americans back during that time period (McGee, 99). These same racial ties could be linked to Clint Eastwood’s Unforgiven in which Ned Logan (Morgan Freeman) is killed in the end for failure to surrender his weapon in the city limits, among other things. Any one of the other characters could have been killed for the same reason, but Clint Eastwood as a director chose to show the black being killed. Of course, when Unforgiven was being produced there wasn’t the same racial tension in the United States as was in the ‘50s, but the western as a genre is situated primarily in the mid-to-late 1800s, in which the fights over slavery were ongoing as the United States entered into the time period of the Civil War.
      Before the Motion Picture Association of America (the MPAA) rating system of today, the Production Code (sometimes referred to as the Hayes Code) was the process by which films were reviewed for their appropriateness. During this time period on screen depictions of sexual activity, violent crimes, adultery, among others acts were simply not allowed. This is why films like The Searchers don’t have a rating associated with them because the movies were essentially rated for all audiences (Belton, 110). By simply viewing a film like Clint Eastwood’s Unforgiven, we can see that these on-screen acts and more are available for our viewing today. The beginning of Unforgiven opens with a prostitute having sex with a cowboy, and the whole film is based loosely around the topic of prostitution, which crops up throughout the film. This topic would not have been allowed or even considered a during the Production Code time period as it would have went against many of its rules. So what has changed and why has the MPAA rating system of today allowed these scenes to be shown? Well, the American culture changed in the 36-years between these two films. From the audience to the types of films produced, the past 50 years has brought about many changes in the film industry. Films of the late 1960s demonstrated the women’s movement in which women were depicted in more scantily clad clothing. Films like Arthur Penn’s Bonnie and Clyde (1967) defined this movement with Bonnie Parker (Faye Dunaway) wearing clothing that became an instant hit among women in that decade (known as “The Bonnie Parker Look”). Audiences also changed during this time period as more teenagers and college-aged men and women began to frequent the theaters; therefore movies targeting that audience need to be produced (Belton, 349).
      The popularity of the western grew between 1926 and 1967, a time period in which more westerns were produced than any other genre (Belton, 242). However, after that time period the popularity of the western dropped sharply. But John Belton notes that the western was reborn in a few science fiction films that featured, “the narrative situations, motifs, and iconography of the Western function as a way of providing audiences with familiar signposts to guide them through the unfamiliar and unknown” (Belton, 269).
      Even though films made during the production code Hollywood were highly restricted with the content that they could contain, they still provided small subtle hints as to alternative meanings. In many older films guns, knives, and other weapons were used as stand-ins for phallic objects, representing the male pride and arrogance. It goes without saying that guns and knives were staples in defining the mise-en-scéne in the Western genre. Cowboys and Indians alike carried weapons; many over compensating with two or more weapons, while the women in the Western genre rarely carried any weapons. This is unlike Bonnie Parker’s character in Bonnie and Clyde where she seemed to be more masculine than the other women, and often handled guns and other weapons to defend herself.
      The MPAA rating system has allowed for a whole new generation of films to be produced that would have never made it to the silver screen in production code Hollywood. This film rating system has proved to be powerful in allowing audiences to select the films they want to see based on the content contained inside of the film.
      I’ve looked at both John Ford’s The Searchers (1956) and Clint Eastwood’s Unforgiven (1992) in terms of their mise-en-scéne, cultural significance, and also how the switch from production code to the modern rating system has changed the genre throughout its history. The western genre has helped depict the American culture in the mid to late 1800s just as the films themselves do. The genre has been hugely popular in American culture and while it isn’t as popular as it used to be, the genre is still distinctly American. Ask anyone on the street about what makes a western a western, and no doubt, you’ll find that the mise-en-scéne regarding shot composition, cowboys, and Indians will come up in the conversation. Many Americans still have a lust for the old west and look back in nostalgia at the western genre. As long as directors can maintain this lust in their films, they’ll keep the American population coming back to the western genre.
      Works Cited
      AFI: 10 Top 10 Westerns. American Film Institute (AFI). 23 Nov. 2009. .
      Belton, John. American Cinema American Culture. New York: McGraw Hill Higher Education, 2009. Print.
      High Noon (1952). Internet Movie Database (IMDB). 23 Nov. 2009. .
      McGee, Patrick. From Shane to Kill Bill: Rethinking the Western. Massachusetts: Blackwell Publishing, 2007. Print.
      The Searchers (1956). Internet Movie Database (IMDB). 23 Nov. 2009. .
      The Searchers. Dir. John Ford. Perf. John Wayne, Jeffrey Hunter. Warner Bros. 1956. Film
      Unforgiven (1992). Internet Movie Database (IMDB). 23 Nov. 2009. .
      Unforgiven. Dir. Clint Eastwood. Perf. Clint Eastwood, Morgan Freeman, Gene Hackman. Warner Bros. 1992. Film