This is an essay I wrote for my univeristy dissertation. I got a tremendously low score on it because it turns out that Oxford examiners don't like to consider films as text. But I thought there was some good stuff in there, and re-reading it helped to remind me why I didn't like The Tree of Life.
Mechanization and the Death of the Wild West
Key Themes in Three Films by Sam Peckinpah and Terrence Malick.
The Western is one of the oldest and most popular genres of American cinema. But while film began to grow as a popular medium in the early 20th century the days of the Wild West were very quickly ending. Hollywood's West was past from its beginning; and so had to be invented.
The arrival of Civilization is what most commonly marks the end of the Wild West, and one of the clearest markers of the arrival of this civilization is the advent of machinery. We can identify mechanization as being both the replacement of human or animal labour with machines, and the use of machines to assist human operators, and the Western uses these machines in a variety of ways in the telling of its own death.
In Sam Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch (1969) and Terrence Malick’s Badlands (1973) and Days of Heaven (1978) we are presented with three key machines: the handgun, the train and the machine gun. Before considering their roles in the cinematic Wild West we should consider briefly their historical development.
The history of mechanization in America begins at the turn of the 19th century and although the industrial revolution took place entirely in the East, the effects of mechanization were inseparable from the development of the West. Specifically, Captain John H. Hall’s pioneering of the use of interchangeable parts in firearms between 1820 and 1840 and his development of this new system of manufacturing provided the affordable weaponry needed for the masses of self-reliant pioneers. Secondly, the railroads, “the industrial revolution incarnate,” which started passenger service in Charleston, South Carolina, in 1831 and eventually linked America’s coasts at Promontory Point, Utah, in 1869 provided the contact the West needed with the East for increased migration and economic growth. By the time the machine gun is invented the Westward expansion of America has already been completed.
The Bureau of the Census announced the Frontier in 1890. The period most visited by the Wild West of Hollywood is the 1880s. The Western obsesses over this moment of transition from ‘wild’ to ‘civilized,’ this moment of dying and of reifying. And central to this moment are its machines. It is impossible to imagine a Western without guns; while the train, though not essential, is a powerful, versatile symbol. In 1831, John Stuart Mill wrote that “the locomotive is a perfect symbol because its meaning need not be attached to it by a poet; it is inherent in its physical attributes. To see a powerful, efficient machine in the landscape is to know the superiority of the present to the past.” In the Western the train is put to use representing the unity of the nation (The Iron Horse (1924)), science and progress (Duel in the Sun (1946), Carson City (1952), Johnny Guitar (1954)), employment and economic opportunity (Union Pacific (1939), Red River (1948)), politics and democracy (The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962)) or an unknown future (Back to the Future III (1990)). It is a powerful American symbol that, since Edwin S. Porter’s The Great Train Robbery (1903), has dominated the iconography of the frontier. Trains are progress, just as America is the future. You want it, you need it, though you know that with it comes your end. The only certainty the future holds is death.
How, then, are Peckinpah and Malick - two wholly distinct film-makers - drawn together at this cross-section of cinema and history?
For Peckinpah, the West was both professional and personal. He often talked in interviews about his childhood in California, and how he felt uneasy in the latter half of the 20th century: “I grew up on a ranch, but that world is gone. I feel rootless.” He was an ardent activist against the Vietnam War and was vocal in his disdain for machinery, telling a BBC interviewer in 1982 that “technology ran over [Cable] Hogue, technology ran over England in the Industrial Revolution, and technology is running over the world today.” Peckinpah produced a handful of films that left an important mark on the Western and on American culture and Buscombe writes that “of all the great directors of the Western, Peckinpah is the most self-conscious, the most aware of working in a tradition,” and we can clearly see many generic tropes invoked and manipulated in his films. He also pushed the genre forward and his skilful montage and stylized violence helped reinvigorate the struggling form in the late 1960s.
Terrence Malick is a very different character. He grew up in Texas before studying philosophy at Harvard and Oxford. After spending a year at the AFI Conservatory he started on his film career, making Badlands and Days of Heaven, after which he moved to France and disappeared from public view. He reappeared twenty years later to make The Thin Red Line (1998) but still refuses to give interviews. While Malick is not as closely associated with the Western as Peckinpah, we find many of the standard themes of the genre explored in his first two films: violence, wilderness, manliness and myth in Badlands; exploration westward, farming and property rights in Days of Heaven. These themes, though, are taken in a different direction to the point where we may no longer be able to call the films Westerns. However, it is through reference to the codes and ideological underpinnings of the form, as well as to the status of the Western in American culture, that we can better understand the films, and the importance of his revisionist's take on the genre.
To Peckinpah first, then, and The Wild Bunch. The film is set in 1913 and tells the story of a group of ageing outlaws looking for “one good score” before quitting. They are being hunted by Deke Thornton (Robert Ryan), an old partner who got caught and now has to lead a posse of comical but vicious mercenaries bankrolled by Harrigan (Albert Dekker), a railroad boss. The Bunch are hired by Mexican despot, General Mapache (Emilio Fernandez) to rob American munitions from a train, which they do. Angel (Jaime Sanchez), one of the Bunch, convinces his partners to give one crate of weapons to his village to defend themselves against Mapache. Angel is discovered and tortured and when the Bunch try to save him they are killed in a massacre that wipes out a whole town. The 1913 setting gives the film a timeframe that immediately positions it outside of the classic period of the genre, a move emphasized by the cutting of the opening credits between colour images and black and white stills, cutting between old and new, myth and history, old frontier photography and modern moving image.
The year before The Wild Bunch was released, audiences were invited to read Gabriele Ferzeti’s crippled railroad tycoon as an embodiment of the corrupting, exploitative power of capitalism in Sergio Leone’s Once Upon a Time in the West (1968). Now, in 1969, Peckinpah presents Harrigan, a merciless railroad baron who wants the train-robbing Bunch dead. The opening scene, in which the Bunch are ambushed while robbing a bank, ends in a bloody shootout in the Texan town of San Rafael. Several citizens are killed but Harrigan, who lured the Bunch into the town, is unrepentant, and dismisses the townspeople, shouting “we represent the law!” The coldhearted Harrigan is thus quickly established as the dominant power in the region who, worryingly, does not have to answer to anyone. Here, control of technology leads to control of the law, and Harrigan entangles the locomotive, the great American symbol, in the web of a formidable and corrupt power system.
This association of the railroads with power and corruption has clear sources in American history. Entrepreneurs and businessmen like Cornelius Vanderbilt, James Fisk and Jay Gould were the public faces of the railroad but were seen to be “attracted to railroads not by the prospect of profits from running a passenger and freight service, but by the riches promised by the exploitation of the land grant and by manipulating the company stock.” The Credit Mobilier scandal of 1872 exposed corruption as high up as Congress. But, alongside public anti-railroad sentiment there nearly always existed a distinct perception of the machine itself, of the machine as symbol, as “testament to the will of man rising over natural obstacles.”
|Lethbridge, Alberta, circa 1908. Erecting Lethbridge Viaduct over the Oldman River|
Having established Harrigan as a villain, when we are presented with the locomotive itself it is through a fade in to a long shot of a rugged, mountainous landscape where the machine gracefully moves in from the distance, cutting through a mise-en-scène reminiscent of the photographs of Andrew J. Russell. The Bunch set about stealing the munitions on board and do so with a precise, practiced method. They execute the robbery with ease because it is a standard part of their generic terrain and robbing it is a coded assertion of their potency within that genre, of their link to legendary train-robbing gangs like the Jameses and to the cinematic legacy they share in from The Great Train Robbery onwards. But while Bishop’s (William Holden) heartbeat set the rhythm of the opening scene in San Rafael, and was the referent for the audience’s sense of tension, now it is the train’s ‘heartbeat’ that dominates the soundtrack, its rhythmic breathing that builds the pressure. It dictates the speed of the action as machines now dictate the speed and rhythm of the world: from the everyday organization of life according to strictly compartmentalized time to the historical march of science and progress, the railroad now represents a new, mechanical rhythm of both personal and nationalized existence. As this is a development which, by 1913, is impossible to counter, when the Bunch send the train screaming back down the tracks we know their symbolic rejection of the machine to be futile. The Wild West is being overtaken by machines and the power systems that arrive with them. On its way back down the tracks we are given a point-of-view shot from the point of view of the train itself, granting the machine a subjectivity, a cinematic consciousness even.
One of the defining stylistic points of The Wild Bunch comes with the skill of Lou Lombardo’s editing. At 3,342 edits, it had by far the highest number of cuts in a colour film to date (around 600 was the average) Lombardo’s cuts offer us constantly shifting viewpoints on the action. From the Bunch to children to civilians passing by, there is a consistent variety of subjective perspectives being offered. This fragmented style, in its rejection of the tracking shot, of a camera that moves and links things together, can also be read as a rejection of the train’s linking of America. Railroads brought with them a level of connection between people and towns previously unthinkable, they forced a national consciousness, they united the States of America and it is in this process that Peckinpah locates the death of the Wild West. The freedom of the frontier, of the cowboy, is crushed under the weight of the railways that brings the West fully and inextricably into the matrix of Union, into "the most effective system of national control devised in modern times" (Howard Zinn).
And then we have the machine gun. The blood that it sheds on screen was unparalleled in cinema in 1969 and, once unleashed, it leaves no one in Agua Verde alive; it achieves a level of violence impossible with a handgun. But what truly defines the machine gun from the handgun is that it strips its bullets of conscience. With a handgun a cowboy chooses whom or what he shoots and his aim is as clear as his conscience (we hope). The machine gun frees its user from that responsibility. It is not designed to uphold the law or right a wrong, but to kill as efficiently as possible. This opposition is reflected in the contrasted styles of the opening shootout and the closing massacre. The opening shootout is highly confusing to the characters, but through careful editing and the use of multiple perspectives we are able to see quite clearly who is shooting whom – that there is a human choice behind each bullet, and a consequence in front of it. Thornton, for example, only shoots at members of the Bunch, distinguishing him from the rest of the bounty hunters, who shoot indiscriminately. In Agua Verde, on the other hand, the action is much more confused. We see the gun fired but have no idea where its bullets are landing, we see the Bunch hit but don’t know who shot them. The machine gun is so powerful that the men cannot manipulate it: the Western hero’s hallmark – his mastery of his weapon – is shattered. The new weapon is ferocious: when Lyle Gorch (Warren Oates) fails to take control of the gun he lets out a final, primal scream as he showers the town in bullets before dying. Bishop, the dominant male, manages to subdue it for a few seconds (“give ‘em hell, Pike!” Dutch screams), before he crumples and dies with his finger on the trigger and his face obscured by his hat. It is neither the Bunch nor the West that is untameable anymore, it is the machines.
In San Rafael, through carefully edited sequences of close ups and slow-motion shots, individual deaths were given a moment of attention, of poignancy, of grace. In Agua Verde, though there is an abundance of slow-motion shots, individual deaths do not receive the same attention. The men fall hard and fast – the graceful duel, the draw and death of the classic Western is replaced with piles of bodies. In a Western, Buscombe argues, “to be justifiable, the violence must be redemptive: it must produce a transformation in human affairs that is clearly ‘progressive’ in some sense.” There is no redemptive value here; when the machine gun stops firing there isn’t even a society left. The violence wrought by a machine gun is not a violence that can be endorsed by Western codes, because it is so impersonal and so destructive. And so the arrival of this violence in the Western renders all else impotent. For Peckinpah the Wild West is dead because it is impossible for it to survive in a world with these machines.
Terrence Malick, on the other hand, does not present the relationship between mechanization and the Wild West as so oppositional. Days of Heaven is set in a similar time (1916) and place (the Texas Panhandle) as The Wild Bunch, but where, in Peckinpah’s world, the codes of the Western dictate how we read the film, in Days of Heaven an understanding of these generic codes actually shows how the film is aggressively moving away from the Western. Malick’s film reads like an attempt to remove the Western from the West, to demythologize a landscape whose culture has been dominated by the cowboy. Malick is interested in the idea of the Wild West and the effects of mechanization, but is also interested in challenging the ideological underpinnings of the Western’s generic conventions.
After the opening credits, the film cuts to darkness before there is a dramatic aural crescendo of rhythmic beating. We are inside a steel mill: it is loud, dark and dirty and the only light in it comes from the blindingly hot furnace the men line up to shovel coal into. They circle back to repeat their endless jobs. We are deep in the heart of the machine and the noise overwhelms the language of the workers – stripping them of individuality and of community. We are unable to hear the argument between Bill (Richard Gere) and his foreman, we do not know why Bill strikes him down.
Afraid he has killed the foreman, Bill, his girlfriend (Brooke Adams) and his sister (Linda Manz) head for the West. This move from the corrupt, mechanized cities of the East to the (potentially) nurturing natural state of the West is a common theme in the Western, and with one striking shot Malick teases his audience with the suggestion that we could be headed for a familiar Western landscape. To get out of the city, the trio jump onto a train, which once again represents the bridge between civilization and wilderness, poverty and prosperity, stifling urban life and the expanse of the frontier. The contrast between city and nature is immediately highlighted by the look and sound of their exodus from the darkness and cacophony of the steel mill to the Texas Panhandle. Linda Manz’s voice-over tells us “all three of us have been going places. Looking for things, searching for things, going on adventures,” and we cut to a screen filled by a strikingly blue sky, with just the silhouette of a suspension bridge slicing across the middle. The sky dominates the mise-en-scène but the train – cutting across the frame from right to left – is instantly recognizable. On the soundtrack we have moved from Saint-Säens delicate Aquarium to Enderlin and the jangling optimism of Leo Kotke’s banjo. Locomotives, blue sky country, banjos, economic opportunity, an escape from urban squalor, ‘adventures’ – everything in this shot points towards the Western. The reliable train is taking them away from their troubles and towards the West, towards their future.
On arrival at the farm, however, the tone and texture of the film changes dramatically: Ennio Morricone’s score begins, but it is not the sparse whistling made so famous by the Leone Westerns, instead it is a rich, graceful arrangement of swelling violins and flutes – a clear subversion of the audience’s generic expectations.
The image, too, is subverted: the sky is no longer bright blue but a glowing white. Malick and the director of photography, Nestor Almendros, both felt a blue sky “makes landscapes look like picture postcards or vulgar travel brochures,” and so the sky was made to appear “white and burnt out.” Rather than the familiar blue/yellow palette of the colour Western, then, this is a film of golds, greys and whites. The Texan fields are captured with a tone that feels both naturalistic and highly cinematic, and so both the image and score are stripped of the Western signifiers so briefly gestured to on the train journey. The West we have arrived in feels neither so wild nor so well-trodden.
The train journey is the first of many Western conventions that are highlighted only to be exploded. Joan McGettigan demonstrates how “in a series of reversals, the film introduces and even elevates characteristics of the Western, and then reveals them as illusions.” These characteristics include the intrinsic value of labour, the benefits of community, masculine heroism and the value of revenge/justice. They are all reversed to some degree. Itinerant workers arrive on well-cultivated land and toil for “the richest man in the panhandle;” there is no community between them; the Farmer (Sam Shepherd) is distant and exploitative while Bill is proud, selfish and cowardly, and when the Old Man (Robert Wilke) avenges the Farmer’s murder, it amounts to little more than Bill being shot in the back. This is not a film concerned with lamenting the ‘death of the Wild West’, it is a film that attempts to expose the economic realities behind the Hollywood myth.
In Peckinpah’s The Ballad of Cable Hogue (1970) we see the Jeffersonian ideal of the small landowner realized, a celebration of the dictum that “those who labour in the earth are the chosen people of God.” Hogue becomes the ideal homesteader: showing dominion over nature by “finding water where it wasn’t,” economic individualism by setting up ‘Cable Springs,’ and potential for the future in his relationship with Hildy. Peckinpah makes the current impossibility of this dream clear, though, as Cable is run over by a car and dies in the end. The West of Days of Heaven, though, is rather different: it is one of exploitation and poverty, it is no longer full of possibility; the frontier is closed, all the land is claimed and there is nothing on which to build for the future. In tone and in content, then, Malick moves away from the codes of the Western and tries to present the economic realities of the 1910s, to demythify the West in popular culture so that we can begin to engage with it historically.
As in The Wild Bunch, machines in the Panhandle are incongruous against their backgrounds. The train pours out thick black smoke; the tractors dominate the plains; the spluttering airplanes startle us; and Bill’s bright red motorcycle stands out proudly against the golden fields. But, unlike automobile in The Wild Bunch, Malick does not foreground the machines. In the fields, they are new but they are neither threatening nor alien. However, we have already seen the inside of an industrialized world in the steel mill, and know that it is not something to look forward to.
As Bill and Linda struggle through collecting the first harvest, the voice-over tells us that if “you didn’t work they’d ship you right outta there. They don’t need you. They can always get somebody else.” Like parts of a machine, the workers are easily interchangeable. We cut to three tractors trundling across the screen. While this cut may imply that the machines are replacing the labourer it is also demonstrates how they are making the harvest easier. Before the tractors arrived the workers struggled to heave their loads onto horse-drawn carts. Malick cuts to the couple’s faces to show us they are exhausted. Then, the tractors enter, and are followed by a series of considerably more relaxed workers. When the work is done, the labourers cheer and the tractors sound their horns and shoot jets of steam in the air; the machines are celebrating along with the people. If the problems presented by the film are the inequality of wealth and the impossibility of economic salvation, then it is not simply mechanization that is being held to blame. The machines are just the latest tool of the wealthy.
Where Peckinpah shows mechanization as progressively increasing humans’ capacity for violence, Malick shows violence as quick, simple and mute. The Farmer threatens Bill with a gun, but Bill kills him with a screwdriver: the primal easily overcomes the mechanical. Malick locates the fault in human agency. The conclusion of the film finds the two men dead because both their motives were essentially acquisitive. Mechanization’s role, rather, is in its capacity to assist in the acquisition of wealth. With control over machinery the Farmer has clearly been very economically successful. But Malick, instead, is showing how the possibility of achieving a Jeffersonian ideal of individualism has been exaggerated by the Hollywood Western. The Wild West never died because it never really existed, people were never really free in America, because someone wealthier has always set up shop first.
Badlands opens in South Dakota in the 1950s, in the kind of grid town widely deployed as America sububarbnized. Kit Carruthers (Martin Sheen) sees himself as a modern-day cowboy, but he is a character who has invested so heavily in the generic conventions of the Western that he finds himself unable to function in 1950s society. He spends the film trying to re-find the genre, to reawaken it. He tries to cast himself as a movie cowboy: he wears the classic boots and jeans, models himself on James Dean and lists his skills as riding, shooting and not minding the cold. He loses his job as a garbage man and when he is given one at a ranch, he tells his girlfriend Holly (Sissy Spacek) – nonchalantly – that he’s “going to work as a cowboy now…or thinking about it.” When we see him at work, he is working a cattle crush, trapping a cow’s head in a vice while it is branded. The reality of life does not meet Kit’s generic expectations.
Resolution, in a Western, is so often brought about by violence that it is not surprising how quickly Kit resorts to it – killing Holly’s father (Warren Oates) for not treating him like the star he thinks he is. As in Days of Heaven, the violence has a muted quality which, compared to Peckinpah, feels distinctly unWesternized: it is not impressive, or stylized: it is quick and simple. Recognizing that the neat, grid town is not an arena in which he can realize his generic aspirations, in which he can behave like a cowboy and be respected for it, Kit and Holly head for the forest. Like John Wayne at the end of Stagecoach (1939), Kit shuns civilization in the hope he can create a world in which his view of himself retains some potency – but they never truly shun the modern. They head to the woods but they don’t go too far – while Kit fishes, a truck passes by, and Malick’s script tells us “this stretch of river seems dangerously close to civilization.” They take a series of domestic articles with them; modern items like a lamp, radio and gramophone. Holly reads to Kit about the Kon-Tiki and its failed attempt to sail to Polynesia, and we foresee that they are beginning a similarly doomed venture to free themselves of their reliance on machines. Holly tells us how they, like the Kon-Tiki, built their house using indigenous materials, but in their daily activities they still rely on their modern appliances. They dance to the gramophone and when Kit tries to catch a fish with a net made from branches and fails repeatedly, he resorts to shooting at it. Then, when Holly looks through the stereopticon at pictures of older civilizations, we realize that this generation’s primary access to the past is through technological innovation, that their sense of the past is as viewed through a lens. Kit identifies with only with images of the West and the ideas of the Western. Though he believes he is structuring his identity in opposition to the society around him, although he sees himself as an outlaw figure, he is clearly also buying into the cultural models of the time. As Malick explains in a rare interview: “he thinks of himself as a successor to James Dean – a Rebel without a Cause – when in reality he’s more like an Eisenhower conservative.” Kit is caught in a cultural cattle crush – the increasingly pervasive mass culture of the time presents him with an image that, as an American, he is expected to invest in personally. The Western claims to celebrate his country’s birthing pains, the price men paid for freedom and their individual rights, it is a laudatory tradition of the endeavour and bravery of American men. But such paragons of libertarian masculinity that it presents are both impossible and dangerous to emulate, and so Kit finds himself at odds with the world around him.
While it is for comfort that they take a lamp and radio to the forest, the car is essential to their survival, and with it they head into the plains of South Dakota in a final, desperate search for a genuine wilderness, a real frontier. They head off the road, breaking away from the tarmacked, town-linking web of urbanization, their “last link with social order,” and drive through the open, dusty plains. But they are never able to leave the mechanical markers of civilization behind – they follow the telephone wires during the day and at night Holly locates herself by reference to “the gas fires at Missoula” and “the lights of Cheyenne.” Unlike John Wayne, who finds and claims his land at the start of Red River, there will be no point where they can stop and say “this is it,” no land where they can start again, from which they can start their own Western. Rather, they have to keep heading to Canada and what Holly calls “a magical land beyond the reach of the law.”
Still in Montana, Holly spots a train “making its way silently across the plain, “like the caravan in The Adventures of Marco Polo.” She relates how “it was our first taste of civilization in days, and I asked Kit if we could have a closer look.” Imaginatively linked to history, exploration and adventure, they wait for the train. When it arrives in shot, the iconic locomotive has been replaced by a viciously fast silver bullet that bursts in and out of the screen, leaving the pair to stand on the tracks and watch it disappear. What had been so richly symbolic for characters in The Wild Bunch and Days of Heaven is now untouchable. It is a reminder of the modern world carrying on without them, that the ‘badlands’ they wander through have already been tamed and signals, beyond any doubt, that we are not, and can never be, in a Western.
What is central to Malick’s two films, then, is that the Wild West was a myth, and that it is a myth that needs to be dispelled. It is a myth endorsed and perpetuated by directors like Peckinpah who work firmly within its codes and confines. Peckinpah laments the death of the Wild West, the passing of “a different America,” and firmly relates that death to the rise of mechanization. But while Peckinpah was fiercely critical of the society he lived in, there is little in his films that actually critiques the social order. As Robin Wood suggests, “Peckinpah’s work…witnesses the predicament of the artist who is vociferously anti-Establishment yet lacks any defined ideological alternative.” Peckinpah saw the Western as “a universal frame within which it is possible to comment on today” but he did not see the ways in which subscription to that genre also reinforced the inequalities and myths of control of his day. This subscription to the ideologies of the Western is the kind of cinematic heritage Malick is trying to counter.
Walter Benjamin argues that film’s “social significance, particularly in its most positive form, is inconceivable without its destructive, cathartic aspect, that is, the liquidation of the traditional value of cultural heritage.” America has always invested in the Western as part of its foundational mythology. But in Malick's hands, the ideals of the West are stripped of their romance, leaving only the darkly practical: the violent individualism, the primacy of private property, the hopeless expansionism. Both Peckinpah and Malick have deep issues with contemporary American society. But while Peckinpah rails against his present by glorifying a past that never was, Malick dissects his society's collective, cinematic memory to show how the problematic ideals and values of the present are maintained through the past's manufacture. Peckinpah wants to believe that something vital and true about his world was lost in modernity. Malick knows that America lost whatever purity it had when European boots first trod on her soil.