"[My relationships were] like I was in these movies where the script was only half-written. When I’d get to the end of this half-script, the other actors wanted me to ad lib. But I had never gotten the hang of that. That’s why these movies were always box-office failures. Six of them in the past twenty years. I always blew the lines." ~ from my horrible first novel "Learn How To Pretend." (unpublished)(obviously)

Saturday, March 09, 2013

There’s an Old Sheriff in Town, Boys: Greek Epic themes in Western Genre Films

Is there anything of which one can say, ‘Look! This is something new‘?
It was here already, long ago; it was here before our time.
  -Ecclesiastes 1:10 (NIV)

It is a standard scene. The villains are jerks. They run roughshod on the place. They take what is not theirs. Rudeness is their watchword. Sly winks to the ladies and a backhand to the youth. We know early on that they are going to get what is coming to them. We know that in the end the hero will come riding in and clean house. He will get the revenge so richly deserved. Yet this is not some western movie where the unknown stranger comes in guns-a-blazin’, chompin’ on a cigar and slingin’ dynamite. This is Homer’s The Odyssey, a 4000-year-old tale that has become a template for countless other tales throughout the millennia.

The American Western genre - High Plains Drifter, Shane, High Noon, and so many others – has become a major part of the modern American mythos. Its pantheon boasts the likes of John Wayne, Gary Cooper and Clint Eastwood. In the early scenes of these movies, we are presented with characters quite similar to the suitors of the Odyssey. They might be unbathed, unkempt, base sorts of men with stringy hair and bad teeth – instantly recognizable as the villain. Or, as in older western movies, they may appear as dandies: well dressed, well groomed and well spoken. It might be just the black hat that gave them away. In the suitors, we see a combination of the two. Vile and ill mannered though they may be, they come from “good” stock. They are from respected and moneyed families.

In Clint Eastwood’s Spaghetti Westerns of the 60’s and 70’s, the story would usually start with an obscure town on the plains. Inevitably, there would be a band of outlaws or brigands: freebooting guns hired by a cattle king or mining baron. They would ride through town with the intent of driving off the settlers, or the family that had staked claim to a creek bed rich with gold. Whatever the adversary’s occupation – be it a Kansas City hired gun or Achaean suitor – and whether they owed allegiance to a wealthy mining baron or their own bottomless greed, they had but one goal; to take what was not rightfully theirs.

As an antithesis to the villain, the westerns invariably contain a mild-mannered character such as we see in Telémakhos. He may be the henpecked shopkeeper, or the son of a sodbuster. He allows himself to be ridiculed and pushed around. In Book II of The Odyssey, “A Hero’s Son Awakens,” we see this interplay of bully and bullied between Telémakhos and Antínoös. Following a divine pep-talk of Athena - in the guise of Mentor - we are told that Telémakhos “Stayed no longer, / but took his heartache home, / […] / Antínoös came straight over, laughing at him” (314-318) (emphasis mine).  Shortly thereafter, the other suitors mock him as well. “Telémakhos has a mind to murder us,” they joke (343), indicating that they don’t believe he has it in him. He is pushed around and plotted against. Had they pistols, they would have shot at his feet and commanded him to dance. It is the type of set-up that helps turn the reader against the “bad guys.” One can scarcely imagine a Western film with out it. 

Odysseus and Telémakhos, reunited at last, conspire to rid the house of the suitors. Likewise, in the Eastwood movies, we eventually have the no-named stranger who, with the help of the townsfolk, hatches a plan to wipe out the villains. In the course of this action, the mild-mannered shopkeeper finds his courage. He turns a deaf ear on his harpy wife and the rest of the naysayers. [NOTE: If you are a professor and are reading this, your student plagiarized this essay.] He picks up his rifle and he joins the stranger. Even we, the viewers, feel avenged. In the end, it is this character – of which Telémakhos is a literary prototype – who has become the true protagonist. He is the one who has made the greatest change, going from milquetoast to macho-man. He is the one whom we admire and to whom we can relate.

In later times, we see the introduction of class struggle included in the theme. Odysseus is the strong, wealthy and beloved hero, whereas the characters of Western genre film are the definite underdogs. They are weak. They are poor. They are the oppressed. In future tales, it would be the servant Eumaios – “O my swineherd!” – who would rise up against Odysseus, the oppressor of the downtrodden. The bully would be put in his place and we, the audience, would feel the same sense of satisfaction at having seen justice meted out.

In the end, perhaps that is what it is all about. Just desserts. Perhaps our enjoyment of such a theme is less a case of the familiarity of a borrowed motif, than it is of a desire for justice. To see all get what they deserve – good or bad – seems almost to be a mark of what it means to be human. It is an inherent need for fairness that dates to the dawn of time.

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