Wednesday, 27 January 2010

Oklahoma - Gunfights and the Sun Dance

I've been watching Western movies this month, not all of them directly connected to Oklahoma, but still, it's an important part of American culture, a film genre that was the bain of my existence as a child - Western movies and country music are two things a child in Ireland will either learn to love or hate.

It's interesting to watch these movies now, years later, when I can grasp the concepts and the history behind them and it's been fun re-exploring a genre that I was happy to dismiss as cliched. Really, Westerns are about the human experience, man's determination to survive in a ruthless world, against the backdrop of a harsh landscape and an unforgiving moralism. The Western hero is a loner, a cowboy or renegade, living on the edge of society, unimpressed by such feminine concepts as equity and justice.

It amazes me how many sub-genres there are of Westerns - Spaghetti Westerns, Sci-Fi and Urban Westerns, from the ex-soviet world we had Osterns, more likely to depict the Indians as oppressed peoples fighting for their dignity.  We have revisionist Westerns.  We even have Brokeback Mountain :-)

I watched two movies that were quite different from each other. The first, A Man Called Horse, starring Richard Harris, later of Dumbledore fame (Harry Potter 1 & 2) who, I found out, was born in Limerick in Ireland. This was an interesting movie. Amazingly, I was a good half hour into the movie before I really noticed that most of the language on-screen was Sioux, and that there were no subtitles! Yet, I'd understood everything, without knowing the actual words the actors were using.

I guess A Man called Horse would be considered to be a revisionist Western. The White man actually becomes Indian, first as a ploy to escape the tribe that have captured him, then because he really believes in the culture he's adopted, although the ending leaves a little bit of ambiguity about this point. He marries one of the tribeswomen and undergoes the excruciating Sun Dance initiation. It's certainly very different than your average Western, but I still felt as though something wasn't quite right. The depiction of the Indian tribes seemed too black and white somehow.

The second movie was a Western of epic proportions, Gunfight at the OK Corral, based on actual events in Tombstone, Arizona. I absolutely loved this movie, which surprised me. It was the triumph of good over evil, law over banditry. The 'relationship' between Wyatt Earp (played by Burt Lancaster) and Doc Holliday (played by Kirk Douglas) was fascinating in that shy and bumbling 'I love you' kind of way that 'real' men have of expressing themselves. I've read a bit about Burt Lancaster and he seems to have been one of the good guys: a champion for gay rights, a left-winger and a very versatile actor, a total contrast to that other great 'hero' of the Westerns, John Wayne.

This was a movie about the clash of civilisation with the anarchy of the Wild West, I guess, the clash of long-established American values with the hastily organised society of the frontier. I'm glad the good guys won in the end. I'm a natural optimist and this also seems to be a national trait of Americans.  Perhaps the American dream is not so much a dream = fantasy, as an dream = aspiration?

Image credits

The photo of the cactus is from flickruser Fritz Liess and shows a cactus at the Desert Botanical Garden in Arizona. 
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