24th – 28th August
At the end of August the IFI is celebrating one of cinema’s classic genres with a five-day season, The Western. Focusing on the use of the Western as a political allegory, the season will feature both classic films familiar to many cinema-goers such as The Searchers, High Noon, and Rio Bravo; as well as rarely-seen films using the Western to make political points for non-western audiences like Czechoslovakia’s Lemonade Joe; and American films whose politics were unfashionable in their era such as Alex Cox’s career-ending Walker.
The standard reading of the Western is a given: the foundation of the homeland and the establishment of order in a wild frontier. By the 1950s that orthodox narrative was breaking down with films like John Ford’s brilliant film The Searchers examining the role of racism and genocide on the frontier, setting off a period of harsh introspection in the genre.
Fred Zimmerman’s High Noon and Howard Hawks Rio Bravo brilliantly set out contrasting ideological positions at a time when Senator McCarthy’s HUAC investigations were bringing Cold War paranoia to Hollywood in extremely personal fashion. High Noon’s Marshall Kane (Gary Cooper) famously appeals to the townsfolk to stick together in the face of an external threat whilst Rio Bravo’s Sheriff Chance fulfils his duty alone despite being impossibly outnumbered. Johnny Guitar offers another veiled criticism of McCarthyism as well demonstrating a bold new approach to Western sexual politics with two gun-slinging women (Joan Crawford and Mercedes McCambridge) in rival gang leader roles.
The possibilities of The Western as a political allegory continued to evolve and diversify in the decades following the 1950s. International versions of the genre proliferated, often using the form to critique the U.S in its own foundation myth. A Bullet for the General by Damiano Damiani, one of the left-wing ‘Zapata’ Spaghetti Westerns gives a defiantly Marxist reading of the Mexican Revolution. Behind the Iron Curtain the Osterns (or Red Westerns) emerged throughout the Eastern Bloc with Native Americans or immigrant Eastern Europeans featuring as heroes. One of the most famous and still popular examples, Lemonade Joe from Czechoslovkia, features in the season with a teetotal cowboy imposing prohibition on a frontier town.
The aftermath of American defeat in Vietnam saw the release of The Outlaw Josey Wales, a classic anti-war Western that was a stark reflection on the bloodshed in Indochina and an unromantic depiction of the Reconstruction period after the American Civil War. The most recent film in the season, Walker from 1987, also demonstrates the dangers of taking political allegories too far. Despite a promising start to his career director Alex Cox never worked in Hollywood again after his overt condemnation of Regan-era politics told through the story of William Walker, the American ‘revolutionary’ who invaded Mexico and declared himself President of Nicaragua in the 1850s.
The guest curator of the season, artist Declan Clarke, will take part in a post screening discussion with Austin Fisher, author of Radical Frontiers in the Spaghetti Western: Politics, Violence and Popular Italian Cinema after the screening of A Bullet for the General on 27th August.