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Westerns and science fiction


The opportunity of a Western is that it takes issues of our culture—conflict, racial conflict, economic injustice, what is good, what is evil, what is murder, what is justified—and it puts them in a fantastical landscape that allows us, very much like science fiction does, to see these issues in a way that we're free of our own . . . loyalties. I'm in a world where I don't have any immediate identifiable [unintelligible], so I'm forced to look at the issues and the themes underneath them from a new perspective.

—Director James Mangold, in a making-of segment ("An Epic Explored") for the 2007 version of 3:10 to Yuma

(I'm not sure what that garbled word was. Maybe "likeness"?)

. . . But then he goes on to say "There is no such thing as a Western being overblown, because it's a fiction. There is no such thing as a Western, or any morality tale, being distorted, because it's never based on fact." Feh. So much for verisimilitude.

But I guess his point is really that we shouldn't get hung up on details (like "that stagecoach wouldn't flip over like that") in movies that are intended to be entertaining. Fair enough.

Still, there's a lot of entertaining stuff that does manage to largely achieve verisimilitude, or at least suspension of disbelief.

Anyway, all of that is a side note; the main reason I'm posting is that I thought his comparison of Westerns and science fiction was interesting.


To oversimplify greatly, I think that the key to the traditional western is that it's a drama that takes place in a strongly moral universe. Now, the "moral" structure may not be one we agree with today, but there is an almost Manichean absolutism: you're either a black hat or a white hat, and everything, from individuals to nature itself get divided along those lines. Unfortunately, the predominant interpretation threw many (e.g., the Natives and Mexicans) into the black hat category reflexively. There wasn't much ambiguity.

It's only with later, revisionist westerns that we start seeing any meaningful uncertainty.

I think a lot of early science fiction fell into a similar model, and were esentially "westerns in space." Most humans were good, aliens were evil, colonization of space was good, staying back on earth was cowardly. This parallels the "white man good, indian evil, striking out west good, staying back in the east cowardly" trope of many westerns. Both genres are strongly influenced by the idea of the rugged, moral (white male) individual who is self sufficient and is carving a admirable existence of out of adversity and amoral chaos.

There's a very interesting point where a transition occurs from nature and the wilderness being a dangerous, threatening place which must be conquered to an idealized place of purity and/or wonder, perhaps fragile, that must be preserved. That transition is much more visible in science fiction than in westerns, although a few westerns focus on the related transition from the days of the open frontier to a more "civilized" and fenced-in range.

There are, of course, the revisionist westerns, where we are invited to second-guess our heros and enemies. By and large, though, these came later. I think that science fiction may have grown in popularity slightly after the peak of interest in westerns, which may push it more in the direction of having a less structured moral universe.

hm. not sure how I managed to mess up my OpenId. Anyway, that rant was by Samuel :)

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