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Marcus Stiglegger

 

Keiju eiga

Utopias and Anti-utopias in Japanese Cinema

 

Art attempts to create the impossible with limited means. Sometimes this gives birth to works of greatness. Sometimes it leads to giant monsters.

Patrick Macias[1]

 

‚Each summer a typhoon comes over the southern seas to Japan. Can you imagine what a typhoon is like? A mobile catastrophe. Additionally there are many volcanoes and earthquakes in  Japan, therefore we have to live with this situation. Monsters are a metaphor for this situation. Japanese people are afraid but also in respect facing them. I suppose these feeling are incarnated in the giant monsters from Japan. During the war Japan was bombed. Many cities were turned into burning deserts. Within Japanese people the idea arose that someday all of our cities could simply disappear. That is a premonition rooted deeply in Japanese hearts.’[2] These words by Shinji Higuchi, special-effect-designer of the giant monster film GAMERA – REVENGE OF IRIS (1999), perfectly sum up the end of a cycle, when the traditional giant monster genre in Japan, the keiju-eiga, had long passed its climax. As the series of nuclear explosions happened in the power plant of Fukujima on March 11, 2011, reality broke into this metaphorical culture again. But originally this history began much earlier: right after the Second World War.

 

 

The incarnation of primal fear

 

Japan in the year 1955 – over a decade after the disastrous bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki by the American air force: Near the island of Odo a huge battleship explodes virtually without any reason. Another army ship sent there to uncover the mystery is also destroyed by an unexplainable force. A huge part of the island seems to be under severe attack. Scientists discover huge footprints at the beach of Odo, seemingly radioactive and filled with sand grains and a ‘Trilobite’-crab which are located 10000 miles beneath the sea… Finally the scientists uncover the disastrous reason for all the destruction: a gigantic dinosaur walks the island. They call him Godzilla (from ‘godjira’, the ‘gorilla-whale’), inspired by an ancient myth. This beast is a mixture of a Tyrannosaurus Rex, with the bonespikes on the back reminding of a Stegosaurus. Similar to a dragon’s deadly habit his breath consists of fire.[3] This monster was awakened by the nuclear tests in the Pacific Ocean and now is obviously very angry – seeking to destroy the creatures bothering him. Therefore Godzilla is heading towards Tokyo…

All the attempts to stop the giant (including a trap made of high voltage cables and an air force attack) fail. Godzilla crushes huge parts of the city. Within this crisis the administration turns to the scientists: A young man, Dr. Daisuke Serizawa (Akihiko Hirata), presents his new invention, a mass destruction weapon: the ‘oxygene destroying bomb’, which is capable of sucking oxygen out of the water and disintegrating flesh in this process. This weapon seems to be even more dangerous than the monster itself. The scientist follows Godzilla onto the open sea and sets off the bomb, which kills all organic beings within several miles. Godzilla is destroyed. To prevent the weapon to be misused by the army the scientist burns all his papers and kills himself afterwards to insure that this doomsday weapon might never fall into the wrong hands…

The main source of inspiration concerning the films of the fifties was an American monster-film called THE BEAST FROM 20.000 FATHOMS (1953), where a Rhedosaurus (created by Ray Harryhausen) is revived by nuclear tests in the arctic circle and invades New York. On Coney Island it is trapped in the rollercoaster-construction and killed by an atom bomb (which seems to be no problem for New York). Tomoyuki Tanaka, the producer at Toho-studios then, was impressed by this b-picture, which had such a huge success world wide. He stopped another film-production (BEHIND THE GLORY) in favour of recreating an own Japanese version of this monster-story. Although the contracts were already made there was still no certain idea how this monster could eventually look like. The working title DAI KAIJU NO KATEI NIMAU MARU (‘the beast from 20.000 miles beneath the sea’) pointed out the first idea by special effects designer Eiji Tsuburaya, who went for a giant octopus. Incidentally this was the same idea that Ray Harryhausen realised at that time for the film IT CAME FROM BENEATH THE SEA. So Toho skipped the octopus and decided to create a tyrannosaurus-like monster, a predatory giant walking (or better: stomping) upright on two legs. Science-fiction-writer Shigeru Kayama developed the story and hundreds of storyboard-sketches were drawn in a hurry.

The protagonist of GODZILLA is played by the then popular Japanese actor Takashi Shimura who is also seen in Akira Kurosawa’s films RASHOMON, IKIRU and THE SEVEN SAMURAI. Director Inoshiro Honda, who already was a regular Toho-worker, also had strong connections with Kurosawa (even until KAGEMUSHA in 1980). The main difference to the sensational monster-films by Ray Harryhausen was the principal use of an actor in a rubber costume as GODZILLA rather than the miniature-stop-motion-effects from THE BEAST OF 20.000 FATHOMS. Only the mouth was directed by remote control and the heavy tail hung upon thin wires. To make the movements more ‘gigantic’ all GODZILLA-actions were filmed in slow motion. Only for some minor scenes a hand-puppet respectively a little mechanical model was used. The two actors in the GODZILLA-costume became a legend of their own. Haruo Nakajima and Katsumi Tezuka could only carry the 50 kilo-costume for some minutes before they collapsed in the heat of the lights on the set. Nakajima went on to carry this costume in 12 following films… In GODZILLA he is also seen as a ‘normal’ actor: He plays the technician trying to kill the monster by activating the high voltage cables… The characteristic sound of GODZILLAs roars – which is very rarely heard in the first film – was created by an electronically distorted contrabass.

This film was also going to launch a new kind of film promotion predating the blockbuster-marketing of today. The film was finished in November 1954, after a production period of 180 days. From July on the marketing department of Toho had produced a radio series introducing the main protagonist to the public. GODZILLA had a budget of 60 Million Yen, which was three times the costs of an average Japanese movie then. But the huge success paid off.

GODZILLA is one of the few Japanese monster movies to emphasise human suffering as well as the physical destruction caused by the monster since GODZILLA is at least the metaphor for the atom-bomb. This encoding comes as no surprise as Japan is the only country to have actually been attacked with a nuclear weapon so far. The scene with the children’s’ chorus singing a hymn to the dead is reminiscent of this real background. The lost war and the disastrous after-effects of the atom bombing with thousands of people affected by the radioactivity appeared as a nation wide trauma to the Japanese people. According to their strange code of honour the Japanese officials decided to simply ignore these ‘shameful’ events with the result that the surviving victims of the bombing were never really accepted and cared for within Japanese society after the war. Even in school these wartime events are not analysed or taught until today. The naive idea of this film therefore worked on this level of encoded ‘Erinnerungsarbeit’ (‘memorial working’). ‘”Awakened” by the A-bomb and put to rest (again and again) by selfless Japanese scientists, Godzilla became a kind of barometer of the political mood. From punishment-figure-from-the-past he turned friendly and finally took to defending his country (right or wrong) from not only foreign monsters but also the machinations of both the U.S. and the U.S.S.R.’[4]

For the American audience a purely Japanese film seemed inadequate back in the fifties. New scenes with Raymond Burr were filmed by Terry O. Morse and included in the overall shortened original version: Injured in a disaster that has destroyed most of Tokyo, foreign correspondent Steve Martin (Raymond Burr) recounts the events leading up to the catastrophe. This altered American version adds footage of Raymond Burr talking to Asian actors, interacting with characters from the original if the producers could arrange someone who resembled them from the back, or if he talked to them via telephone. Some scenes are dubbed, but most of the scenes are handled by having another actor explain and translate to Burr what the Japanese characters are saying. The American version cuts out a lot of the anti-nuclear stuff for the obvious reason that it was the USA that dropped the bomb on Japan…

 

 

Cold War reflections in Japanese genre cinema

 

After the huge success of GODZILLA Inoshiro Honda rearranged some of the familiar elements and produced this intergalactic war-film: CHIKYU BOEIGUN / THE MYSTERIANS (1957). There is not a lot of giant monster-action this time – only a Godzilla-like robot in the beginning causes some destruction round the area of Fujiyama…

Astronomer Ryoichi settles down in a small village for health reasons as suddenly, the village is destroyed by a forest fire. The next day, an earthquake virtually swallows up the village. Radiation is stated in the area. The military scientists are clueless – until a giant robot appears stomping down buildings and firing heat rays from its eyes. Bombs and canons seem to be useless, therefore the soldiers lead the robot to a bridge, which they bomb… The giant weapon of foreign origin falls into its death…

Later a huge luminous dome rises from the ground where once the village was located. The military forces assume their position. Soon the invaders from outer space mark themselves as Mysterians, former inhabitants of the planet Mysteroid, which was located between Mars and Jupiter. A nuclear war destroyed their homeland – and now they want to occupy some square-kilometres of land at the Fujiyama as well as intermarry with some human women – for their own race is severely damaged by radioactivity. ‘The Mysterians have chosen Japan as party headquarters, because (we are told) the Japanese represent the best qualities of humanity.’[5] At the same time the Mysterians insist that their mission is peaceful – that they only want to prevent the humans from using nuclear weapons and destroy their own civilisation. The robot had only been a demonstration of their superiority. Japan gets together with the United Nations and forms an attack-treaty. The Americans come up with a reflector weapon that will hit the enemy with his own weapons. With united forces the international team succeeds to blow the Mysterian station to pieces. The United Nations decide to stay united in case the Mysterians come back one day.

This kind of peaceful message appears somehow hypocritical for the Mysterians are clearly identified as anthropomorphic beings – dressed in coloured robes and funny motorbike-helmets. Their longing for land and women reminds of the mechanism of World War II-propaganda. The weapons used bear strong resemblance to phallic formations, while the Mysterian local station appears as a giant egg – a symbol for fertility and female sexuality. At first the human canons are melted by the Mysterian rays (castration), then the mission succeeds by a cigar-like rocket. This comes across as silly as it sounds – and finally the giant robot Mogella with his anteater-head seems to be nothing more than a gimmick to satisfy the needs of the monster-film-audience.

‘Although the plot isn’t particularly original, the concept of aliens using monsters as instruments of domination was quite unique. After this film, the idea has been used and re-used in many Japanese rubber-monster pics, including the cult fave DESTROY ALL MONSTERS (1968), MONSTER ZERO (1965) and SPACE MONSTER GAMERA (1980).’[6] And once again a Japanese film uses the nuclear subtext as a revision of the own history. Therefor the Mysterians are only the projection of real human enemies.

 

 

Utopia of cultural superiority

 

In 1963 Honda returned with another Cold-War-inspired Science fiction film, that combines utopian and anti-utopian elements. In KAITAI GUNKAN / ATRAGON – UNDERWATER BATTLEBOAT the threat lies within the earth itself, not in the deep space. Miles beneath the sea the legendary kingdom of Mu sends out its agents to regain the power over the world. 12000 years ago – as the legend has it – Mu sunk into the sea – but it survived beneath thick walls, guarded by a giant sea-snake. That is how this Japanese Science fiction film puts it: ATRAGON.

Originally the legend of Mu was described in detail by James Churchward in the 1920ies. He claimed to be initiated into the secret of the Mu-empire by a Indian high-priest, instructed by ancient inscriptions which no one saw besides himself. In his books he tells the story of the first human beings living the continent of Mu located between the Fidji-islands and Hawaii. Atlantis and the ancient Egypt would have been colonies of Mu, a population of over 60 million inhabitants. 12.000 years ago Mu was destroyed by earthquakes – but the people of Mu managed to spread over the continents and were the founders of many different races. It should not be obscured that this theory of (Aryan) origin perfectly fits into the racist ideas of that time Churchward lived in… The film ATRAGON only refers to the name of Mu, and exploits this myth to tell a colourful fairy tale of hypermodern technical superpower versus ancient ideology…

Here Mu’s agents try to kidnap the beautiful photo model Makoto Shinguji (Yoko Fujiyama) because they are after her father, who disappeared shortly after the world war and now hides on a deserted island where he created his secret weapon to avenge Japan: Shinguji (Yu Fujiki) is this chief in command of the atomic ‘super-submarine’ Atragon, an elaborate machine which is able to swim, dive and fly as well as to drill through massive rocks. Shinguji seems to be a Japanese nationalist who never accepted the ‘fall’ of Japan after the second world war.

Fashion photographer Hatanaka (Tadao Takashima), who is in love with Makoto, decides to fight against the menace from beneath the sea side by side with the girl. When the Japanese government is informed by the plans of Mu to invade the country, they send their battle-submarine ‘Red Devil’. This mission ends as a failure. The boat never returns. Finally they find out where Shinguji lives, but he refuses to collaborate – he is only interested in revenge for the lost war. But when his daughter and Hatanaka are finally kidnapped by an agent of Mu he goes to war. With the multiple weapon systems of his boat he kills the guardian serpent, invades Mu and threatens these people, which possess the newest in technology and the most ancient of totalitarian systems. His daughter, her friend and the world are saved in a final big bang…

ATRAGON is a psychedelic pop art colour-feast working on a mainly sensual level in all its intellectual naivety. All the stereotypes of childish event cinema are present: a stubborn patriotic warrior, a young hero in love, a beautiful lady, agents of a dark conspiracy order, some dumb but sympathetic fools, and – not to forget – the rubber monster. But the main attraction of this film is not the monster but the submarine ATRAGON itself with its unbelievable abilities; and there is the fantasy-world of Mu – an underwater kingdom reminiscent of the Atlantis myth and the inner-earth theory of Edward Bulwer Lytton in his novel The Coming Race alike. Despite some monster-action the screen-time of the huge sea-snake is very limited. This monster looks exactly like a Chinese dragon and is well known from the publicity photos of this film.

There is a lot of unintended humour involved: In the beginning Mu-agent 23 kidnaps a man with a fake taxi. When his victim touches agent 23’s shoulder he cries out hysterically: the kidnapper seems to be boiling hot! A little later the taxi sinks into the bay and one witness realises the bubbling and steaming water, which leads to the question: ‘What is cooking there?’ The agent is later referred to a ‘the steam-man’. – When the protagonists are brought to Mu, the present cultists, who immediately decide to sacrifice them, look like early Japanese pop-idols with their multi-coloured wigs and pseudo-egypt costumes… Even the Jules-Verne-elements in the second half of the film seem more like a parody of his novel ‘20.000 Miles beneath the sea’. But probably it is exactly the use of miniature models during the actions scenes which make such event movies that fascinating for children: they simply see their toys in action.

 

 

Keiju-eiga as utopia?

 

All Keiju-eiga and related Science fiction films from Japan share a balance between utopian and anti-utopian elements: A pure anti-utopia like the George Orwell-adaptation 1984 (1984) for example does not appear. Either the system itself or the invading super power stands in for the anti-utopian idea, yet it is confronted with a steady nationalism and belief in the own superiority by Japanese heroes in the 1960s genre films. The positive utopian aspects are often connected with new technical inventions which a without doubt very dangerous but may be used in favour of the people. The anti-utopian aspects are either ancient forces awakened by abuse of technology or superior technology used by the non-Japanese enemies.

In the early 1970s the Keiju-eiga took a strange turn when some of the monsters, especially Godzilla himself, now seemed to change its destructive character and became a guardian angel for Japan to be called whenever danger was approaching. These new breed of Keiju-eiga focussed on very young audiences and helped promoting the connected merchandising like rubber-dinosaurs. Also the budgets were cut and special effects suffered significantly during that era.[7] The last time the concept had worked was Ishiro Honda’s own keiju-round-up Kaiju Soshin-geki / DESTROY ALL MONSTERS (1968), where extra-terrestrial invaders set all classic giants free and cause huge destruction and even monster duels.

1984 the alpha monster Godzilla returned in GOJIRA / RETURN OF GODZILLA by Joji Hashimoto, which appears to be a re-launch of the series with Godzilla invading Tokyo just as in 1954. Even an American version was re-cut. After the box office failure of Roland Emmerich’s American remake in 1998 the Japanese cycle reincarnated again: in GODZILLA 2000 MILLENIUM / GODZILLA 2000 (1999). This film is remarkable because here Godzilla attacks a nuclear power plant in Tokai, exactly the same location where a nuclear accident happened on September 30, 1999. What appears like a very simple allegory was in fact written down in the screenplay well before the incident happened. But anyway: It shows that Japanese artists and audiences live with a constant consciousness of big scale disaster.

It may be too early to speculate which impact the latest nuclear catastrophe at Fukujima will have on Japanese cinema – especially considering the fact that the last original GODZILLA-movies war produced in 2004 and Japanese genre cinema is in a crisis for several years now. Undeniably the intrigues and corruption surround the Fukujima-incident, which is not fully under control as of today (November 2011), and the huge level of vulnerability obvious in the aftermath is frightenly close to the concept of the early GODZILLA-films. (Anti-)utopian genre cinema became a kind of self-fulfilling prophecy in Japan during the decades – and it reflects at the same time the nearly unbreakable durability and stoicism of the people of Japan. Thus keiju-eiga are the collective mythology for modern post-war Japan, like samurai-films are the mythological icon of traditional pre-war Japan. Therefore keiju-eiga remain a depiction of primal and modern fears as well as a celebration of Japanese intelligence and courage. They are anti-utopia and utopia at the same time.


[1] Patrick Macias: Tokyo Scope, San Francisco 2001, p. 16

[2] In: Jörg Buttgereit (ed.): Japan. Die Monsterinsel, Berlin 2006, p.175

[3] William M. Tsutsui: Godzilla on My Mind: Fifty Years of the King of Monsters. New York 2003, p. 23

[4] Donald Richie: A Hundred Years of Japanese Film, Tokyo 2001 (revised: 2005), p.178

[5] Thomas & Yuko Mihara Weisser: Japanese Cinema Essential Handbook, Florida 1996, p. 225

[6] Thomas & Yuko Mihara Weisser: Japanese Cinema Essential Handbook, Florida 1996, p. 225

[7] Georg Seeßlen: Vom großen Zerstörer zum großen Freund – die japanischen Godzilla-Filme. In: epd Film, 8/98

I.

Although Great Britain is the homeland of many pilgrims emigrating to North America in the beginning, there has never been a primary British interest in the ultimate and mythical American genre: the western. The frontier myth – so eminently important for North American identity politics – is not a suitable key metaphor within British cinema. Frontier- and pioneer-mythology is not too close to British experience over the last centuries, except probably the nightmare of colonialism. In fact there is a scepticism about American myths like the civil war, the declaration of independence and the idea of ‘regeneration through violence’. But anyway: the British western does exist.

British cinema has brought forth very few constant genre traditions which established themselves in film history. Besides the monumental success of David Lean’s epics and William Wyler’s dramas, there is most notably the huge influence of Hammer horror films since the late 1950s, establishing Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing as leading men. In their wake actors like Oliver Reed and Dirk Bogarde appeared who made their own way during the 1960s. In their search for remarkable projects Hammer studios also experimented with the western genre and made The Singer, not the Song (1961), a psychological and moralistic western-drama about the eternal fight of good against evil. In fact it is about a well intentioned priest, caught between his own feelings and the duties to the church (John Mills) and the local bandit, Anacleto, a truly intelligent atheist at the mercy of his own (Dirk Bogarde). Horror professional Roy Ward Baker had never been fond of this project in the first place, also facing the fact that several Hollywood stars declined to playing the role of father Keogh: Richard Widmark, Peter Finch, Richard Burton, James Mason, Paul Newman, Harry Belafonte, Anthony Perkins and John Cassavetes. In the end the actor duel between Mills and Bogarde delivers the necessary depth, so Baker later admitted that his only western is in fact a beautifully shot drama.

Anacleto, or ‘El Malo’, dominates and exploits the village through fear and violent threat. When crossed, he orders his men to kill, but always in a way as to make it look like an accident. The police forces are not powerless, but without real evidence they cannot act. The old priest has been left in a state of desperation, but the new one, Father Keogh, is ready to face the challenge. A young girl, Locha, shows love interest in the new priest, and Anacleto – against his better judgement – begins to like the priest. Father Keogh in return is increasingly obsessed by the idea of saving Anacleto’s soul. ‘Isn’t that your job, Father; To keep hoping that any soul can be saved, even mine?’, asks the bandit. Anacleto in fact is a complete atheist, who has been taught to hate the church from youth. In the end, Father Keogh is forced to choose between the benefit of the village and his goal of bringing Anacleto back on the rightful path. When Locha is kidnapped by the bandit to make the priest ‘speak to the congregation’ favourably about him. Incidentally the priest returns Lochas emotional ambitions. When Anacleto comes to the church expecting the favourable sermon, Father Keogh instead denounces him and brings in the police to arrest him. A gun battle is unleashed, during which both men are shot. The dying priest sitting without sight or hearing by the dying Anacleto implores him to an act of contrition, and to press the priest’s hand if he is doing so. The bandit does that murmuring: ‘It’s the singer, not the song.’

The Singer, Not the Song is the first typical example of a British western, and it already shows all the differences between Euro-western and US-western: The subtext is not American mythology, but general ethics and moral questions. The character constellation is mainly psychological, not archetypical in the traditional western sense: the hero is a priest while the villain is homoerotic fetishist in tight black leather gear. The film takes place in the early 20th century, so automobiles are already in use. Even the most action-packed sequence takes place in a car with a cut break-wire rolling down the hill – more of a thriller scenario than a western sequence. And finally: The film itself focuses on the fetishist use of costumes, weapon props and imagery know from US-western, but on a meta-level. Thus Baker’s drama is not naïve at all as many US-western out side the Hawks/Ford-canon may seem. Baker’s film predated the huge international success of the Italo-western by some years and remains as a genuine non-American access the western genre. Yet the financial payoff of Sergio Leone’s and Sergio Corbucci’s Euro-western was in fact an influence of further British western – but some years later.

II.

The idea of the Euro-western always included the casting of at least one international star, and the British western logically made use of one of ist most important super stars: James-Bond-veteran Sean Connery. Edward Dmytryck cast him in his nearly epic widescreen adventure Shalako (1968) as a western professional, a pathfinder and tracker for a group of Europeans: arrogant and snobbish hunters, who are keen on killing deer and shooting savages. That is the tone set by the group’s  leader, Baron Frederick Von Hallstatt (Peter van Eyck). He and his group, a German and a bunch with British accents are invading the frontier country. Carlin – or Shalako, how the Indians call him – tries his best to keep the group together. Female confusion is introduced by Brigitte Bardot as Countess Irina Lazaar and Honor Blackman as the femme fatal Lady Julia Daggett. So Shalako has a very classical melodramatic twist, ending up with Countess Irina staying with Connery. Despite very mixed reactions Shalako’s qualities are mainly on the atmospheric side and in a very honest perspective on European decadence in supposedly colonial territory. Shalako is also about British mentality.

George Seeßlen points out that Shalako-producer Euan Lloyd stayed with the genre for some time and initiated two other outstanding action-western: Catlow (1971) by Sam Wanamaker and The Man Called Noon (1973) by Peter Collinson, both films shot on location in Spain – as many Italian western and later British western as well. In Seeßlen’s opinion there is no true identity to British western because they mainly use American cast and crew to appear like genuine American procutions. Anyway the shooting location in Europe is certain a link to Italo-western and marks British western as a hybrid between American and Euro-western.[1]

While Shalako was the British version of a serious star-ridden western-adventure, there was also a genre parody called A Talent for Loving (1969) shot at the same time starring western-veteran Richard Widmark.

III.

The key element of British western nevertheless was not humour but violence. American TV-professional Don Medford was hired by British investors to shoot a quintessential hard-edged anti-American Euro-western featuring all elements banned from classical western: rape, savagery, torture, and nihilism. The Hunting Party (1970) is in fact the most nihilistic chapter in general western history – very surprisingly facing the fact that it is cast with Hollywood-stars like Gene Hackman and Candice Bergen as well as British genre and character star Oliver Reed. Sam Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch (1969) planted the seed that The Hunting Party brings to full bloom. The American land owner and ranger appears even more depraved and corrupt than in Leone’s and Tinto Brass’ already very anti-capitalist Italo-western.

Oliver Reed play Frank Calder, a tough leader of an outlaw gang who wants to learn to read. Assuming she is a school-teacher, he kidnaps the young and attractive Melissa (Candice Bergman), wife of the very wealthy cattle baron Brant Ruger (Gene Hackman). Ruger in fact is a cruel sadist, what we learn  in the first sequence, when the branding of a cow is intercut with Ruger abusing Melissa. Later his abuses and mistreats a prostitute with his cigar. When Melissa is abducted Ruger talks his wealthy colleagues into hunting down the outlaw gang and picking them off one by one with new generation long distance rifles. He actually proposes it more as a game of revenge or sport than out of love or fear for his wife’s safety.

Calder and Ruger are both brutal men, but Calder values human life and relationships while Ruger only cares for satisfying his passions at any cost. Though his friends start to sicken of the game and beg him to stop, the fanatic won’t be deterred from the game. As the movie develops, Calders emotional and sexual involvement with Melissa deepens, while Gene Hackman’s ultra-violent character brings a disturbing single-minded intensity to the screen. Candice Bergman as a young actress just survived the Soldier Blue-adventure (1969, directed by Ralph Nelson), where he plays a white woman raised by Indians and later rejected by her own people. In The Hunting Party her character is caught, both literally and figuratively in a war of emotions. Bergen’s looks made her a hippie role model, so she appears as the female victim and the self-conscious modern woman at the same time. It has a macabre logic that her raving husband in the end shoots her by aiming between her legs. His misogynist impulse is carried to a final solution, even facing his own death.

The Hunting Party is the ultimate nihilist western, stripped bare of any romantic ideas about the American myth, reduced to cynicism and pure violence, beyond any moral relations. There is no justice in this world, only the power of the wealthy. Medford’s film in this aspect is much closer to Leone, Corbucci and Brass (Yankee, 1966), yet it at least visually appears as a Peckinpah-spin-off done within the critical New Hollywood of the early 1970s.

IV.

Michael Winner is a true British director, making his name with typical black humour comedies and a very eccentric Henry James adaptation called The Nightcomers (1970), where Marlon Brando is seen as a gardener corrupting two innocent children in a fin de siècle villa. Winner made his way into mainstream with a couple of films starring Charles Bronson, who became famous in Sergio Leone’s Once Upon a Time in the West (1967) and Robert Aldrich’s The Dirty Dozen (1964). Inspired by Ralph Nelson’s Vietnam parable Soldier Blue about the historical Sand Creek massacre he directed his own vision of revenge for the genocide of American Indians. His western thriller Chato’s Land (1971) is a true classic: Long seen as a western predecessor of director Michael Winner’s later urban Charles Bronson-thriller Death Wish (1974) it shows Bronson as a quiet and dangerous Indian, whose wife is raped and tormented by a group of vigilantes after he has killed a man in self-defence. Chato’s Land signals its politics by a very clear title: it’s the Indian country which is raped and invaded by white men. While Robert Aldrich’s Indian western Ulzana’s Raid (1970) still has the view point of the American soldiers hunting Apache Indians – although creating a kind of understanding of the Indian acts of cruelty – Winner’s film is on Chato’s side. He marks the American Indian as the true American, knowing his homeland inside out. Always a step ahead of his hunters. What might have been seen as another Vietnam war parable at its time may be considered a truly un-American western today.

With similar nihilism and savagery Winner directed Burt Lancaster, Aldrich’s favourite star, as the upright Lawman (1971) and then turned to contemporary police films and thrillers. As British/American co-productions Winner shot his films in two versions, with Chato’s Land featuring a much more explicit rape-scene in the British Cut, but omitting several provoked horse-falls which are forbidden under the British law against animal cruelty.

Again the main focus of British based western is excessive violence with a political edge.

V.

It is obvious that Sam Peckinpah’s pessimistic late western films inspired several British attempts to feed the genre. Some of his cast and crew appear in British films of the time, while Peckinpah himself came to Great Britian to shoot his first non-western Straw Dogs (1971) in Cornwall. Burt Kennedy, US-genre professional, was engaged to shoot the rape-revenge-drama Hannie Caulder (1971) with Raquel Welch in Europe ‘Italian style’, casting Peckinpah-veterans Ernest Borgnine and Strother Martin. Hammer-star Christopher Lee is seen here as the weapon master providing Welch with her superior gun. Hannie Caulder is a rough and bloody rape-western at the same time as it is a macabre parody of the genre – caught between American genre basics and Italian eccentricity. Hannie Caulder is therefore typical of its time, with an A-cast and B-action, a hybrid between national cinematographies and their respective genre variations.

On the other hand Captain Apache (1971) by Alexander Singer is more of western-crime-drama. It features Lee van Cleef as Captain Apache, an Indian Confederate scout, who solves the murder of an Indian agent. As several British western before it this film features an Indian hero opposing the white decadence and corruption. While this film has the usual American stars like Carroll Baker and Stuart Whitman, Lee van Cleef is imported from Sergio Leone’s Dollar-trilogy. He is the odd outcast between the lines and cultures – and probably because of this splintered identity the only upright and just westerner left in a dying world.

Italian western are sometimes regarded as political subversive, especially when done by Damiano Damiani, Tinto Brass or other left-wing-directors. The British western does not follow suit, but the closest one of them comes to the political revolution-based western is Robert Parrish’s A Town Called Hell (1971) a.k.a. A Town Called Bastard. This films unfolds on the background of the Mexican revolution, where Robert Shaw plays a legendary revolutionary leader later to become priest. Greed and violence explode as a dual man-hunt reaches its terrorizing climax at the town called Bastard and everyone in there is held hostage. Starring such American genre and TV-regulars Telly Savallas, Martin Landau, Fernando Rey, and Al Lettieri, the film introduces Stella Stevens (from Peckinpah’s The Ballad of Cable Hogue, 1970) as a vengeful widow who is called ‘the witch’ and sometimes appears in nightmarish context. While the film superficially tries to deliver a meta-mythological commentary on revolution – following Joe Hembus’ review – it is in fact not much more than a reverb of the mentioned Italian predecessors.

VI.

Long before the mid-seventies the British western phenomenon died along with it other European counterparts like the German Karl-May-films and the Italian ‘spaghetti-western’. It was quiet for some years within the British motion picture industry, which even rushed into a severe crisis. With the huge success of Hugh Hudson’s Chariots of Fire (1980) the renaissance of British cinema  finally happened. Known as the New British cinema it focussed mainly on British social context and logically developed a new breed of British Ganger films and thrillers. The only director experimenting with western elements was ex-punk-filmmaker Alex Cox, who directed the semi-spaghetti-western-parody Straight to Hell (1987) and the Latin American revolutionary drama Walker (1989), strong inspired by the political aspects Italian revolution western. In the bloody show down he again paid homage to his idol Sam Peckinpah and the iconic monument The Wild Bunch. But western seemed to be a mere relic from a distant past not at all connected to British all day problems.

This changed again with the huge financial success of Kevin Costner’s Indian western Dances With Wolves (1991), a film that was partly inspired by the growing spiritual interest in Indian culture and religion, but also by genre classics like Soldier Blue, Little Big Man (1970) and Chato’s Land. He established the western genre again as one of many possible means of expression for mainstream cinema. In its wake masters of classical and New British cinema made huge star-ridden productions like The Hi-Lo County (1998, Stephen Frears), Grey Owl (1999, Richard Attenborough) or The Claim (2000, Michael Winterbottom). Now it was mainstream and art house cinema using genre pattern to create their visions, and although western films a not a constant phenomenon in British cinema they nonetheless may be considered a recurring phenomenon with very more or less impact. Finally it always depends on who is handling the material – or how Dirk Bogarde says it: ‘It’s always the singer, not the song.’

Bibliography:

Joe Hembus: Western Lexikon, München 1976 / 1982

Christian Kessler: Willkommen in der Hölle. Der Italo Western im Überblick, o.O. 2001

Georg Seeßlen: Western. Geschichte und Mythologie des Westernfilms, Marburg 1995

Studienkreis Film: Um sie weht der Hauch des Todes. Der Italowestern – die Geschichte eines Genres, Bochum 1998


[1] Seeßlen 1995, p. 148