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Marcus Stiglegger

Gladiator, or:
The birth of peplum cinema from the spirit of the ancient tragedy

The continuity of the myths

The fact that media of modernity, especially cinema, literature and theater, soon had become the myth reservoir of modernity is not exactly a new idea to media-theoretical writings. Any way it is especially true for epic cinema such as the peplum films of Hollywood between the 1950s and today. Which definition of myth this is especially based on – because there are many – is yet to be clarified. It will not be possible to answer this question exhaustively in an essay like this, but it seems appropriate to outline some basic definitions and approaches to expand further on this idea.
In the context of cultural anthropology myth is recognized as an oral, written or otherwise mediated traditional story with sacred content. In Myths, Dreams and Mysteries (1967) Mircea Eliade has pointed out various elements that the myth may contain: 1. In the last instance myths tell a ‘true story’. Myths are based on the existential facts of life (birth, war, death) especially connected to the idea of cultural identity; 2. The mythical fable is sacred, that is: its content is removed from the secular area. 3. The myth is always associated with the time of the origin or creation; this origin does not necessarily belong to an earlier time, but can refer to any form of new beginnings. Consequently, the living mythos is a time in which all times fall into one. 4. The myth contains the justification and basis of the rituals; the myth has therefore morally binding normative force. 5. The protagonist of the mythical fable are usually super human beings.
Myth and life are closely linked and are suitable in particular for a structuralist analysis in the context of regional and social peculiarities, like Claude Lévi-Strauss in Structural Anthropology ([1958] 1963), demonstrated. Likewise a message is ‘formulated and condensed’ within a mythos – equivalent to Roland Barthes’ definition of myths in Mythologies ([1956] 1972). At the center of the myth lies the origin of the world, the people or the culture. It always involves elementary truths that are condensed in mythical narration and experience, even when it comes to the modern myth ‘ of everyday life’ (Barthes), which often revolve around cultural images (self).
If so with Eliade myth is understood as a key situation of a culture, it is also understandable how and why it can be transferred into other contexts. This may also explain, why well known myth collections – such as Sir James Frazer’s The Golden Bough (1890; abridged 1922) – themselves are a major source of inspiration for international artists.
Another step of the mythos theory is important here: Mythical narrations operate on a level of cyclical repetition. Mythical thinking is cyclic thinking in a way that it works with recurring standard situations, archetypical characters and ritualized actions. This is a close connection to the medium of narrative film: especially in genre contexts, in western cinema, television series and in computer games – but even more so in the Asian film (e.g. Japanese cinema) the transformations of standardized texts is a generic continuum. As if the medium tries to grant permanent presence of the sacred mythical tales in modern formats to seduce its audience. This fact goes well along with the audience expectations demanding similar texts over and over again – which is finally proven by the continuing success of the DC and Marvel adaptations in recent years.1
The medium of film specifically works with either classical myths or mythological motifs (Orpheus, Oedipus, the Fall, etc.), but it can also create its own myths and cults – often charismatic protagonists such as James Dean, Bruce Lee, Marilyn Monroe, or Romy Schneider become the heroic protagonists of such neo-mythological narratives. Especially stars who die early or under mysterious circumstances, are suitable for the creation of neo-myths, because only their image remains as a cinematic phantom and as a fetishistic ritual – like in the repeated viewing of their films. In this way cult film phenomena can be explained. Cult films are cyclically revived neo-mythological texts.
The protagonists (heroes) of the mythical narrations are often described as beings of supernatural origin. But if we take the social intertwining of myth as given, one can see only the projection of humanity into a religious (or holy) form within these mythical creatures. And again the larger than life quality of Hollywood cinema qualifies as neo-mythology: Global audiences admire iconic heroic characters such as those that have been coined by John Wayne, Bruce Willis, Clint Eastwood, or Sylvester Stallone. These iconic embodiments of martial archetypes are celebrated for their heroic ability to transcend the human boundaries. They resemble the sacred heroes of ancient narratives. As long as this quality is intact, the audience appreciates these heroes. Problems arise as soon as their mythical status is questioned and ultimately deconstructed. The audience sees this latent longing for a glimpse of otherworldly and divine quality being cheated within the process of deconstruction. Think of Clint Eastwood as a broken veteran in The Beguiled (1970) by Donald Siegel, here the sexual object and playground of a group of women and girls, or John Wayne – who was ill of cancer in reality as well as within the film – in The Shootist (1976), also by Don Siegel, desperately fighting for his heroic final showdown. In these films little remains of the mysterious and always superior ‘stranger with no name’ from Sergio Leone’s spaghetti western or from the ‘upright defender of American values’ like John Wayne. The brokenness of the hero not always contradicts its mythical function: In the movies Gladiator (2000) by Ridley Scott, Pale Rider (1983) and Unforgiven (1992) directed by and starring Clint Eastwood the myth itself is the discourse of the films. Although these films deal less naively with their matter than their respective genre-typical sources such as the peplum film or the classic Western of the fifties, they let the heroes reach their goal and fulfill their violent missions nonetheless. As John Wayne in The Shootist dies in the end, he might have taken the lives of some malicious people, but basically he remains a tragic figure; when Gladiator Maximus in contrast kills the tyrant in one last stand he has granted the freedom of a whole empire.
So film generates its own take on myth and has its own superhuman protagonists. Cinema is also suitable as a mediator of myths because it can always be experienced in a relative presence: As the film is ritually re-seen (again: think here mainly of the phenomenon of the cult film), it becomes a genuine, present experience for the dedicated audience. At the same time the cinematic myth revolves around elementary and existential motives: birth, life, death, sexuality, violence, fear, joy, hatred, happiness, etc. It turns out to be counterproductive to regard the mythical content of the film as a kind of regression or more generally to consider even the myth as anxiety or an ‘enemy’ of enlightenment as you can occasionally see in the leftist theory of Theordor W. Adorno and Max Habermas ([1947] 2002). Film, popular culture and myth are closely intertwined in any case. In fact, it is rather the question of whether a cinematic artifact would incapacitate and manipulate the viewer or even be working productively with the myth. The intentionally manipulative American mainstream cinema builds its greatest quality on its mythical quality, even replacing ideology and historical consciousness by generally approachable mythical models. Such as in Ridley Scott’s neo-peplum Gladiator.

Myth and tragedy

Already in early epic cinema narratives – such as David Wark Griffith’s American epic Birth of a Nation (1915) – you can notice a specific dramaturgical structure, which is based on the myth as well as on the classical tragedy. And like the classic tragedy their materials refer to mythical primordial tales and national foundation myths (e.g. the frontier theory). It seems obvious that the epic cinema narrative still hints at elements such as the odyssey of the hero, martyrdom, regicide, the messianic quality of a culture founder and the pathos of the individual demise, which nevertheless may culminate in the victory of the Community. Analyzing the highly successful international historical film Gladiator I would like to illustrate how myth, pathos and ritual are brought in as a quasi-religious motives into a major American film to affect the audience and offer the viewer an ideological model, replacing the lost spiritual and religious trends by a new universal and trans-historical new quality of myth.
Some reflections on the tragic format of this film are important: In a sequence in the first third of the film the Roman general Maximus (Russell Crowe) is betrayed by the new Emperor Commodus (Joaquin Phoenix). He flees towards his homeland Spain to save his native family and farm, but he’s too late: The Praetorian guards of the Emperor have already crucified and burned his wife and his little son. In front of their corpses he collapses in the dust. Behind him in the distance, we see his fertile lands, while in the foreground the charred feet of his family are visible. Ridley Scott’s historical drama Gladiator in this moment achieves the ultimate level of individual suffering that characterizes the efforts of this film to function as a tragedy of classic theatrical format. This tragedy form emphasizes the timelessness of its substance, which functions as an action-driven revenge drama as well as a morally challenging fable.
In Gladiator, the mise en scène is dominated by the pathos of that increased expression of the existential, which today often is blamed for being a platitude or an exaggeration. Here, the Greek pathos refers literally to suffering, passion and affection – elements so effective that even the narrative cinema of the 20th and 21rst century has always continued to use them. Probably the most obvious definition of pathos was given by the German dramatist Friedrich Schiller in his writings on dramatic theory (1793). Schiller sees the stage tragedy burdened with the task of moral education of the audience. The stage drama was the ‘poetic imitation of a continuous series of events (a complete action), showing us people in a state of suffering and intends to arouse our pity.’2
From the moral dilemma in which the recipient as a witness of the tragic events a mixture of emotion and desire results: the ‘pleasure in tragic subject’. The moral sensibility of the audience is challenged in the face of this suffering which is partially appropriated by identification and relation with or to the action. An important role is played by the sensuous affections. In sad emotions Schiller recognizes the most effective means because it employs the audience in the tragedy and challenges its moral judgment. To achieve this affect the tragic artist is allowed to mobilize all appropriate means – especially the representation of pathos. In pathos ideally lies the true emotion, the bridge to compassion: the compassion of the audience, which ultimately leads to the urge to take a moral or ethical position. The audience should understand that the protagonist can free himself from the suffering and therefore should be ranked above the purely sensual perception.
In dealing with the sensuous affections the experience of the sublime can be made. According to this model the recipients can observe within themselves that reason triumphs over emotion which makes a moral decision possible. The ambivalent reaction to the confrontation with the sublime is due to the inner split of the human being in sensuous and moral aspects. The tragedy is thus experienced as a pleasure in this confrontation. Interestingly, such a dichotomy is possible, even when an object is at the same time experienced as aesthetically appealing and as morally or ethically repugnant. In such a case, the dilemma of the protagonist is reflected in the ambivalence of the recipient.
To sum these aspects up, the key terms of the tragedy are pathos, pity and fear, emotions that are evoked through mimesis (the imitation of life) and which are dissolved in the catharsis of the concluding ritual. This ritual is often a final judgment or a blood sacrifice performed in a specifically established sacred space (a temple, an arena, a palace – or just a sacred ground signified by a symbolic or eminent border). Additionally films like Apocalypse Now (1979) or Conan the Barbarian (1982) would hardly be conceivable without this template – specifically related to the latent subtext of regicide.
The tragedy is based on the strict acceptance of a rationally comprehensible worldview which can be expressed in clear, rational words and concepts. Thus the tragedy refers to reason, order and harmony. The ancient tragedy, the ‘rising goat chant’, had been preserved by the Greek Aeschylus and Euripides through to the Roman writer Seneca. This leads to the dramaturgical form of five acts that is also reflected in the epic film narrative. These five acts follow a linear fable, presenting a unified, purposeful action, and include the final solution of the dramatic conflict and restoration of harmony. The five act scenario corresponds to following steps:
1. exposure
2. conflict construction
3. collision
4. deceleration and acceleration
5. disaster and reconciliation.3
On a dramaturgical level Ridley Scott’s film Gladiator follows this model by sending the hero on a tragic journey from the battlefields of Germania through Spain and Africa back to the Roman arena, where he kills the corrupt emperor in a fatal duel so the Senate can return to power.
The internal stress of the tragedy was traditionally justified rather by the metaphysical-mythical ritual in ancient theater and later increasingly on the moral level. This moral component also underlies Scott’s model: Maximus is established as a fearless warrior, in whose breast clearly the heart of a simple farmer beats rather than of an ambitious statesman. He rejects Marcus Aurelius’ offer to become Caesar himself, preferring to return to his family and his home country instead. Consequently it is this dream of a quiet family life that Commodus can destroy first, after Maximus has refused to follow him. From that moment on and with the death of his beloved family irrevocably in mind, Maximus (a telling name meaning ‘the ultimate’) becomes an incarnation of revenge. The film’s finale gradually becomes a pagan dies irae (‘day of wreath’) leading to the fall of the tyrant, a despot who embodies the spirit of a ruthless materialism. The focus of this pseudo-historical tragedy – the script refers to some historical figures and facts – is the fate of a man whose only purpose in life is revenge and his own heroic death. This heroic death in the arena is not presented as something negative but staged as a kind of spiritual ‘homecoming’: the restoration of balance and harmony. Along with Lisa Gerrard’s ethereal vocals Maximus enters the Elyzium which resembles his Spanish homeland where his wife and son already await him. But before this redemption the tyrant is killed and the democracy restore. A regeneration through violence is executed – a deeply American maxim that characterizes mainly the Western and Hollywood war movies.
As a further level of challenge of the participating audience the conflict between the individual’s duty towards the community and the personal interests is established in ancient tragedy. Especially in the ancient dramas an often cruel sacrifice by the tragic hero is required to restore the lost balance. René Girard4 points out that there are several expressions for the relationship between violence, desire and divinity admit in the Homeric epics, the term kydos particularly catches the eye: ‘Kydos is a quasi-divine prestige to define as mystical election associated with the military triumph. In the fight […] it comes to kydos. […] The kydos emanating from the fascination with violence.’ It is hardly surprising that in the context of massive re-mythologization of cinema at the turn of the millennium created a film like Troy (2004) by Wolfgang Petersen, who directly relates to Homer’s epics.
The sacrifice demanded by Maximus is final. Although he manages to survive his execution, he is degraded from general to slave. The ‘Fallhöhe’ (German for social and emotional drop height) is enormous and qualifies Maximus as a tragic, suffering hero of classical format. While the structure and dramaturgy of Gladiator follows the classical tragedy, Ridley Scott chooses comparatively opposite means of representation in his mise en scène – the cinematic performance is based on kinetic movement and sensation, the means of modern Hollywood cinema. Gladiator is therefore also encoded as a contemporary action movie in which all major conflicts are discharged on the physical level. All emotions here are evoked on a physical level before they reach a moral dimension. This is typical of the mainstream cinema approach from the 1980s onwards. The result is an international, timeless clarity of the underlying drama. While the ancient tragedy was dialogue based and aimed at intellectual and emotional identification, contemporary mainstream cinema goes for seduction, manipulation and immersion employing all cinematographic means.

Peplum cinema as popular mythology

The historical films of the 1950s and 1960s of the twentieth century were marked by Christian values and ambitions. Films like Henry King’s peplum The Robe (1950) or William Wyler’s Ben Hur (1959) told Christian salvation and redemption tales. Their pathos followed clearly, though banally, adapted specifications. This Christian impulse is missing in Gladiator, but not the mythical level. Here the identification with the heroically suffering individuum Maximus is established.
In the first shot of the film we see Maximus’ hand sliding through stalks of corn in the golden light of the setting sun. Later we learn that this vision expresses his longing for the return to his home in Spain and the fertile soil of his farm. This paradisiacal country he will reach the end: In the mythical Elysium, the ‘Valhalla’ of Roman legionaries, which unites him with his wife and children again. But before this redemption there are suffering and anger.
Before each battle Maximus grabs a handful of the soil on which he is struggling, smells it and lets the soil or the sand trickle through his fingers. As a farmer he has a strong connection to the earth, even if it is not his own – even to the dry chalky soil of the Roman Colosseum. But he gives us a sensual feeling for the space in which he acts. The film indulges the audience in this moment. In the initial battle the Germanic blood and soil splash equally against the camera, being unclear whether the country or its people are wounded.
Later Maximus enters the Arena with the equanimity of a man who has finished with his life: He fights without hatred. His weapon cuts almost elegantly and quickly through the bodies of the opponents. And in the evening he prays to his ancestors, in the face of small clay figures that symbolize his wife and son. Belief in spirits and ancestor worship mingle in this staging to an indifferent archaic religion, which give an impression of the comfort that lies in this prayer.
An important ritual element of the ancient theater is the persona, the mask, a medium of theatrical transformation. With his first appearance in the Roman Colosseum Maximus selects a mask-like metal helmet that is meant to conceal his true identity in the fateful meeting with emperor Commodus in the arena. At the same time it transforms him into that pure fighting machine, whose bloody craft is free of any emotion. Maximus literally become the avenging mythical half-god-hero of the ancient tragedy. Similar models appear in Scott’s other epic films like Kingdom of Heaven (2000) or Exodus: Gods and Kings (2014).
It is amazing how persistently those mythical motifs are being used in contemporary cinema. While in ancient drama the most horrific events, bloody body collisions, never took place on the stage, but were described mostly in speech and dialogue, narrative cinema brings those bloody rituals on the screen in graphic detail. While the ancient tragedies were based on ritual performances and mythical narration, a film like Gladiator refers back to both to confront the modern audiences with their desire for archaic, pagan and existential events. To achieve this goal Gladiator sticks to the means of the body cinema (movement and sensation) to evoke feelings and affects that under-represented in the Western industrial societies. Instead of ignoring and avoiding death and war, the film directly confronts the audience with these incidents on ritualistic and mythical level. Scott makes shameless use of the cultural image archive of Western culture, such as in the scene of the triumphal procession of the Emperor in Rome with image quotes from Leni Riefenstahl’s Nazi propaganda film Triumph of the Will (1934). Thus Ridley Scott’s epic adventure Gladiator may be seen as a prototype of post-modern neo-peplum cinema with a pagan edge, based on the ancient tragedy and the mythological narration alike.
As a conclusion I summarize the results of this analysis:
1. The classical and contemporary peplum cinema is linked in dramaturgy, construction and choice of subject to the mechanisms of the mythically structured classical tragedy.
2. Elements of classical tragedy actions such as the odyssey, the martyrdom, the regicide and the celebration of individual destruction, culminating in the victory of the community, can be found in the classical epic cinema and neo-peplum again.
3. While in classical era Hollywood films (1930s-60s) biblical salvation stories were dominant, this tendency gave way to a rather pagan perspective, which is meant to be accessible to all kinds of contemporary audiences, but also gives more space to archaic values and ultimately remains ideologically indifferent.
4. Pathos, martyrdom and even transcendence appear as key elements in these cinematic tragedies and appear to be in the service of a true conciliatory but very death-seeking plot construction. The constitution of the community is thereby chosen radically over the welfare of the individual.
Films like Gladiator or The Passion of the Christ (2003) and Apocalypto (2006) by Mel Gibson represent these strategies to seduce their audiences worldwide by serving the lust for mythical pathos of the tragic hero in face of death and destruction. Their ritualistic approach, resembling pre-theatrical forms of religious performance, grants international interest beyond any Christian agenda found in classical peplum films. Neo-peplum cinema like Gladiator is the rebirth of the ancient tragedy fueled by the rage of a pagan god of revenge.

Endnotes:
1. Marcus Stiglegger, Ritual & Verführung. Schaulust, Spektakel und Sinnlichkeit im Film (Berlin: Bertz + Fischer, 2006), 26-28.
2. Friedrich Schiller, Vom Pathetischen und Erhabenen. Schriften zur Dramentheorie (Stuttgart: Reclam 1999), 48, translated by the author.
3. Gérard Schneilin, „Aktstruktur,“ in Theaterlexikon, eds. Manfred Brauneck / Gérard Schneilin (Reinbek: Rowohlt 1986), 1011ff., translated by the author.
4. René Girard. Violence and the Sacred (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press 1977), 152-154.

Bibliography:
Adorno, Theodor W. / Max Horkheimer. Dialectic of Enlightenment. Trans. Edmund Jephcott. Stanford: Stanford University Press 2002.
Barthes, Roland. Mythologies. New York: Hill and Wang 1972.
Brauneck, Manfred / Schneilin, Gérard (eds.). Theaterlexikon. Reinbek: Rowohlt 1986.
Eliade, Mircea. Myths, Dreams and Mysteries. Trans. Philip Mairet. New York: Harper & Row 1967.
Frazer, James. The Golden Bough. One-volume abridgement. New York: Macmillan Company 1922.
Girard, René. Violence and the Sacred. Translated by Patrick Gregory. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press 1977.
Lévi-Strauss, Claude. Structural Anthropology. Trans. by Claire Jacobson and Brooke Grundfest Schoepf. New York: Basic Books 1963.
Schiller, Friedrich. Vom Pathetischen und Erhabenen. Schriften zur Dramentheorie. Stuttgart: Reclam 1999.
Stiglegger, Marcus. Ritual & Verführung. Schaulust, Spektakel und Sinnlichkeit im Film. Berlin: Bertz + Fischer 2006.

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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