Most people enjoy a good Western for the bygone values the genre represents — good honest men taking on bad guys, Indians, unruly horses and open terrain in a massively satisfying exercise of taming a wild but beautiful realm.
Anyone who has studied the settlement of the American West knows this to be an exaggeration, but it endures as a testament to a simpler, if more violent, society that, for some reason, some people long for. In today’s urbanized, industrialized, globalized world, a shootout at the O.K. Corral and the occasional tangle with Apaches seems oddly comforting. Differences are settled in honorable fashion (poker games, one-on-one fistfights and, of course, the duel on Main Street that commences on the first draw). Ladies are divided into two camps — the Eastern transplants of chaste Victorian purity, and the native Western whores. It’s all so wonderfully uncomplicated, and deliberately unmodern.
Modernity is an important concern when it comes to Westerns. The traditionalist approach would seem to dictate that it be ignored, or at least marginalized. But there are films that acknowledge the greater historical context within which the Western resides. Their stories tend to be more complicated, the conclusions more troubling. But that’s life. To pretend that a continuous undisturbed settlement of ranches and towns occurred in a vacuum may be a fantasy that many of us are willing to indulge, but artistically it’s disingenous.
“The Good, the Bad and the Ugly” offers glimpses of modernity — in the form of the American Civil War — in an otherwise classically constructed Western. “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid” goes further, posing a plausible end game for a Western archetype — a gang of bank robbers — with irrefutable logic. Butch and Sundance have settled on a lifestyle of raiding and robbing, but how long can this really go on? At some point, the law can’t stand for it, and the two are chased across the West and into South America before meeting their deaths in classic Western fashion — with guns blazing. The message: Their era was over. Were they ever going to settle down and get normal jobs? Of course not. But their hijinks were little more than a futile attempt at stopping the world from changing.
Though set in the Middle Eastern desert during World War I, the 2014 Jordanian film “Theeb” has parallels to the American Western, the intrusion of modernity among them. Bedouin tribes live life on the move. Danger lurks on the trail, and, just like in the Old West, sidearms and rifles are standard equipment. Stranded in the desert together, a boy and the man who killed his brother must learn to cooperate in order to survive. But then comes the historical context. The killer formerly made his living as a guide, taking Muslim pilgrims through dangerous open country, before suddenly finding himself rendered obsolete by the railroad. Now, he gets by as a raider. That upheaval, along with the arrival of war via the Ottoman empire and other foreign interests, raises serious questions about the Bedouins’ ability continue their traditional lifestyle.
But these are questions traditional Western fans have little interest in considering. They expect the “good honest men” paradigm to define not only a place and time, but a state of mind, one that, like Dickensian London or Grimm’s fairy tales, defies the march of history. Fair enough. It can do one’s heart good to escape to a world we can believe in, even if, when we’re really honest with ourselves, reality tells us different.