Thursday, July 09, 2009

Family Destruction and Genre Deconstruction
in the Westerns of Anthony Mann

Note: The following is a term paper I wrote last fall for a class on Hollywood films of the 1950s, which is still the only film course I've ever taken. Some of my analysis is a bit sketchy, as I was just becoming familiar with critical theories like poststructuralism at the time. Nevertheless, I think the paper is worth publishing here, if only for the attention it gives to The Man from Laramie, The Last Frontier, and Man of the West, which I believe are still rather underrated (if not so much in the Mann canon, then in the Western genre as a whole). This is also the most in-depth analysis I've ever completed on any film and/or filmmaker, so I consider it somewhat of a personal accomplishment.

The fears of communist infiltration and inevitable apocalypse that swept America during the 1950s proved to be perfect testing grounds for a filmmaker like Anthony Mann, who sowed his own seeds of destruction in the series of Westerns he made during the decade. Although the U.S. government remained suspect of subversive themes in issue-laden Hollywood films, it mostly overlooked popular film genres like the Western, perhaps believing them to be too formulaic in their termite-like appeal, as film critic and painter Manny Farber might have put it, to pose much of a threat. Within the Westerns that Mann made in the ‘50s, the director was free to explore and critique such American-idealized notions as the family, community, and the idea of tradition in general, using the genre as a safe haven for his oftentimes subversive preoccupations. As demonstrated in three of Mann’s later films of the decade—The Man from Laramie, The Last Frontier, and Man of the West—the disintegration and gradual destruction of the family unit acts as a recurring thematic motif, becoming a metaphor for both the self-conflicting psychological states of Mann’s protagonists as well as the inherent, discordant nature of the Western genre itself. By subversively playing his themes of familial/psychological destruction against the more archetypical mechanics of the Western film (particularly in his evocative mise en scène), Mann deconstructs the genre and reveals the supposedly safe construction of the traditional Western to be, like the family unit itself, unfit for the complexity of the modern world.

How should one characterize America in the 1950s and, more specifically, Hollywood films of the period? The labels “repressive” and “conformist” tend to be applied to this decade, yet such definitions risk misrepresenting much of the decade’s culture, just as America’s current tendency to judge foreign countries solely by their governments (like Iran, for example) misrepresents the voices of those countries’ citizens. Similarly, the government-imposed presence of the House of Representatives Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) during the 1950s, as sparked by Cold War paranoia, may misleadingly suggest that all Hollywood films of the period were conformist and lacked boldness of expression. But the truth of the matter is that many visionary directors thrived within this supposedly repressed period; using popular genre as an unsuspected “safe haven,” filmmakers such as Nicholas Ray and Samuel Fuller often subverted the 1950s status quo beneath the carefully-constructed, traditional surface of genre mechanics, sometimes even using the genre against itself. Fuller’s The Steel Helmet (1950), for example, remains one of the few American films—even to this day—to address WWII Japanese internment camps, despite its patriotic implications of being a “war film.” Ray, on the other hand, often addressed the feeling of being an outsider in a conformist world, perhaps most evident in Bigger Than Life (1956), a film that cleverly disguises its genuine bitterness for masculine standards of patriarchy within the superficial plot device of medication misusage. Because both films fell into easily-identifiable genre categories—war film and family melodrama, respectively—they remained externally conformist to the public’s eye while simultaneously exploring deep, disturbing issues at their core.

One film genre that particularly changed beneath its deceptively stable coating was the Western, due in no small part to the films that Anthony Mann directed in the 1950s. By working in the Western, Mann not only tackled an exceedingly popular genre but also one that, according to John H. Lenihan, is more than any other genre “involved with fundamental American beliefs about individualism and social progress” (4). In other words, the Western was not merely a distinct genre—it was a distinctly American genre, one that incorporated its country’s sense of values as an integral part of its thematic, if not also aesthetic, structure. Yet the Westerns of the 1950s, under the guidance of trailblazers like Mann, were becoming more violent, more neurotic, and more psychological; the genre, as Drew Casper stresses, was beginning to undermine “the classical conception of the western hero as a brave, just, courteous medieval knight of the plains, shifting and/or enlarging the story’s concentration from a heroic male as protector of the community to a destabilized male in need of the community’s help” (336). In Mann’s films, however, the community—usually signified by the family unit—is just as destabilized as the central protagonist, oftentimes serving as the source of chaos rather than an escape from it. The traditional dichotomy between the wilderness and civilization in the Western genre, as partitioned by Jim Kitses in his book Horizons West (12), was becoming increasingly blurred; from Mann’s point-of-view, the family/community seemed just as teeming with distrust and betrayal as the wild, open frontier.

Although it is not essential to contextualize Mann in his respective historical milieu in order to appreciate his Westerns, it does provide some enlightenment on the recurring theme of family conflict in his films. In her study Homeward Bound: American Families in the Cold War Era, Elaine Tyler May writes of the values that post-WWII Americans placed in the family. Many Americans, May explains, sought “the protective walls of the modern home, [where] worrisome developments like sexual liberation, women’s emancipation, and affluence would lead not to decadence but to a wholesome family life” (19-20). Yet these ‘protective walls’ became less and less stable as America approached the paranoia of the Cold War era, which perpetuated a sense of distrust among Americans, even within the once-trustworthy boundaries of one’s own home. The additional panic of an encroaching nuclear apocalypse situated itself nicely within the fear of family disintegration. As noted in a 1951 article by Harvard physician Charles Water Clarke, an atomic bomb explosion would result in families becoming “separated and lost from each other in confusion,” where “[s]upports of normal family and community life would be broken down…” (May 93). In this sense the self-destruction caused by atomic explosion became a fitting metaphor for the self-destruction of the American family.

With this fear of family destruction in the national consciousness, the issue naturally made its way into numerous Hollywood films of the 1950s, even giving birth to “rebellious teenager” films like Laslo Benedek’s The Wild One and Ray’s Rebel Without a Cause. Although Mann, too, incorporated the theme of family conflict into his Westerns, it was not likely out of any conscious desire to make a statement about this contemporary issue. In her insightful biography on the director, Jeanne Basinger asserts that Mann “avoided making films which contained overt moral and political significance” (4). Mann’s intentions were rather more expressionistic, using the theme of family destruction to complement the violent, psychological nature of his films’ aesthetic. Westerns, writes Philip French, tend to “coalesce in the memory into one vast, repetitious movie” (7), and this proves particularly true in Mann’s case. Beginning in two of his first films in the genre, Winchester ’73 and The Furies, Mann’s thematic motif of family destruction keeps reoccurring, such that each repetition of the theme builds to a kind of Freudian neurosis. This leaves no rest for Mann’s protagonists, for the moment their struggle is over in one film the characters are karmatically inserted into yet another film, experiencing more pain and betrayal than they did in their last incarnation. Mann’s films throughout the ‘50s tend to grow increasingly darker with each release, with the level of familial violence heightening in every subsequent film and finally reaching its climax in Man of the West.

Before exploring the theme of family destruction further, the presence of the screenwriter in Mann’s films should be addressed. Mann worked with a variety of writers during his career, particularly Borden Chase (Winchester ’73, Bend of the River, The Far Country) and Philip Yordan (The Man from Laramie, The Last Frontier). To thereby credit Mann as the sole author of his films’ themes would be to completely ignore the collaborate aspect of his filmmaking. Yet Mann did exhibit some personal influence over his choice of scripts—when he was unhappy with the initial script for Winchester ’73, for example, Mann insisted on having Chase do a rewrite (Basinger 79). Even at this early stage in his career, Mann gained a certain control over his writing material, thus supporting the notion that the persistent theme of family destruction in his Westerns is not merely a coincidence but an intentional motif. (As evident in The Last Frontier and Man of the West, Mann nonetheless still experienced considerable studio interference with some of his original thematic wishes.) Family conflict is so strong and prevalent in Mann’s work that it’s difficult to believe he wasn’t somehow involved in shaping of the theme in film after film; one can only wonder how Andrew Sarris, in his section on Mann in The American Cinema, inexplicably failed to identify this “consistent thematic pattern” (98).

Even if Mann didn’t have influence on his scripts, he would still remain an auteur, if only for his distinct mise en scène. Mann understood that cinema is primarily a visual medium, possessing unique qualities of its own. Rather than making a pointless attempt to “film” the experience of reading a novel or seeing a play, he instead “planned each film as if the story would emerge from the images as clearly as it would from the dialogue” (Basinger 3). Additionally, Mann seemed to have a keen sense of Jane Tompkins’s assertion in her book West of Everything that, in the Western genre, “words are immaterial, only objects are real” (49). In Mann’s Westerns reality is found in objects, in the physical elements of his terrain; indeed, as Manny Farber asserted, “the Mann films use American objects and terrain—guns, cliffs, boulders, an 1865 locomotive, telephone wires—with more cruel intimacy than any other filmmaker” (17). It is this intimacy in Mann’s films that ultimately brings the visual back to the thematic; the image and story are not merely connected, they are one and the same. In Mann’s films, there is no other way to present the primary narrative; the story, as Basinger notes, “is the total image” (14). Like Marshall McLuhan’s oft-quoted assertion that the medium is indistinguishable from its message, Mann’s Westerns communicate their themes of family conflict and destruction within (rather than simply through) his mise en scène —an environment which not only incorporates the filmed physical landscape but also the filmmaking process itself, with its close-ups, long shots, framing, cutting, and other aspects all playing integral roles in Mann’s cinematic environment. These singularly film-related elements work together to bring into existence the violent and psychological themes of Mann’s films; to separate these themes from their cinematic presentation is to completely miss the essence of Mann’s work.

Mann’s portrayal of the family/community in his Westerns has led to various critical interpretations. John H. Lenihan, author of Showdown: Confronting Modern America in the Western Film, simplifies Mann’s vision of the community as “progressive, a source of individual stability and sanity, in contrast with the harsh and violent wilderness where loneliness, physical hardship, and raw emotion overcome the hero” (108). But Lenihan’s analysis fails to consider how often this dichotomy between community (stability) and the wilderness (instability) becomes blurred in Mann’s Westerns. Rather, the family structure (i.e., community) more often than not either contributes to or is the very source of its protagonists’ ‘physical hardship’ and ‘raw emotion.’ More persuasive is Kitses’s argument that, in Mann’s darkest films, he “suggests that the community exiles or destroys its best features, [with] anarchy and evil disguised as order forcing out reason and humanity” (157). From the dysfunctional family units in The Man from Laramie and Man of the West (not to mention The Naked Spur) to the oppressive symbol of the fort in The Last Frontier, Mann again and again implies a communal order gradually unraveling itself, causing its own downfall through brotherly feuds, marital breakdown, and flawed patriarchy.

The destruction of family in Mann’s Westerns ultimately becomes a metaphor for the destruction of self, with every familial conflict representing a kind of psychological struggle that often ends in acts of personal annihilation. The act of killing for Mann’s protagonists thus takes on a greater resonance and has a considerably personal impact. “Essentially brothers under the skin,” Kitses writes of Mann’s heroes and villains, “we kill at our peril, destroying a part of ourselves, staining our hands with the blood of the victim for ever thereafter” (149). If Westerns, as Tompkins notes, tend to play to a “Wild West of the psyche” (6), then Mann’s films are exemplary models, incorporating the theme of familial/communal disintegration to suggest a similar sense of disorder in their protagonists’ mental states. Indeed, as numerous critics have observed, Mann’s very mise en scène often reflects this disturbed psychological state of its protagonists. “In Mann,” writes author Dennis Bingham, “the wilderness could be said to double for the unconscious; it is the primal scene, the site of the return of the repressed” (56). Having worked in film noir during the 1940s, Mann seemed to incorporate much of the psychological form of that genre into his later films; he brought, as David Boxwell stresses in his biographical article on Mann at Senses of Cinema, “a noir sensibility to the Western unlike any other director.”

What translated particularly well in Mann’s Westerns was the film noir genre’s utilization of the physical environment to express a Freudian landscape. In Mann’s Westerns, Basinger asserts, “the physical space becomes the equivalent of psychological space” (71). Even Andrew Sarris, who only accords Mann a “This Far Side of Paradise” ranking in The American Cinema, nonetheless remains fascinated with the director’s handling of landscape, which he likens to the work of Italian filmmaker Michelangelo Antonioni (98). Indeed, this proves an apt comparison: like Antonioni’s psychological use of landscapes in such films as L’avventura, Eclipse, and The Passenger, Mann understands how the physical environment in a film—from its rocks and water to buildings and forts—can be a powerful visual evocation of his characters’ inner feelings and emotions.

By nesting the themes of family and psychological destruction into his mise en scène, Mann consequently chips away at the mechanics of the Western genre itself. This destruction, or deconstruction, takes many of the traditional myths of the genre—such as Kitses’s aforementioned dichotomy between the wilderness and civilization—and defamiliarizes them. “Mann’s response to the Western,” writes Kitses, “was not a response to history, as with Ford and Peckinpah, but to its archetypal form, the mythic patterns deeply embedded in the plots and characters of the genre that can shape and structure the action” (155). Mann’s deconstruction is thus a purely cinematic one, incorporating the popular mechanics of the Western genre in his films so that he can then pit them against themselves. By introducing elements not normally associated with the Western film—neurotic heroes, sympathetic villains, and an increased sense of violence and psychological struggle—Mann continuously alerts the viewers to and questions the long-accepted myths of the Western tradition. The subversive aspects of Mann’s films serve as a contrast to the more archetypal ones, bringing the latter into the light and revealing them for the myths that they are. His deconstruction of the Western becomes akin to the demythologizing technique outlined by Roland Barthes, where one subverts the unconscious myths of a culture by making them more clear and visible. In his essay "Myth Today" (published in 1956), Barthes claims that “the best weapon against myth is perhaps to mythify it in its turn, and to produce an artificial myth” (123). In his continual revealing of Western myths via the introducing of modern elements in his films, Mann thus suggests the ‘artificiality’ of these myths in a complex, multivalent universe.

Any of Mann’s Westerns of the 1950s could be picked apart for how they integrate the theme of family/psychological destruction with the subsequent process of genre deconstruction, but three films that play with this procedure quite provocatively are The Man from Laramie (1955), The Last Frontier (1955), and Man of the West (1958). Although Mann’s earlier Westerns certainly exhibit clear themes of family conflict (Winchester ‘73 and The Furies) and psychological drama (The Naked Spur), these later three films convey Mann’s thematic motifs with considerably greater violence and an overall darker sensibility. It’s perhaps not surprising that these three films also uniquely share Mann’s expressive use of Cinemascope, since the widened space serves as a perfect apparatus for Mann’s increasingly widening vision. Cinemascope essentially gave Mann more room to evoke, as mentioned earlier by Farber, his ‘cruel intimacy’ from physical objects; within the extended horizontal frame, Mann’s heroes become increasingly isolated and overpowered by the physical elements that surround them, which heightens the films’ psychological impact. Cinemascope, writes Basinger, also allowed Mann to “increase the complexity of his compositions” and to use “its wider space and potential for greater depth [in strengthening] his theme of duality, or the link between hero and villain” (101). This proves particularly true in The Man from Laramie, The Last Frontier, and Man of the West, three films that often blur the division between protagonist and antagonist, suggesting a universe that ranges beyond simple, black-and-white dichotomies.

Along with The Naked Spur, Mann’s The Man from Laramie, The Last Frontier, and Man of the West are arguably his most complex and multilayered Westerns. Only The Naked Spur, however, has gained considerable attention from authors and scholars; the other three, outside of Kitses’s and Basinger’s perceptive analyses, remain largely underrated and undervalued. Each of these films are thus worth examining individually and in substantial detail, as the following analyses will attempt to accomplish.

The Man from Laramie

Made in 1955, just when Cinemascope was a brand new process, The Man from Laramie concerns the efforts of a lone wanderer named Will Lockhart (played by James Stewart) to avenge the death of his brother, the latter of whom was killed by a group of raiding Indians. In an interesting twist to the usual revenge formula, Philip Yordan and Frank Burt’s screenplay has Stewart seek out the unknown individual who sold the Indians rifles rather than the Indians themselves. This theme of “indirect” vengeance could be faulted for its racist assumption that Native Americans are too naïve to be held responsible for murder, yet it tellingly situates the central conflict as one between two members of the same race. Uninterested in finding the Indians who directly caused his brother’s death, Stewart neurotically reasons that the true culprit must be someone of his own skin, someone biologically closer to him than a Native American—a “brother” must be taken for a brother, in other words. Stewart’s visit to a small town, in fact, indirectly causes the fatal breakdown of another family unit: a wealthy cattle baron (Donald Crisp), his unruly son (Alex Nicol), and an “adopted” family member (Arthur Kennedy), who acts as ranch foreman and general caretaker of his vicious “brother.”

From the film’s very first scenes, Mann provides subtle visual hints of Stewart’s presence as a walking act of destruction. When Stewart encounters the remains of an Indian raid, for example, Mann’s camera closes in on Stewart’s distraught expression and then cuts to what seems to be a point-of-view shot. Yet as the camera pans to the left, observing the aftermath of the Indian attack, Stewart again enters the frame, thus revealing the shot as not Stewart’s point-of-view after all. By deceptively causing the viewer to identify with Stewart and then revealing him to be a part of the ruins he is supposedly “seeing,” Mann conveys the psychologically confused state of his character: a man both inside and outside himself, both receiver and giver of destruction. This dual nature of Stewart’s presence complements the film’s blurring of strict hero/villain dichotomies; his performance, as Robert Horton puts it in his article “Mann & Stewart: Two Rode Together,” is one completely “in tune with the film’s multifarious perversity” (46).

Granted, Stewart’s acts of destruction are understandably provoked, beginning in his first encounter with Crisp. Set on a barren, white salt field that suggests a wasteland annihilated by nuclear warfare, Crisp and his gang’s sudden attack of Stewart sets in motion a standard of violence and chaos that never seems to leave in Mann’s subsequent films. What makes the scene particularly effective is Mann’s handling of steadily growing intensity: it begins with Crisp’s riders in the distance, nearly as small as salt themselves in the Cinemascope frame and gradually increasing in proximity to Mann’s fixed camera. This is followed by instances of escalating violence, where the gang first ropes Stewart and drags him through the dust, then sets fire to his wagons, and finally—in one of the film’s most shocking moments—shoots his mules. Mann masterfully captures the psychological intensity of the scene by cutting from Stewart’s look of sheer horror to what is this time a true point-of-view shot, one that bases Stewart’s psychotic sense of terror in the physical, fiery imagery that surrounds him. Basinger calls the scene a “widescreen glimpse of hell” (104), yet it seems more akin to a vision of the apocalypse; perhaps Mann is evoking the Cold War paranoia of the time, particularly in the way this paranoia also suggests a fear of family disintegration, as demonstrated in the film’s eventual developments.

In later scenes, Mann uses violence to increase benevolence over his characters’ motivations. On Stewart and Crisp’s second meeting, for instance, it’s uncanny how Mann frames Stewart at a set distance when he first sees Crisp and then has Stewart gradually increase in size as he walks closer to the camera, similar to how Mann filmed Crisp and his riders in the previous encounter. It is Stewart, not Crisp, who is now the act of destruction, suggesting a perpetual shifting of power roles that recurs throughout the film. Stewart’s wrestling with Kennedy, the man who saved Stewart from Crisp’s wrath in the salt field and who here intervenes Stewart’s fight with Crisp, seems even more unprovoked and purposeless; what these men have against each other, at least at this point, is unclear, and Mann’s mise en scène accordingly reflects this ambivalence by blurring the two men in clouds of dust and even losing them for brief seconds when they fall into a cow pen, where cows fill up the foreground and occasionally block the frame. A scene that in a more traditional Western would stand as a key battle between hero and villain becomes, through Mann’s aesthetic, just the tossing and tumbling of two violent figures, indistinguishable from the rest of the physical landscape.

Mann’s deconstruction of the Western genre is perhaps most clear in the complex performance he draws out of Arthur Kennedy. Although Kennedy becomes the archetypal villain in the film when he is eventually revealed to be the man indirectly responsible for the death of Stewart’s brother, he emerges, as Richard Combs notes in his article on Film Comment, “as the greatest victim and the only sympathetic male character in the film” (44). Indeed, when Kennedy is later forced to kill Crisp, the viewers’ sympathies are entirely in Kennedy’s favor; the scene, after all, directly follows Crisp’s brutal close-range shooting of Stewart’s hand (one of the most violent scenes in Mann’s entire oeuvre), which makes Kennedy’s act seem ultimately justifiable while also satisfying the viewers’ desire to see the malicious Crisp dead. Kennedy’s acting in the scene also evokes sympathy: immediately after shooting Crisp, his facial expression indicates a mix of sorrow and disgust, perhaps conveying Kennedy’s frustration for the demands of a genre that must reduce his multilayered character to mere villain. This facial expression, however, ultimately keeps Kennedy from completely inhabiting that archetypal role; even when he nearly kills his surrogate father (Nicol) and faces Stewart in the film’s finale, Kennedy’s look of sorrow-cum-disgust never ceases and thus neither does the audience’s sympathy for him. His death, wherein he is shot by Indians using his own rifles, veers toward Greek tragedy—a man, not unlike anyone else, destroyed by his own hubris.

In light of Mann’s ambivalent handling of the hero (Stewart) and villain (Kennedy) in The Man from Laramie, the traditional ballad that begins and ends the film seems quite ironic:

The Man from Laramie
He was friendly to everyone he met
Everyone admired the fearless stranger

Who is this “fearless stranger” that “was friendly to everyone he met”? It certainly isn’t Stewart, who spends the majority of the film sparking conflict with just about every character in town (even the local sheriff doesn’t trust him). Considering that Stewart also brings to ruin the family unit that is Kennedy, Crisp, and Nicol, these lyrics seem even more incongruous to his actual character. Yet the ballad, a traditional Western staple, makes Mann’s subversion against the genre all the more clear; its lyrics are a reminder of characteristics usually associated with the archetypal Western hero and how much Mann has subsequently deconstructed these norms. Much of this demythologization must be credited to Stewart, an actor who did some persona deconstructing of his own in his Westerns with Mann (anticipating the dark undertones he would further explore with Alfred Hitchcock). In his study of Stewart and gender identity in Mann’s films, Dennis Bingham emphasizes how Stewart’s restraint in the Westerns only “serves as a contrast to the moments when the character ‘cracks,’ revealing the toughness as a construction” (55). Stewart’s performances in Mann’s films—particularly in The Man from Laramie, his last film with the director—thus complement the similar revealing Mann is making of the Western genre itself: a cinematic construction, forged, if not by gender, then by tradition.

The Last Frontier

Like The Man from Laramie, Mann’s The Last Frontier also begins and ends with a ballad. A portion of its problematic lyrics read:

The last frontier, the last frontier
Back when the law was the law of the open spaces
The folks out there were fair and square
They paid every debt by the sweat of their honest faces

The “open spaces” metaphor may prove an apt description of Mann’s handling of space, but that’s just about where the lyrics’ fidelity to the actual film ends. As will be demonstrated, the film’s sense of civilized law is not always “fair and square” nor governed by those with “honest faces.” In truth, The Last Frontier stands as one of Mann’s most critical indictments of the security and comfort that is supposedly found in civilization (i.e., community and the family unit). By the film’s end, it remains difficult to decide if civilization is any safer than the wilderness.

Mann’s critique of the Western norms associated with community and family is mainly fostered in his use of actor Victor Mature. In the film Mature plays a frontiersman more at home in the wilderness than in the walls of the film’s central fort, the latter of which is governed by an irrational colonel (Robert Preston) and a more humane captain (Guy Madison). After having their supplies stolen by an Indian tribe that is at war with the colonel, Mature and his companions—an old trapper and Indian scout (James Whitmore and Pat Hogan)—seek shelter at the fort, where they are promptly hired as scouts. Within the fort’s walls, Mature develops a romantic entanglement with the colonel’s wife (a young and nearly unrecognizable Anne Bancroft) and becomes increasingly antagonistic with the colonel. Despite his initial reservations, Mature manages to settle down by the film’s end; as will be addressed, however, these final scenes do not reconcile comfortably with the conflicts Mann introduces throughout the film, much less with Mature’s unstable character.

Mature is certainly one of Mann’s wildest, complex protagonists, a man who considerably darkens the traditional notion of a Western “hero” while also allowing Mann to question the value of civilization. Through Mature, writes Lenihan, “Mann took aim at some of the hypocrisies and irrational behavior associated with ‘civilized’ values” (69). This critique is evident in the occasional exchanges between Mature and Madison. When Mature asks how one becomes “civilized,” Madison replies that he “has to belong.” Mature is skeptical. “Belong to what?” he asks. “Other people,” Madison returns, indicating the community and family. Mature then jokingly declares, “I’m gonna find me a woman, make some children, get married, and become civilized!” (Whether Mature means to follow this particular order or not seems wholly irrelevant.) In these scenes, Mann uses Mature as a devil’s advocate to question the accepted notion that having a family is the answer to all one’s problems. This critique further develops later in the film, when Mature and Madison discuss the sadistic nature of the colonel (Preston). Mature wonders how the colonel can have everything that makes a man “civilized”—a high ranking, a wife, etc.—and yet still remain “an animal.” “What the good of being civilized?” he asks Madison. It’s telling that Madison never answers Mature’s question—such a question, Mann implies, has no obvious answer.

With the possible exception of Mature, the strongest character in the film is not an actor but the fort itself. As a mythological symbol for civilization and all that it stands for, the fort becomes Mann’s primary visual metaphor for the inherent, self-conflicting nature of the family/community. Mann evokes the fort’s ambivalent nature through his constantly changing camera angles and various depths of field within its walls; the place becomes “a maze of stairs, posts, walkways, porches, levels, interiors, catwalks, corners, windows, and pits,” such that the “viewer is never clear what the topographical layout really is” (Basinger 107). Unlike Howard Hawks’s distinct handling of space in his more traditional Western Rio Bravo (1959), where the viewer grows accustomed to the exact locations of the town’s living arrangements, the environment of the fort in The Last Frontier is continuously defamiliarized. The fort thus reflects Mature’s psychological difficulty in understanding the family and community in general; like the viewers’ inability to grasp a precise handling on the design of the fort, Mature cannot understand how to behave as a family man and community member. Mature’s misunderstanding is evident in his treatment of the colonel’s wife (Bancroft), whom he first attempts to make love with in spite of her being married (a bold departure from what is normally associated with the archetypal Western hero) and then slaps violently when she won’t run away with him after he has disposed of her husband. Through these actions Mature is attempting to become a settled, “civilized” man, but he doesn’t have a clear sense of how one is supposed to go about accomplishing this goal and remains as lost and confused as the abstract, shifting interiors of the fort itself.

With all that Mann does to present Mature and the community as irreconcilable entities, the film’s happy ending—with Mature in uniform, grinning profusely, now able to pursue the woman of his dreams—cannot be believed without some willful ignorance. This final scene was, in fact, imposed on Mann (Basinger 111), which demonstrates that he was not always in complete control of his material. (He would later deal with studio interference in the finale of Man of the West as well.) Yet like the use of the traditional ballad in this film and The Man from Laramie, the forced ending actually strengthens Mann’s vision—its stark contrast to the rest of the film clarifies the deviations Mann makes from the typical Western genre and actually makes the viewer yearn for an ending that stays faithful to Mann’s vision, no matter how dark this ending may be. In spite of its compromised finale, The Last Frontier stands as one of Mann’s bitterest and most rebellious films, one that perpetually questions the archetypal Western hero and his relation to the community.

Man of the West

Man of the West, one of Mann’s final Westerns, exposes and lays fully bare the subversive themes only implied in his previous films. The destruction of the family unit is, for once, conveyed quite literally, with the film’s hero (Gary Cooper) driven to kill every member of his murderous family of misfits, despite his past connection to them. In his book Westerns, Philip French asserts that in Man of the West “the dialectic of the Western is at work, forming a bond within a society or destroying it, and both themes have their validity (117). Cooper, a man once as ruthless as his adopted family but who now desires to live straight, is suddenly thrust back into the unit’s mold, where he is visibly torn between whether he should again become a part of the family’s communal bond or exterminate it. This struggle essentially becomes a type of psychological purging for the hero. “As if he were the hero of a Greek myth,” writes Basinger, “Cooper makes a symbolic journey into self. He leaves the real world he inhabits and enters the evil underworld to confront the forces which would destroy him, forces which are clearly of and within him” (119). Mann’s film thus blurs the traditional lines between hero and villain, between the security of the family unit and the dangers of the wilderness—neither dichotomy, as Man of the West makes clear, can be easily partitioned.

Unlike The Man from Laramie and The Last Frontier, Man of the West does not begin with an ironic ballad, although its introduction is no less deceptive. The opening credits are accompanied by the archetypal image of the hero (Cooper) on his horse, suggesting the film’s allegiance to a more traditional Western mold. This deceptive quality is maintained in the film’s first scenes, which follows an awkward, silent Cooper as he struts into town and boards a train. Basinger notes that these scenes almost act as a comedy in their lighthearted nature, thus making the film’s later sequences all the more grim and troubling (120). Mann does, however, slip in a few subversive touches in this first section, particularly in his use of the train. As Combs observes, the cinematic image of the train moving towards the screen—reproduced masterfully by Mann here—is not only a traditional Western motif but harkens back to the birth of film itself with the premiere of the Lumière brothers’ L'Arrivée d'un train en gare de La Ciotat (1895). In Man of the West, however, Mann counterpoints the train’s mythological signification with more modern touches: the way its steam nearly engulfs Cooper on arrival, the bumpy nature of its seats when traveling, the way its passengers are required to help load wood at occasional stops. These subtle details defamiliarize the viewers’ archetypical perceptions of train travel in the Western film, revealing its more realistic aspects and thus foreshadowing the harsher world to come.

When Cooper and two other passengers (Julie London and Arthur O’Connell) are left behind after experiencing a botched train robbery, they are forced to take shelter with Cooper’s old “father” Dock (Lee J. Cobb) and his vicious family. Their meeting of the gang consequently changes the mood of the film entirely, transforming its initial pose as a traditional Western film to an intense, psychological journey that recalls Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, with Mann increasingly utilizing his mise en scène to convey his protagonists’ psychological states. As Cooper approaches the gang’s shelter, for instance, Mann cuts from a close-up of Cooper to an extreme long shot, tracking him at a far distance as he walks toward his old home. This sudden cut has a double effect: it isolates Cooper in the surrounding barren environment, thus conveying his feelings of alienation and danger, while simultaneously distancing the viewer from Cooper’s character. It is at this point, after all, that his past life begins to become revealed and his character considerably darkens. Mann plays with this darkness further within the cramped, claustrophobic interiors of the house, where Dock’s lighting of a lamp merely draws the viewers’ attention to the shadowy, indistinguishable figures that surround Cooper. Yet as uncomfortable as these closed-in interiors are, Mann’s later exterior shots are just as unsettling. The landscape, writes Combs, becomes “almost entirely symbolic, in the progression from lush green valley to a dried-out promised land,” ending at a mountainside with “rock formations so bleached they resemble the bones of a vast skeleton” (42). Indeed, Mann’s evocative use of a ghost town near the film’s finale suggests a post-apocalyptic environment; within the context of such a lifeless landscape, Cooper’s killing of his entire family unit seems wholly appropriate.

Just as iconoclastic as Mann’s deconstruction of the physical environment is his treatment of the archetypal female character in Man of the West, as portrayed by London. Although women in Mann’s films had always been one of the few elements to stay in the Western tradition, oftentimes signifying the hero’s moral conscious and stability, in Man of the West this archetype begins to, quite literally, strip away. The scene where London is forced to remove her clothes for the gang is disturbing, as Basinger puts it, because of the way “sex and violence are clearly linked with a solemn, almost polite and respectful pace which makes the action all the more horrible to watch” (123). The ‘polite and respectful pace’ of Mann’s direction here—a pace that could be associated with the traditional Western film—subverts itself by the appalling content within its calm borders, like a painting attempting to crack through its own constricting frame. Additionally unnerving is the fact that the imminent threat of rape towards London’s heroine actually becomes fulfilled at the film’s end; in Mann’s world, the hero is powerless to save his woman from harm, perhaps because the traditional notion of “hero” does not really exist at all. Nothing is secure, Mann implies, not the family unit nor certainly the desires of a filmgoing audience that expects its Westerns to follow a traditional, safe pattern as linear as the film’s opening train.

In what might have been one of Mann’s most subversive acts against the values of family stability and the Western ideal, the director originally wanted Cooper to run off with London at the film’s end, despite his character’s being married to another woman. The studio objected, however, primarily because of the idea of Cooper being “rewarded with blatantly ‘soiled’ [i.e., raped] merchandise” (Tuska 92)—an indication of the sexism in Hollywood at the time that is, in its own way, just as disturbing as anything in Mann’s film. Still, even if Mann’s wishes for the film’s narrative finale were not explicitly met, the sense of familial disintegration remains and lingers as the film comes to a close. With all its acts of violence, stark imagery, and psychological intensity, Man of the West is an exemplary model of Mann’s vision of the Western genre.

The 1950s, with its growing sense that the traditional family unit was crumbling apart, proved to be a suitable decade for Mann’s Westerns. As demonstrated in The Man from Laramie, The Last Frontier, and Man of the West, Mann’s films exhibited the family structure, as well as the community in general, as capable of internal disintegration, thus questioning the family unit’s solidarity in the face of a complex reality. With the destruction of the family in Mann’s Westerns also came the destruction, or deconstruction, of the Western genre, with the deceptive façade of the family/community becoming a metaphor for the equally misleading ingredients of the archetypal Western formula. By introducing modern elements into these traditional ingredients through his mise en scene and use of actors, Mann triggered a kind of atomic explosion within the Western genre, clearing a path for future iconoclastic filmmakers like Sam Peckinpah and Clint Eastwood. In this sense Mann was truly his own “Man of the West,” forging a cinematic frontier for others to follow.

Works Cited

Barthes, Roland. “Myth Today.” A Barthes Reader. Ed. Susan Sontag. New York: Hill and Wang, 1982. 93-149.

Basinger, Jeanine. Anthony Mann. Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 2007.
Bingham, Dennis. Acting Male: Masculinities in the Films of James Stewart, Jack Nicholson, and Clint Eastwood. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1994.

Boxwell, David. “Anthony Mann.” Senses of Cinema. 2003. 25 October 2008.
Casper, Drew. Postwar Hollywood: 1946-1962. Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing, 2007.

Combs, Richard. ”Worlds (Within Worlds): How Anthony Mann Negotiated the Rugged Terrain of Moviemaking in the Twilight of the Studio System.” Film Comment 43.3 (2007): 40-44.
Farber, Manny. Negative Space: Manny Farber on the Movies. New York: De Capo Press, Inc., 1998.
French, Philip. Westerns. New York: Oxford University Press, 1977.
Horton, Robert. “Mann & Stewart: Two Rode Together.” Film Comment 26.2 (1990): 40-46.
Kitses, Jim. Horizons West: Directing the Western from John Ford to Clint Eastwood. London: British Film Institute, 2004.

Lenihan, John H. Showdown: Confronting Modern America in the Western Film. Urbana, IL: University of Illinois Press, 1980.

May, Elaine Tyler. Homeward Bound: American Families in the Cold War Era. New York: Basic Books, Inc., Publishers, 1988.

Sarris, Andrew. The American Cinema. New York: E. P. Dutton & Co., Inc., 1968.
Tompkins, Jane. West of Everything: The Inner Life of Westerns. New York: Oxford University Press, Inc., 1992.
Tuska, Jon. The American West in Film: Critical Approaches to the Western. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1985.

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