As another calendar year passes, I thought that it might be beneficial to take a trip back in time to discuss how the Western, a genre long gone from the limelight of Hollywood, relates to the new darling of Hollywood, the blockbuster Action film. In order to explore this connection, I have chosen to dissect the attributes of the Western genre through a series that defined the Spaghetti Western, Sergio Leone’s Man with No Name Trilogy. At first glance, one may have difficulty understanding the connection between the two genres as the Clint Eastwood centered Western does not easily bare resemblance to the fast car chase sequences of the Fast and the Furious franchise, yet as you will find throughout this article by examining how both film’s make use of Cinema as a spectacle you will quickly see how the Western influence lives on in today’s film and how modern film has not used it to it’s true potential.
Over the last few years the highest grossing films have been those with a high number of explosions and characters that do not have well defined arcs but are memorable and make the audience wish they were as “cool” as the characters they see on screen are. By merging these characters with larger than life action sequences, the audience is treated to events that they would never be able to witness, let alone take part in, in their everyday life. This type of filmmaking relies on film as a spectacle; this means one is making a film with the idea in mind that the audience wants to see something that is visually striking. In making films with adherence to film as a spectacle in mind, these filmmakers are manipulating the reason audiences go to see films. While it is traditionally believed audiences like to watch a complete story where a character starts at one place and over the course of the story becomes a brand new person, the film spectacle model assumes audiences just want to see something visually appealing. The more cynical film viewer likes to act like this is a new event that has only recently occurred in cinema and will lead to its ultimate downfall, but that is only partially true. When one takes the time to look back at the films of yesteryear they will surely come across one of the most dominating genres in American film history, the Western and find that it too relied on spectacle. In these films our central protagonist often does not have a well-defined backstory and over the course of the film never, or rarely, subtly, changes throughout the course in the film. Instead, the love that the audience has for these films lives in the big action sequences where the no name gunslinger proves to the town no one can stack bodies quite like he can. For many it may be difficult to link of the beloved classic Westerns we love and the mindless Action films at the theater today in the same light, yet at this base model, there is a very strong connection. With that being said, that does not mean they are totally the same in their approach to spectacle. In fact, it is there one key difference that has allowed the classic Westerns to remain beloved by critics and has caused the modern Action films to be thrown away. In order to fully understand how this difference changes one’s opinion of films riding on spectacle it is time to dissect the Man With No Name trilogy.
Arguably one of the biggest names to ever appear on screen, Clint Eastwood used the Western genre to launch himself into Hollywood legend throughout the course of his career by starring in and directing some of the best films of his time. After getting his start in the Western television show Rawhide, after several years Eastwood finally made the jump to the big screen in 1964 with the first of the Man with No Name trilogy, A fistful of Dollars. In this film, and the subsequent sequels, Eastwood plays a man who does not have an identity, does not explain his actions, and does not change as a result of the events he experiences from film to film. While nothing about his character is every explained, Eastwood’s Man with No Name is regarded as one the essential characters of cinema. To those that value three-dimensional characters, it may seem odd that The Man With No Name is regarded so highly while the action star in today’s film is brushed off for being too flat, but this is where the subtle difference previously mentioned comes into play. The Action films of today are indistinguishable from one another; unlike the Man With No Name trilogy you do not have big name filmmakers with a unique artistic vision making them. What makes the classic Westerns of yesteryear withstand the test of time is that they blend different cinematic elements to tell their story. Today, The Good, the Bad and the Ugly is a slow film with a story that could benefit from some trimming down, but the audience is able to forgive this because throughout the entire film they are treated to beautiful and unique cinematography that in the same shot can alternate between a wide landscape and the narrow view of the eyes of the film’s lead character. In addition to the stunning visual display of the American West the audience is able to listen to amazing compositions by Ennio Morricone that inject the viewer with the emotions needed to understand what is going on in the story. Not only does this combination of elements detract from the stories issues but it also helps to create memorable set pieces. This is why the modern action film fails to be remembered; from one to another the cinematography is the same, from one to another the score is the same, from one to another the audience cannot distinguish any difference that makes the film memorable enough for them to want to go back to it and share it with others.
In the same vein that the Westerns of cinema’s past relied on spectacle to keep audiences entertained, the modern Action film follows suit. The only issue is that the filmmakers behind today’s Action films do not really understand all of the factors necessary in order for audiences give up their love for character arcs and be entertained purely by spectacle. As a result, audiences are leaving theaters with a bad taste in their mouth as the spectacles that they pay to go see are not as memorable as they once thought they were. Instead of taking all of the assets that went into the classic Western films, Hollywood has instead taken the base idea of linking action with action and made an assembly line where they keep releasing the same film year after year devoid of any of the things that make film a personal work of art. What needs to be understood is that films with wall-to-wall action and no story are not bad as long as they really do provide audiences with spectacle.
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