Imaging the Divine: Jesus and Christ-Figures in Film

By Lloyd Baugh | Go to book overview

3
The Hero of the Western as a
Christ-Figure: Shane

The western, a most American genre of cinema, provides a remarkably apt and interesting context for the development of the cinematic Christ-figure. Almost as old as the film art itself, and carrier par excellence of the American myth, the western has developed a highly conventional structure, value scheme and repertoire of imagery. In synthesis then, the western propels the spectator in media res of a conflict between two groups of people, one of which is clearly in the right, and the other in the wrong. Rapidly the conflict escalates and the "good guys" seem about to lose out to the "bad guys." Into this conflict, this moral crisis, a mysterious and powerful "stranger" comes, who identifies with the forces of good, fights the evil forces and wins, and then almost immediately rides off, "into the sunset." This hero is a deus ex machina; his origins, his arrival, his powerful goodness and his departure and destiny, are, by and large, unexplained, and often defy the logic of the rest of the film. Little or nothing is revealed of his thoughts and feelings. He does not incarnate himself or put down roots in the "world" he came to save and his coming, his heroic action, his leaving, in fact cost him little.

In some westerns, the conflict is between the settlers and the Indians: the settlers, civilized, law-abiding, religious, are in the right; the Indians, savage, cruel, lawless and pagan, represent the forces of evil. In some few westerns, such as Kevin Costner recent Dances with Wolves ( 1990), the Indians are good, and the white military, the government and the settlers, represent the forces of evil. In some westerns, set in southwest Texas, the good, English-speaking settlers are up against Spanish-speaking "outlaws," who maintain that the territory claimed by the "Yankee gringo" settlers is, in fact theirs.

In other westerns, the conflict is between whites, that is between on the one hand, a group of homesteaders, small ranchers and their families, and behind them the government and its laws, and on the other hand, "outlaws," that is the first-arrived on the frontier who forcibly, violently took the land from the Indians. These are big ranchers, who have claim to huge tracts of land and move cattle on the open range. The law wants them to give way to the structures of civilization represented by the homesteaders: families, homes, schools, churches, normal commercial and social activities. They of course resist as long as they can, and often in any way they can. At this point enters the "institution" of the hired gun, the private mercenary, a "bad guy" par excellence. A loner, he shoots well, has no scruples and functions completely outside the law. He provides the villains with a way to get rid of their

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