Western, a biblical genre?

Published on July 24, 2022


To ask the question is to answer it. The connections between the West and the Bible are not mysterious. Newly chosen people, Americans have liked to portray the conquest of the West as the realization of a new promised land.

But some Westerns sometimes go very far in religious symbolism. So let’s go in search of the biblical western.

Crossing the desert and paradise lost

IN Meek’s Cutoff by Kelly Reichardt (2010), a young boy reads the story of Genesis: Adam and Eve are expelled from paradise, repeating the fate of this small group of pioneers who came from the east to try their luck in Oregon in 1845. western can rest and may experience the feeling of an endless crossing of the desert without ever reaching the earthly paradise.

I had emphasized how much the desert had an important place in the West. Place of passage and suffering, it is a place of passage to gain access to the promised land. But nature in the West also takes on a heavenly dimension. The religious community of Quakers (The big trees, Félix E. Feist, 1952) celebrates his services in a clearing of giant sequoias. The creator’s sublime work takes the place of a veritable open-air temple. God and Mammon Collide: The pioneers respect the giants of the forest that Jim Fallon (Kirk Douglas) and his associates want to bring down, guided solely by the spirit of fortune.

The Bible, a ubiquitous book

The Bible not only inspires the subject matter of many westerns.

It is generally the only book we see in this universe populated by illiterates. It is Good book which we consult on occasion and where we get inspiration. General Howard, restoring justice at the end of The last carriage (Delmer Daves, 1956) doesn’t he get the nickname Bible General?
The book is indeed rare in westerns, although it is now available in the grocery store. But an alphabet book costs less than a can of peaches in syrup, the hero discovers Nevada Smith by Henry Hathaway, 1966). In the latter film, young Max (Steve McQueen) is saved by a Franciscan, Father Zaccardi (Raf Vallone), who tries to steer him away from revenge. Max angrily throws away the Bible he hands her. From the Bible he kept only one message: an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth. He will end up discovering his mistake in this matter too late.

Shall we gather by the river

But if you don’t read much, Western characters sing.

The famous hymn Shall we gather by the river, composed in 1864, was especially appreciated by John Ford. He is present in at least eight of his films, i.a diligence (1939), Three godfathers (1948), The seekers (1956). IN My beloved Clementine (1946), it symbolizes the establishment of Christian values ​​in the Wild West. With the arm of sweet Clementine, Wyatt Earp (Henry Earp) walks toward the church under construction, whose symbolic presence is identified by a bell as the community sings along. Son of the desert (Three godfathers) is the most religious of the Ford westerns in the subject. It is even a true archetype of the biblical western.

A baby is picked up in the desert by three strange wise men. These outlaws will know their Way of the Cross and their redemption by sacrificing themselves for this little creature. The Bible thus serves as a guide to the new Jerusalem on the other side of the salt lake. The anthem also appears in Champion car (1950), which tells of the misadventures of a small group of Mormons on their way to the promised land. Conversely, the song is brutally interrupted by Ethan (John Wayne) i Prisoner of the desertin the image of a brutal character inhabited by hatred who does not respect the dead, an unforgivable act for Ford.

The ambiguous image of the priest

I mentioned recently how the image of the priest is always ambiguous in the West. He is usually against the Catholic priest, who are often Franciscans, a living image of charity. The dismissal of the man of God can always hide a deceiver like the terrible vengeful priest embodied by Robert Mitchum in Five cards to knock down (Henry Hathaway, 1968). Here the Bible is used to hide a derringer, the good book turns out to be as false as the alleged priest. But Robert Mitchum is equally formidable as a fake Catholic priest and true adventurer (Wrath of GodRalph Nelson, 1972).

IN Apache drums (Hugo Fregonese, 1951), the Welsh priest (Arthur Shields, familiar with this type of role) turns out to be a fanatical and racist bigot. He compares the Apache mescaleros to the devil. The Apaches thus appear as devils with painted bodies straight out of hell. They appear at night from the top of the church windows in a kind of pagan sacrificial ritual. Finally, the priest, who has known his redemption, comes to kneel next to the Indian scout praying to his gods.

A Curious Biblical Western: Pillars of Heaven

The curious Pillars of Heaven (The Pillars of Heaven) by George Marshall (1956) features missionary doctor Joseph Holden (Ward Bond) who evangelized the Native American tribes of Oregon by giving biblical names to make “animal names” disappear. Sergeant Emmet Bell (Jeff Chandler), nicknamed Emmet Sun by the natives, is responsible for maintaining order with native scouts from the cavalry: brought up strictly and harshly, he became a homeless alcoholic, but still able to recite Bible verses forward. or backwards “like the Devil”.

Pursued by the Indians for invading their territory, the survivors of a military column seek refuge in the church built by Holden. Only the sacrifice of the missionary will allow the reconciliation of the Indians and the soldiers. These pillars of heaven refer to the mountains considered sacred before Christianity, but equally to the foundations established by Holden, whose work is taken up by Bell. The sinner finds redemption as it should.

Mormon Odyssey or the biblical western par excellence

Brigham Young (1940) by Henry Hathaway mixes the biblical film (type The ten Commandments) and the western one. Tyrone Power in the lead role is more of a rather passive witness to events than the hero of a Brigham Young person-centered story. The second founder of the Mormon Church, the new Moses, is very well played by the discreet Dean Jagger. Vincent Price plays Joseph Smith, the founder of the church. Its summary execution by an intolerant crowd is testament to the director’s talent.

Animated by an epic breath rare in Hathaway, the film is of great formal beauty. In search of a promised land, the Mormons cross a river frozen in ice, wander the desert and face an invasion of locusts. Full of sympathy for the Mormons, defended in the name of freedom of conscience, the scenario nevertheless emphasizes Brigham Young’s doubt, frailty, and sometimes ambiguity. All the interpretation is also remarkable, with the usual rascal of the time, Brian Donlevy. John Carradine, for once not dedicated to a villainous role, portrays a quaint Mormon who is quick to resort to violence.

Since the sensitive issue of polygamy cannot be directly addressed in the context of the Hayes Code, it is addressed through some humorous dialogue. Rarely have the Bible and Western come together as well as in this work, which is well worth seeing.

Pale Ridera biblical western by Clint Eastwood

If religious references are far from absent in Eastwood, they manifest themselves in a very spectacular way in Pale Rider (1985). The realism of the decor, with its dark interior, is combined with a fantastic tinge of religiosity.

A community of miners in the mountains is exposed to LaHood, the major mine owner and operator in the region. He actually covets Carbon Canyon, the only space that escapes his dominion. Only a miracle can save them. Our lone rider therefore appears superimposed, in the snow in the middle of the forest.

Miner Barett, the soul of the small community, comes to get supplies from the only independent dealer in LaHood. Provoked by four big guys, he is rescued by Eastwood, who disappears as he mysteriously appeared. A quote from the Apocalypse that evokes a great sword, a pale horse, Death coincides with its appearance. His ecclesiastical collar makes him mistake him for one preacher.

God and Mammon

Once again, God and Mammon collide in this biblical western. Father LaHood tries to bribe the stranger who has given the community courage. that preacher defeats the “monster” (a giant) sent by young LaHood.

Now bent on bloodshed, old LaHood calls on Stockburn. With his six deputies, this marshal makes the law for whoever pays him. From then on, at the Wells Fargo office preacher trades his clerical collar for a colt. Avenging angel, he kills the owner’s big arms and then the gang of Stockburn. He takes them down one by one, almost invisible, wasting no more than a bullet for each. Who is he, as the marshal belatedly recognized? He disappears into the countryside without revealing his secret.

Seraphim Falls, bizarre biblical western

I want to end this quick vibe with the most bizarre biblical westerns, Seraphim Falls (David von Ancken, 2006). If it evokes a place name, the title mainly refers to fallen angels. The entire first part is extremely realistic with the characters having to confront extremely harsh natural conditions. The film gradually slides towards the fantastic with a symbolism that becomes clumsy towards the end.

The film is based on a classic theme: revenge and a proven structure, the pursuit. It relies on two very solid actors. Pierce Brosnan plays the hunted Gideon, and Liam Neeson plays the hunter Carver. You have to wait until the end of the movie to understand Carver’s motivations. Colonel Sønderjyde, he saw his house burned with his wife and baby by Gideon’s soldiers, North Book Captain. After a flamboyant start in the mountains, the descent is followed by a significant weakening of the story, which will unravel and then end in a strange allegorical way.

Western, Bible and symbolic bric-a-brac

A philosophical and judgmental Indian (Wes Studi), named Charon (!), smokes a pipe sitting at the edge of a watering hole. He renders to every man according to his works. Gideon calls upon Yahweh and enters the expanses devoid of any vegetation. Madame Louise’s (Angelica Huston) car appears out of nowhere extolling the virtues of an elixir that cures all ills. It’s Louise C. Fair (Lucifer!) who gives each of the main characters what they need to kill the other.

The geographical route, from north to south, from the snowy mountains of Nevada (shot in Oregon) to the salty and burning desert (New Mexico) is coupled with an initial journey. The two protagonists will have to strip themselves or be stripped of everything they own to finally arrive at the truth.

What is this truth? The need for oblivion for the southerner and redemption for the northerner who puts his life in the hands of his opponent.

The war is finally over. Everyone can go their own way and their paths diverge.

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