Author: Ben Nichols
Student ID: 394990
Course Name: CMM10 Screen History and Research
Assessment 2: Comparative Essay
Description: Compare two Western films made at least twenty years apart on the basis of the three of the five frameworks studied in the first block of the unit, and the elements of the western genre studied in the second block of the unit.
The Great Train Robbery (1903) v True Grit (2010)
When Thomas Edison asked Edwin S.Porter to make The Great Train Robbery (1903) little did either realise that this film would be the beginning of not only the Western genre but an entire movie industry. The silent classic, The Great Train Robbery depicts a famous railroad robbery by a notorious gang while the True Grit (2010) shows us the beauty and savagery of the West through a tale of murder and justice. By analysing these films in the context of technology, industry and audience I aim to shed light on Film history and the Western genre. To compare these two contrasting Western films is an opportunity to look into the history of movie-making and realise how far it has come and what an impact it has made. The Western Genre:
When Edison films commissioned The Great Train Robbery he was just seeking a vehicle to promote his peep show camera, the Kinetoscope. The commercial success of the film proved the business viability of movie-making but it also gave birth to the most enduring and American genre, the Western. The film portrays the robbery aboard a train by the Hole in the Wall gang. This event had only occurred four years previously, but showed how quickly the frontier of the ‘Wild West’ had been turned into myth and become popular with the people of the civilized Eastern cities. As Buscombe argues, one of the defining characteristics of the Western is the ‘opposition between man’ and ‘the establishment of civilization’ (1986, p.16). People were already enthralled by the lawless and uncivilized West thanks to sensational news articles, dime novels, and the Wild West shows of Buffalo Bill. So when Edison Films advertised The Great Train Robbery ‘Replete with Thrilling and Exciting Incidents in Fourteen Scenes’ (Dirks, 2011, website) there was a hungry audience ready to be amazed. What they didn’t realise was they were witnessing the birth of the Western. In considering what makes a Western we must first overcome what Buscome describes as the ‘problem of universal’ (1986, p13). He argues that you cannot establish what a Western is until you view certain films. The problem he pertains is ‘how do we know what films to look at until we know what a western is?’ (1986, p13). He found his solution in the literary criticism of Wellek and Warren. Their suggestion was to ‘draw up a list of elements in film’ that were called Westerns and if ‘one or more of these elements’ was established ‘thereby held to be a western’ (1986, p13). With this criterion, we can analyse what genre elements The Great Train Robbery used to help create the Western and then look to the present and see if these rules apply to True Grit. Wellek and Warren expanded their definition of genre with the theory that there should be an ‘outer form’ and an ‘inner form’ (1973 p231). Put simply, outer form deals with the structure of a film and the inner form, the subject matter. Elements of outer form that we can find in both the films are the masculine cowboy clothing (including the staple ten gallon hat), an array of weapons, horse-riding, steam trains, a dastardly villain, and violence. Inner form elements we can find are the commitment of a train robbery, the seeking of revenge for murder, and bringing the outlaws to justice. Jim Kitses added a further definition. It is that the frontier makes the Western and as with Buscombe, it is these frictions between civilization (the encroaching east) and the wilds (the decreasing frontier) that set the tone for the Western story. Kitses put’s this succinctly ‘frontier life...
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