From Saviors to Angels of Death: Apocalyptic Westerns

by Donato Totaro Volume 17, issue 12 / December 2013 15 minutes (3670 words)

The end of the world is all the rage right now. In fact, it has been for a very long time. People have been fretting about the apocalypse since the beginning of time. In the No. 18 issue of Diabolique, titled “Apocalyptic Cinema and Literature,” British author David Moody, whose horror fiction often focuses on end of the world scenarios (Hater, Autumn: The Human Condition), paraphrases a fellow writer, Wool author Hugh Howey’s quote at a writer’s convention they were both participants at: “We’re doomed; any minute now the world’s going to end; society’s going to fall apart; and we’re absolutely on the verge of annihilation. The quote was over 5,000 years old” (p. 27). Perhaps because there is so much more information and access to all forms of news, it just appears that the apocalypse and end of the world scenarios are more plentiful today. At least it definitely feels like it since the millennium scare, 9/11, the continuing ideological wars within the Middle East and between the Middle East and the West, the continuing wars, civil wars, and skirmishes in Afghanistan, Egypt, Syria, the tremendous natural disasters that have hit every part of the earth over the past dozen or so years, and fears over global warming. An indication of this ‘apocalypse fever’ is the immense popularity of zombies and viral epidemics –which are often horror genre takes on ‘last survivor’ and ‘end of the world’ scenarios– that have taken over so much of popular art, from films, to television shows, to comics, to video games.

While the Western is not a genre one normally associates with apocalyptic scenarios, the fact that Westerns often harbor religious and Biblical subtexts and are loaded with gunfighter-as-Christ figure imagery (and it must be said sometimes anti-Christian imagery), suggests otherwise. This latter point was made as early as 1974, in an essay written by Michael T. Mardsen entitled “Savior in the Saddle: The Sagebrush Testament”: “The coming of the Western hero is a kind of Second Coming of Christ, but this time he wears the garb of the gunfighter, the only Savior the sagebrush, the wilderness, and the pure savagery of the West can accept” (p. 95). The allusion to the apocalypse can be traced as far back as the great William S. Hart’s masterpiece, Hell’s Hinges (1916), where Hart plays an outlaw gunfighter named (symbolically, as are many Western characters) Blaze Tracy who undergoes a profound redemption process after meeting a parson’s holier than thou sister. A major part of his redemption is ridding the lawless town of Hell’s Hinges of its ‘evil’, embodied (as often is in the Western) in a huge fire that purifies as it destroys. In this case (as in most Westerns) the town, or a location that represents the ‘bad’, such as a saloon, is the source of the redemptive fire. Hart starts the fire by shooting at a ceiling kerosene lamp, and while the fire rages on, tells the victims: (title card):

Michael Marsden goes on to analyze several other variants on the theme of the gunfighter as savior: Shane, where the Shane character (as either a real or a character imagined by the boy Joey Starrett) rids the homesteader’s of the evil capitalists and their Devil-like killer, Jack Wilson (personified by Jack Palance); Clint Eastwood’s man with no name characters from A Fistful of Dollars (1964) and High Plains Drifter (1973), and the messianic figure from Alejandro Jodorowsky’s El Topo (1970), played by Jodorowsky.

Eastwood’s Stranger in High Plains Drifter

El Topo’s Surreal Western landscape

Because of this religious allegory aspect Westerns are littered with images of death: funerals, cemeteries, tombstones, crosses, stark, desolate landscapes, and destructive fires are an often unrecognized part of the Western iconography. As Peter A. French explains in his fascinating book, Cowboy Metaphysics, “All westerners have something to do with death, and it is not just because they live and die by the gun. It is because the westerner cares about death, his own death. It is extremely important to him. It focuses and frames his world view and the ethics to which he is committed” (p. 47). French argues that in the Western death is final, absolute and Godless: “In Westerns, death is understood by the main characters…to be the utterly inevitable annihilation of a life. There is no promise of an afterlife, Death brings it all to a close. The sting of death is very real. Its victory is the victory of ending a person’s existence and all that person ever was or will be” (p. 49-50). A line uttered by Clint Eastwood’s William ‘Bill’ Munny near the end of his masterpiece Unforgiven (1992) to a young man who is emotionally shattered after having killed, suggests he has read French’s book: “It’s a hell of a thing killing a man. You take away all he’s got. And all he’s ever gonna have.” For this reason the Western is also filled with figurative angels of death, figures without a past, without a name, without an identity, whose sole function seems to be to kill with a ruthless but passionless demeanor. Such figures that come to mind include Eastwood’s character in High Plains Drifter, simply called The Stranger, his ‘pale rider’ Preacher character from Pale Rider, Javier Bardem’s Anton Chigurh in No Country for Old Men, Franco Nero’s Django in Django, and many others. Indeed, if genre in general is, as is often said, a secular form of myth making, or a leftover of sacred forms of meaning, then perhaps the Western is a way for a culture to give meaning and shape to death, and to the notion of finality.

Angels of Death:

Pale Rider, Django, Anton

Apocalyptic imagery is most plentiful in the Spaghetti Western, an outcome of the attempt to retool the genre and to distance it from the more clearly defined moral world of the classic American Western. Sergio Leone’s The Good, the Bad and the Ugly (1966) contains some striking apocalyptic imagery in its final quarter, starting with Blondie (Eastwood) and Tuco (Eli Wallach) coming across a Union Civil War battalion trying to secure an advancement across a bridge. The captain acknowledges the senselessness of the campaign, a suicide mission for men on both sides of the bridge, and fantasizes destroying the bridge, which of course would be a crime. Caught between becoming a criminal and sending his men to certain death, he finds comfort in drinking himself numb. As an interesting aside, while drinking in the American Western is often associated with evil and wanton ways (Hell’s Hinges, My Darling Clementine, Unforgiven), in The Good, the Bad and the Ugly it is an act which comforts and calms. A town that has been ravaged by the Civil War is transformed by Carlo Simi’s wonderful art direction into an apocalyptic landscape, painted in drab colors, leafless trees, bombed out buildings and muddied streets. The town is filled with swirling smoke. Battlefields littered with dead soldiers are contrasted with the starkly desolate cemetery where the final three-way showdown takes place. Symbolically, the gunfight is staged in a circular arena that recalls the famous gladiatorial contests, executions, and famous battles of the Coliseum, circa 80 AD.

Many of the greatest Spaghetti Westerns place a heavy emphasis on art direction to depict stark, desolate and inhabitable landscapes that suggest apocalyptic imagery, or imagination. A similar philosophy holds forth in the design of many post-apocalyptic science fiction or zombie films: take a location filled with people, living things, nature, animals, restored architecture and everything appears normal. Strip that same location of its people, animals, living nature, and destroy the architecture and you have the imaginings of an apocalypse. The art directors of the Spaghetti Westerns knew this intuitively. In The Great Silence director Sergio Corbucci opens with the classic scene of a gunfighter riding into town from afar, only here the usual desert or mountainous landscape is replaced by a blur of white snow, making it seem as if the solitary figure is floating through a void, a literal ‘great silence’. The film concludes with the mute anti-hero (and his black lover Pauline) being ambushed and killed by ruthless bounty hunter Loco, played with steely verve by Klaus Kinski. As if to mock the Christianity brought to the West by the Easterners, Loco hangs them martyr-like outside the wintry town’s saloon.

Corbucci opens his other masterpiece Django in a similarly jarring manner, with the titular character Django (Franco Nero) dragging a coffin behind him as he walks over mountainous terrain. In Tarantino’s Django redux Django Unchained he replaces the coffin with a camera movement that pans right from a sand colored mountainous terrain to the sweaty, dark brown backs of a group of chain ganged prisoners. Few towns have looked and felt as apocalyptic as the town in Django, the town in Django Kill If You Live, Shoot! (Guilio Questi, 1967), or the town in High Plains Drifter (1973), which the character of The Stranger paints red, christens ‘Hell’ and then burns to the ground in the most purifying fire since Hell’s Hinges. Eastwood’s (possibly resurrected from the dead) The Stranger leaves the town as do so many Western gunfighters –too many to even attempt to mention– riding off into the sunset or desert, only here the use of distorted mirage imagery and an odd ambient soundscape more befitting science fiction than Western gives the film a surreal, supernatural feel (click below for audio clip):

Django Kill If You Live, Shoot! (1967) is perhaps the most violent, surreal, horrific, Biblical and apocalyptic Western ever made. Thomas Milan plays the mysterious Christ-like character yet again christened The Stranger who returns from the dead in the opening scene of the film –he literally crawls out of his grave and is brought back to life by a pair of Indian witch doctors– and is later crucified in a prison cell in one of the most blatant Western gunfighter-as-Christ images ever put to celluloid. When a group of outlaws are murdered and hung in the town square, The Stranger takes them down, evoking another religious image, the Pieta.

Religious Imagery in Django Kill If You Live, Shoot!

In an ending that is more Gothic (House of Usher) than western, local rich urbanite Hagerman (Alderman in the English dub, played by Francisco Sanz) burns to death in a house fire started by his wife (who he keeps imprisoned in a room in the house), his corpse poetically covered in melted liquid gold. In a review of the film Budd Wilkins compares the film to other apocalyptic stories, such as author Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian (“Unsurprisingly, given the infinitely internecine predilections of these urbanites, one of the guides ends up with really red skin under the business end of a scalper’s blade, bringing to mind Cormac McCarthy’s bloody-minded Blood Meridian”), and Dead Man (“When the Stranger rises from a mass grave, it’s at the behest of two spirit guides resembling Dead Man‘s Nobody, whose refrain (“Stupid fucking white men!”) wouldn’t be amiss here”). These varying allusions give you a sense of just how unusual Questi’s spaghetti western is, summarized nicely by Wilkins: “Questi and co-writer/editor Franco Arcalli turn audience expectations topsy turvy, orchestrating a demolition derby of generic types, and interlarding the script with mash-ups of archetypal Biblical and literary texts: Take a Christ-in-reverse narrative where the protagonist, known only as the Stranger (subgenre fixture Tomas Milian), resurrects from the dead early on and only later undergoes crucifixion; add a dash of Jane Eyre‘s “madwoman in the attic”; and fold in a liberal portion of Lady Macbeth. The resultant concoction would most resemble this savage and surreal smorgasbord for cult-film aficionados.” Toss in a gang of black clad homosexuals who Questi paints allegorically as Fascist paramilitary, an implied homosexual gang rape of a young man (Ray Lovelock), some time-bending modernist montages courtesy of editor extraordinaire Franco Arcalli, and a gory scene where men greedily dig their hands into a man’s open wound in search of more gold bullets, and you get a sense of just how special this film is.

Poetic Justice

In the book Cowboy Metaphysics Peter A. French argues that the arrival of Christianity from the East signaled the “death of death” in the West. “The easterner’s civilization rings with it the Christian’s conception of death. Death is no longer annihilation, and so it is no longer to be greatly feared…What is to be feared is a tortured afterlife as punishment for a life of sin….The death of the East is the death of death.” (p. 143). French concludes his book with a discussion of a film with interesting parallels to The Great Silence with its apocalyptic use of all-white wintry setting, Robert Altman’s McCabe and Mrs. Miller made three years later in 1971. “The last twenty minutes of McCabe and Mrs. Miller provide a stunning visualization of the death of the West and the transition to a new age” (p. 149). In the film’s climax, set to heavy snowfall, French focuses on two concurrent actions: McCabe (Warren Beauty) confronting the three gunmen hired by the corporation after he refused negotiations to sell his land; and the townsfolk trying to put out a fire that is threatening to burn down their church. McCabe takes refuge in the church, and one of the killer’s accidentally shoots the minister. As the minister falls he drops a kerosene lamp onto the church floor that starts the fire. Interestingly this recalls the kerosene lamp that William S. Hart’s Blaze Tracy shoots to start a redemptive fire that burns the saloon in Hell’s Hinges. French notes the symbolism of how the townsfolk put out the fire: “[they] rush to get buckets and a steam engine from which they will drain water to douse the flames…The imagery is obvious, modern machinery saves religion” (p. 149). While McCabe manages to kill the three gunmen stalking him, he is fatally wounded in the process, and dies a solitary figure “frozen, in a deep snowdrift” (which foreshadows the eerie death of Jack Torrance at the end of Kubrick’s The Shining). French concludes: “The saved church offers salvation and life everlasting –the death of death– to its new, modern-age parishioners. The dead westerner is simply dead and gone. Indeed, his presence and even memory of him, is being erased both by nature itself and by the opium Mrs. Miller languidly smokes” (p. 150). This reading of the ‘death of death’ makes perfect sense of the ending of The Great Silence and Loco’s ironic allusion to the martyrdom death of Silence and his partner.

Hell’s Hinges, High Plains Drifter, the Searchers, There Will Be Blood

The apocalyptic western has been given a contemporary boost by the literary works of Cormac McCarthy, an American writer known for his literary use of Western (or as I refer to them, neo-western) and post-apocalyptic genres. Several of his novels have been adapted to the screen, including No Country for Old Men (Coen brothers, 2007) and The Road (2007, John Hillcoat); and the latter director’s other apocalyptic western The Proposition has been likened by some critics to Cormac’s as yet unadapted novel Blood Meridian or the Evening Redness in the West (1985), which in an earlier quote from writer Wilkins was compared to Questi’s über-weird Western Django Kill!. The desolate, bleak and barren landscapes of Cormac’s The Road (brilliantly adapted to the screen by Hillcoat) is carried over into the Australian outback in The Proposition and achieves a similar (though less fantastic) sense of the apocalypse. No Country for Old Men is set in common Western landscape of Texas. The setting especially recalls the hellish opening scenes of Texas set The Searchers, where a Comanche revenge ambush on the home of Ethan Edward’s (John Wayne) brother’s homestead turns the landscape into a fiery hell. Edward has returned from a nomadic period of ‘wandering’ the land after the South’s loss of the Civil War. As he tells his brother, he hasn’t given up the fight, and sets out on a crusade to find his kidnapped niece (played as the older character by Natalie Wood). In No Country for Old Men Javier Bardem plays the terrifying ‘angel of death’ Anton Chigurh, who uses a can of compressed air and a cattle stungun to kill his victims; places the lives of potential victims in the hand of fate (using the toss of a coin to decide whether to kill or not); and is not averse to starting fires to announce himself. The spiritual side of the Western is given a Native Indian twist by Jim Jarmusch in Dead Man, where Johnny Depps’ symbolically named character William Blake is escorted by a Native American symbolically named Nobody (Gary Farmer) who leaves the symbolically named town of Machine (ruled over by a ruthless mill owner John Dickson, played by Robert Mitchum, who must have felt like he was transported forty years back to the set of Night of the Hunter), becomes the would-be poet’s sidekick accompanying him to his spiritualized death. The spiritual journey experienced by William Blake in Dead Man foreshadows the similar journey at the end of another more recent “neo-western’, Nicolas Winding Refn’s Valhalla Rising, where both films follow closely on the definition of a western being “narratives that follow some version of a quest into the natural world” (Corrigan and White, p. 329).

Django, The Great Silence, Valhala Rising

Nicolas Winding Refn, a director known for toying with popular genre (most recently, his anti-action action film, Only God Forgives) has offered us one of the most interesting if totally subversive neo-Western’s with his Viking tale Valhalla Rising (2009). Marsden writes, “It is practically a commonplace for people to refer to the Western gunfighter-hero as an American parallel to the medieval knight” (p. 94). Refn merely pushes the parallel back a few centuries, tracing the gunfighter’s lineage back to the pre-Christian/pre-Columbus pagan Vikings (AD 700-1100). In Valhalla Rising the mute, Cyclops-like “One-eye”, Leonesque ‘man with no name’ stranger (played by Mads Mikkelsen) is a supernaturally strong warrior (i.e. great gunfighter) who is befriended by a blond-haired boy (recalling the relationship between Shane and the boy Joey in Shane), who he ultimately (like Shane does) rescues from peril. One Eye frees himself from a group of nomadic pagans who have kept him enslaved and joins (with the boy) a group of Viking Crusaders who are on a journey to the Promised Land. One Eye becomes their saviour and protector, guiding them on their perilous journey through a trippy, fog-enshrouded inlet that leads them not into the Promised Land, Jerusalem, but the New World, where they are first overwhelmed by hallucinogens and then by face-painted ‘primitives’ (Native Americans). The Vikings are ambushed one by one by the Natives, and One Eye becomes a Christ-like martyr sacrificing his life to save the innocent (untainted by the zealous fervor of either the Crusading Vikings or Pagans) boy. Valhalla Rising can be seen as a perverse prequel to Malick’s more orthodox meeting of the old and new worlds, The New World (2005). Although set in the pre-medieval era, Valhalla Rising has all the trappings of an apocalyptic western: the Christ-like solitary gunfighter/anti-hero and the religious allegories; the desolate landscape and the importance of landscape as a battle ground for broader issues (Civilization v. Wilderness); and Imperialism/ Manifest Destiny (following the Corrigan and White definition of the Western as “narratives that follow some version of a quest into the natural world.”

The Man With One Eye

Another recent neo-Western with heavy apocalyptic strains is Paul Thomas Anderson’s There Will be Blood (2007), where Daniel Day-Lewis’ Daniel Plainview lives the American Dream by building an oil empire, only to regressive, literally and figuratively, to a murdering primate (in the final scenes Lewis’ body movements become ape-like). In Anderson’s view of the West, the Church is not spared from the moral darkness spreading like an oil. The evangelical minister Eli (Paul Dano) who ends up being violently murdered by Plainview in the film’s final scene, is no better than Plainview in his egotistical crusade to build his Church of the Third Revelation. Many critics have pointed to the similarities between Welles’ Charles Foster Kane and Daniel Plainview, both self-driven men who build empires only to become paranoid self-imposed hermits who spent their final years isolated from society in their mansions. The bleak, desolate landscape common to the Western is transformed into Plainview’s cavernous mansion, which houses its own bowling rink where he murders Eli.

Other recent “neo-westerns” (but not necessarily apocalyptic) include Gran Torino (2008, Clint Eastwood), Brokeback Mountain (Ang Lee, 2005), the seriously under-rated The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada (Tommy Lee Jones, 2005), and the Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (2007, Andrew Dominik), which presents a more elegiac treatment of the western as a “death of death” (for an in-depth analysis of the film, click here).

By tracing some of these religious and Biblical elements across a wide body of films spanning back as far as silent cinema, one can conclude that this apocalyptic strain, so common and wide-spread in today’s popular media landscape, has been and continues to be a mainstay of the Western genre, and should be considered alongside the genre’s other canonized iconographic elements and conventions (rugged landscape, civilization vs. wilderness, church/saloon, prostitute/schoolmarm, horses, cowboys, Indians, communal dances, guns, showdowns, etc.).

The Ever-Present Cemetery in the Apocalyptic Western


French, Peter A. Cowboy Metaphysics: Ethics and Death in Westerns. New York: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers Inc., 1997.

Hallock, Chris. “Moody’s Blues.” Diabolique , Issue 18, Nov/Dec. 2013, p. 24-29.

Marsden, Michael T. “Savior in the Saddle: The Sagebrush Testament” in Focus on the Western. Ed. Jack Nachbar, Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1974, p. 93-100.

White, Patricia, Tim Corrigan. The Film Experience: An Introduction. 3rd edition. Boston, New York: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2012.

Wilkins, Budd. “Django Kill…If You Live, Shoot!” Slant Magazine. July 18, 2012.

From Saviors to Angels of Death: Apocalyptic Westerns

Donato Totaro has been the editor of the online film journal Offscreen since its inception in 1997. Totaro received his PhD in Film & Television from the University of Warwick (UK), is a part-time professor in Film Studies at Concordia University (Montreal, Canada) and a longstanding member of AQCC (Association québécoise des critiques de cinéma).

Volume 17, issue 12 / December 2013 Essays