The central point that Christopher Frayling – in his book Sergio Leone. Something To Do With Death – makes with regard to Leone’s film Once Upon a Time in the West is that its title was mistranslated from Italian to English. The Italian title of this spaghetti western was C’era Una Volta: Il West, which literally translates as: “Once There Was: The West”. The mistranslation may have been intended, after all, Once Upon a Time… sounds much better. But according to Frayling the entire meaning of the film changes with its new title.
Once Upon a Time…indicates that we have to do with a fairy tale. The characters and situations may be recognizable due to cultural conventions, but ontologically they stand as far away from us as Hans Christian Andersen’s Little Mermaid. Once There Was: The West on the other hand implies historical veracity. Its use of the simple past ‘was’ in its title suggests that the West that is being referred to no longer exists. Also, ‘West’ in this title refers not only to the historical West, but also to the genre of the western. Christopher Frayling, by telling us how Once Upon a Time in the West is not only a film about death and about the end of the West – the final arrival of civilization in the wild expanses of the pioneer and the outlaw – but also about the death of a genre, shows how the mistranslation of the title changes our understanding of the film’s deeper levels of meaning.
When Leone’s film is framed as a fairytale, with its American title, we may be led to believe that the West is still out there. Following Frayling’s argument and accepting the Italian title as the original, we have to acknowledge that classical westerns simply cannot be made after 1968. Granted: Sam Peckinpah could still make his own film about the end of the west, The Wild Bunch, in 1969. And in many ways these two films, Once Upon a Time in the West and The Wild Bunch, can be considered twins, or cinematic soul mates. And of course Clint Eastwood’s 1992 return to the West, Unforgiven, is a fantastic film. However, it is not so much a western as a tragedy, more or less accidentally set in that specific time and place. It tells the story of a settled old gunslinger, taking his arms up once more to find redemption for his past crimes. It is, unfortunately, less known than it should be.
But recent attempts at breathing new life into the classical western have failed to do so. It would be unfair to suggest that Seraphim Falls (Von Ancken, 2006), The 3:10 to Yuma (Mangold, 2007) or Appaloosa (Harris, 2008) are bad films. They most certainly are not. They do feel, and it is a terrible thing to say, redundant. The exploration of endless spaces has moved on to galaxies far far away (notice the fairy tale opening of the Star Wars films).
All of which brings me back to a previous post on this blog. In The Guitar Chord Effecting the Mix Up of Right and Wrong I argued that in Pirates of the Carribean: At World’s End conventions of the spaghetti western are temporarily invoked or abused in order to suspend judgement of a scene caught in moral limbo. At the time, though, I failed to realize that they are not temprarily invoked. Pirates of the Carribean: At World’s End is essentially a spaghetti swashbuckler. Or to be precise: it is to the blockbuster what Once Upon a Time in the West was to the western. The film that marks the end of that type of films. Or if not the literal end: the boundary of the possibilty to satisfactorily produce one.
Thematically Pirates 3 invokes a melancholy about the end of ‘free’ piracy. The East India Trading Company is maniacally hunting down every pirate in the open seas, effectively putting the likes of Jack Sparrow on the endangered species list. They have even gained control over the otherworldy submarine monsters of the Ocean, going so far as killing off Davy Jones’ beloved Kraken. Faced with the decaying remains of this former nemesis Jack Sparrow and Barbosa lament the changing tide:
Barbossa: Still thinkin’ of running, Jack? Think you can outrun the world? You know the problem with being the last of anything, by and by there be none left at all.
And a moment later:
Barbossa: The world used to be a bigger place.
Jack Sparrow: World’s still the same. There’s just less in it.
That this is not mere melancholy is pointed out by the villain of the movie, Lord Cutler Beckett. Already in the second film he points out that there is no more place in this world for pirates such as Jack Sparrow, as the East India Trading Company takes control over the Carribean – much like the railroad companies took over the West.
As the end of the blockbuster film, it must be said, Pirates 3 seems rather ineffective. Not in the least because Pirates 4 is in the making and is set for 2011. The annual onslaught of blockbusters that is heading for us at this very moment proves that they are still made. However, what we are being served now, and have been served since 2007, does not come close to offering the mindless yet excitement that we got from Armageddon (Bay, 1998), for example. 2008’s The Dark Knight has changed things. Forever.
To be continued.