From Shane to Kill Bill: Rethinking the Western by Patrick McGee
Article first published online: 5 MAY 2009
© 2009 by the American Anthropological Association
Visual Anthropology Review
Volume 25, Issue 1, pages 79–80, Spring 2009
How to Cite
Ferguson, J. M. (2009), From Shane to Kill Bill: Rethinking the Western by Patrick McGee. Visual Anthropology Review, 25: 79–80. doi: 10.1111/j.1548-7458.2009.01018.x
- Issue published online: 5 MAY 2009
- Article first published online: 5 MAY 2009
Malden, MA : Blackwell , 2007 .
The Western, as a film genre, has often been considered to be purely politically conservative. In his book, From Shane to Kill Bill: Rethinking the Western, Patrick McGee urges us to reconsider this stance. Revisiting multiple and diverse exemplars of the Western, the author argues that the Western can, and often does, expose the contradictions of capital, even though it inevitably returns to reinforce them as well. The book provides close readings of the films Shane, Stagecoach, Heaven's Gate, and Kill Bill—the latter of which the author briefly and ironically claims is not a Western. Crucial to McGee's examination of these films is the way in which he brings them into conversation with each other through the lenses of class, masculinity, and the role of the individual in relation to class struggle.
One of the most compelling film readings in this book is that of the George Stevens film, Shane. Focusing largely on the class antagonisms illustrated in the film, McGee argues, it is “the structural violence of the capitalist social system that Shane cannot transcend, even in death. At once it makes his coming back impossible and inevitable” (19). While on the one hand, we are compelled by Shane's case in that he cannot escape the grips of capital's oppression, it is in his very refusal to accept the job offered to him by Ryker that he shows that his value will not be reduced to wage labor and hence, to capitalist exploitation. According to McGee, this then constitutes an exposure of the contradictions of capital, even though the antagonisms are never resolved. As the author continues, this is the influential role of Westerns as a genre, in that they can “articulate the very contradiction they work so hard to disavow” (217). It was because of this articulation of class antagonisms within the Western that Hollywood leftists took an interest in writing B-Westerns (32), which raises the possibility that many class messages could have been inserted relatively “below the radar” in a generally conservative industry.
According to McGee's readings of these films, although the Western exposes these contradictions, the antagonisms are reflexively thrust back upon the individual, who can be a “material location for cultural resistance” (33). What is of interest in this analysis is that it filters the problem of class antagonism through the lens of the solitary individual, rather than a class struggle or larger organization. Clearly this is not the goal of the Western as a genre, but focusing on the individual as the material location for resistance is a distinct turn away from solidarity projects. McGee argues that even Marx himself had “decided initially to go it alone, to separate himself from the dominant system of values peculiar to his own class and social situation” (33).
As mentioned earlier, although McGee argues that Quentin Tarantino's Kill Bill is not a Western, a significant portion of the book's conclusion is devoted to the film. The Western clearly is invoked at a metonymic level throughout Kill Bill, but a prior definition of the Western as a genre appears to be tacitly assumed rather than articulated by McGee. Were the non-Western elements of Kill Bill better articulated, this would give the reader a better understanding of the conventions of the genre itself. The inclusion of the film is particularly timely, however, and relevant to the author's discussion of how the image of the individual gunfighter shapes our understanding of the nature and role of the political subject in the late 20th century. According to McGee, the present culture is one in which the divisions between capital and labor are not as apparent as they were previously (111). Therefore, one can extrapolate that the Western, as a genre, is now faced with a greater challenge in articulating those antagonisms than it was in previous decades.
In terms of practical applications of the book, From Shane to Kill Bill can also potentially be used in the classroom. In film or cultural studies courses, McGee's close analyses of these Westerns would make for good companion reading alongside screenings of the films. Given that much of the rich discussion of the films seems to be predicated on the expectation that the reader would have prior familiarity with the plots and characters in the respective films, this book may be less suitable as a stand-alone assigned reading in a course. Ultimately, From Shane to Kill Bill is a timely interrogation of a long-standing and influential genre in American film history, and provokes a compelling discussion on the role of this mode of popular media in relation to class politics.