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13 - American Gothic Westerns: Tales of Racial Slavery and Genocide

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  22 September 2020

Richard J. Hand
Affiliation:
University of East Anglia
McRoy Jay
Affiliation:
University of Wisconsin, Parkside
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Summary

Nick Groom traces the roots of the Gothic tradition to barbarian tribes that emerged outside of Greco-Roman civilisation and eventually conquered the Roman Empire, ushering in the Middle Ages and marking a break between the classical and medieval periods in European history. Tribes such as the Visigoths and Ostrogoths sacked the Roman Empire, converted to Christianity and consequently linked with death, spirituality and a dark cultural aesthetic based on decay and rebirth. Where the European Gothic frequently symbolises an ancient past of barbarity and otherness that affected everything from architecture to politics, the American Gothic tradition reflects America's fairly recent but no less volatile and gory origins. Groom argues that the American Gothic draws on its historical legacy of racial slavery and the genocide of indigenous peoples, in addition to Europe's Gothic associations of violence, death and spirituality (2012).

The American Western genre is particularly well suited for American Gothic narratives since the genre itself emanated from both racial slavery and the genocide of indigenous peoples. This correlation is reflected in its common tropes of aestheticised violence and dehumanisation. While a classic American Western like The Wild Bunch (Sam Peckinpah, 1969) elevates violence to an aesthetic, functioning as imagistic residue of America's violent origins, a film such as Django (Sergio Corbucci, 1966) and later Westerns such as Django Unchained (Quentin Tarantino, 2012), High Plains Drifter (Clint Eastwood, 1973), Dead Man (Jim Jarmusch, 1995) and Priest (Scott Stewart, 2011) incorporate these elements ironically as rhetorical guerrilla warfare that harasses and parodies the genre itself.

The powerful associations of violence and death in relation to the European Gothic stems from barbarian tribes who conquered the Roman Empire and from the subsequent emergence of an architectural style that defined a sharp break with the classical period. As Groom notes, ‘[t]he spiritual meaning of architectural Gothic … ultimately led to a style associated with the darker side … a whole cultural landscape of death in the Mediaeval period’ (22). Gothic architecture, characterised by ornate pillars, vaulting and pointed arches, literally pointed to God, and the more a structure reached towards the heavens the closer it was to God.

Type
Chapter
Information
Gothic Film
An Edinburgh Companion
, pp. 194 - 205
Publisher: Edinburgh University Press
Print publication year: 2020

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