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Yojimbo: And the Revisionist Western

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    Vili Maunula

    Here’s something that I have thought about for a long time, but for which I have not found any satisfactory answer: what role, if any, did Yojimbo play in the birth and development of the revisionist western?

    Does anyone know of a good book on the subject, or could someone actually give me a straight (or a winding) answer to this? I have read several claims about the time of the birth of the revisionist western, ranging from the early 1950s to the late 1960s. Yet, I would have thought that since the genre is pretty much a response to an earlier genre (the original western), it should be relatively straightforward to point out where and how the genre was born?

    I know that we have some experts of the western here — Jon is a self-confessed spaghetti western addict, and if I remember correctly BMWRider knows his John Ford. Can you help me here, guys?


    Jon Hooper

    It’s a question that demands a detailed answer. I’m by no means an expert on the subject of westerns at all, but I have seen a great many in my time. Spaghetti western addict? I grew up on those films, but in latter years I have gone back to the classic era myself – I mean especially the westerns of Ford, Hawks and Mann. I’ll give it more thought and maybe do a bit of research on this, time permitting. As you no doubt know, it’s never easy to pin down exact dates of when something comes into being. One can always look back and find prior examples of the tendency (for example, The Searchers, perhaps the greatest western ever made, has numerous subtexts that suggest that something was starting to give; in some of the great Anthony Mann westerns that starred James Stewart, for example Naked Spur (1952), there is a definite move away from the traditional hero and towards some kind of anti-hero; Mann has sometimes been credited with reinventing the western). Still, it was probably in the 60s that the great change came, and Yojimbo, in influencing A Fistful of Dollars, undoubtedly played a major role. I’ll get back to you on this one.


    Vili Maunula

    I’m looking forward to what you can find, Jon! But don’t go out of your way digging up the answer!



    I’m not entirely sure what your asking, and I have no useful knowledge of westerns.I do however believe I can answer to some degree what brought about movies that focused on the darker, more realistic elements of life, in which the revisionist western was born.

    This is was part of America’s mass disillusion of the world after the end of WWII.

    I’ll just be brief and hit a few points, since again, I’m not quite sure if even regards the question.

    Before the war most American’s were fairly blind of the world outside their own town. Their information and “facts”where giving out by preachers and low level government officials, and never questioned. Everything was always black and white, and the all is perfect illusion was born. You have to realize that rural America, contained people that have gone their entire life simply waking up, working the farm, and going to bed.

    It was WWII, in where for the first time soldiers-let’s say from Texas met soldiers from New York. It was the first experience of culture, different accents, thinking and ideals for the average American.

    Then you toss them in a war zone, in a country they properly just recently heard of, and let them find out that some German leader for reasons they dont quite understand wants them all dead.

    Then of course they see friends getting blown apart,etc.

    War ends, Soldiers come home with a new re-awaking, economy in America sky rockets. For the first time, you start to have suburbs in America, now it’s people from all over the US, with different knowledge bases in close proximity to each other. Rumors, and knowledge start to build and ignorance starts to lift.

    Questions are now asked, answers and not believed. The government no longer is believed to be for their own good, gray areas start to emerge. Then enter mass-media to further fuel this mass disillusion.

    It now become the norm to question, people become cynical and thus the birth of the darker movie’s to respond to this new thinking.

    In America this begin in the early 50’s but became an unstoppable force in the towards the 1960’s.

    What you find is “America” try’s to combat these new smarter people, by tossing out the sitcom with shows like “Leave it to Beaver” and “The Andy Griffith Show” where they show these entirely false all is prefect worlds. All in hopes to bring back the old thinking of everything is always prefect, and dont question anything. It was the attempt to reinstall American stupidity for the ease of government control.

    Those shows had limited success, but given that your directors where typically more ahead of times, they focused on the new Americans and their new darker more cynically outlook on the world.

    Every nation involved in WWII had much the same thing, except they had it sooner, as they unlike America suffered greatly from war’s destruction of their economy and country. Japan starts this as early as wartime, but it really doesnt take off til the late 50’s. If you look at Ichikawa’s films you see similarities of America’s modern western. I dont however think the modern western was an influence. It was simply the wide spread effect of WWII, bring both modernism and new thinking to the rural world, with great shock to the people.

    Yojimbo’s role, I dont know. Hopefully I offered something to help out, if not-what’s new 😛


    Vili Maunula

    Before the war most American’s were fairly blind of the world outside their own town. Their information and “facts”where giving out by preachers and low level government officials, and never questioned.

    Um, was it actually WW2 or WW3 that you were referring to? Somehow this sounds very much like the current situation to me. 😛

    I am, of course, just joking — I actually think that the general notion of “stupid, navel-gazing Americans” is wrong in that at least we Europeans are just as guilty of navel gazing and overall stupidity. But I have never been to the US, so I obviously don’t really know what is actually going on in there.

    In any case, it is actually fairly interesting that it should have been World War II that broke that illusion of a bipolar world in which things existed only at either the “good” or the “evil” end of the scale (or as the self and the Other — or, in Donnie Darko terms, on the lifeline of fear vs. love.) In any case, it is funny that this should have been the start of that thought process, for at least as long as you look at the official history of that particular war, the war itself was all very black and white — you had the bad Axis countries and the good Allies. (The history is, however, written in fairly different terms in countries like Finland that had the uncomfortable position of fighting on the German side.)

    Of course, it wasn’t Hollywood alone that reacted to WW2 in this manner. We can actually trace much of the postmodernist enterprise back to the war, and particularly to the question how on earth anything like Nazi Germany could happen in a modern democratic country like Germany.

    In any case, thanks for drawing that parallel to me, Jeremy. I had never really considered WW2’s influence to the history of cinema. It’ll be interesting to hear what Jon manages to uncover, and see how well this all relates to the birth of the revisionist western both chronologically and thematically.


    Jon Hooper

    Actually I still haven’t had the time to do any reading on the subject, and that chance is looking increasingly remote, but I will at least try to put down a few thoughts towards the weekend (by then, of course, discussion on the next film will have started but never mind). Just don’t expect anything too learned. This is an excellent essay by Jeremy by the way, and the post-war mood certainly does relate to the change in movies (including the revisionist western), as well as in popular music, and everything else in the culture.



    The black and white-good or evil existed largely in the propaganda from both waring sides during the war. Afterward however you find the discovery of the gray area. Taking just America’s account in the war, there’s the issue of America out there to help the victims, or they did see financial, land ownership and power establishing opportunities. American’s around the 50’s were quick to see that America was not the innocent, out-to-help, nation they played themselves to be. The introduction to the Cold-War only went out to strengthening the new found questioning of the world and the gray area.

    You see every nation’s postwar art movement make sudden changes. Japan and Germany happen the earliest and most dramatic, for the rest of the world its a slower response, with America being sped up due to the Cold War. I see the war playing the largest if not the absolute single cause to the spawning of darker arts, thus leading in one direction of many directions- the revisionist western and it being in no way a progression or response to the traditional western. The war and cinema are closely related, and is a missed area, when studying the themes and ideals presented in movies coming out in the late 50’s to late 70’s.

    That’s the way I see it at least.



    Jeremy, you’ve described yourself as a WW buff, so you probably have thought about this topic a lot. Just to add a note about “fine art”:what you’ve called the “dark arts” (nice phrase) in Europe-began, at least in visual arts such as painting, drawing, graphics and sculpture early on-as a result of World War I.

    In Germany we have Die Brucke, then a number of movements and artists that express the sturm und drang of the time. A brilliant artist whose own life is intimately connected with WWI and WWII-and whose artistic production is visually impacted by the wars (in a most visceral and obvious way) is Max Beckmann-one of Germany’s greatest Expressionist artists.

    Anyway, to return to your notes on revisionism in the U.S., it would be interesting to hear more about the relation of the Cold War to post-WWII film! (I confess I actually know little about post-war U.S. film-particularly westerns.)



    I’m quite sure WWI play some large roles in art, just anything outside movies I know little about. I would think that paintings would be among the first to reflect the changes that WWI brought, but as I mention I know little in this area. Even the movies in that time period is of limited knowledge for me. You do however start to see some changes in movies during and after WWI with D.W. Griffith movies and few others. They however tend to be hard for me to understand, contain many symbolic usages, and are rather self aware to avoid government troubles.I cant comment too much on the effects of WWI in movies, and absolutely nothing in any other fields of art.

    WWII and the Cold War do however make more obvious and easier points to understand in movie development. Movies of that time period is where most of my studies occur, and WWII is the war I know the most about. Still I dont want to come off as being absolutely correct in anything I say, I just try to offer a view that I hope at least has some validity.



    Ooops, and I should be more correct to note say that from the early 1900’s (about 1905 or so, actually) we have this movement, “Die Brucke”. Then, WWI…that would be a more proper progression in time. It was actually Beckmann who best illustrates the disillusionment resulting from WWI-he began as an Impressionist, then his work took a very dark turn, indeed, after scooping up destroyed bodies on the battlefield as an ambulance driver. The scenes he experienced haunted his visual imagination ever after. As you mention, Jeremy, the dark turn probably happened first in the fine and applied arts, then, “revisionist” film starts after WWII. I include a link to a .pdf brochure produced by the MoMA of Beckmann’s work, since he really is worth knowing: Beckmann



    Its an interesting point I think that Japans experience meant it suffered post war disillusionment before other countries – I’ve always got the sense from many 1950’s Japanese movies (most prominently Ichikawas Fire on the Plain) that there was a dark edge to them that must have influenced the more cynical movies of the 1960’s in America and elsewhere. I think that some early Japanese youth movies such as ‘Kisses’ would also have had an influence.

    I can’t personally think of any Western that predates Yojimbo that has the same elements that became familiar in the later, ‘revisionist’ style. But I suspect that if you look into it deeply, you would find a whole series of films in different genres going back to the 1930’s at least that would have had an influence, at least in terms of tone if not narrative. Some of Renoirs pre-war movies come to mind.

    But I have to say that on a purely personal level, when I first saw Yojimbo what immediately grabbed me was how ‘modern’ a hero he is in the movie. I think its fair to say that The Man With No Name was the first and most iconic revisionist western hero (and still be best). And since there is absolutely no doubt that Eastwood copied almost every move Mifune made, then its perfectly reasonable to argue that Yojimbo was the greatest influence on the revisionist western.



    Thanks, cocoskyavitch for the Beckmann stuff, a interesting read.I dont any ability to comment on paintings, but I do like the stuffing of subjects Beckmann does. It as though he trying to capture something larger then his abilities allow him to, while at the same time giving a feeling to a existence outside the painting.

    Did these changes in art around WWI occur slowly or were they a rather rapid transition?



    My apologies to Vili for what will seem a long preamble, but I hope will be “relevant”.

    Wow, Jeremy, although you may not have studied art history (yet!) you have the “eye”-as we already know from your image captures and your visual analysis of films that we’ve been studying on this site. (I told you I was impresssed and learned a lot and I meant it. Don’t ever under-estimate your visual acuity-you have a natural sensitivity and understanding of visual principles and how they form expression. I think people can learn the lingo, but to have a natural “eye” is something that separates those who are, literally “visonary” from the crowds. I myself, and more plodding than gifted, but my sincerity is 100%).

    Your comment about Beckmann is right on:

    “It as though he trying to capture something larger then his abilities allow him to, while at the same time giving a feeling to a existence outside the painting.”

    At the turn of the 20th century art had begun to change more rapidly than it had ever changed before. If we used a strip of paper to illustrate change we could use up four feet of paper from the Renaissance to the 1880’s and Impressionism, a foot for each century, and each foot might have one small movement, or semi-movement, then, suddenly, boom, we would have in six inches of the continuing roll pencilled-in with Impressionism, Post-Impressionism, Pointillism, Cubism, Jugendstil, Arte Nouveau, Die Brucke, Futurism, etc…up to German Expressionism-all in the space of a couple of decades and inches on the roll, not centuries or feet! Just before WWI in Germany a group of German artists began to critique society (Die Brucke) and forge a new visual language that evolves into Der Blau Reiter and into what is termed German Expressionism (a trend, not exactly a “club”).

    For Beckmann WWI was decisive. A direct cause-and-effect as potent as one’s reaction to a bomb falling, and it had an immediate impact on his world view and art. I cannot find Beckmann’s Impressionist self-portrait online to illustrate his “before”. Darn it. If I could show you, you would see, rather than take it on faith.

    In WWII Beckmann’s percentage of Jewish hritage meant that he had to flee Germany-he spent the war years in exile in Holland. After the war, Beckmann came to the U.S. where he taught in St. Louis-they have a great collection of his stuff in the museum! He and the other European artists who came to the U.S. after the war were incredibly influential to the development of American post-war art…the world’s focus moved from Paris as Art Center of the Western World to New York City. I dare say that your commentary about the changes in society in the U.S. from post-war to Cold War are absolutely on target. Ugetsu weighs in, too:

    Ugetsu notes:

    “Its an interesting point I think that Japans experience meant it suffered post war disillusionment before other countries – I’ve always got the sense from many 1950’s Japanese movies (most prominently Ichikawas Fire on the Plain) that there was a dark edge to them that must have influenced the more cynical movies of the 1960’s in America and elsewhere.”

    It is the convention in following the art-historical arc of the west to detail the rise of the visual arts in the U.S., and that there is a burst of creative energy post-WWII, which has to do with our perception of “winning” the war. The creativity in the U.S. though, is at the same time, deeply influenced by and infused with European sensibilities. (Abstract Expressionism, for example-often explores the “sturm und drang” content of German Expressionism, -but, abstractly). With the availability of university education for the returning GI’s in the form of government subsidies (the GI bill) and cheap credit for financing home-building projects-the “chicken in every pot” and a pot in every home, and a home for every family as spoken of by Roosevelt is realized to some greater extent than ever before seen, the economic prosperity of the United States allows for a rapid growth of the middle class.

    So, we have these television shows like “Leave it to Beaver”-an idealized, clean, well-fed, comfortable middle-class American family-and contrasted to that, a darker, realites-of-war-cognizant fine art scene that while benefitting from America’s wealth, also has a darker core knowledge. Now it gets interesting:

    Jeremy wrote:

    “The introduction to the Cold-War only went out to strengthening the new found questioning of the world and the gray area.”

    This truth, touched on by Jeremy, is really important at least in American cultural traditions (as well as Japanese film-“I Live in Fear” is one example!) and that truth is the BOMB and the Cold War.

    We have “Leave it to Beaver”, (contemporary mythology about American values and hopes and dreams) and we have air-raid drills at public schools in real life-(fear and paranoia about the unholy weapon we’ve unleashed). We have new wealth and confidence from “winning the war” and unspoken sense of guilt and horror about our development and use of the bomb, and a sense that everything can be wiped away in one moment by the Soviet Union pushing a button. (We all know the correlation of Gojira-Godzilla atomic fears, the Fly, and other fears about splitting the atom and what was unleashed…etc.,)

    So, the tension between these two poles leads us to the explosion that is the ’60’s when all the systems (“question authority”) of society are tested. (In art this surfaces as “POP art-questioning the values of consumer society, and the illusions of the “good life”).

    Long story short-although I have no expertise specifically in the area of American Revisionist Westerns, and Jeremy is more likely to know more about WWII specifics, since this is his area, I think he is right in noting that changes in culture are likely to be in response to a changing consciousness in America due to WWII and the Cold War, and this is borne out in fine art trends and movements.

    Final note: “Revisionist Western” is a phrase applied by critics and cultural observers, not the filmmakers themselves, and refers not to a “movement”-but to a perceived similarity of thematic and stylistic changes to the traditional “manifest destiny” American Western, and Jeremy is probably right in stating that changes in the culture must be factored into the equation.

    In terms of historical panorama:

    “High Noon” 1951 might be considered the first revisionist western. (I dunno, I’ve just always heard it as being that way).

    Ford’s ““The Searchers”” is 1956. It is considered “revisionist” by many.

    Kurosawa’s “Yojimbo” is 1961.

    Peckinpah was filming “The Wild Bunch” 1969, in the midst of American growing disillusionment with the Vietnam War. “Bonnie and Clyde” had already ratched-up the violence level of the already-violent genre of crime films. It’s just my opinion, but Peckinpah’s use of mutiple cameras and slow-motion surely must be related to Kurosawa’s innovations.

    Finally, here’s a Wiki take on revisionist westerns.


    Vili Maunula

    This thread has gone into some really fascinating directions — thanks to everyone for all the information and ideas so far presented. Keep them coming! Jon was clearly right in his first reply that this is a topic with much more complexity than I made it to be when I asked the question.

    I am currently (once again) very busy with my private/working life, so let me just reply to this one thing that Coco wrote:

    My apologies to Vili for what will seem a long preamble, but I hope will be “relevant”.

    Actually, my reply to it is here.



    Good job, Coco. I dont have much of anything else to say. The art information is fanstasic stuff, and Coco filled in the large gaps as to what I was trying to get across, while added much needed depth.

    I liked the bit about Americans being given “Leave It To Beaver” mythology, while practicing aid raid drills at school.

    Ugetsu’s mention of “Fires on the Plain” is a great example, that being one of the first films to my knowledge that really gives a unwilling solider of the war point of view. Simply having no desires in this war, but to go home, and confused to why there is even a war to begin with. This film still holds up well today, and certainly could have some important impacts on films in America.

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