The Prophet and the Prostitute: Andre Bazin’s Uniquely Christian Conception of the Western

French critic Andre Bazin was not only instrumental in the acceptance of the study of film as a serious academic discipline, he was also a key figure (if not the key figure) in the development of cinematic grammar and language as we know it today. Though he never made a film himself, Bazin worked tirelessly, championing American and Italian films to French audiences and mentoring the young critic/directors at the magazine Cahiers du cinema, working with them to develop the epochal politique des auteurs (The Auteur Theory, which holds that the director is the singular creative force behind a given film) and the equally influential French New Wave. Bazin was also a politically moderate, devout Catholic. While it would short-change his legacy to confine its definition to this single aspect, his faith nevertheless informs a good deal of the moral and philosophical worldview evident in his critical work[1]. This angle is nowhere more evident than in his treatment of that quintessential American genre, the Western.

In his seminal essay on the genre, The Western: or The American Film Par Excellence, Bazin wrote that “the western does not age”. This simple statement encapsulates what is perhaps the greatest virtue of this genre and why the first five decades of cinema (the sixth as well, but Bazin had, unfortunately, died in 1958) witnessed a steady stream of Westerns, unequaled at the time or since. This seemingly-undying relevance (both popular and critical), for Bazin, proved that the Western was, as his title suggests, the highest achievement of American cinematic output. He points to other genres such as the comedy and the gangster film that had essentially been exhausted. What, for example, could one do in the gangster genre that Josef von Sternberg and Howard Hawks had not already done in Underworld (1927) and Scarface (1932), respectively?

His respect for the Western well-established, Bazin turns his attention to specifics, and this is where we find the most palpable expression of his Christian ideology. Bazin first examines what he calls the “pure young woman,” an archetype marked by, among other things, her status as a virgin. This quality immediately calls up various Catholic associations, including the Virgin Mary and the sacred importance of a woman’s purity. Bazin later postulates that this characteristic was inevitable in the genre, saying “the actual sociological conditions obtaining in primitive western society” placed the woman as the embodiment of the moral qualities to be imposed on the Wild West. This societal imperative comes full circle and exerts influence on the drama of the Western, necessitating a threat to woman’s virtue (Indians, bandits, etc.) and a hero to defend her and nascent civilization from that threat.

In addition to the Ideal Woman, Bazin defines a second female archetype, that of the Fallen Woman, the saloon girl, often (though this tends to be only obliquely referenced), a prostitute. Like the ideal heroine, she too is in love with the hero, and it is this love that leads her to sacrifice herself for him, thus “the god of the screenwriter” removes the problem of “one woman too many”, paving the way for the happiness of the morally-correct couple, heterosexual, monogamous, pure of heart, and ready to populate the West with more of the same. This sacrifice has two additional consequences, Bazin argues. First, it redeems her in the eyes of the spectators, absolving her of whatever sins are in her shady past; we no longer care that she is a prostitute or had perhaps broken the hero’s heart years ago. Second, it reinforces Bazin’s (Christian) moral view of the women of Westerns as the embodiment of the immutable values instrumental to the founding of a new civilization. As he says, “the distinction between good and bad applies only to the men. Women, all up and down the social scale, are in every case worthy of love or at least of esteem or pity”. This socially-inclusive viewpoint has a direct parallel in the bible of Bazin’s religion, in the character of Mary Magdalene. A former prostitute redeemed by her devotion to the Messiah, she embodies a direct analogue to this archetype of the Fallen Woman.

Another important Western trope Bazin mentions is the classic struggle between good and evil, order and chaos. He notes, “the Indian, who lived in [the wild west], was incapable of imposing on it man’s order. He mastered it only by identifying himself with its pagan savagery. The white Christian on the contrary is truly the conqueror of a new world… He imposes simultaneously his moral and his technical order”. It is not, of course, always the savage that threatens white Christian moral order. Equally dangerous are the white bandits, lawless men seeking to exploit the equally-lawless virgin land of the West for profit, or simply to hide from the authorities back east that would hang them. These villains live violently, leaving the hero but one option for subduing them: they must die violently as well; “Thou shalt not kill” is not extended to those that would stand in the way of the civilizing forces of Christianity.

With these archetypes and associations in mind, it is not difficult to see why Bazin and his disciples at Cahiers du cinema held up the work of American director John Ford as a key example, alongside that of Alfred Hitchcock and Howard Hawks, of their blossoming Auteur Theory. Though it was certainly not the first of its kind, the success of Ford’s Stagecoach (1939) meant that it set many of the standards by which Bazin and other critics judge the cinematic Western. Seven years later, Ford made My Darling Clementine (1946), a picture that conforms perfectly to Bazin’s formulation of the two women of the Western. The titular Clementine Carter is the Ideal Woman, a sophisticated lady from New England. The Fallen Woman is Chihuahua, a singer in the local saloon and a prostitute.

Bazin considers these basic principles to be the kernel of the drama of the Western, a stance exemplified by the plot of My Darling Clementine. Wyatt Earp (Henry Fonda) takes the job of town marshal in Tombstone, Arizona, in order to find the infamous Clantons, the men that killed his brother and rustled his cattle, forming an uneasy alliance with Doc Holliday. Clementine, Holliday’s former lover from his days back East, arrives in Tombstone and Earp falls in love with her, as Chihuahua falls in love with him. Culminating in the famous Gunfight at the O. K. Corral, the plot resolves according to Bazin’s specifications[2].

This violent climax is Doc and the Earps’ last resort; the Clantons refuse a peaceful solution and must be dispatched. They, like many other savage forces before them, stand in the way of the formation of a new world in Christianity’s image. Interestingly, though, the heroic Doc Holliday also does not fit into this world. Like John Wayne’s characters in Stagecoach before and The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962) after, he is a violent man, a coarse, if noble, remnant of the old world. The cleansing fire of justice purges the good and the evil alike, if they are unwilling or unable to conform to the new standards of righteousness and peace. And Bazin saw that it was good.

[1] It is also convenient at this point to note that I do not intend to imply Bazin is trying to hide any of his Christian leanings from his readers.

[2] It may be more accurate to say Bazin’s specifications were formed by this and other films like it.


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