Sunday 7 February 2016

The Caribou Trail and the Western Genre

So I should probably confess right up front that the Western Genre is not a personal favourite of mine. Or should I say certain aspects of it aren't. What are those aspects, you ask? Well The Caribou Trail was probably the worst possible movie for me to watch to get myself into the mindset for #western106. This is not to say I haven't watched a few westerns in my time. Two Mules for Sister Sara, True Grit, The Good, The Bad, The Ugly, Little Big Man, Blazing Saddles. And some Westerns were very, very good. But unlike film noir, which are often small, focus, character driven movies set in the time period of the viewer when first produced, westerns are based on historical "facts." And history as we know is written by the "winners". And there was a lot of stretching of the "facts" in these movies and others.

Let me list the reasons why Westerns don't do it for me:

a) Lack of Historical / Geographical  Accuracy: Westerns take great big historical liberties. The Caribou Trail is a prime example. This movie takes place in the northern interior of British Columbia. A beautiful province that had a gold rush in the late 1850's. The hero is a cattleman from Montana hoping to settle his cattle in the area. Well Montana wasn't really settled yet in the late 1850's and there weren't herds of cattle there yet as the Americans hadn't finished off killing the buffalo by then. The cattle could and did come from California up to the Caribou but maybe California isn't "Western" enough? (Though we all know geographically speaking it is a lot further west than Montana.) The Caribou Trail really got started in the early 1860's and while a few Americans moved up the Caribou Trail from the Fraser Valley gold rush it was mostly Canadian and British who participated in the Caribou Gold Rush.  Last but not least, the movie was filmed in Colorado.

b) Racial Stereotypes: Every Indian is a "bad" Indian in a Western. And every "Indian" is usually a Blackfoot. They wear "war paint" and live in "teepees". There is a "Chinaman" who cooks and cleans and takes care of everyone. Now I know this isn't a big deal for some people, but for me this is huge. This type of stereotype is harmful and continues to be perpetuated. Canada has just finished going through the Truth and Reconciliation Commission where it was found that the Canadian Government deliberately committed cultural genocide starting in 1880. It was part land grab, part "You need to be English or French but not Indian." Residential schools have been operated during my lifetime. It was part of government policy. And it has harmed thousands of people.

For many years the Chinese were also discriminated against in this country. We needed them to help build the railway that united Canada, but wanted them to go home when we were done with them. We had multiple Immigration Acts that controlled the number of Chinese that could come to this country. Even into the late 1930's white women were jailed for having relationships with Chinese men.So yeah, the stereotypes make me cringe.

c) Guns and Violence: They are everywhere in the Western and in this movie. Is the Western really a romance in disguise about people and their guns? Is the reason Westerns resonate is because of the American love affair with their weapons? If you look at the opening of the west, from the time Daniel Boone crossed over the Appalachians into Kentucky in 1767, the opening of the west was just a giant land grab from the natives. Everyone wants to pretend that the Americans fought for their freedom from "British Tyranny" for life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, but in truth the real reason that the American Revolution was fought was for land and taxes. After the French Indian War was resolved through treaty settlements, the British wanted financial contributions from the states to help pay for the war (through taxes) and also to appease their native allies by restricting American access to their lands west of the Alleghenies. But land was wealth and natives were in the way. The idea that might (and the gun) was always right seeped into the American conscious and has been firmly lodged there ever since, regardless of the fact that it was not ideals that propelled a nation into being but greed for land.

d) Women and Violence: I am not sure I even have to write anything here about this. A woman in the Western genre falls into the same stereotypical slots she always does: A mother, a wife, a hooker. And if she is able to look after herself she has a gun.

e) The only person who looks good in a Western are the white men.They always win.

From an educational perspective, I feel uncomfortable promulgating these myths and stereotypes. So I am going to have figure out a way to participate in #western106 that doesn't make me feel like I am helping promote these ideas. Ideas on how to do that without spoiling everyone else's fun is very much appreciated! Maybe I'll just do an updated version of Blazing Saddles!