Unbridling the Western Film Auteur

Contemporary, Transnational and Intertextual Explorations

by Emma Hamilton (Volume editor) Alistair Rolls (Volume editor)
Edited Collection VIII, 236 Pages


According to Jim Kitses (1969), the Western originally offered American directors a rich canvas to express a singular authorial vision of the American past and its significance. The Western’s recognizable conventions and symbols, rich filmic heritage, and connections to pulp fiction created a widely spoken «language» for self-expression and supplemented each filmmaker’s power to express their vision of American society. This volume seeks to re-examine the significance of auteur theory for the Western by analysing the auteur director «unbridled» by traditional definitions or national contexts.
This book renders a complex portrait of the Western auteur by considering the genre in a transnational context. It proposes that narrow views of auteurism should be reconsidered in favour of broader definitions that see meaning created, both intentionally and unintentionally, by a director; by other artistic contributors, including actors and the audience; or through the intersection with other theoretical concepts such as re-allegorization. In so doing, it illuminates the Western as a vehicle for expressing complex ideas of national and transnational identity.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Contents
  • Acknowledgements
  • 1. Introduction. Editors on Auteurs: Thoughts on Auteurism from the Frontier (Emma Hamilton / Alistair Rolls)
  • 2. The Star Auteur: Jimmy Stewart Out West (Alex Davis)
  • 3. Pastiche, Genre and Violence in Quentin Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds (Tom Ue)
  • 4. ‘Probably a White Fella’: Rolf de Heer, The Tracker and the Limits of Auteurism (Emma Hamilton)
  • 5. The Post-apocalyptic Frontier: Reappropriating Western Violence for Feminism in Mad Max: Fury Road (Matthew Carter)
  • 6. Narrative (Il)Logic and the Problem of Character Motivation in Sergio Corbucci’s Revenge Westerns (Marek Paryz)
  • 7. Adaptation, Transculturation and the Western Auteur: Louis L’Amour, Peter Collinson and The Man Called Noon (Lee Broughton)
  • 8. Auteurism versus Genre in the Romanian New Wave: Radu Jude’s Interpretation of Western Tropes in Aferim! (Maria Ioniţă)
  • 9. Auteur is French for Author, too: Translating Other Afterthoughts Inspired by King Vidor’s Duel in the Sun into French Literature (Alistair Rolls / Emma Hamilton / Clara Sitbon)
  • 10. ‘East meets West meets East again’: The Good, The Bad, The Weird and the Transnational Dialogue of Auteurs (Joyleen Christensen)
  • 11. The Indian Western: Revisiting Sholay and the Dacoit Film as Transnational Exegesis (Omar Ahmed)
  • Notes on Contributors
  • Index

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We wish to thank the English Language and Foundation Studies Centre at the University of Newcastle, Australia and the Kelver Hartley Bequest for their support of this project.

We also wish to express our gratitude to our contributors who provided innovative and thoughtful contributions to ‘unbridled’ auteur analysis.

When we were contemplating a cover image that would encapsulate the ideas in this collection our minds immediately wandered to the iconic images of Western directors. You know the ones, in black and white, of serious (usually white) men on set, looking weather-beaten and worn down, surrounded by cameras, equipment and costumed extras. But that is not what this book is about. These contributions consider the complexities and complications of Western auteurism and they move beyond the American context, although they are never entirely divorced from it. Westerns portray, after all, a global process of frontier-imperialism that impacts all nations; while America’s portrayal of this process is a cultural landmark, the Western is continually reinterpreted and adapted for meaning in local contexts by a range of forces and actors, all of whom, we should suggest, should be subject to critical interrogation via the lens of auteur analysis. Ultimately then, the image we chose was an artwork by Peter Coad used in the Australian film The Tracker (2002, Scene 122 – Final Landscape [The Tracker is the subject of Chapter 4]), which signals the Tracker’s journey home to his own country. This image speaks to us of similarity but difference in frontier experiences, all under the blood red sky; and it speaks to us also of possibilities, in this case the possibilities of analysis unbridled from typical constraints.

Peter had this to say about his own experience on the film: ‘All the paintings within Rolf de Heer’s film The Tracker had their own character and evoked different emotions whilst preparing and painting them. When I previewed the final cut of the film in the editing room of the South Australian Film Corporation, I never realised the effect this painting had on me. It was quite surreal watching the film of the final scene dissolve into ← vii | viii → the painting. To this day whenever I see The Tracker at a film festival or anywhere else, this painting still has the same effect on me. To be involved in the whole process with Rolf was a wonderful and most memorable period in my artistic career.’ We wish to express our deep gratitude to Peter for allowing us to use his art and for his graciousness. If you love Peter’s art too, please visit his website: www.petercoadart.com.au.

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1    Introduction. Editors on Auteurs: Thoughts on Auteurism from the Frontier


This edited collection explores and analyses a theoretical concept that – like the Western film genre itself – has been declared ‘dead’, only to rise up again in new and innovative ways as a framework through which to examine film and filmmakers. Auteur theory, and its usefulness as an analytical tool, has been a site of contestation since its inception in the late 1940s/1950s by French cinema theorists. Primarily characterized by the notion that, like any other art form, films can result from the ‘authorship’ of an individual – the director – auteur theory has been significant in elevating cinematic products once considered massified, ‘low’ culture and in reconceptualizing directors as legitimate artists capable of transcending potential constraints inherent in film production. This chapter will explore the development of auteur conceptualization and how that fits within contemporary developments in film theory and the Western.

Auteur theory had its origins in Paris in the late 1940s and early 1950s; it was stimulated both by the emergence of New Wave French cinema and by a desire to innovate existing (French) theories of cinema analysis.1 French ← 1 | 2 → New Wave cinema emerged in the 1950s and refers to the particular film style of a small group of prominent directors including Jean-Luc Godard, François Truffaut and Alain Resnais. It emphasized the significance of innovative film techniques to convey the individual personality and values of directors and largely sought to refute bourgeois values; indeed, the elevation of film as art and director as artist can be seen as part of that refutation.2 Many of these directors were involved in the production of the film magazine Cahiers du cinéma (headed by André Bazin and founded in 1951), which played a central role in propagating ideas of auteurism. That these directors sought to elevate cinema-as-art is certainly no coincidence; as James Naremore (2004: 10) argues, ‘it [auteur theory] served as a kind of banner to help publicize the early work of its own adherents’. This is not to suggest a cynical use of the theory; the rise of auteurism reflected a particular post-Second World War historical context, the distinct changes in the cinema landscape after the collapse of the Hollywood studio system and a growing fascination with Americana (and American film directors) in France.

The historical context of cultural production and consumption in France in the years immediately following the Nazi Occupation, what are now referred to – and thus analeptically but perhaps also, if we shift our perspective, presciently – les années noires, is complex. Frenchness itself had to be reimagined in the Fourth Republic and, as even a cursory survey of the early films of Jacques Tati, for example, reveals, this identity was difficult to construct in a de-Americanized void. What it meant to be French had shifted in quick succession from a tense opposition to the military and cultural presence of the German forces of occupation to another opposition, to a second set of occupying forces that were, if not military, at least ← 2 | 3 → as present culturally and economically. Liberation at the hands of Allied forces had brought a new hegemony, and postwar recovery and ‘modernization’ would henceforth be known simply as Americanization (cf. Kuisel 1993) and Frenchness conceptualized in the light of an inevitable Other.3 Before Tati’s classic films Jour de fête [The Big Day] (1949) and Les Vacances de Monsieur Hulot (1953), his court métrage of 1947 L’École des facteurs [School for Postmen] pitted seemingly innate, timeless French ingenuity against modern technologies that were patently influenced by (life under) the United States; in this film the classic French postman outperforms his modern French competitors only, of course, to deliver his mail for an overseas market. The love of the jazz age, which is ever-present in Tati’s films, is always already tempered with a nostalgia for old France, and his heroes walk knowingly into the future while at the same time casting fond looks back over their shoulders.4 There was, in short, no euphoric post-Liberation embracing of all things American without its various opposites, which is to say, new forms of cultural resistance.

A good example of this is the Série Noire, Gallimard’s new crime fiction series, which emerged in the autumn of 1945, within a year of the Liberation of Paris. Directed by Marcel Duhamel, the series quickly became synonymous with the hardboiled novels of Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler; and yet, in its earliest, foundational years, at that time when the French postwar context was being forged, the series gave prominence to colourful translations of texts originally authored by novelists passing themselves off as Americans. Under Duhamel’s control, English author Peter Cheyney’s pre-war novel Poison Ivy (1937) morphed into La Môme vert-de-gris (1945), or literally the ‘greenish-grey dame’, and became the first title of the series. The Série Noire was therefore inaugurated by an ← 3 | 4 → American novel that was not originally written by an American and that, in French translation, took on tones redolent of a recent and still raw past (the colours of Cheyney’s dame become those of the uniforms of the recently departed soldiers of the Wehrmacht) in order to become an allegory for a new French identity. For, at the end of the novel, Cheyney’s dame, Carlotta, shows her true colours and saves the hero from the evil gangsters. In so doing, the first Série Noire heroine (made eponymous by Duhamel’s translation while remaining a ‘collaborator’ rather than a protagonist) ensured that a share of the spoils were given to an agent who had been working on the side of the American lawman in secret, under cover, behind enemy lines. Under the cover of translation, Carlotta was able to become for French readers the new, postwar face of French identity – the famous Marianne of republican iconography – even as they bought into the new American genre. Thus, the victory of American agent Lemmy Caution, which would endure in France while his name would soon be consigned to history in his native England (and America), became a story of a shared victory, a new collaboration, in which France could revision the history of Liberation via the lens of a new collaboration and achieve partial, and partially secret, agency. In this way, translation, which is so readily interpreted as the importing into a zone of relative economic weakness of the cultural capital of a dominant economic power, was invested with the potential to appropriate, to embrace Americanness in France, in French but also on French terms; and even before it lent itself to the medium with which it would become most intimately associated, noir constituted a site of resistance to US cultural hegemony as well as (a genuine) fascination with it.5 ← 4 | 5 →

In this complex framework of France’s emergence from the ruins of the Second World War, the reconstruction of French identity in relation to the consumption and reception of American cultural products, and the production of French novels and films in the new Fourth Republic, the question of the auteur was placed centre stage, and yet, remained, perversely, always in the margins, or just off-screen. In addition to Marcel Duhamel’s translating into French and into France of (variously authentic) American heroes of the new crime thriller, France’s own new breed of postwar author was adopting an American identity. While it is nonetheless a refreshing perspective, it is of no surprise that Naremore (1998: 11–13) locates the origins of noir in Paris 1946 and that he also cites Boris Vian as its key representative. Vian’s most important contribution, and it is to this that Naremore refers, ran parallel to the inauguration of Duhamel’s Série Noire. While it is important that he wrote his best-selling novel, J’irai cracher sur vos tombes [I Spit on Your Graves], in an attempt to show that a French author could produce a novel to rival any American thriller, it is arguably still more important that he chose to do so posing not only as an American, but also as a black American. Rather than translated, the face of American literary success (and scandal) suddenly became literally, as well as inauthentically, French and, more importantly still, noir. Noir had become, as early as 1946, a site of contestation: authors were sold because they were American but also because they were not; they were authentically French and inauthentically American, real and fake. Such themes are explored here in Rolls, Hamilton and Sitbon’s examination of King Vidor’s Duel in the Sun and its re-allegorization in Boris Vian’s novel L’Automne à Pékin.

Criticism of the vested interests served by those involved in the development of auteur theory must arguably be viewed against this complex backdrop, in which competing forces were at work in the understanding and (re)construction of postwar national identities as well as what might be considered purely individual or theoretical concerns of originality and prestige. Certainly, this at times reflexive consideration of the relative importance of originality over, for example, translation, adaptation, repurposing and transvalorization is also accompanied by an absence of any one single conceptual approach to la politique des auteurs. For example, André Bazin criticized the emergent generation of auteur theorists for emphasizing the ← 5 | 6 → role of the individual artist and, in so doing, ignoring ‘social determinism, the historical combination of circumstances and the technical background’ that both constrains and produces authorial talent (as cited in Lapsley and Westlake 1988: 112). More broadly, auteur theory reflected philosophical concerns regarding modernity and was concerned with issues beyond authorship: ‘[auteurist] practice usually implied a contradictory set of theories about the phenomenology and semiotics of the cinema, and it produced excellent essays on stars and genres’ (Naremore 2004: 11–12).

As we have discussed, auteur theory may have originated in France but it was always entangled with American filmmaking; indeed, it emerged from an intense period during which France grappled with its inescapable bonds to the United States, internalized the US as Other and ultimately used the trope of America as a model of auto-differentiation to explain France’s difference from itself in the political landscape of postwar Europe, just as it had previously done in the mid-nineteenth century, at the dawn of what scholars like Ross Chambers (1999) have called critical modernity. When, for example, the late prose poetry of Charles Baudelaire picked up and responded to the crime fiction and fantastic tales of Edgar Allan Poe, it was because Baudelaire, who had translated Poe into French and, in the words of W. T. Bandy (1952: 66), ‘made him a great man for France’, saw in Poe’s work, and in his translation of it, his own ideas reflected back at him, thought by another before he had himself thought them (see Asselineau 2010: 7). French modernist poetics, and especially the oxymoronic prose poetry of critical modernity, mapped the model of American thought as it emerged in France but also as it itself aspired towards French poetry even as it originated in America. Otherness and self-alterity therefore, and the difference between authorship, translation, adaptation and appropriation, have represented the history of Franco-American literary relationships and the formation of literary genres since as early as the 1850s.

While its origins may well stem from France’s view of America, and of itself as inextricably coupled with America, on the other side of the Atlantic auteur theory was adopted by American analysts – principally the film critic Andrew Sarris – as a mode to better understand the Hollywood feature film and as a tool to catalogue cinema over time. Thus, auteur theory became seen ‘primarily as a critical device for recording the history of American ← 6 | 7 → cinema, the only cinema in the world worth exploring in depth beneath the frosting of a few great directors at the top’; in this way, for Sarris, ‘auteur theory is the only hope for extending the appreciation of personal qualities in the cinema’ ([1962] 1974: 510). Arguably, it was also adopted by Hollywood as a way to elevate cinema from a populist form of entertainment into an art form – one where the director assumed pre-eminence as an artist whose personality marked a film as distinctive rather than the filmmaking process being a collaborative and potentially fraught process for a mass market. Indeed, Sarris argued that these potential constraints are precisely what elevates the auteur above other filmmakers:

The auteur theory values the personality of a director precisely because of the barriers to its expression. It is as if a few brave spirits had managed to overcome the gravitational pull of the mass of movies […] no artist is ever completely free, and art does not necessarily thrive as it becomes less constrained. ([1963] 1981: 65)

So, according to Sarris ([1962] 1974: 512–13) there are three central tenets of auteur theory: directors must have technical proficiency; the ‘personality of the director [can be perceived] as a criterion of value’; and, an auteur’s oeuvre conveys an ‘interior meaning […] an élan of the soul’.


VIII, 236
ISBN (Softcover)
Publication date
2018 (January)
Western film genre film theory auteur theory
Oxford, Bern, Berlin, Bruxelles, Frankfurt am Main, New York, Wien, 2018. VIII, 236 pp.

Biographical notes

Emma Hamilton (Volume editor) Alistair Rolls (Volume editor)

Emma Hamilton is a Lecturer in History in the English Language and Foundation Studies Centre at the University of Newcastle, Australia. Her first monograph, Masculinities in American Western Films: A Hyper-Linear History, was published in 2016. Her research interests include representation studies, especially film and history; gender, sexuality, age and race across time and place; and modern American and Australian histories. Alistair Rolls is Associate Professor of French Studies at the University of Newcastle, Australia. His research focuses on the work of Boris Vian and French and Anglo-American crime fiction. He is the author of The Flight of the Angels: Intertextuality in Four Novels by Boris Vian (1999), French and American Noir: Dark Crossings, with Deborah Walker (2009), and Paris and the Fetish: Primal Crime Scenes (2014).


Title: Unbridling the Western Film Auteur