Firefly and Western Literature
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Death Wish and the Post-Western

As part of a Philosophy and Popular Culture series at Farmington, we have a speaker coming in on Thursday to talk about Superheroes and Vigilantism. As a prelude, we screened a classic film in the vigilante genre, “Death Wish”  (1974) with Charles Bronson. What surprised me about the film was how explicitly it acknowledged its roots in the genre western, and did so in a way that seems in keeping with what we’ve been calling here the post-western. However, unlike Firefly, with its progressive political stance, “Death Wish” approaches the post-western from a more right wing perspective.

The most surprising section of the film is when Paul Kersey takes an extended trip to Tucson, Arizona, leaving behind the dark, grimy, crime-ridden New York streets for the wide open spaces and range country of the American West. The trip takes place after Kersey’s wife has been killed and his daughter raped during a break-in. The sequence is important because it’s in the West that Kersey learns about justice and first formulates the idea of becoming a vigilante. In Old Tucson, he observes a staged gun battle in which actors perform a fight between and Old West sheriff and a group of would-be bank robbers. The sheriff, with guns blazing, dispatches the entire group. In this fake gunfight, Kersey sees real justice taking place, and he comes away from Arizona with a sense of what the “pioneers” were like, his sense of American history and how that history has been corrupted all derived from a fake battle staged for tourists. It’s an odd sequence, to say the least, but Kersey returns to New York ready to take justice into his own hands (aided by the gift of a pistol from an Arizona friend–thus the western weapon returns to the east to help clean it up).

After he starts shooting and killing muggers and would-be muggers, the anonymous vigilante becomes a celebrity. We see around the city advertisements for an issue of Newsweek, with the bold type words “Frontier Justice in the Streets” juxtaposed with the graphic image of a noose. In this sense, the film is very knowing in its references to the western and to the idea of the frontier.  At one point, Kersey challenges one of the punk muggers (who are virtually indistinguishable from each other) to a gunfight, telling him, “fill your hand,” but the punk is so far removed from pioneer values (or from the western genre) that he doesn’t understand Kersey’s slang, and even when Kersey tells him to “draw,” he still doesn’t get it.

Kersey ends up wounded, and the police chief visits him in the hospital, and lets him know that he will cover up Kersey’s crimes, but that in exchange Kersey must get out of town. Kersey, recognizing the genre moment, comments, “By sundown?”

Despite these elements of the film, I’m still not quite sure whether or not to claim “Death Wish” as a post-western. The film seems to regard the western, and the world of the western, as a nostalgic loss, and the desire is not to go “beyond” or extend the western, but to mourn its loss, and to mourn that loss as if it were the loss of something real in American history. If anyone has seen “Death Wish” recently, is it a post-western? does the post-western need to look to the future? does the post-western need to evoke a progressive politics?


2 Responses to “Death Wish and the Post-Western”

  1. Hi, I really enjoyed this review. I happened to be writing about Death Wish on my blog and followed a link over here.

    I didn’t pick up on the Western connotations when I saw the film, but it was a couple years ago. I’d have to think on that one.

    Firefly was a great show, btw.

  2. Actually, the magazine in the movie with the headline about Frontier Justice was Harpers. I’ve checked the archives for Harpers and it does not appear to be a real issue.

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