Firefly and Western Literature
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Several months after the film Appaloosa opened in England (where Neil saw and posted about it a while back), it finally made it to Maine, opening a few weeks ago at an art film theater, but more surprisingly showing this past week in Farmington, where we rarely get anything except the blockbusters. And, given that I saw the film as member of an audience of 6, I can see the unwillingness to schedule more adventurous fare.


I wish I could say that I liked the film, and that it didn’t deserve the fate of only having six viewers on a cold Maine Wednesday night, but I thought it failed to do what Firefly does so well, which is to incorporate elements of traditional westerns while reinvigorating them, acknowledging its roots but moving beyond them to create something that is as much about the present moment as it is about the past.


Even a self-proclaimed “throwback” western set explicitly in the Old West (a title places us in the 1880s, but I’m not sure of the exact year) can comment on the present moment. Recent westerns such as 3:10 to Yuma have used the old west setting to comment on contemporary America, particularly the war in Iraq (e.g., Yuma’s exploration of the “stay the course” philosophy). At the beginning of Appaloosa, I thought we might be headed in that more allegorical direction.


When Virgil Cole (Ed Harris) and Everett Hitch (Viggo Mortensen) arrive in town, they convince the town officials to sign a document basically giving the two the legal authority to create and enforce all of the town’s laws, a sort of allegorical version of Congress capitulating to the Bush administration and enacting similar blank check authority in administering the war in Iraq. The suggestion at the beginning of the film is that such a willing abandonment of checks and balances might have unforeseen consequences, that Virgil Cole’s brand of justice might produce ambivalent results, and that Appaloosa might venture into post-western territory by commenting on contemporary events.


But that doesn’t happen. And the signed documents are pretty much forgotten for the rest of the movie, and I really saw very little in the film thereafter that pointed to anything like contemporary relevance.


But even a throwback western can be enjoyable, and I liked much of the first half of the film, enjoying the nods to My Darling Clementine (Ed Harris’s homage to Henry Fonda’s Wyatt Earp’s fondness for sitting with his boots propped against a porch’s roof support) and to Rio Bravo (from which much of the plot comes—wealthy bad guy held in custody while waiting for transport and / or arrival of territorial judge, while the bad guy’s henchmen outnumber and threaten the outmanned sheriff). But the film ends up feeling like a mash-up of three films, My Darling Clementine, Rio Bravo, and Dodge City, but, unlike Firefly, which feeds its influences (including these three films) through a powerful mixer and comes up with a unique new product, Appaloosa gives us big undigested chunks of all three movies, which is part of what makes the film seem much longer than its 2-hour running time.


After a tightly-constructed first hour, we essentially start a new movie (and it may not be any of the ones mentioned above), as Virgil’s lady love Allison French (Renee Zellweger) is kidnapped as a way to force the freedom of bad guy Randall Bragg (Jeremy Irons), and thus we start off on a condensed version of, perhaps, The Searchers, as Virgil and Everett go off into the desert to redeem Allison.


After some chasing and some shooting, Bragg escapes, and we enter yet another plot, which, similar to Dodge City, involves a wealthy bad guy (Bragg, pardoned by the President for the murders he committed back in the first film, I mean, back in the first part of the film) who has taken over the town. All of a sudden, every building in Appaloosa is named after Bragg. There are some obscure references to his hitting it rich from a silver mine, and the city officials who fearfully hired Virgil and Everett to take care of Bragg are suddenly welcoming and sucking up to him. That this incredible transformation seems to take place within in a few days may have saved the film from being even longer than it already is, but I found the instantaneous transformation of Appaloosa into Braggtown hard to believe.


And speaking of hard to believe, much of the plot turns on the inexplicable behavior of Allison French. And the portrayal via her character of weak and untrustworthy femininity is certainly a throwback, but I’m not sure to what, as, for example, Angie Dickinson’s Feathers in Rio Bravo seems a feminist icon in comparison (as does many another strong female character in westerns of the 50s and 60s). The character motivation we have for Allison is that she responds so strongly to “alpha males” that she immediately hooks up with the leader of the pack. So weak-willed is she in the presence of masculine authority that within hours of being kidnapped, tied up, and held at gunpoint by Ring and Mackie Shelton, she is having sex with and enjoying a frolicking river bath with Ring.


There were no Zoes, Inaras, or Kaylees in Appaloosa, with the possible exception of Ariadna Gil’s Katie (who doesn’t get enough screen time), who appears to be pragmatic and tough enough to survive in the town of Appaloosa.


I wouldn’t normally comment on the exigencies of a local theater’s projection system, but there seemed to be some sort of smudge on the projector’s lens, and much of the film looked like it had been shot through the plastic lens of a Kodak instamatic. I mention this, though, because for most of the film, I wasn’t sure if there was something wrong with the projection or if this effect was an intentional part of the film’s throwback aesthetic, as if they were evoking the Old cinematic West by creating a visual style that look like a faded color print from the 1960s. Early in the film, we see Virgil sitting in front of a glass window that is (realistic to the 1880s) wavy and distorting of the scene beyond, and the film was so insistent in making sure we noticed the waviness of the glass (see how authentic we are!) that I assumed that the other visual distortions were similarly intentional stylistic choices, which I think says something about the film after all.


However, I wish I’d gone to the box office and asked them to clean the lens, so that at I least I could have spent two hours enjoying a clear view of Viggo Mortensen’s stylish facial hair (and two hours watching Viggo is never wasted time, just wish he’d been in a better movie).



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?


At the end of the Firefly panel at the Western Literature Association conference last week, we started a discussion about the series’ theme song that we had to cut short as we were running out of time. Maybe this would be a good topic to take up on the blog. In particular, we were talking about the theme song in terms not only its western elements but also possible Asian influences in the music. We also talked about the song in comparison to the opening title them of HBO’s Deadwood

Here is Firefly‘s title sequence:

And as a point of comparison, the opening credits of Deadwood:


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We started this blog as a way to talk back and forth about Firefly as we prepared for a roundtable discussion of the series at the Western Literature Association’s annual meeting. At long last, the meeting took place, and we all met up in Boulder, Colorado, and had a very nice discussion of the western elements of Firefly. The topic was introduced by Michael Johnson and Neil Campbell, but the discussion was really carried by the members of the audience. Our hope is to continue this discussion via the blog, with several of the people we talked with at the conference contributing to the blog as new authors.

Although photographs can’t, alas, convey the lively discussion that we had that day, we did want to share some of the photos from the conference.

And after the panel, Prof. Campbell had to rush off to a book signing event:


Just seen ‘Appalosa’ the new Ed Harris Western which shows many of the problems with the continuation of a genre. It’s a good film, but struggles to do anything new with the genre. It resorts to the slowing-down process of so many recent westerns – translating ‘realism’ through pace into a presumed intensity. If it’s slow it must be significant and meaningful; if the speeches are drawn out, if must be ‘like life’. OK, but problematic as drama. There is a sense in these westerns that we are watching in all through a microscope, looking for the details, the buttons on the shirt-front, the whiskers, the attention to language. What gets lost here? Well, the intoxication, the cinematic, the beauty. I liked the film, but thought it highlighted the Western’s problems. Sitting in an audience of 6 watching a film made by a Hollywood actor trying to capture something of the past … (a la Costner, Lee Jones, Eastwood, and now Harris). This is perhaps why the studio worried so much about Firefly, about Whedon’s Dreamof the West-in-Space. How could it be different and draw in the new audience?


At the upcoming 2008 Western Literature Association Conference in Boulder, we will be participating in a discussion-oriented panel on the western/sci-fi television show Firefly (created by Joss Whedon). Part of the fun of Firefly is the way it explicitly explores the western roots that many sci-fi films and television series share: through the use of western character types, the use of multiple western visual and aural motifs (space as wide open plains, individual planets with western topographies, guns, clothing, colloquial speech), and the use of various western plot devices, train robberies, cattle rustling, etc.


We have been using this blog over the past few months for a conversation about the western elements of Firefly. We probably won’t have much chance to post to the blog over the next week or so as we get ready for the conference (our panel is scheduled for Friday, October 3). If you’re attending the conference, we hope to see you at the panel!



As we are getting closer to the Western Literature Association conference date, we might start thinking about a clip or clips to use to spark discussion. One possibility would be the climactic battle scene in “Heart of Gold,” which despite sci-fi touches such as a laser pistol is pretty much all-western in terms of genre, complete with horses and Peckinpah-inspired slow motion violence. One of the interesting elements of this sequence is the crosscutting, as we move between two gun battles (the assault on the brothel by mounted gunmen, the fight for control of Serenity) and one birthing scene. It seems like a sequence where a number of Firefly‘s themes come together, and it’s also a well-put-together action sequence.


Inspired by Neil’s note that Zoe’s gun in Firefly is a descendant of one used in The Adventures of Brisco County, Jr., I’ve been looking around to see if I can discover which gun has made its way from Briscoe‘s late-nineteenth-century West to Firefly‘s space frontier. Zoe’s gun is definitely not Brisco’s pearl-handled pistol, but it may be based on the odd pistol that Lord Bowler carries in a holster strapped to his back.

This is not the most academic of investigations, but if Zoe’s gun is based on Lord Bowler’s, it does suggest an appropriate homage to Julius Carry and the character Lord Bowler that he created, one of the rare examples of an African American in a major continuing role on a television western.

The homage seems all the more appropriate given the untimely death of Julius Carry just a few weeks ago.


As I understand it, HoG was never aired on TV – appearing only on the DVD. It strikes me it has, as we have commented, many explicit Western traits, more so than any other episode.  I’d like to believe it was closer to the Western Whedon wanted to put out: Wild Bunch in Space. The episode is the ‘not-Western’ (that really is a Western), going close to the origins of the show as ‘ a mix of genres, a Stagecoach kind of drama with a lot of people trying to figure out their lives in a bleak and pioneer environment’ (Whedon), since as Adam Baldwin (Jayne) says, ‘Well, Firefly is a Western and I grew up watching Westerns like The Magnificent Seven, The Wild Bunch, Once Upon a Time , The Good the Bad and the Ugly, movies like that’ (94).  This is true in the details of the episodes in the ways this blog has been picking away at for weeks – the clothes, the sets, the guns (Zoe’s is from the TV sci-fi western ‘Adventures of Briscoe County Jr’), music, language, story-lines, references etc — BUT also in its crew — Cinematographer David Boyd – who later worked on Deadwood – was selected because of and his passion for Westerns by Whedon, especially a detailed knowledge of  The Searchers – something he had in common with Whedon.(84, Companion, Vol 2).

So I like to think of HoG as a swipe at the Studio and its rejection of the Western; its fear of Whedon’s post-Western vision. In Philip French’s, Westerns (Manchester: Carcanet, 2005) he defines post-westerns as films in which ‘characters are influenced by or are victims of, the cowboy cult; they intensify and play on the audience’s feelings about, and knowledge of, western movies’ (85), and although a limited, early definition (one I’m building on in my own work), it has something to say about Firefly, about the way the audience is invited into the text, to play around in its many echoes – a framing device here, a line of dialogue there, a name, a plot … And yet there is the sentimental aspect to Whedon’s Western vision, of a new hybrid community, ever-mobile, multi-racial, unfixed ROUTED not ROOTED. We see it in HoGold above all, the new Alamo/Last Stand – with a twist; a wagon train going nowhere-and-everywhere.