In our essay, we compare two significant movies of the last century and the present, High Noon directed by Fred Zinnemann and Once Upon A Time In Mexico by Robert Rodriguez. The prominent pictures will be analyzed in terms of three frameworks: industry, gender, and technology.
Western is one of the oldest genres of American cinema, which has played a particular role not only in the American cinematography but also in the entire history of the American culture and has not lost its importance nowadays. The following paper will reveal the reasons why High Noon and Once Upon A Time In Mexico are westerns and will prove their importance in the course of the American movie history.
Why do the Two Films Belong to Westerns?
According to Buscombe (1986), westerns must communicate the topic of civilization and feature the opposition between a person and nature. Fred Zinnemann’s High Noon centers on the struggle between a person and the society; still, the nature is present, and its ruinous influence on the people’s values is revealed.
When watching High Noon, the audience associates the nature displayed in it with the western. It might not be particularly wild, peaky West of the USA; still, it gives the exact feeling of violence, brutality, and freedom, which are inherent characteristics of the ‘West’ (Kitses 1969).
Buscombe highlights the relationship between the hero’s demeanor and his clothing as helpful to reveal the typical western hero. Hereby, we should state that Zinnemann’s characters fully fit the picture of a western hero: they are violent, free, masculine, sexy, and aggressive. They are portrayed strictly to the rules so that the viewer utterly comprehends their toughness and self-sufficiency (Buscombe 1986).
The “timeless epic,” as Cawelti (1975) names westerns, is a movie where the main character gains victory over crime and lawlessness and does not use any special means. The hero rarely applies to police and courts, and this we may observe in Zinnemann’s High Noon; however, the sheriff is present in this film; still, his figure is not perceived as a figure of law (Cawelti 1975).
The title of the movie indicates that it is not a western; nevertheless, we would like to underline the opposite. The events take place at the southern border; the topic of nature is hardly highlighted; there are no mountains or desert landscapes, just overcrowded streets and crooked houses. The viewer cannot observe shooters but automatic guns instead, no hoses but cars and motorbikes; and still we would certainly discuss Once Upon A Time In Mexico in terms of a western.
According to Buscombe’s (1986) definitions, Once Upon A Time In Mexico is difficult to describe as a western, especially considering the first definition; still, the movie displays the problem of civilization and the negligence to nature. It may be discussed as a film which shows the results of a ruinous and incorrectly-established civilization.
In terms of the ‘timeless epic’ (Cawelti 1975), Once Upon A Time In Mexico has a classic narrative. The hero struggles against the vicious Barillo and wins with hardly an advantage from his weapon; the role of the gun is minimal in this case. Once Upon A Time In Mexico does not describe the rise of civilization; still, it reveals its main problems and explains why this had been done in the wrong way. It actually can be perceived as an offer to establish the aforementioned civilization anew.
As in High Noon, the characters of Rodriguez are violent, strong, sexy, and aggressive males; however, they are a bit different in the sense of their freedom. The new century gives new freedoms, and the heroes get more complicated. The viewer must discover the history of each character, listen to the stories which explain how the characters brought themselves to such a position with an accent on savagery and demolition. At the same time, the heroes keep being described as morally strong, brutal, and self-sufficient; so, according to Buscombe (1986), they are exactly the classic western heroes.
Why Are the Two Films Useful for Understanding the Screen History?
Zinnemann’s High Noon and Rodriguez’s Once Upon A Time In Mexico are the films of the two totally unlike epochs. They were directed and produced in different countries and by different people; so, judging superficially, they can hardly be compared. The settings, the actors, and the manner of performing are different, but still it is the same film genre as it possesses the same or very similar ideas. We should avoid describing the factual events and objects in terms of artifacts belonging to western or a different genre as, in this case, it only distracts the viewer from understanding the main point, which is the struggle against injustice that can rise at any time, not depending on the historical period. People have remained themselves with their flaws and good sides in the new 21st century; time has passed, but the human soul is naturally unchanged. Therefore, these two movies have very much in common as they are similar in essence: they both have the core idea of a western, both underline the fact that western is not a time-fixed genre, but it is a timeless phenomenon.
Following its release, High Noon was interpreted as an allegory of the American society at the age of McCarthyism. John Wayne, the star of Western films and the supporter of Senator McCarthy, criticized the film, and in 1971, he called it the most un-American thing he had ever seen. Nowadays, High Noon is, however, considered to be one of the finest examples in the history of westerns. In 1989, the motion picture was included to the US National Film Registry as having cultural, historical, and aesthetic significance.
In High Noon a certain moral decay, which crept to the American frontier, might be observed as the sheriff Will Kane (Gary Cooper) must beg townspeople to help him before noon train comes, by which Frank Miller, the criminal obsessed with revenge on Kane, is returning to the town.
As stated by Carl Foreman, he wrote the original script to the film, but the producer Stanley Kramer noticed its resemblance to John Cunningham’s “The Tin Star” published in 1947 and bought the rights for the story. However, Kramer’s widow denied Foreman words saying that the script was only an adaptation of the story.
During the 50s, the main competitor to the western film genre was television. As a result, Hollywood had to find ways to make their products more attractive and entice the viewers to leave their living rooms and come to the movies. The color soon became an essential part of westerns. Widescreen westerns, like Vera Cruz (1954) and Broken Lance (1954), emphasized the majestic landscape of the Wild West. Even 3-D came into the western genre, to such films as Hondo (1953) and The Charge at Feather River (1953). High Noon opposed “the idea that there was no originality in a high-concept film, stepping out of the classic Hollywood mould of the western” (Wyatt 1994, p. 72). The score has a strong link with the images on screen.
It is notable that High Noon is the first and last experience of the director in the genre of westerns. Obviously, referring to the genre, Zinnemann sought to use its popular form to realize the ideas standing far beyond the traditional scale of values of films about the conquest of the Wild West. It is also very significant that the script for the full version was written by Carl Foreman, one of the members of the “Hollywood Ten”, who was accused of communism, blacklisted, and expelled from Hollywood.
The film shooting started in 1951. During the film-making process, Carl Foreman was added to the Hollywood blacklist, and Kramer withdrew his name from the credits, although this did not prevent the fact that Foreman was nominated for Oscar. The film was released on July 24, 1952, and was successful at the distribution: with a budget of 750,000 US dollars, the worldwide box office amounted to 18 million dollars.
In 2003, the United States of America presented their film Once Upon A Time In Mexico: Desperado 2 to the world. This action movie by Robert Rodriguez captures from the first minute and keeps in tense and suspense until the very titles, forcing the viewers to get alarmed and enjoy the stunning play of the world famous actors. The film Once Upon A Time In Mexico: Desperado 2 really deserves praise only. It was also a very popular film since it featured numerous Hollywood stars and its director had been in the top ten best films for some weeks along with Spy Kids.
The film was shot specifically to the two other projects of Rodriguez, action movies Spy Kids 2: The Island of Lost Dreams and Spy Kids 3-D: Game Over, to avoid the potential strike of actors. That is one of the reasons why the Mexico Trilogy became the first trilogy of Rodriguez.
The plot of this outstanding action movie tells the story of how the familiar guitarist El Mariachi is trying to stop a drug lord named Barril, who intends to make a real revolution in Mexico and overthrow the president. He will have to go through fire and water to achieve his task and prevent a bloody revolution.
The music composed for Once Upon A Time In Mexico plays a significant role (Rodriguez 2003), underlying the dynamics of the action and binding the image and the sound.
In the United States, the film was rated R for violent scenes and foul language; the director stated that the only reason why the viewers could endure such brutality was the fact that the dog of Mickey Rourke’s character lived, while almost all other characters died (Rodriguez 2003).
Actually, Rodriguez took under control many aspects of the development of movies; he acted as a writer, producer, and director. The industry of this movie was not located in the United States of America. It was filmed in Mexico, and there were many Mexican actors hired: for the crowd scenes Rodriguez hired even ordinary Mexicans with no special theatrical education.
With new Sony cameras, $29 million budget, and a stellar cast, Rodriguez went with his old script and new acting crew to Mexico. (Rodriguez 2003).
The battle scene at the closing stages was hoped to be peopled by the Mexican military forces, but they refused due to conflicts with the scenario. So, the army was played by dwellers (Rodriguez 2003).
Zinnemann used Techniscope on High Noon most likely to “show the landscape in which our heroes and villains find themselves, the use of Techniscope was Zinnemann’s trademark” (Key 1995, p. 68). The Techniscope method was widely employed in 1960s when High Noon was made (Belton 1990).
There were many star actors invited for the role of the main character: Gregory Peck, Charlton Heston, Marlon Brando, and Montgomery Clift. Finally, the role of Will Kane was played by Gary Cooper. The actor was suffering from a bleeding ulcer and pain in his back at that time. He did not even want to appear in the final shootout, but he still refused to have the understudy. Grace Kelly, who played the role of Kane’s wife, was noticed by the director in the off-Broadway production. The film was the debut work of Lee Van Cleef, although he does not say a single replica throughout the film. As for the music, Dmitri Tiomkin wrote not only the theme for the film but also the song The Ballad of High Noon with Ned Washington’s lyrics, which later became one of the most popular songs of the time.
Fred Zinnemann fought against the colorization of his film, but it was still made by Ted Turner after the director’s death. Extreme close-ups were used in the film to eliminate any feeling of interiority of the characters. These close-up sequences used in culmination battle scenes, for example, the three-way duel scene, both intensify and suppress the Hollywood method of narrativizing reactions (Smith 1993). “Zinnemann replaces the classic shot/reverse-shot sequences with an equally formalized sequence of frontal facial shots – sometimes focusing in very tightly on just the eyes” (Smith 1993, p. 29), which altogether belies the tradition of reaction shots.
Unlike the 20th century, there stands no question of whether to shoot in color in the epoch of Rodriguez. His films cannot be even imagined black and white: they are so bright, tense, and saturated.
The action scenes are shot masterly and juicily. Every image is delightful and brilliant: from wickedly grinning Kukui to the charming face of Carolina, from agent Sands smoking while driving to El Mariachi sitting on the railing with a guitar in his hands. Rodriguez did camera work on his own and never trusted any other operator.
The same refers to the rest of the film: the script, the installation, and the music. In some case, it is absolutely right that every component of the film is under control of one and the same creative person. It is the easiest way to achieve integrity, sincerity, and some naturalness of everything that happens on the screen. Events in the Mexico follow each other with perfectly calibrated speed – there is no time to get bored – and always accompanied by most suitable music. As the director, Rodriguez accomplished his film closely to the concept of a music video. Rodriguez used cameras of high definition designed by Sony companies. Moreover, much of the music was written in Rodriguez’s home studio digitally (Rodriguez 2003). It was complicated to bring real fire-guns across the border; first time filming was done with mock-ups, sometimes supplemented with fire-crackers.
We observe the creation of masculinity: being a man means to have a particularly male body and certain fittingly guy skills. The violence outbreak, which is characteristic of westerns, appears as a test for both of these components: “the body must recover its male features, its ability to handle a gun, and the characteristic male response of the western – restraint, taciturnity, endurance” (Mitchell 2001). This idea is surely evident in Zinnemann’s High Noon, particularly in the main negative character, the prototypical western male.
With so much violence, High Noon presents a leading lady who is excited by “the men who are encouraged to show their manliness, both as handsome figures that draw the viewer’s gaze and as individuals capable of triumphing over adversity as only men are allowed to do” (Mulvey 2003, p. 140).
Unlike High Noon, the role of women is much more significant in Once Upon A Time In Mexico. “Salma Hayek who appears second in the title credits is in the film for mere minutes, a collection of eyes, legs, belly-button, and breasts” (Scott 2003). In his discussion, Mulvey (2003) states that “women in films are a distraction for the men and that they are the bearer of meaning rather than the making of it” (p. 141), and this is obviously true about Once Upon A Time In Mexico.
Salma’s character is an outstanding woman, who is passionate and sensitive at the same time, and Salma expressed her feelings and emotions brilliantly. The male characters are also very precisely shot. Each posture of El Mariachi is asking for a screenshot and is accompanied by the delight of the sincere spectator. Every bullet is fired accurately and colorfully; the viewer may even see how eagerly it bites into its victim. Forced to shoot blindly, agent Sands performs a great fight. He is outstanding in his action, his male looks, and his passion.
Taking into consideration the aforementioned arguments, we conclude that High Noon and Once Upon A Time In Mexico are surely westerns. Due to significant reasons, they differ completely; however, nowadays, the two movies are regarded as finest examples in the history of American westerns. Both Zinnemann and Rodriguez used non-standard techniques, and that is one of the reasons why their films are non-classical. Perhaps, that is also why they impress the wide audience so much. Nevertheless, both movies have become cult films by the present time, and their unlikeness only highlights the broadness of the western genre.