The Myth of Redemptive Violence (Part Two): The American Western

The Searchers John Wayne In Part One of this two-part series on redemptive violence in American Westerns, we considered how the 2007 version of 3:10 to Yuma significantly changed the ending from the 1957 film. In making the change, the movie embraced the myth of redemptive violence, a concept explained by writer Walter Wink in several books.

“The Myth of Redemptive Violence” appears in the media and popular culture to teach the lesson that violence provides redemption. In these scenes of redemptive violence, the audience feels a release and joy that the hero, often in an apparent beaten state, rises up in a flurry of violence to save himself or herself, save another, or save an entire town. It is only through the act of violence that the hero and society is redeemed and saved. {Note: This post and the previous post discuss the ending of classic Western film and thus include spoilers.}

high noon Although redemptive violence seems more common in today’s action films like in the updated 3:10 to Yuma, it has been present throughout film history. Many old Westerns perpetuate the myth of redemptive violence, but the best of them add a layer of complexity and avoid the simple violence-as-redemption lesson. For example, the classic Shane (1953) fits Walter Wink’s pattern of redemptive violence with Shane beaten until he rises up to redeem himself through violence. But the movie adds something more as we realize that Shane’s acts of violence do not bring him happiness.

A similar theme is present at the end of High Noon (1952), where we are relieved that Gary Cooper killed the bad guys. But his redemption comes from the fulfilled duty more than the violence. Ultimately, he rejects the violence when he throws his badge on the ground at the end and rides off with his Quaker wife to be a farmer. Similarly, Robert Altman’s beautiful McCabe and Mrs. Miller (1971) still offered a nod to redemptive violence with the killing of the bad guys, but it also showed us the hero’s tragic death.

The Searchers (1956) bucked the redemptive violence myth further. Although the film promises violence at the end, instead we get mercy and a hero left with a troubled future because of his violent past. In the scene below, we see Ethan Edwards, played by John Wayne, finally capturing his niece stolen by the Native Americans. Edwards is an angry violent man who hates the Indians so much he plans to kill his niece who was taken into their culture. But near the end of the film, his character finds redemption through a small nonviolent act.

In this new century, movie makers often create movies that fail to grapple with the complexities of violence and instead offer violence as redemption. Even in the highly regarded “anti-Western” of Unforgiven, where many critics praised its realistic treatment of violence, the movie ends with acts of redemptive violence just like other Clint Eastwood Westerns. The movie promises more, but in the end it slips back into the pattern of redemptive violence as we enjoy watching Eastwood kill the wounded and unarmed Gene Hackman. Similarly, Appaloosa (2008) offers us a complex vision of the West, but it still settles on a final shootout so viewers are satisfied that the bad guy is killed.

Dances with Wolves (1990) attempted to get out of the cycle of redemptive violence. It does have flashes of it though, such as where the white men – whose evil is shown by the fact they kill Kevin Costner’s horse and the wolf – are killed in a battle at a river. Had the movie ended there, it would have been a redemptive violence lesson, but it continues and we see Kevin Costner troubled by his future and the movie ends with him and Stands With a Fist sacrificing their life with the tribe to go on their own to protect the tribe. Thus, the movie ends with an act of sacrifice rather than an act of redemptive violence.

The ending of Dances With Wolves, though, is somewhat unsatisfying. Perhaps it is because the movie led us to believe that it would provide us with redemptive violence due to its previous acts of violence. But at the end there is no big act of violence to put an end to the bad guys and make the good guys heroes. Maybe because the good guys of the movie are the Native Americans, and we all know they do not win, the movie could not end differently. Costner and the tribe never get their redemptive violence because the Native Americans of history never did.

The themes of Shane, High Noon and The Searchers — with their ambiguities and troubled heroes – almost seem too complex in comparison with the modern version of 3:10 to Yuma. The modern movie says, “the bad guy is now good because he killed the bad guys.” But in these older movies, it was not enough to vanquish the bad guys because there was something troubling lingering after the acts of violence.

Of course, not all old Westerns were as complex as The Searchers, so maybe it is unfair to make a comparison across time to a few classics. Still, watch for redemptive violence messages in any modern action film you watch. When so many people are constantly taught a lesson of redemptive violence, we have to ask about the message we convey through our entertainment and how that entertainment may reflect our society today.

What do you think about the use of violence in film? Leave your two cents in the comments.

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