As the defining marker of ideas about national space, the American West has unfolded in the cultural imaginary as both dawn and nocturne, embarkation point and final destination. The West is less place than it is the space between places, functioning as a free-floating zone of representational potentiality, a vast borderland where the anxiety of becoming is inextricably enmeshed with the deeper anxiety that is the threat of historical oblivion. This is one reason why the greatest of Western films are so frequently elegiac in tone. The Searchers, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, and Shane, to name only the most prominent examples, attest to a way of life on the verge of vanishing, that crucial moment in which violence is recoded, deliberately revised and effectively subsumed under the name of the law.
To take place, to inhabit space, is also to make history and the making of history means the drawing of borders, the delimiting of space in order to map the coordinates of belonging. As constructed over several generations by Western filmmakers, the cinematic image of Mexico is a crucial part of this process: it plays host to the Other necessary for constructing an American expansionist identity. As such, it invariably conjures up a region of exotic cruelty and licentious abandon, a land where outlaws flee to escape justice and where the innocent are often taken hostage by the cunning. Historically, of course, Mexico as a nation has been dealt with by the United States with cynical opportunism. Sometimes enemy, sometimes ally, the U.S. has treated its southern neighbor with varying degrees of exploitation and paternalism. With the Mexican War of 1846-48, in which California, Arizona, and New Mexico were seized by the U.S. (and the independence of Texas reaffirmed), a precedent for aggression was established. This colonial attitude was eventually reflected in a number of Western movies.
Prominent among them are Robert Aldrich’s Vera Cruz (1954), Richard Brooks’ The Professionals (1966), and Sam Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch (1969), each of which frames Mexico as both a pastoral haven and a site of permanent exile. The Mexican/American border functions in them as a trope for psychological and spiritual rebirth, one that arose in response to the anxieties created by the closing of the frontier and the continuing cultural pressure to articulate a new site for redemption long after that closing. That all three are products of the Cold War, with the latter two made in the 1960s, after John F. Kennedy’s famous “New Frontier” speech, only underscores the extent to which the anxieties over “the frontier” are really the anxieties of empire. These films explore the crisis masculinity undergoes when its traditional field of cultural production is longer available. Ultimately, the questions raised by the closure of the frontier hinge on the problems of reconciling the excessive and restless character of desire with the need to set limits, to honor memory, and to build and maintain community.
In the cinematic grammar of the Western, Mexico provides one answer to this question. It not only figures as a refuge or place of exile for those living outside the hegemonic discourse, but it is the metaphorical membrane through which the hero of the Western seeks to work out his personal redemption, or in Richard Slotkin’s phrase, his “regeneration through violence.” This regeneration, writes Slotkin, is “the structuring metaphor for the American experience,” and is achieved through the hero’s separation from civilized society, his regression to a more primitive state, and finally, his redemption by the ideologically-sanctioned use of violence as a means of attaining synthesis.
If the Western prior to and immediately after World War II is concerned with staging narratives of ideological stability (the prime examples being John Ford’s cavalry trilogy: Fort Apache, She Wore a Yellow Ribbon, and Rio Grande), the more subversive Westerns of the 1950s and 1960s focus on the gaps in that narrative, whether they deal with more realistic depictions of violence, as in Anthony Mann’s The Naked Spur, or in Ford’s own powerfully revisionary The Searchers. Westerns such as these, as well as the ones I will consider below in detail, conduct probing post-mortems on the closing of the frontier. The border, which hitherto had been presented as an uncomplicated pushing-outwards, returns in these films with all the vengeance of the repressed to haunt the dreams of the colonizers.
In the Western, the border functions as a zone of transition, populated by danger and uncertainty, a region which invites adventurism and exploitation, and not only by individuals living on the margins of the law, but by those forces which nominally support the status quo. Orson Welles’ late noir masterpiece, Touch of Evil, for instance, exploits this quality to brilliant effect, though it’s less sanguine about the possibilities for regeneration, detailing instead how the price of living at the border subjects the law to moral corrosion.
The meaning of the border depends largely on its context: it can be either a barrier or a gateway. This tension illustrates how borders police the terms of exclusion by which a culture insures itself as civilized. Walter Benjamin’s oft-quoted observation that “There is no document of civilization that is not at the same time a document of barbarism” succinctly sums up the vexed relationship between the binary structures which comprise the foundation of cultural identity. Borders in the Western make neat dividers, then, of such categories as civilized/primitive; rational/instinctual; noble/savage, and so forth. To go “south of the border” means to operate outside of the paradigmatic culture’s jurisdiction, venturing into a territory rife with ambiguity and dangerous possibility.
Mexico, then, functions symbolically as “the underneath,” an alterior region where the forbidden is permitted, a place in which the terms of discourse become inverted, and the possibilities for redemption by those whom the law has dispossessed are made tantalizingly available. In this sense, Mexico takes over the role once played by the western frontier, which was held by Frederick Jackson Turner to have “closed” in 1890. In The Professionals and The Wild Bunch, both set in the early years of this century, that frontier has already closed, while in Vera Cruz, which is set in the late 1860’s, the displacement and anxiety produced in the aftermath of the Civil War conflate excursions into Mexico with westward expansion and exploitation.
To transit the border is to shed one set of values and take up another. In Slotkin’s analogy, it is “to pass through the looking glass.” This passage allows the hero of the Western access to qualities, such as deception and savagery, which are excluded from the discourse of his own culture. He enters a mythic region, where the repressed energies of the psyche are made available to him once more, energies he presses into the service of his own regeneration. In both Vera Cruz and The Professionals, these energies are ultimately employed to affirm the values of the hero’s cultural matrix. In The Wild Bunch, they enact less stable results, though they unfold along structurally similar lines.
The border acts as a marker for locating memory. It situates both what is lost to civilization as well as antecedent to it. In the case of Mexico, the physical boundary counts for less than the temporal divide it represents. Crossing south of the border is a trope for recovering the availability of more primal modes of behavior that have been repressed, abandoned, or forgotten in the drive to achieve civilization. More than that, though, the Mexican border registers what has been erased from memory itself and subsumed into history-at-large. The border in the Western is not only both a bridge and a barrier between two different forms of cultural discourse, but a troubled conduit connecting and implicating two contesting structures of recollection and representation. In Pierre Nora’s phrase, it shifts from milieux de mémoire to lieux de mémoire, that is, from a “real environment of memory” to “sites of memory.” A site of memory, according to Nora, is “any significant object or place which by dint of custom, labor, or the passage of time has become a symbolic element of the memorial heritage of any community.”
These sites are configured at the juncture where personal, local memory is overwritten by larger, ideological concerns with preserving culturally sanctioned versions of events. They can be commemorative objects, rituals, or places, like museums or archives, where the anxiety created by the collective loss of memory is re-negotiated in such a way that the idea of continuity, rather than actual continuity, is maintained. In the case of the Western, the porous character of the Mexican border acts to negotiate the anxiety felt by the closing of the frontier. In each of the three films considered here, the border represents varying degrees of license, salvation, and nemesis.