I am an avid Western film consumer, or at least I was at some point in my life. For me, the Western has always been about honour. Honour is a multifaceted word, it stems from respect, duty, and love. In the Western, it is a sentiment of its own that takes different shapes, but at its core, it is always the same. Honour is the cornerstone of the Western. It is found in nearly every Western I have watched, from the classical to the Technicolour Era, and expanding into the ramifications of the genre in Neo-Westerns or Italian Spaghettis. The implications have changed through time and context. This is what I am concerned with—how honour shifts and remodels itself within the Western.
To begin, we have to revisit what the Western means as a genre in terms of style and content. Thanks to the quintessential essays written by Andre Bazin, we can swiftly acknowledge the Western’s main particularities. In its purest form, the Western is an “epic-like idealization” (Bazin 143) of American history. The mise-en-scene is widely known and understood, even if one is not familiar with the genre. The cowboy, the hat, the horse, the vast empty landscapes, the guns, and the damsel all converge in the Western film as symbols of a historical time period. Synthesizing history through cinema is not unique to the Western, yet it feels that the mythology of the genre overtakes the historicity of the time period. The way the Western film depicts the American West’s colonization is regarded as a factual account of events. The Western usually focuses on the white man and his colonizing efforts to survive and establish himself in an infinitely hostile environment. Positioning such a character as a protagonist is what allows the Western to idealize its own narrative of history. What other way would a nation write its history if it is not through the brave deeds of men? As an audience, we can process the Western as a historical artifact because it is an enthralling and unambiguous retelling of a story. However, Bazin observes what is evident upon a more thorough inspection of the Western—we are witnessing morally ambiguous ‘heroes.’
The French scholar quickly hovers over the idea that the distinctions between good and evil are solely applied to men, and that the hero of the Western is usually an immoral character. Without getting too attached to the definition of morals, it becomes clear that the Western fascination to idealize history is trampled by its own perception of what it deems to be ‘good.’ In other words, the Western genre is intrinsically married to the concept of honour recognized as righteousness. Surely, being right and being bad creates a strange dichotomy that at least challenges the ideal conception of history. Yet, I do not think this is the case. I believe the Western actively advocates that doing the right thing, even if the doer is bad, is what makes that person honourable.
All in all, the Western has the power to champion its credo, thanks to its affiliation to Hollywood. One cannot exist without the other. Hollywood needs the Western as a means to produce as much spectacle as is necessary to fill theatres. The Western needs Hollywood because its spectacular retelling of history requires an audience, and not just any audience, but one that will embrace an idealized history and incorporate it into their praxis.
Let us take, for example, the culmination of the classical Western and the epitome of the refined mythology, John Ford’s 1956 Technicolor epic The Searchers. The film follows Ethan, a war veteran who, upon his return to 1860s Texas, has to face innumerable challenges to rescue his kidnapped infant niece from the Comanche people. On top of the racism and the misogyny, it is implied that Ethan acquired money during the war under suspicious conditions—he is evidently, even by the time period standards, an immoral character. Yet, we are forced to align with his frustration as he struggles time and time again. In the end, his motivation is to rescue an infant. Right but bad. Honourable in its righteousness. Within the mythology of the Western, honour is what makes Ethan the hero of the film, however, historically his righteousness acquires another meaning.
What was right for Ethan is not the act of rescuing his niece, what was considered right was to honour his own kind. Sequestered by the Comanches, she was bound to lose her status as a white person—losing her to the Comanches would mean the fragility of the colonization of the West. Even when Ethan finds her for the first time, Debbie states that she does not want to come back. This in turn makes Ethan desire her return more. Hence, the Western implies that the West was won not by the valiant efforts of cowboys and pioneers, but by a racially motivated desire to rid the land of everyone who looked different. Ethan is just a mirror of his historical counterparts.
Nonetheless, the Western did not remain confined to America and its history. The genre travelled far and wide and has been rehashed in an infinite pastiche of myths and historical contexts. Cue in, Pariente (2016), a Colombian film directed by Ivan D. Gaona. From the first frame, we know Gaona’s film is symbolically a Western. The hats, the guns, and the empty land. But historically, it is completely detached from its American counterpart.
Pariente unfolds during the years that followed the peace treaty of 2003 between the Colombian government and the AUC, a right-wing paramilitary group. It is difficult to just hover over Colombian history, even in its recent times, as the conflict and its actors have shifted constantly, to the point where there are no longer distinctions between one and the other. For instance, Álvaro Uribe, Colombia’s president at the time, was in fact, investigated for his links to the AUC What does that even mean for the peace treaty? Believe me, you and everyone else ask themselves the same question. For the sake of this essay’s length, I shall focus on the notions that are relevant to Gaona’s film.
Pariente focuses on Willington, a truck driver in Güepsa, a rural town in the east of Colombia. Willington performs various jobs rather informally, and among them, he collects ‘protection money’ from the town inhabitants to give to the AUC. Having heard the news that the paramilitary group was dissolving, Alfonso (one of Willington’s partners), kills an AUC soldier and steals the money back in front of Willington and Heriberto. This singular violent action will generate a wave of reactions as Willington tries to navigate having a normal life in a terribly hostile environment.
As stated earlier, Gaona’s film re-purposes the known mise-en-scene of the Western to tell a uniquely Colombian story. He positions the characters in wide shots against interminable valleys, he uses the rural city as a ‘frontier town’ far from the reach of the centralized metropolis. He exchanges horses for pick-up trucks. Six-shooters become semi-automatic handguns. Yet, more importantly, he portrays Willington as an ambiguous hero. In a town where law and order is divided between a useless police force and a helpless paramilitary group, the main character of Pariente is, in the most unabridged way, a survivor. Willington does what he can with what he has.
When compared to Ethan in The Searchers, Willington does not have an ulterior motive for his acts. He was thrown into a world where he has absolutely no agency. On top of that, he is aware of his own condition. Willington acknowledges his affiliation to the conflict and his stoic morality. When Alfonso faces him after the shooting, Willington states “aquí no ha pasado nada” (nothing happened here). His apathetic relationship to violence is both a coping mechanism and a symptom of the society he lives in. In addition, when confronted by Heriberto to give the money back to the AUC, Willington does not comply. He knows what paramilitary does to thieves and murderers because their horror tactics are all too familiar. Thus, honour in Pariente strays away from righteousness—there is no honour in doing the right thing if you are a dead man.
If the history that American Western film is concerned with is a celebratory idealization of how the nation was built, Pariente’s historical take is the grim consequence of what the nation was built on. There is no fanfare or tall tales of bravery when violence piles up upon itself. Just like Alfonso enunciates to Willington, “all he has known in this town is violence. ” Pariente is a reminder of the history of my country, a sorrowful memento that is not really a souvenir of a bygone era, but an alarming reality check.
Towards the end of the film it is revealed that Heriberto is in fact a member of the AUC that has been hunting down Willington and his partners. While pointing his gun at them, Heriberto says he just wants to live in peace, but what is truly peace if it is solely achievable through violence? Pariente contends that the idea of the peace treaty has no pragmatic application in the world outside of courthouse negotiations. Led to believe the contrary, just like Alfonso, we find ourselves still caught up in the same conflict but with a different name. And I wish I could say things have changed, that history has turned on itself and that treaties and promises are honoured, but it is all the same. I cannot even begin to grasp the meaning of a word like peace because it is something I was not born with. What I can understand is how others profit from its absence, how a ruling class stuck in their oligarchic thrones pushed millions to vote no in a referendum that asked for peace less than 6 years ago. Pariente revives the anxiety of trauma and terror in its last frames. As Willington dials in an AUC walkie-talkie and receives no answer, he does not rejoice—there is an aura of death looming over him regardless of if he knows the face of his enemy or not.
At some point earlier Pariente, Heriberto brings up that if they would have been raised on different music they would be different people, he implies that traditional ‘rancheras’ and ballads lead people to act violently because they sing about betrayal. Willington on the other hand rebuts by saying that they would be the same kind of people, just listening to different music. Gaona argues that violence is intrinsic to us, that our country was built on it. Heriberto’s wishful thinking spawns from his obsession with his conception of peace, placing the problem outwards instead of within himself. He, the AUC, and the myriad of groups forcing their way to power through blood are what built the nation.
In Pariente, honour strays from righteousness and does not attach itself to peace. Willington only cares for one thing—love—embodied in one person, Mariana, his cousin’s fiance. Smartly coined in a song they constantly sing together, Willington truly believes that dying for love is a privilege when life is worth nothing. Therefore, what Willington and Pariente honour is love. Romantic, platonic, or filial love seems to be the only answer to the constant trampling of human lives. Opposite to peace, love is accomplished on an individual basis that then makes its way to the collective. It is a feeling that is tangible and pragmatic, it is the last bastion for hope and the motor for change.
Honour in the Western wears a lot of faces, it evolves, always attaching itself to a different context. I do not think honour rules over my life as part of a decalogue, but I do have to admit that Gaona’s portrayal of it feels adequate. Appreciating love seems like a very honourable way to live.
Bazin, André. “The Western, or the American Film par Excellence; The Evolution of the Western.” What is Cinema? , translated by Hugh Gray, University of California Press, 1972, pp. 140-157.
BBC News. “Colombia’s Alvaro Uribe investigated for ‘militia links’.” BBC, 2013, https://www.bbc.com/news/world-latin-america-20956820
BBC News. “Colombia referendum: Voters reject Farc peace deal.” BBC, 2016, https://www.bbc.com/news/world-latin-america-37537252