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  Gunslinging Justice

The American Culture of Gun Violence in Westerns and the Law


Justin A. Joyce


Manchester: University Press, 2018

Hardcover xii + 248 p. ISBN 978-1526126160. £80


Reviewed by Ian Scott

University of Manchester




Right at the beginning of his new book, Gunslinging Justice, author Justin Joyce confesses that he is not a fan of Westerns. It is a bold claim for someone writing a book on the subject, but one he lives up to for most of this fascinating if uneven text. Joyce is keen to point out that in its baldest form, the genre has been about the perpetration of values and ideals – extreme violence, misogyny, racism, and conquest – that the United States would much rather brush to one side. But, rather like the delicate state of his feelings for the films, Joyce’s book soon gets tangled up in appreciating and denigrating the genre at one and the same time to useful, but sometimes limiting effect.

Joyce’s project is not seeking to reappraise the genre on its own terms or to draw out the notion of a new revisionism at work in Western cinema. Indeed, he contests the whole academic remit that has worked through classic, revivalist and revisionist Western period studies to suggest there is something much more elemental at work. And here is where the book is at its most original and inviting, even if its timing and conclusions remain open to more interpretation. For Joyce, the Supreme Court’s landmark District of Columbia v. Heller case in 2008 began to change something fundamental in modern American society, and fundamentally etched into the history of the iconic Western genre too: the concept of self-defence and gun ownership. For Joyce’s book is in effect knitting together the climactic gun fight of Western lore with the prevalence of modern gun violence, state authorisation of such violence – most often perpetuated by law enforcement against African Americans and other minorities – and the way in which the law has shifted, reacted and/or in some such way accounted for the fluctuating discourse about guns in society at large. To reiterate, it is a bold move on any level, but it only works on some levels.

Early chapters account for America’s legal, legislative and social progression towards a culture that seems ever more wedded to guns, if not violence generally. The self-defence doctrine and interpretations of the Second Amendment are very much to the fore here. Joyce’s legal clarifications and understanding of the histories of political and social jurisprudence wrapped up in decisions leading to Heller are intriguing, thought-provoking readings of America’s synonymy with gun culture. And it is that binding of the mythological Western in folklore as well as societal tradition that Joyce is attempting to tease out with some success. When he then moves on to talk of ‘firearm iconography’ via the binary separation of the rifle from the six-shooter – the former a symbol of accuracy and 19th century progress, the latter about 20th century self-made individualism – he is in even more rewarding territory with concepts of the law and justice metaphorically played out through the redemptive weaponry of the genre.

But, for all these good interventions, stylistically as well as argumentatively, the book does feel irregular at times. Forget for a second that we sometimes travel quite swiftly from jurisprudence detail to film readings with barely a pause for breath. Or that the “warp and woof” metaphor used throughout becomes somewhat strained. No, the main issue is that there is quite a bit of academic self-consciousness to this book that one often feels is not altogether necessary when its points stand up for themselves handily enough. It is not a requirement, for instance, to point out that a graduate studies thesis needs mentally and philosophically expanding in order to become a book project with wider audiences in mind [3]. And yet the author does keep repeating graduate-style appendages by trumpeting the originality of the approach, and sometimes denigrating other perfectly laudable theories in their haste to assert the uniqueness on offer.

Joyce is particularly drawn to denying Matthew Carter his place in the sun for repudiating the Western’s landmark cinematic stages with what Joyce protests is a “shallow claim” [92] for unexplored complexity, rather than linear evolution. Maybe there is something to this. But, for one, Carter’s The Myth of the Western is attempting to uncouple cinematic tendencies to periodise generic form from a civilising narrative that must move the Western from raw and bloody conquest in the early 20th century to a later self-reflexive condemnation of actions and settlements in, supposedly, more liberal times. And second it is just that, a debate about cinema, industry form and function, as much as it is cultural trade-offs. In the end Joyce’s own contention is a simple, but equally effective one too: that the vast majority of different Western texts find resolution in, to use one famous film title, the way of the gun. And it is as simple and valid a conclusion as Carter’s pointed argument against the industry’s strategising of time and evolutionary context to frame and sell its product.

The end of this section introduces a further phrase that also offers up a bit more contention. Talking about the modern era of Western violence, up to 2012 anyway, Joyce asserts that particular guns remain salient “for gun violence that can be culturally justified” [124]. It is a very credible but demonstrably different point from other parts of the book. Cultural violence as distinct from violence in society at large? Joyce’s linkage between the use and amount of gun violence in Westerns and that which has legally, socially and culturally become permissive at large is surely valid, and vital. But doesn’t the Western only reflect a wider cultural turn in the use of violence maintained throughout western culture, and most especially in the 21st century? Apart from police shows and thrillers more generally, the rise in recent times of a multitude of horror fantasies and franchises surely equates with the same wider quotient for that which is explicit and unimaginable, lived out – for the most part – in a purely cultural realm. In other words, the violence is undoubtedly apparent, but where is the evidence of the direct correlation and effect to – only? – the Western, and if there is one, is it doing anything more to the populace’s conceptions than other, sometimes more graphic, cultural touchstones?

In Chapter 6, Joyce moves towards the climactic elements of the book by devoting most of a chapter to the Western that seemed to ‘redefine’ generic tendencies for the form at the end of the 20th century: Unforgiven (1993). Here Joyce alludes to alterations in law and justice and how films might be playing with, or aligning such change. Semiotic justice is introduced as a concept which complicates that narrative by attuning the notion of revenge and righteousness to competing systems that may have gravitated in and out of American social, legal and cultural consciousness over time.        

It is another fascinating argument. But it is one that again does not appear to sit easily with earlier claims about Western film critics feeling obliged to apologise for the genre’s anachronistic tone as a relic of bygone times; especially if the genre is capable, by the Unforgiven example, of reframing its concepts of justice for current climates. It is even harder to know what to make of such a claim when the Western of the later 2010s, on TV as well as in the cinema, has had such a revival. One does not have to start and end with the most obvious of recalls to the genre either, such as Django Unchained and Justified – which Joyce concludes the book with – as well as The Hateful Eight, Westworld, and The Hatfields and McCoys, to understand the Western has gained renewed cultural substance with a variety of approaches.

And this is one of the question marks against the whole book, alas. If Gunslinging Justice had come out certainly before the emergence of what we can now safely call the ‘Trump era’, Joyce’s wider agenda might have been on safer ground. But in the short time since 2015-16, the Western’s ubiquity – in literature, film, TV and art – leaves the book rooted in the 2012 period despite its 2018 publication, even though there are odd footnotes later on to newer works, thus highlighting a missing link that possibly questions some of the cinematic tenets at work here. Certainly reading through this book, notable recent texts such as The Son (both Philip Mayer’s 2013 book and the AMC 2017-19 TV series),  Bone Tomahawk (2015), Hostiles (2017), Woman Walks Ahead (2018), and even a ‘modern’ Western like Little Woods (2018), all challenge in various ways a number of the themes at large in Joyce’s work. 

Ultimately, Joyce’s justifiable violence theme [198] is the pivot upon which the book’s undoubted significance, yet problematic countenance, sits. He uses the Justified TV show (2010-15) as a way to show the continued prevalence for mortal violence, but in a way that seems to condemn the Western formula as responsible for Ferguson, Trayvon Martin and Michael Brown, the most recent victims of gun crime and extra-legal authority available to him at the time he wrote the chapter. But are these events looking at the Western as their cultural yardstick? More persuasively they are seeing the ways a myriad other crime and social dramas highlight the plight of the poor, disenfranchised and marginalised in American society. The gunslingers come in many forms, in other words, and the type, form and metaphoric representation of the gun (six-shooter) could be equated with many other cultural distillations, not just the Western.

As for Django Unchained, Joyce’s major contribution here is to pressurise the clichés and stereotypes associated with the genre into a formal submission in the face of a text that usurps and teases such commonalities all white based and privileged and which recognises such stereotypes have forever needed debunking on any number of levels. That said, if Joyce had used his opportunity to move on more purposefully from Tarantino’s movie and analyse the new version of The Magnificent Seven (2016) directed by Antoine Fuqua – a footnote refers to it as neglecting race altogether – then the end to his book might have been more interesting still.

Joyce is doing a lot of things at once. Film readings, jurisdictional reappraisal, legal history and cultural theory mixed with contemporary popular commentary. It is a brave and bold attempt to mingle self-defence doctrines as understood in law with homicide on an industrial scale in America’s most racked societies and see where the resultant cultural frames of reference might fall in the hope of providing answers. Gunslinging Justice does offer some responses and they are never less than capable and provocative instructions. But they are not the sum of the debate on the law, on violence, and ultimately on the Western genre either. That genre has decidedly moved on from 2013 time and it remains a slight mystery as to why Joyce, alluding to later texts as far as 2017, has not incorporated these films into the heart of the book and fundamentally moved the conversation forward. The premise of Gunslinging Justice remains spirited and essential; the implementation of the premise, however, offers more questions than answers.    



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