In today’s article I would like to write about on whether there is a crisis in the religious representation in contemporary TV western and specifically, because this topic could be very extensive, I wanted to focus on the figure of the priest, which is still a representation of God on earth. This figure, that of the priest, is reformulated as we have known it up to now: we start to talk about priests who fall ill, who become blind and die, either by the action of others or by divine grace, or to go a step further, they disappear from the story.
I believe that in order to understand the crisis of the religion that is taking place in the contemporary Western genre, it is important to review over what George Steiner says in his book Nostalgia for the absolute published at the beginning of the year 2000: “The churches and Christian currents largely organised the Western vision of human identity and our role in the world and their practices and symbolism deeply impregnated our daily life from the end of the Roman and Hellenistic world onwards, but gradually, they lost control over sensibility and daily existence. The religious core of the individual and the community degenerated into social convention. It became a kind of courtesy, an occasional or superficial set of reflexes”. This decadence Steiner talks about has come to generate a void or a nostalgia for the absolute that, according to him, is caused by the death of God.
I find this fragment of Steiner particularly revealing to establish a parallelism between the western genre and religion. If religion has been a fundamental fact, and I would even go so far to say foundational in the creation of a human identity for the world, as Steiner rightly states, the western has done the same with the image we have of the United States as a nation. The large number of westerns produced between the 1940s and 1950s were used as tools to exalt American nationalism and also, in an allegorically way they serve to shape a common imaginary of American history in the minds of the viewers1, as Stanley Corkin states in Cowboys as Cold Warriors: The Western and US History.
I have grouped the westerns of my analysis in various periods to shape a chronological axis that helps the reader to understand how contemporary television has contributed to this disappearance or death of God mentioned by Stainer, through the representation and function of the priest.
1960s-1990s: Bonanza + Dr. Quinn MD
The first period that I have chosen spans from the 60s to the 90s, coinciding with the decline of westerns in the United States and the appearance of new filmmakers such as Sam Peckinpah or Sergio Leone, who created a new type of western much more ironic and satirical than the one made by John Ford or John Sturges. In these years we find Bonanza and Dr. Quinn MD, two tv westerns who were broadcast consecutively (the first in the 1960s and the second in the 1990s), and both did so on two public networks (NBC and CBS respectively). At that time it was common to find a large number of series that offered a moral, in almost religious key, about the values that should prevail in the American society at that time. This is not surprising considering that “westerns, considered popular narratives, helped audiences to assimilate larger event and served to predict or react to ideological orientations”2.
I must say that I expected a much more conservative speech in Bonanza. It is true that in certain chapters it is, especially in those that have to do with family, marriage or honor. However, in religious matters it is far from projecting a Christian vision of the world, moreover, it relegates the church to a merely ceremonial figure and passes the evolutionary witness to science. Not only does David Dortort’s work not question the figure of the priest, but he invites the viewer to question whether faith is really the answer to the question we are looking for.
The figure of the priest undergoes a reformulation: he is no longer what he appears to be, either because he turns out to be an illusion in the mind of the protagonist, Ben Cartwright (Lorne Green), or because he is a phony who convinces people that he can perform miracles. In both cases, the message is clear: we can no longer really trust what our eyes see, in this case, the figure of the reverend or anyone pretending to be him.
On another occasion, Dennis Hopper’s character, a guest in the episode Dark Past, clearly states that “God has abandoned him” after a group of Indians assaulted and killed his father, who, curiously enough, was a priest, while he was giving mass in a church. Actually, the whole episode is an ode to the disillusionment of faith and religion. Hopper, bible in hand, is the anti-prophet who seeks to sow discord in Ponderosa, a spark that opens the door to doubt and questioning of the lack of mercy of a God who allows atrocious things to happen on earth. “At this point in the 20th century, we are hungry for myths, for total explanations, and we deeply yearn for a prophecy with guarantees” says Steiner3. The classic tale is no longer valid, now the average cowboy is questioning himself and looking for new answers.
But perhaps the most interesting chapter of all is Devil on Her Shoulder, where Ina Balin plays Sarah Reynolds, a young member of a caravan of parishioners who get stuck in Cartwright’s grounds after one of the wagons breaks down. Unlike the rest of her community, Sarah is a modern, free woman eager to learn what lies beyond the Reverend’s teachings. Frightened, the rest of the parishioners denounce her and try to burn her alive, accusing her of being possessed by the devil. When the sickness is ravaging the village, Sarah turns to science as the only way to salvation. The people end up giving in when the priest dies despite being the servant of God and having entrusted himself to his care.
The idea of science is what Beth Sullivan proposes in Dr. Quinn MD which for those you who haven’t seen it tells the story of a young doctor who arrives in a small town called Colorado Springs to practice medicine. In this case, the figure of the priest is fully integrated into the community, in fact, there is a church and the people are actively part of the religious life of the village. In other words, religion is assumed and not questioned.
The interesting thing about Dr. Quinn MD is that it offers a broader arc of character transformation of the Reverend T. Johnson (Geoffrey Lower) than Bonanza, that is, it humanises him in some way. Especially if we consider that before giving himself to the lord, the reverend lived a very different life, dedicated to gambling and worldly pleasures. But now he is a reformed man and one in charge of establishing an exemplary behaviour, renouncing to his impulses and desires for the common good.
Sullivan’s series raises the option of second chances, endorsing a very Christian message about the importance of not prejudging and being able to put yourself in the other’s shoes. Life learns to look at itself from a double prism, especially with the presence of the North American Indians who would represent more esoteric beliefs. Michaela, perhaps in part because of her profession, is open to doubt and questioning, although with a strong religious influence. That is why she is able to attend mass and at the same time reveal to the congregation that in the book of the bible there are also deaths and demons.
Therefore, Dr. Quinn MD is more optimistic than Bonanza, at least in the religious arena, and offers his characters the possibility of redemption, either for their past or for their present sins. It is a bet on Christian faith and virtues as the salvation of man, something that is reflected in the chapter Seasons of Miracles, for me, the most revealing of the whole series. In it, the reverend loses his sight because of an optic neuritis. As expected, a crisis of faith occurs among all the people, starting with the reverend himself who does not understand the reason for punishment. As it’s Christmas time, the villagers of Colorado Springs ask God a miracle that doesn’t come. But far from losing faith, their commitment to God is further strengthened and they decide to accept this new situation by placing a Christmas star on top of the tree.
2000-2010: Deadwood + Hell on Wheels
Just as in Bonanza and Dr. Quinn MD religion is a part of history and is integrated as an educational element that establishes the moral reality of citizens, in Deadwood faith becomes a secondary element, a mere symbol. Deadwood, for those of you who haven’t seen it, tells the story of a small mining settlement called Deadwood in the middle of the gold rush. Far from resembling the peaceful towns of Colorado Springs and Ponderosa, Deadwood emulates a kind of purgatory where good and evil are relative.
At the beginning of the story, the role of the priest in Deadwood is to bury bodies, not to help parishioners. This moment, as important for the Christian as a death is, is traced without any interest. Religion has been relegated to a ceremonial element, a ritual, nothing more. During burials, the shots are never clean. There are always people passing in front of the camera, in fact, the camera itself is constantly moving moving as if it was looking for another more interesting fact. As much as the voice is raised to the heaven, no one seems to hear the reverend. In fact, when he has his first epileptic seizure, no one notices, no one helps him. Just as in Dr. Quin MD the reverend enjoys a privileged position among the town’s hoods, in Deadwood he is relegated to the role of a mere spectator. Religion no longer serves man to explain his world, a new tale is needed.
Another interesting element in Deadwood, that only Dr. Quinn MD addresses too in many episodes of the series, is the constant confrontation between science and faith, represented by Dr. Cochran (Brad Douriff) and the reverend. The doctor is inmune to the reverend’s constant displays of faith and makes him see the attacks he suffers are not a connection to God but a neurological problem. He asks himself, as it happens in Bonanza, how it is possible that “he can believe in God who can make him suffer so much”.
The tumour suffered by the reverend leads him to degrade progressively, to preach senselessly in the streets, talking to animals and barely being able to walk. Its level of degradation is such that the people of Deadwood themselves are unable to witness it. The great theological stories are exhausted between epileptic seizures. The human being is forced to witness the death of the priest until the end and somehow, religion itself, until they decide to smother him with a pillow to stop his suffering. A fascinating metaphor for a symbol, that of the priest, who will start a process of decomposition without equal until his total disappearance in the following years.
Hell on Wheels picks up on Deadwood’s disappointment and adds the idea of revenge. A revenge depicted in the figure of Cullen Bohannon (Anson Mount), a former confederate soldier who starts a chase to kill the soldiers who killed his wife and children during the American Civil War. It seems to be a recurrent trend of the 20th century to show this period, the Wild West, as a kind of lawless and failed historical moment in which the tale between good an evil shaped by Bonanza and Dr. Quinn MD, is blurred.
In Heel on Wheels the reverend is a man who comes to the camp with the idea of building a church. His faith is unwavering and his heart is full of goodness, capable of welcoming everyone into his little religious project. The men of Hell on Wheels, like those in Deadwood, do not believe in God, nor in the reverend’s speeches. They only come to him when death comes or some catastrophe happens. Unlike Dr. Quinn MD, the great stories are not shaped by the priests but by the entrepreneurs of the railway being built in Hell on Wheels. The train is seen as salvation, not the church. In fact, the same businessman explicitly tells the priest: “the Bible means nothing for the railroad. God has abandoned us. Your services, Reverend, are no longer needed”.
It is precisely this abandonment, which is evident in Deadwood, that is also expressed in Hell on Wheels. The most revealing moment of the first season is when the reverend is the one who claims “that God has has abandoned them” when he walks into the small tent that is the church and contemplates a bunch of wounded people on the floor. Religion is incapable of fighting the evil that spreads through the cities proposed by the western, so the reverend becomes a useless tool to catalyse faith and God’s grace. It’s especially significant that in both Deadwood and Hell on Wheels, both reverends go crazy and cry out to heaven, arms up, to a salvation (that doesn’t come), before they have a fit.
But in Hell on Wheels the loss of faith leads to the other end of the equation: that of death. The reverend takes a sword and beheads a man. The hell in camp is uncontrollable. There is no longer a figure who establishes the religious path within the community, but this figure is already corrupt and tries to justify its corruption in God’s own existence. The reverend becomes an outlaw of the people, consumed by his addiction to drink, and is marginalised from public life. A prance according to his sin.
The last TV western I’ve chosen is Godless. Released in 2017, this western has the particularity of being a work with a strong female presence, in fact, we could call it a feminist western. A milestone for this genre where characters starring men proliferate.
The series is available on Netflix and tells the story of Frank Griffin (Jeff Daniels), an outlaw and his gang who are chasing his former colleague and now enemy Roy Goode (Jack O’Connell), to kill him. Griffin’s pursuit will take him to La Belle, New Mexico, a mysterious town inhabited practically by women. The interesting thing of Godless is that it presents a totally disruptive re-reading of what the history of the United States is and what a western is, at least as far as genre is concerned. Godless joins the current initiated by Deadwood in which the values established by the Hollywood westerns during the 40s and the 50s are losing their meanings and the new narratives adapt to the role changes. In other words, the new fashions and ideologies of each era, in this case it is a matter of female empowerment within the patriarchal terrain such as the West.
As in Hell on Wheels, it is the Godless savages and outlaws who now occupy the pulpit. In the first chapters of the season the villain, Frank, enters whit his horse into a church where a mass is being offered. Once inside, Frank takes the priest’s place and addresses the congregation to ask if they are applying the evidence and sermons that the Christian religion includes. Anecdotal, considering that the figure of the priest does not reappear in the history until the third episode, in which the little sheriff approaches a woman, Sadie (Kayli Carter), who is building what appears to be a church. The sheriff asks her what she is doing there alone and she answers that she is preparing the church for the new priest who has not yet arrived but will do it soon. The sheriff is skeptical, but she shows him the telegram from the priest warning of his arrival. During this conversation, the woman never lets go of the cross, as if she were clutching the last stronghold of faith she has left.
Progress seems to have reached the contemporary western: women are the ones who lead the people, they do not need men, or very few of them, and neither do they need any religious symbols that defines them.