How Harry Potter would have managed in the Wild West
The Western is a typical American genre. First of all because it represents an American history, though there is of course a difference between the real thing that happened in the past and the fantastical version of entertainment. So perhaps we should call it an American myth instead of a history. This American myth glorifies the nation’s wide scale of possibilities and opportunities. It shows America as the Promised Land; one that should be explored, conquered and culturalized, hence the typical Western elements of trains, hostile Indians, wide open landscapes, and the theme of taking the law into your own hands.
But if it is such an American genre why does it appeal to audiences all over the world? Even to the extent that nations across the globe start to produce there own Western cinema? In Italy they have the Spaghetti Western; in India the Curry Western; in Russia the Borscht Western; and so you could add other dishes to describe a certain national Western, like Sauerkrat, Camembert, Chop Suey, Paella and Noodle. All these countries have plunged themselves into the Western territory and it appears that what makes these movies a Western ain’t so exclusively western after all. The Chop Suey Western or the Curry Western for example aren’t anything more but Chinese martial art films or Indian stunt films, though we recognise them as a Western just the same. Why is that? Or put differently: What is a Western?
What makes the Western a recognisable genre is its semantics and its syntax. The semantics are the so-called signs like the train, the horse, the saloon, the gun, the cowboy, so more or less the elements that ‘dress’ the Western as a Western. But these elements alone don’t make it a coherent genre. You need a general syntax, a structure or logic, which links separate movies to one genre category. For the Western this structure is simply said that of the lonesome cowboy that saves a community from evil. The syntax and semantics combined makes us recognise a movie as a Western, if you disconnect them or slightly adapt them you enter the sphere of a different genre. Star Wars for example has the syntax of a typical Western, but because of the futuristic semantics of spaceships and aliens it becomes a Science Fiction rather than a Western. And Indiana Jones has a lot of Western semantics, like cowboy hats, shootouts and dusty landscapes, but we recognise it as an Adventure or Action Movie.
So where can you draw the line between what you call a Western and a non-Western? We all recognise a Western and a non-Western but it isn’t perhaps as obvious as one might think. For example, let us take a closer look at the Harry Potter movie sequence. We both know they aren’t a Western but the movies seem to occupy certain typical Western elements. Once they are pointed out it is less certain if Harry Potter isn’t a Western after all.
First of all you have the story of a hero, a stranger, who comes into a community to save it from evil. Harry is the Chosen One; only he possesses the skills to conquer the evil Voldemort. As an eleven year old boy he gets introduced into the world of wizardry and learns his dooming destiny. Westerns mostly show a lonesome hero who enters a community to save it from evil. This hero is a professional, only he can do the job and because of this he becomes something more than human. He needs only but one bullet to kill his enemies for example. All Western heroes are in some way a Chosen One, not in the least because they appear to have a hidden agenda.
This hidden agenda concerns a certain element of revenge. All Westerns are based on this unsympathetic human characteristic and also the Potter sequence is involved around it. Mostly the Western hero has some unfinished business with the men he tries to kill; for example the Man With The Harmonica tries to vengeance his elder brother who was hanged in Once Upon a Time in the West (1968) or the Ringo Kid in Stagecoach (1939) returns to the village of Lordsburg to kill the man who killed his father and brother. Harry also has some unfinished business with Voldemort after Voldemort killed his parents. It all leads up to a climactic shootout between him and his archenemy. Just replace the wands with pistols and guns and it would not look misplaced in any Western like 3:10 to Yuma (2007) or High Noon (1952).
Another significant element of the Western story, one that links to revenge, is the failure of the law. Justice doesn’t lives up to the expectations of the people or of the hero and so they take matter into their own hands. An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth seems the only right way to settle things straight again. So killing a killer seems a justified way to handle things. For Harry death too will be the only possible outcome. ‘Neither can live while the other survives’. The law, especially when it is overtaken by Voldemort’s Death Eaters, is malfunctioning and isn’t considered a justified solution to Voldemort’s horrifying deeds. Death must follow…
Then, besides these syntactic elements, there are also semantic elements, most importantly the Hogwarts Express. This old-fashioned steam locomotive drove straight out of the late nineteenth century, the era when Westerns are situated. For the ‘cowboys’ the train is a way to move west into unexplored territory, for Harry it’s a way to move into the magical world he wants to belong to so desperately. Moving around is another important feature of Westerns. Travelling is a significant element of the lonesome hero’s character. He can be no part of the community he saves, for he is an outlaw to some extent. Harry too travels back and forth between the Muggle (normal human) world and the world of magic. Once he has outgrown the Muggle world at the age of seventeen he still doesn’t become part of the world of magic. Different than in the other movies, Harry doesn’t spend his time at Hogwarts, school of witchcraft and wizardry. He transforms into this lonely wanderer, moving from one place to the other because he is wanted.
And where have we seen this before? A Wanted poster of a (innocent) criminal on the run, printed in black and white with a huge reward on its head…It’s thé Western semantic you don’t find in any other genre! And they pop-up through-out the Harry Potter movie sequence: Sirius Black, Fenrir Greyback, and of course Undesirable nr. 1 Harry Potter himself. No wonder he wanders around so much.
The travelling around shows another important Western semantic: the landscape. Wide-open landscapes are a significant element of Western cinema. Think of Monument Valley and you think of cowboys and Indians. The typical Western landscape is dusty and abandoned. In Britain they don’t have deserts but they do have wide-open and abandoned landscapes, which we got to see a lot during the movies, especially during part seven. From outstretched plains to endless beaches, from winter forests to craggy plateau’s. They are all there and they are all very British. Harry Potter therefore shows a typical British national identity.
I’m not saying Harry Potter is a Western, but I do like to point out the complexity of genres, categories and labels. They tell part of the story, but they cannot tell it all. It’s the magic and the British boarding school setting that makes us believe the Harry Potter sequence is something else than a Western even though it has some significant elements of the genre. To give a concrete answer to the question of what a Western is appears less obvious. To me it is a hybrid of already existing stories but wrapped in a different paper. This is also a significant reason why it appeals to audiences around the world. It is a universal story but served as a different flavour. All countries just added there own cultural elements to create their own Western dish.