Contested masculinities

The action film, the war film, and the Western

Authored by: Yvonne Tasker

The Routledge Companion to Cinema and Gender

Print publication date:  November  2016
Online publication date:  November  2016

Print ISBN: 9781138924956
eBook ISBN: 9781315684062
Adobe ISBN: 9781317408055


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Action, war movies, and Westerns have all been characterized as generic sites that are in some fundamental way about masculinity and it is certainly the case that these three interlinked genres provide an extraordinarily fruitful site for exploring codes of masculinity in Hollywood cinema. War, Western, and action films typically center on male protagonists and male groups. Plentiful examples of these genres feature provocative or challenging female characters—from Ripley in the Alien (Ridley Scott, 1979) series to Vienna, Joan Crawford’s gun-wielding saloon owner in Johnny Guitar (Nicholas Ray, 1954)—and these can be usefully framed in terms of either female masculinity or long standing formulations of tough, resilient femininity. However, the genres’ characteristic scenes of action, endurance, and violence offer iconic images of male strength and resilience which elaborate an idealized masculinity. Male mobility is a central trope of all three genres, one which repeatedly couples physical movement or scenes of action with themes of independence. The hero desires the freedom to move, challenging individuals, groups, and circumstances that present obstacles to such freedom; in some ways it is this tension or conflict that generates the narrative. Moral and physical strength are conflated in multiple ways through—diversely—the soldier’s sacrificial heroism, the command of nature associated with the Western hero and the action hero’s heightened/fantastical physical abilities. Each operates in different yet related ways across frontiers, a motif which serves to mark the mobility of the masculine hero. In this chapter I explore some of the visual and narrative strategies which delineate masculinity in different ways across these generic spaces. In framing issues such as violence and freedom of movement, paternalism and duty, hierarchies and teamwork, I aim to acknowledge both continuities and differences between and across these genres.

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