You know the scene: A dusty street outside the saloon’s swing door. Masked riders and a lone gunman with a white hat. This is a Western, and you know what to expect. We’ve all watched one before, whether it was Dirty Dozen or Back To The Future Part III. The Western was a Hollywood staple before even audio in film, and it’s been revisited, parodied, and hybridized ever since. In its halcyon days, the genre dealt with heroes who dressed in black and white, staging a mythological struggle of good versus evil in the unconquered landscape of the Wild West.
The modern #Western is much harder to define. No Country For Old Men contemporized the Wild West, where grizzled old cowboys try to cope in a world that has no place for their outdated ideals. Movies like Firefly simply relocated the frontier to outer space. Now, despite decades of relative obscurity, the deserts and six-shooters of old are making a comeback. While there’s a classic, nostalgic feel to these movies, we still get to see something new. In place of the naïve movies of the early 20th century, we’re given the brutality of The Revenant, and the cutting satire of The Hateful Eight. Audiences are clearly no longer fooled by the binary simplicity of black versus white. So, is it finally time for the most controversial Western of all time?
Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian has been called a revisionist Western. It analyses the masculinity and violence of the movies with its own opposing mythology. If the classic Wild West was the geographical ideal of the American Dream, then #BloodMeridian is an intimate look into the American Nightmare.
He can neither read nor write and in him broods already a taste for mindless violence. — 'Blood Meridian'
Blood Meridian follows the actions of the Glanton gang, a historical group of scalp hunters who travelled the US-Mexico border between 1849–50. Initially contracted to exterminate Apaches, their journey becomes an exploration of compulsive violence and depravity. Our protagonist in this brutal company is "the Kid," a runaway teenager with a bloody temperament. He’s no white-hatted hero, but there are no heroes in Cormac McCarthy’s West. In a world where murder is justified in the pursuit of fortune, there are only devils.
The American Nightmare
Part of what makes Blood Meridian vastly different is its ideology. In classic Westerns, cowboys are often seen as the knights of the Wild West. They're the figures that townspeople can turn to when bandits raid their towns (The Magnificent Seven). There may be a monetary incentive, but the dangerous deeds of these cowboys often come about through honorable intentions. They might gamble, fight, and drink, but ultimately, they're righteous men. The 2016 remake of The Magnificent Seven maintained this classic feel, undercutting the explosions and the gunslinging with a sense of justice.
Blood Meridian is nihilistic by contrast. The bounty hunters here are driven by greed and a natural tendency towards violence. There's no code of honor, or higher morality to strive towards. Cormac McCarthy reduces the mythology of cowboy culture to a bleak, patriarchal landscape where only "might makes right."
Your heart's desire is to be told some mystery. The mystery is that there is no mystery. — 'Blood Meridian'
The novel often grapples with "theodicy," which roughly refers to attempts to justify the concept of goodness in a world so troubled by evil. It rejects the heroic, knightly qualities that made Westerns so popular by steeping its characters in blood and letting them get away with it, time and time again. Sounds familiar, right?
George R.R. Martin's magnificent A Song Of Ice And Fire saga, and its HBO adaptation has soared to global popularity for its epic scope, immense production value, and gritty approach to fantasy. It, too, deals with amoral, bloodthirsty characters. It retracts the mythologized violence of traditional fantasy in favor of something more historically honest (as historically honest as you can get in a world with dragons). However, it also portrays the struggle to maintain some semblance of goodness in the face of war and loss.
In a novel filled with villains and antiheroes, the role of true antagonist falls to a man known as the Judge. It's been theorized that the Judge is the devil himself — an enormous, hairless intellectual who delights in manipulation and torment. The Kid eventually falls into opposition with the Judge, coming to despise his growing appetite for wanton slaughter. But theirs is a struggle like David and Goliath's, with no guarantee that the little guy will win. The Judge threatens to overwhelm the Kid on every level, with his warmongering philosophy, his physical bulk, and the constant suspicion of his sexual depravity. This conflict culminates in one of the most haunting and divisive endings of all time.
The universe is no narrow thing and the order within it is not constrained by any latitude. — 'Blood Meridian'
Without giving too much away, the novel's ending refuses to justify a particular way of existing as worthy or unworthy. There's cause and effect, but no moralistic ideal to aspire towards. Classic Westerns popularized the cliche of riding off into the sunset as a reward for valor, turning the very horizon into a prize — the closest to a happily ever after that a gunslinger can hope for. Blood Meridian refutes that ideal, arguing that the world is "a hat trick in a medicine show," and that life is just "a string in a maze, so that you shall not lose your way." This atheistic understanding of consciousness is already prevalent in one of the most popular contemporary Westerns on TV.
Westworld is a science fiction series set predominantly inside a theme park based on the Wild West. Its populated by robots who operate in loops like NPCs in a video game. Their purpose is to interact with human guests and take them on storylines, or simply be used for the guests' gratification. While some of these robots begin to break away in search of consciousness, the founder of the park operates with the assumption that consciousness does not exist: "There is no threshold that makes us greater than the sum of our parts." This idea is as liberating as it is terrifying. It's an existential tangle that reflects the core question of the series thus far: Is there a deeper meaning to the game?
The philosophical postulating of Westworld hasn't held the series back from commercial success. It's an enormous hit, proving that a niche genre can dabble in metaphysics and still come out stinking of money. Blood Meridian is a madcap novel that interweaves spectacular violence with questions about the nature of our world. All it's missing is a robot or two.
On top of this commercial success is the recent critical success of epic Westerns. The Revenant won three Academy Awards, including Best Actor (finally!), and Best Cinematography. In the same year, Tarantino's The Hateful Eight won one Academy Award and was nominated for two more. It lost out on the Best Achievement in Cinematography to the only other Western on the roster. Cinematographic success in Westerns is almost a given. The genre often forefronts the landscape as if it were a character, imposing itself in rugged, inhospitable tracts. Blood Meridian adopts this classical trait and twists it for surreal purposes, turning the west into a visual representation of hell.
A urinecolored sun rose blearily through panes of dust on a dim world. — 'Blood Meridian'
The incredible visuals of The Revenant drove home the scale of Glass' struggle. Whether it was a canted view of the treetops in the wind or a moment of tracking through clouds at the mountaintops, there was a powerful sense of nature being pivotal to the narrative.
It's an idea that permeates Blood Meridian, with battles taking place in boneyards and on plains made demonic by the sun and the grit. The imagery McCarthy utilizes is poetic and otherworldly, but it also works to emphasize the novel's key themes and the volatility of its chief protagonists. His narrative descriptions seem to be begging for a visual adaptation, so why hasn't it been done already?
The Unfilmable Western
There have already been multiple attempts to adapt Blood Meridian for the screen, but plans keep falling through. A screenplay was written in 1995 by Steve Tesich. It was then rewritten by Tommy Lee Jones after he acquired the rights. Ridley Scott was later pegged to direct a film adaptation, but production once again broke down. This year, it seemed that we might finally get a film version of the novel when James Franco was linked to the project alongside Russell Crowe and Vincent D'Onofrio. However, once again, the project fell apart. People have claimed that it's unfilmable due to its dark tone and the brutality it depicts. The sheer scale and intimacy of the violence is apparently too much for film. McCarthy himself has argued against this idea, claiming only that it would be "very difficult to do and would require someone with bountiful imagination and a lot of balls."
Franco's mooted version is unfortunately as close as we're likely to get to a Blood Meridian film adaptation for the foreseeable future. But a look at the calibre of directors and actors interested in this adaptation shows the project's potential. This novel skewers the American Dream, ridicules the notion of geographical ownership, and approaches violence with an honesty that's clearly too frank for Hollywood. It's a masterpiece just waiting to be filmed, and now — more than ever — is the time to film it.