Rockstar announced Red Dead Red Redemption 2 this week after a few days of artful teasing, and in so doing neatly divided the gaming world. There are the deliriously happy, and then those who really did want Rockstar Table Tennis 2.
For me the biggest impact in the reveal, which admittedly didn’t reveal very much, is that big number ‘2’. Even if this isn’t a direct narrative continuation of Red Dead Redemption, it looks like we’re going back to that world - a world, like all those built by Rockstar, packed with cinematic influences and reconfigured American iconography. As such it’s a good time to revisit the films that fed into Red Dead, and shaped Rockstar’s vision of the wild west.
First and foremost that means talking about Spaghetti Westerns, the 1960s European reinvention of a classic Hollywood genre. Red Dead’s central aesthetic is torn straight from the opening credits of Sergio Leone’s A Fistful Of Dollars, a rough-edged montage of stark red and black silhouettes, the iconography of the great American mode of storytelling laid bare. When they first emerged Spaghetti Westerns were derided as cheap and vulgar misinterpretations of an essentially American form, a cycle of films that, as Ethan Mordden once wrote “[took] the Western at its word, filming what America’s movies were, really, afraid to show.” They lacked the easy nobility and straightforward morality of their Studio-era forebears, replacing happy endings and manifest destiny with dusty sleaze and abrupt violence.
They were, in other words, perfect for a studio like Rockstar, whose creative process revolves around devouring and reconstituting stylish, skeptical cultural off-shoots. That’s why GTA III is shot through with references to New Hollywood’s sophisticated crime movies, why Manhunt pays such brutal homage to John Carpenter, Walter Hill and exploitation cinema, and why John Marston shares the lean outline, tipped hat and easy killing hands of Clint Eastwood’s Man With No Name.
The Man With No Name
Leone’s movies are a particular influence, beyond their visual style, because of the tragic, operatic sense of the west they impart. With Eastwood throughout the Dollars trilogy, and then especially in his 1968 follow up Once Upon A Time In The West, Leone develops the idea of fateful heroes existing on the frontier of civilisation, men trying to lay the foundation for a new life while burying their old ones underneath. The outlaw character Cheyenne describes this kind of man as having “something inside, something to do with death”, a description as perfect for John Marston - with his devilled past and terrible duty - as it is to Charles Bronson’s Harmonica or Henry Fonda’s Pete.
Red Dead owes more to the upstart Spaghettis than the traditional Western, but there’s still something of the classic Hollywood form at its heart. Monument Valley is an extraordinary landscape of monolithic sandstone buttes erupting from red desert sands that, thanks to director John Ford, became the daunting default half-reality of Hollywood Westerns. Ford used the valley as the location of ten films, beginning with 1939’s Stagecoach, and it eventually became as much a symbol of the fictionalised west as saloon doors and duelling gunfighters. It’s there at the start of Toy Story, a frame-filling backdrop to the introduction of Woody, and it’s there in Red Dead, the unquestioned foundation even for this shrewd, punkish outlaw adventure. That it fits is both testament to the pervasive influence of Ford on the look of the genre - the looming buttes are simply where Westerns happen - and the fact that Rockstar clearly hold Ford in particular esteem. Red Dead contains a specific callback to the later, more complex film The Searchers (1956) when Marston stands silhouetted on the threshold of the wilderness, just as John Wayne did at the end of Ford’s film. Why?
Here we come closer to the heart of Red Dead's relationship with the Western, and to what’s so interesting about the Western itself. From its initial popularity as an expression of American optimism, entitlement and self-belief, Westerns shifted, like any long-running generic cycle, into more complex and self-reflective forms. Even within his own career Ford went from helping to construct John Wayne’s heroic on-screen persona, to eventually pulling it apart again in The Searchers. The irreverent invasion of the Spaghetti Westerns happened soon afterwards, crude but compelling visions of America beamed back at itself, and this in turn gave life to new Hollywood interpretations of its own founding myth.
It’s these post-Spaghetti films that Red Dead draws upon for the dark conclusion to Marston’s story. As it gathers pace towards its close, the game adopts a mode of continuous, overwhelming violence that owes a great deal to Sam Peckinpah and, in particular, his 1970 film The Wild Bunch. In the mission 'And You Will Know The Truth' Marston uses a Browning machine gun to slaughter Dutch’s gang, taking his lead from The Wild Bunch’s climactic scene, which pays off the film’s growing unease at this automated killing technology, as if sensing an end to the age of gunslingers.
The final assault on Marston’s farm, too, recalls The Wild Bunch, a relentless procession of bodies churned by violence, an unbroken stream of carnage that becomes obscene through bitter perseverance. “Throughout Peckinpah’s work there is the theme of violently talented men hired for a job that is loaded with compromise, corruption and double-cross” David Thomson tells us. “They strive to perform with honour, before recognising the inevitable logic of self-destruction.” And there again, in even greater detail, is John Marston, the perfect Peckinpah hero.
This self-destruction threatens for the briefest of moments to morph into something optimistic and mythologising. Released a year before The Wild Bunch, George Roy Hill’s Butch Cassidy And The Sundance Kid is also about the ending of the old west, but its own outmoded heroes are given the immortalising luxury of a freeze-frame ending, bursting from cover to take on the Bolivian army. They’re doomed but never dead, caught forever in a final blaze of defiant glory - and it seems for a few seconds as though Marston, emerging from his barn having sent his family to safety, might be given the same treatment, until time regains traction and he slumps to the floor, full of bullets.
Other cinematic influences are either more specific or less pronounced. The series of missions with the mysterious, metaphysical character known as The Strange Man toy with the symbolic and supernatural in a manner that owes more to the Coen brothers than any Western. The Strange Man is knowing and otherworldly, setting Marston simple moral tasks and oblivious to his bullets when Marston becomes murderously flustered. He could be Death, or the Devil, or some capricious trickster god, like John Goodman’s monstrous Charlie Meadows in the Coens’ Barton Fink, or - more pinned to earthly reality - the unstoppable Anton Chigurh from No Country For Old Men (the closest thing the Coens had made to a Western before Red Dead’s release, and based on the novel by Cormac McCarthy, whose work looms over the game like a ripe cloud).
And what to make of that teaser image for Red Dead Redemption 2? It’s impossible to look at the seven figures it shows and not to think of Preston Sturges’ 1960 ensemble hit, The Magnificent Seven. Sturges’ film was post-Searchers and pre-Spaghetti, with a cast (Eli Wallach, James Coburn, Charles Bronson, Yul Brynner) who’d go on to star in European Westerns, cashing in their big-screen images as their careers waned. It is, in other words, just the right territory for Rockstar, exactly the kind of fertile cultural space from which their best work grows.