Law and order, codes of honor, and the use of violence in the western films Shane and Kill Bill Volume 1

Shane and Kill Bill Volume 1 deal in the highly codified forms of violence depicted in the western. While the former, in the manner of classical films, helps to entrench these codes, the latter, as a post-modern exercise, is all too aware of the contradictory nature of such codes and serves to undermine them, or at least to expose them as artificial.

Shane depicts a settlement so removed from urban areas that the closest form of law and order is days away, leaving the homesteaders and the Riker clan to settle their quarrels themselves in a precarious balance, with Shane stepping into the breach. The Starretts clearly have right on their side, as Riker can hardly maintain the entire terrain belongs to him, and they are forced to enter into a violent conflict they are ill-equipped to participate in, eventually needing Shane to do the hard work. By contrast, The Bride in Kill Bill Volume 1, a former assassin, is fighting not to keep her way of life but rather to be allowed to start a new one with her coming child and new husband, and thus she seeks to, after she wakes up from her coma, avenge herself and the unborn child that she at first assumes has been murdered. A sheriff shows up in the chapel where she and her entire wedding party have been massacred, placing us in an urban context where the law is, like in Shane, either completely absent or ineffectual. Hence Shane, the gunslinger, and The Bride, the samurai, are thrust into making their own law in environments where the law has been ineffectual for so long that the process of making one’s own law has its own due process.

Thus, Shane, as he quickly learns of the stakes of the dispute between Riker and Joe Starrett, is told by Joe not to intrude until he himself is affected, as when Chris humiliates him at the bar. It is significant to note, however, that Shane uses only his fists in this first fight and does not even bring out his gun immediately after Stonewall is killed. The fact that Joe involves himself in this fistfight leads to Stonewall’s murder, for Joe becomes the first homesteader to try to confront Riker’s men with a gun rather than with his reason, which until now was the only weapon the homesteaders carried in this dispute. Therefore, when Stonewall is killed this conflict becomes about guns rather than words, and it is only now that Shane is in his element; he need only wait until Joe is summoned to a peace meeting, which is a shallow cover for a guns-blazing showdown, to replace Joe and finish his job by participating in “the dance.” Similarly, The Bride attempts a domestic life and is pulled back to her dominant realm of violence by the DiVAS. In this case the “showdown” aspect of her revenge is far more ritualistic, as writer-director Quentin Tarantino showcases all of its component parts with a knowing wink at the audience and an intriguing blend of codified violence in martial arts films as well as westerns. Ergo, before The Bride fights O-Ren, she has to be at one with her “horse,” which is in this case her “Pussy Wagon” or later her motorbike, and has to seek out Hattori Hanzo, who will make her a special sword for the duel, for he serves as a kind of mentor who “agrees philosophically” with her aims and forces her to train rigorously to show her worthiness for having the sword, a common trope in martial arts films. Then she has to fight O-Ren’s posse, the Crazy 88s, in yet another convention of kung fu movies: the single master against the many pupils. This pre-showdown massacre, which occurs on a dance floor, literalizes the western metaphor of the showdown as a “dance” between two willing participants. Of course, this massacre is, quite unlike Shane’s skilful yet traditional gunning-down of several men in a span of seconds, played for dark comedy as the Crazy 88s lose limbs and bleed a cartoonish amount of blood. The final stark contrast between the two films’ respective showdowns occurs when The Bride murders O-Ren by scalping her, a self-conscious ode to a western convention that no classical film like Shane would have played for laughs.

Finally, the two films also show huge differences in their respective depictions of violence. Firstly, violence in the domestic sphere in Shane is shown to be taboo. While the Starretts allow little Joey to have a gun, it is not loaded and Marian loudly admonishes the boy for pointing it at people. Later in the film, even Shane’s use of a gun in the vicinity of the house is startling, as his shooting of the stone becomes the loudest sound in the film, a nuclear-bomb-like roar that makes reference to the film having been shot during the Cold War. By contrast, The Bride’s fight with Vernita occurs in the latter’s house, and she murders Vernita in front of her daughter. What we have here is a complete breakdown of the boundaries where violence can be used justifiably in a western as evidenced by Shane and even a revisionist western like Clint Eastwood’s Unforgiven. The fact that violence can happen anywhere in the world of Kill Bill Volume 1, and often does, is further confirmed by the fact that The Bride’s party is attacked and massacred in a house of worship, and that when The Bride travels from Okinawa to Tokyo she is sitting in a plane that has sword holders at the side of each aisle, as indispensable to that world as cup holders are to ours. In conclusion, while Shane entrenches the western conventions that depict a world where law and order are absent, codes of honor are observed in meting out one’s own brand of justice, and violence can only be used in specific places at specific times, Kill Bill Volume 1 endeavors to undercut every one of those conventions in a parodic style.

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