The Westernliad

King Gunther and Siegfried

King Gunther and Siegfried

Quentin Tarantino loves to mix genres and tropes in his films. He compares his character Django in Django Unchained to the Germanic folk hero Siegfried, and we are led to compare the unfolding of the movie’s plot to Siegfried’s deeds of daring on behalf of his love, Brunhild.

I don’t know what Tarantino was thinking when he made that comparison, but it’s a little thin in his film. However, the Siegfried myth did have a heavy influence on many classic American Western films; the most obvious to me is in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, a John Ford western made in 1962.

Siegfried and Gunther

The classic story of Siegfried has many variants, but the prominent literary source is the medieval German epic the Nibelungenliad. The main points in this story are these:

1 – Siegfried wishes to marry King Gunther’s sister Kriemhild, but Gunther will only permit this on condition that Siegfried help him obtain Brunhild for a wife. Siegfried is a mythic hero: a dragon slayer who has had many strange adventures. Gunther is an ordinary king who is mostly concerned with daily courtly duties.

2 – Brunhild is a valkyrie, or supernatural woman with powers of strength and cunning that Gunther cannot overcome; Siegfried has supernatural powers of his own, and so is able to pass Brunhild’s tests. He pretends to be Gunther, however, so that she will accept Gunther as a husband. (In some variants of the story, Siegfried and Brunhild are lovers but Siegfried is bewitched and forgets about his love for her).

3 – After Siegfried and Gunther are married, Brunhild finds out about the deceit, and in a rage has Siegfried killed. At this point the story seems to emerge from its mythic beginnings into history – Kriemhild plots revenge which leads to battles which are rooted in historical fact.

The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance
Doniphon and Stoddard Face Liberty Valance

Doniphon and Stoddard Face Liberty Valance

In this western film, the Siegfried hero is a gunfighter named Tom Doniphon. Doniphon belongs to the mythic era of the Wild West, and has “supernatural” powers as an ace gunfighter. He intends to marry the love of his life, Hallie, but a stranger comes to town. The stranger is a mousey lawyer named Ransom Stoddard. He doesn’t belong in the West, doesn’t know how to shoot a gun, and is interested in bringing law and order to the territory. He also believes in public education and literacy and sets out to teach the townspeople to read and write.

The tension between the end of the mythic West and the beginning of “history” and statehood for the territory leads Doniphon to resent Stoddard. But Doniphon realizes that the time for wild gunfighters is ending. When Stoddard is challenged to a gunfight by the local outlaw bully named Liberty Valance, Doniphon decides to shoot the outlaw while hidden, to make it look like Stoddard succeeded in killing him. Even Stoddard believes he shot Valance himself, even though he knows it is unlikely.

As a result of the gun battle, Stoddard wins Hallie for a wife, becomes a local hero, and has a successful political career. Doniphon becomes a hermit and is never heard from again.

In structure, the two stories are the same. The hero uses his special powers to win a woman for a less deserving man, and he dies or becomes obscure afterwards; but as a result of the sacrifice, the world moves from myth to history.

 

 

 

 

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