- Genre in Transitional Cinema:"Arizona Bill" and the Silent French Western, 1912-1914
In his 1962 memoirs, the French actor and director Joë (Jean) Hamman claims the distinction of "le premier western" for his film Le Cowboy, made around 1906.1 He then muses on his role in founding the genre: "il est assez curieux de constater que ce fut un français qui donna l'impulsion dans un genre où les Américains devaient devenir imbattables."2 To many contemporary filmgoers, a French pretender to the first western might seem curious indeed. Unlike the well-known traditions of Italian "spaghetti" westerns or East German Indianerfilme, not to mention prodigious Hollywood production, the French contribution to the genre in living memory would seem limited to the odd occasional film: a Fernandel farce, a Brigitte Bardot vehicle, the Lucky Luke franchise. Nonetheless, fans, critics, scholars and even politicians echo and often embroider on Hamman's claim, and today the assertion circulates widely as a truism: the most ostensibly American of film genres traces its origin to an amateur film made in the Paris suburbs.3
Hamman's claim rests on firmer footing than mere Gallic chauvinism. He had a connection to the American West that few filmmakers, French or American, could boast in 1906: he had worked on a ranch in Montana, spent time on the Pine Ridge Indian reservation, and even visited Buffalo Bill Cody at his home in Nebraska.4 After returning to France and making Le Cowboy, Hamman was soon displaying his riding skills and western clothes for nearly all the major French film studios. Between 1908 and 1909 he directed and acted in western films for the Lux studio and played Buffalo Bill in a five part series with the Safety Bioscope Company.5 After portraying various western types for Gaumont in films grouped under the rubric "Scènes de l'Ouest américain,"6 [End Page 201] he moved to Eclipse where his portrayal of the recurring character Arizona Bill series garnered him a measure of celebrity on both sides of the Atlantic.7 In 1914 Hamman signed with Éclair to make films at a new facility in Tucson, but Arizona Bill never made it to Arizona; the war broke out and he was quickly mobilized. Le Cowboy and the outbreak of the war frame the only period when western-themed films were regularly produced on French soil: a "golden age" of the French western, were one to bestow such an honor.8 Hamman's film career follows and, as its most visible figure, shapes the fate of the silent western made in France: they began together around 1906 and throve for six or seven years, never to know such success again.9
Golden age and semi-stardom notwithstanding, Hamman's claim to the first western quickly mires in the murky waters of genre formation and definition. If the "western" designation simply means themes, situations, or personages associated with the frontier-era American West, the genre would date from the earliest days of Edison's Kinetescope (Bucking Broncho, Ghost Dance, both 1894). Lumière actualités included western-themed views, the Selig Company filmed panoramas on western locations in 1902, and Edwin S. Porter's popular The Great Train Robbery served up a fictive West in 1903. Numerous American films released between 1903 and 1906 depict cowboys, Indians, and other western types in comedies, action sequences, and frontier battles.10 In France, too, Pathé's 1904 Indiens et Cowboys already showed a stagecoach attack that develops into a rescue story. By 1906, representations of the American West would have been familiar cinema fare on both sides of the Atlantic.
When the "western" designation demands more sophisticated structures of plot and character than these earlier films reliably deliver, Hamman's claim invites more serious reconsideration. The dates of the silent French western's heyday (1906-1914) are significant in cinema historiography, and coincide with a volatile period of turbulent change in film production, distribution, and exhibition. In the previous decade, cinema's first publics had thrilled at what Tom Gunning calls the "uncanny agitating power" of the new medium's "aesthetics of astonishment": a "cinema...