The Bloody Innocence of a Dream: Borges, Cammell, Tourneur and the Western

Reality is partial to symmetries and slight anachronisms.
– Borges, “The South” [1]

I think that human beings are not in a place from the beginning of humanity. We have always been travelling. Maybe we were born in the centre of Africa and we left Africa to go to Europe, to Asia, to America and so on. I think that the human species is always travelling; we are the Dasein in the sky, not in the land. Do you see what I mean? We are wandering. We are nomads. This is not a new state of things. It is a very ancient state of things. I think the Dasein is in the atmosphere.
– Michel Serres, 1995 [2]

In 1982, two esteemed critics from the French film magazine Positif duked it out over the pleasures and perils of ‘Americanisation’ – especially as it had been infiltrating French culture, and more especially popular French culture. Replying to his venerable and Marxist-leaning opponent, Roger Tailleur, the somewhat younger Alain Masson declared that criticism, film criticism itself, could contribute to “freeing works from their cultural chains”. And his example, unsurprisingly, was the classical American Western. Masson suggested:

Seen as a fusion of form and meaning, a Western can be detached from its functions as an ideological vehicle. It defines an epic consciousness, it sums up a poetry of space, it engenders a meditation on morality and nature; it does not turn its audience into a band of mercenaries on the take from that imperialism which founded the United States. [3]

Masson’s evocation of imperialism recalls the even more brutal note from Cuban novelist Guillermo Cabrera Infante who – at the end of an otherwise wildly laudatory review of Howard Hawks’ Rio Bravo in 1959 – reminded us of the existence of “that bad seed of Hollywood, an element which is regrettably always present in Westerns: fascism”. [4]

It is not simply a matter of us proposing, as a positive contrast to these implicit or explicit positions, that the Western belongs to everyone, in that people all over the world love them, that they are universally appealing, or offer some all-purpose abstract-mythic form (as Masson tends to suggest). Certainly, the insistent, thundering Apache drum that beats out the message that “the Western is a peculiarly American form” – which Americans love to claim, greedily, about just about every popular genre: the musical, the film noir, the melodrama, the thriller, the gangster film, the road movie, all “peculiarly American”, it seems – this all-Americanisation of the Western is an abomination that has to be refused at all costs.

In a sense, the cosmopolitan fans of the Western have, for many years, prejudiced the issue in a reductive direction, by concentrating on the Italian Western – which transplants the iconography of a genre into foreign terrain for a cinephilic thrill – or camp/queer specials like Tears of the Black Tiger (2000) from Thailand, Luc Moullet’s parodically minimalist A New Adventure of Billy the Kid (1971) featuring Jean-Pierre Léaud, or the stinky Milky Bar Kid in Australian TV ads of the 1960s. All these examples play (sometimes brilliantly) precisely on the incongruity or the surrealism of the alignment between the initial Western mould and its ‘uptake’, its histrionic playing-out (as if in a child’s game) on alien soil. Such appropriations, however inspired, inadvertently reaffirm the assumed Americanness of the Western. They end up as the (foreign) exceptions which prove the (American) rule.

A richer phenomenon to study is the immediate and total customisation of the shell or sketch of this genre in non-American cultures, its projection onto completely different national mythologies and histories, which it instantly fits like a glove: the Brazilian Cangaceiro (as we see in Glauber Rocha’s Antonio das Mortes, 1969), the Australian Bushranger, the Argentine Gaucho … without even beginning to go into the case of Mexico, from its popular fantasies through its historical recreations all the way to the feverish but deeply rooted (rather than incongruous) Surrealism of Alejandro Jodorowsky, or Luis Buñuel’s absurdist tiroreos (gunfights) in The River and Death (1955).

The Gaucho is the focus of this essay. When the famous Argentine writer Jorge Luis Borges, as he often did, wrote about this figure in his country’s history (in fictions including “Streetcorner Man” and “El Sur”), he alights upon an iconography that is familiar to us: saloons, fights to the death (by gun or by knife), whores, lawlessness … Comparing the Gaucho to the figure of the gangster in “A History of the Tango”, he writes: “The gaucho and the hoodlum are seen as rebels; Argentines, unlike North Americans and most Europeans, do not identify with the state. … the state is an inconceivable abstraction” as well as a “sinister joke”. [5] Borges stresses both the sexual nature of the tango (in all the stories that it evokes and stages both in song and dance), and its inherent violence – in that “a fight can be a celebration”. [6] And all of this, he claims, escapes “the original sin of literariness”, mere “structures of words, forms made of symbols”. [7]

These are among the tropes that we explore here with reference to a range of films, and especially a particularly unusual, nominally American Western directed by French-born Jacques Tourneur in Argentina: Way of a Gaucho (1952).

The coincidence of Borges’ retelling of the Gaucho legends with the dramaturgy and iconography of the Western is not surprising, when we read this declaration from him in a 1960 essay on cinema, “The Holy Innocence of a Dream”, with its reference to (à la Masson) an ‘epic consciousness’ : “No form of poetry was more revered by the people of the Renaissance and the Ancients than the epic: the writers of our time have betrayed or despised it; and its anonymous salvation, across the whole world, is that work known as the Western”. [8] In the cinematic work of Western, we find, for Borges as for many of us, another blessed escape from the original sin of literariness.

What we are talking about here is a not a matter of realism, no simple mapping of a country’s history onto the Western’s generic archetypes. Never forget that the worldwide history of appreciation (in all its diverse forms) of the Western is the veritable history of cinephilia itself. Whether in the creative critical hands of Cabrera Infante in Cuba, Frieda Grafe in Germany, Adriano Aprà in Italy, Shigehiko Hasumi in Japan, Suzanne Liandrat-Guigues in France, Peter Wollen in Britain or Peggy Chiao in China, there has always been something infinitely open and accessible, detachable and exportable, about the Western. It is a maleta, a suitcase inviting fancy and fantasy as much as national myth-making or political critique. Freeing works from their cultural chains begins with cinephilia of the Western – an angelic state, in the precise sense that Michel Serres wields this reference to the angels:

Yes, we have no sense of place. We have many, many places. We have remembrances of our land, your land. We have two lands. One for work, one for melancholy, something like that. It is very interesting to have two levels of places, or three, because we remember that we did not originate in the place where we work. It is an angelic state of life. [9]

For Borges, this remembrance is indeed archetypal, an archive of “eternal vicissitudes that are the stuff of art”. As he observes in the 1960 fragment “Martín Fierro”, in 1860-something “a man dreamed of a knife fight …This thing that was once, returns again, infinitely; the invisible armies have gone and what is left is a common sort of knife-fight; one man’s dream is part of all men’s memory”. [10] Like a Viconian ricorso, the gaucho-cowboy-hoodlum will always return, make another appearance, like the mythical Juan Muraña who, when challenged to a fight, slashes the man’s face with the words, “I’m letting you live so that you can come looking for me again”. [11]

Like other sedentary, urban-dwelling men of letters Borges was fascinated with the street toughs of the rough northern suburbs of Buenos Aires. But in this he was no different from any other Argentine for whom the hoodlum, along with the gaucho were valorised as rebellious individuals, as “vast generic figures” of the Argentine imagination. [12] In “A History of the Tango” Borges writes of the oral stories he grew up with of legendary urban knife fighters, one of whom, Juan Muraña, formed the basis of his 1935 story “Man on Pink Corner” (also titled “Streetcorner Man”). The names and the places may be Argentine, but the lingo and attitude are quintessentially Western in their inflection and in the morbidity of their view of the world: “‘All it takes to die is to be alive’”, it is casually observed of the vanquished after being stabbed. “Man thought so highly of himself, and all he’s good for now is to draw flies”. The hero, Rosendo Juarez, aka “the Sticker”, was “one of the toughest customers in Villa Santa Rita”, a knife-fighter imitated by the boys in the neighbourhood “right down to the way he spit”. “Men and dogs”, we are told, “had a healthy respect for him, and the whores did too”. One night he is called out by a stranger, Francisco Real, who rides into town “spoiling for a fight”. [13] The prolonged stand-off and mounting tension between them is the focus of the story.

Memo from Tourneur
The recurring memory of a knife fight makes a curious appearance in Donald Cammell’s and Nicolas Roeg’s 1970 film Performance. Midway into the film the character of Turner, played by Mick Jagger, is encountered reading Jorge Luis Borges’ A Personal Anthology to Pherber and Lucy as they sort through magic mushrooms: “At this point something unforeseeable occurred. From a corner of the old room, the old ecstatic gaucho threw him a naked dagger, which landed at his feet”. [14] In an otherwise nondescript domestic scene in the libertine bacchanal that is 81 Powis Square, Notting Hill Gate, this is yet another instance in which Borges is curiously woven into the film’s texture as an “insistent reference” to what Colin MacCabe describes as the “fundamental unity of the human”. [15]  MacCabe is no doubt thinking of a footnote to “Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius” in which Borges, averring to Plato, suggests that all men, “in the vertiginous moment of coitus, are the same man. All men who repeat a line from Shakespeare are William Shakespeare”. [16] The story from which Turner reads, “The South”, is Borges’ most sustained and memorable portrait of the Argentine pampas and the rugged, often violent life of the gaucho. But the story is not simply quoted in the film, but is literally re-enacted. The mysterious accident that befalls the story’s central protagonist, Juan Dahlmann, is described by Borges as “Something in the dimness brushed his forehead– a bat? a bird?”

Turner: Dalmain bent over to pick it up. ‘They would not have allowed such things to happen to me in the sanatorium’, he thought. And he felt two things. The first…

Pherber: Yes. I know why.

Turner: Yeah?

Pherber: Yes.

Turner (crying out in pain and holding his hand to his eye): Ow!

A fly lands on the table. The Borges volume flies into the corner of the room. [17]

In “The South”, a “little ball of wadded bread” is thrown at Dahlmann as a provocation to fight.

With its curious admixture of London stand-over men and bohemian counter-culture, Performance may seem at first an odd context in which to find Borges woven throughout as a leitmotif. [18]  Cammell’s reading of Borges undoubtedly influenced the writing of the script and “The South” in particular, with its portrait of gauchos, violence and retribution, blends well with the atmosphere of East London thuggery. Harry Flowers and Chas are loosely disguised portraits of the notorious Kray brothers, but the smell of the pampas and the new frontier of the West [19] emanating from Borges’ presence endows them with the mantle of rustlers and hired guns. Indeed, Flowers censures Chas early in the film for disobeying an order, asking him “Who do you think you are? The Lone Ranger?” [20]

Repetitive Spiral Motion
Turner’s reading from “The South” also invokes, unwittingly or otherwise, another Tourneur, Cyril, the one with the curious medieval, Gallic spelling name from the Languedoc in France, the Jacobean author of arguably the greatest parable of the art of vengeance, The Revenger’s Tragedy (1607). [21] But Jagger’s Turner and Cyril Tourneur are not to be confused with the other Tourneur: Jacques, the director of the 1952 film Way of A Gaucho. If Borges’ presence in Performance insinuates the mystical doctrine of archetypes as a fundamental morphology of the human condition, Cyril Tourneur’s nominal trace in Jacques Tourneur’s romance of the pampas channels some of the psychic drama of the Western genre as a form of revenge tragedy. The film has barely started before one of the gauchos, Martín, is insulted and the obligation of a knife fight to settle the dishonour is inevitable. And, in an extraordinary quirk of history (we do not lie), when Borges listed (in his 1960 text that we have already cited) the very last films he saw and admired before losing his eyesight in the late 1950s, first in his reckoning is … Jacques Tourneur’s remarkable late film noir Nightfall (1957), known to him as Al caer de noche – a film that begins with the gesture of a hunted man turning away from bright lights to embrace the darkness.

In a typically Borgesian warp in time and space, something is quoted, in advance, from Performance: this scene from Way of A Gaucho is a memo from Tourneur, [22] a missive like the bullet that obliterates Turner’s skull at the end of the film when he is shot by Chas, opening up a vertiginous hole that reaches its climax in shattering an image of Borges reflected in a mirror. The gauchos resemble Jacobean cavaliers with their slouch hats, their doublet-like gaucho trousers, or chiripá, [23] their baize poncho-capes and the manner in which they fight with their knives.

Curiously, Borges’ “Man on Pink Corner” informed a 1950 screenplay he co-wrote with his friend and collaborator Adolfo Bioy Casares. Entitled Los orilleros, or Riverbank Men, it was “rejected enthusiastically” by various film companies. [24] Perhaps a trace of this fugitive text, along with the following extract from The Revenger’s Tragedy, is manifest, like the flickering of a recess of some collective unconscious, in the previous scene from Way of A Gaucho:

Supervacuo: Then I proclaim myself! Now I am Duke.

Ambitioso: Thou duke! Brother, thou liest!

[He slays Supervacuo]

Spurio: Slave, so dost thou!

[He slays Ambitioso]

Fourth [Lord]: Base villain, has thou slain my lord and master?

[He slays Spurio]

Enter the first men [Vindice, Hippolito and the two Lords]

Vindice: Pistols! Treason! Murder! Help, guard my lord the Duke!

[Enter Antonio with a Guard]

Hippolito: Lay hold upon this traitor! [25]

Jacobean tragedies, like Western saloon shootouts and Argentine knife fights, invariably resemble slaughterhouses. The lead player in Tom Stoppard’s film adaptation of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead (1990) says as much when describing The Murder of Gonzago, a text specifically chosen by Hamlet to publicly “catch the conscience of the king” and thereby justify his vengeance. [26]

Furthermore, it is curious to see Way of A Gaucho itself as a palimpsest of the film never made by Borges and Casares, an OULIPPean potential text. As Borges reminds us again and again in his fictions, a book only has to be possible for it to exist. His most recent and indeed most controversial translator, Andrew Hurley, appends a footnote to a detail in Borges’ story “The Encounter” pointing out that the “the true gaucho [for Borges] has faded from the Argentine scene and that … all that’s left is the memory of the gaucho”. [27] The old gaucho who throws Dahlmann a dagger is seen at once as a proud “symbol of the South” but at the same time a degraded image of a former glory:

On the floor, curled against the bar, lay an old man, as motionless as an object. The many years had worn him away and polished him, as a stone is worn smooth by running water or a saying is polished by generations of humankind. He was small, dark, and dried up, and he seemed to be outside time, in a sort of eternity. [28]

The opening scene of Tourneur’s film portrays to the letter the asado at the commencement of “The Encounter”, a gathering of men and the feast of a fatted calf on an estancia, a disagreement and a knife fight to the death. Both film and fiction are homages to the cult of the gaucho with its larger than life heroes such as Juan Moreira and the fictional archetypes Martín Fierro and Don Segundo Sombra. [29]  But they are also bitter-sweet and elegiac homages to the passing of the gaucho, replete with their own reflexive statements of the fact, such as the opening establishing voice-over in Way of A Gaucho: “As a special breed of men, answering only to their own laws and codes, the gauchos have vanished, the pampa they knew is fenced and cultivated”. Way of a Gaucho is indeed a strange film, and one that scarcely plays by the all-American generic rules: in a recent review of its DVD release from the Fox Cinema Archives, Robert Cashill notes that it is “unusually contemplative”; [30] while for Chris Fujiwara in his magisterial study Jacques Tourneur: The Cinema of Nightfall, it is built not on dramatic progression but rather on the symbolic, atmospheric and poetic structures of “a deepening of intensity”, in a “repetitive spiral motion”, with an impressionistic mise en scène “at the limits of the classical tradition”. [31] Already a post-Western, then, on a sui generis line of flight around the world and through time.

Punctuated throughout the epic panorama of Sergio Leone’s Once Upon A Time in the West (1968) there is a blurry, heat haze image of what appears to be a man walking through a desert. His identity is only revealed towards the very end of the film when the character known only as “Harmonica” confronts Frank, the man he has pursued throughout the film in order to avenge the death of his brother. The anticipatory glimpses of this scene reveal how the theme of vengeance is etched into the sun-scorched landscape of the film. The moment of revelation, when it comes, is typical of all such moments in revenge tragedies, when the traitor, the villain and the murderer are revealed and punished.

The Utah desert converges across time and space and is at once the Argentinean pampas, vast, intimate and secret. The elemental earth was not disturbed by settlements or any other signs of humanity. We are somewhere on the outskirts of hell. It was as though Harmonica were two men at once, the young boy with the Indian-looking face fumbling to support the dead weight of his brother on his shoulders as he struggles with the torment of lynching, and the composed avenger facing the man he has pursued all his life for this moment. But he was also a third, Juan Dahlmann, a man imprisoned in a sanatorium and subjected to methodical attentions after an accident, dreaming of dying in a knife or a gun fight under the open sky, at the same time dreaming that he is in a sanatorium recovering from a head injury.  And another, Chas Devlin, taken at gun point to a certain death by his nemesis Harry Flowers.

It was as though the South itself had decided that Dahlmann should accept the challenge from his oppressor, and that Frank and Harmonica would be among the last men standing. Harmonica will only tell Frank who he is at the point of dying. Frank, like Harmonica, will fall into the dust with a harmonica in his mouth, but unlike him won’t live to remember it. In that moment of recognition when Frank remembers the identity of the man who has just killed him, this is the death he may have dreamed or chosen. Turner is shot by Chas and in his death they become one, for it is Turner’s face glimpsed in the car taking Chas to his death. On that fateful, convergent plain, Frank, Harmonica, Dahlmann and Chas occupy a dizzying net of divergent and parallel times in which they are all busy and multiform. Each, answering the call of their enemy, walks out into an endless, unanimous night, killing or being killed in the eternity of the instant. [32]


[1] Jorge Luis Borges (trans. Andrew Hurley), Collected Fictions (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1998), p. 175.

[2] Hari Kunzru, “Michel Serres Interview (1995)”, (originally written for but rejected by Wired magazine as “too French”!).

[3] Alain Masson, “Réponse à Roger Tailleur”, Positif, no. 256 (June 1982), p. 78.

[4] G. Cabrera Infante (trans. Kenneth Hall), A Twentieth Century Job (London: Faber and Faber, 1991), p. 275.

[5] Jorge Luis Borges, ed. Eliot Weinberger, The Total Library: Non-Fiction 1922-1986 (London: Allen Lane, 2000), p. 398.

[6] Ibid., p. 396.

[7] Ibid., p. 397.

[8] Jorge Luis Borges, “Sagrada inocencia de un sueño”, reprinted in the Cuban film magazine enfoco, no. 25 (April 2010), p. 18 (our translation).

[9] “Michel Serres Interview (1995)”.

[10] Jorges Luis Borges, “Martín Fierro”, in Collected Fictions, pp. 312-313.

[11] Jorge Luis Borges, “A History of the Tango”, in On Argentina, ed. Alfred Mac Adam (London: Penguin, 2010), p. 110.

[12] Ibid., p. 105.

[13] Borges, “Man on Pink Corner”, Collected Fictions, pp. 42-52 passim.

[14] Donald Cammell (ed. Colin MacCabe), Performance (London: Faber & Faber, 2001), p. 79.

[15] Colin MacCabe, Performance (London: BFI Film Classics, 1998), p. 81. There are five direct references to Borges in the film, among them the perhaps surprising image of one of Harry Flowers’ thugs, Rosie, reading from A Personal Anthology in the back of a car while waiting for Chas who is collecting protection money.

[16] Jorge Luis Borges, Labyrinths (New York: New Directions, 1964), p. 12.

[17] Performance, p. 79.

[18] Cammell wrote the script for Performance in 1967, so in terms of the experimental, swinging vibe of that year, it is not surprising that Borges would figure large in his imagination, especially with his themes of transcendental experience and multiple, converged realities and parallel times. Borges had only recently appeared in English, with key publications in 1962 (Labyrinths) and 1967 (A Personal Anthology) and Performance is in fact a historical glimpse into how voraciously his work was read in the English speaking world in the late ‘60s. Burned out rock stars and gangsters clearly could not get enough of him.

[19] Borges gestures to as well as writes explicitly of the American West in a number of early works, notably in “The Disinterested Killer Bill Harrigan” (1935).

[20] Later in the film when Chas is stoned and Pherber and Turner are dressing him for the purpose of taking a passport photo for Chas’ flight from England, Turner refers to Chas as “the horror show… He takes it, he dishes it out too. You can bet your sweet fucking life he does. He’s a mean bastard”.  Chas responds “I’m the Lone Ranger”. Performance, p. 94.

[21] It is worth noting that there is a shady character in Performance, Mad Cyril, who is named, though we never see him in the film as an identified character. Mad Cyril is one of those East End thugs called upon to unleash violence and seek retribution from those unfortunates who are on the wrong side of Harry Flowers’ firm.

[22] “Memo from Turner” is a stylised, set-piece mid-way through Performance in which Mick Jagger performs a song of the same name. In a very typical Borgesian maneuver, the scene repeats with subtle variations an earlier moment in the film when Harry Flowers lays down the law of the firm to a recalcitrant Chas. Here, Turner is Flowers, in mufti as Teddy Boy with affected cockney inflections. The entire scene is acted out under the persistent gaze of a mirror, a distinctly Borgesian motif suggesting the persistence of archetypes that are always reflected in human experience.

[23] Andrew Hurley’s description of the design of the chiripá, in a footnote to “The South”, underlines the remarkable likeness to a Jacobean doublet: “a triangular worsted shawl tied about the waist with the third point pulled up between the legs and looped into a knot to form a rudimentary pant, or a sort of diaper”. Collected Fictions, p. 537.

[24] “A History of the Tango”, p. 110.

[25] Cyril Tourneur (ed. Gamini Salgado), The Revenger’s Tragedy (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1982), V, iii, pp. 57-62.

[26] There is a distinctly wild frontier vibe in Stoppard’s film. The opening sequence figures the main protagonists on horse back (wearing the Jacobean equivalent of cowboy dusters) riding in silence through some nondescript badland, having been announced by a soundscape of blues guitar and howling wolves as the opening credits roll. The verbal parlay between Rosencrantz and Guildenstern uncannily brings to mind J.P. Harrah (Robert Mitchum) and Cole Thornton (John Wayne) in Howard Hawks’ El Dorado (1967).

[27] Collected Fictions, p. 552.

[28] Ibid., p. 178

[29] Martín Fierro is the hero of an eponymous 1872 poem by José Hernández; Don Segundo Sombra a character Ricardo Güiraldes’ 1926 novel of the same name.

[30] Robert Cashill, “From the Archives: Way of a Gaucho”, Cineaste, Vol. XXXV11 No. 4 (2012),

[31] Chris Fujiwara, Jacques Tourneur: The Cinema of Nightfall (The Johns Hopkins Press, 1998), pps. 202, 204 & 206.

[32] In an equally perplexing ambiguity, it is unclear at the end of Performance whether it is Chas or Turner who is escorted into an awaiting car at the end of the film to meet their inevitable execution. The man leaving Powis Square is clearly Chas. The man glimpsed in the car as it speeds away is Turner.

© Adrian Martin & Darren Tofts August 2013

About the Author

Adrian Martin & Darren Tofts

About the Authors

Adrian Martin

Adrian Martin is Associate Professor at Monash University and Visiting Professor of Film Studies at Goethe University, Frankfurt, during 2013-4. His recent book Last Day Every Day will soon appear in a Portuguese translation from punctum books. He is Co-Editor of the online film journal LOLA, and writes regular columns for Caiman and Filmkrant.

Darren Tofts

Darren Tofts is a Professor of Media and Communications at Swinburne University of Technology, Melbourne. He is the author of Interzone: Media Arts in Australia (Thames & Hudson, 2005) and a forthcoming book on Jorge Luis Borges here, there and everywhere.View all posts by Adrian Martin & Darren Tofts →