Why Westerns Still Matter

He is immediately recognizable, this American ronin.

It’s the way he stands, the posture he assumes in silence or repose.  The easy, laconic grace that passes for a casual slouch. Clearly, a man comfortable inside his own skin. A byproduct of all of those long days in the saddle, the freedom and independence that implies, but also the unimaginable isolation of the life he has chosen. A single rider framed against monumental backdrops, surmounted by tall, wide, Panavision skies. A lone figure, dwarfed by the elements, a speck on a vast landscape.

But don’t be fooled. This is an individual of resourcefulness and determination, his will indomitable. He has passed, unscathed, through the Great American Desert, survived the Civil War and its lawless aftermath and that wasn’t due to mere chance.

Look at his eyes. They miss nothing. There is a preternatural alertness about him. It marks him and sets him apart, as distinctive as a brand. He enters the saloon and conversation ceases. The others shift, giving him plenty of elbow room at the bar. He positions himself so he can take in the entire room in a single, swift glance. No blind spots. Off to the side, a gin mill Mozart is banging out a traditional melody, badly, on an out of tune piano. Everyone watching the newcomer, even the jaded bar moll giving him a wide berth.

Whiskey.” The voice low but commanding. The bartender hurries to comply.

Then, all at once, another lull and this time it’s because the town sheriff has just pushed through the swinging doors, his manner all business. He and the stranger lock gazes. This is preordained. Patrons are scampering out of the way, the atmosphere charged, the suspense reaching unbearable proportions…

These two know each other, that much is apparent. Perhaps they rode together, back before the line between good and bad, right and wrong, became so cut and dried. They spent many a companionable evening together and although they are, by nature, taciturn men, during their time together they formed something more than common cause. Comrades, perhaps even friends.

But that was a long time ago and although there has never been any malice between them, they each have prescribed roles to play in what happens next. They take little pleasure in the knowledge that they are, by force of circumstances, destined for confrontation. They are polar opposites in a Manichean universe. There is no chance of reconciliation or arbitration.

In the next two or three seconds, one of them is going to die.

* * * * *

The preceding is a mashup of any number of different westerns I’ve watched over the years. The actors are interchangeable. It could be Randolph Scott facing down Neville Brand or Jimmy Stewart confronting various supporting players with craggy features and menacing miens. Over the past hundred plus years (measuring from Edwin S. Porter’s “The Great Train Robbery” in 1903), we’ve come to know these men, recognize what each of them represents. We’re familiar with the codes they live by and recognize why they must do what they do.

Jack Palance goading the poor, over-matched sodbuster before gunning him down (“Shane”; 1953).  The young bounty hunter callously dispatching Keith Carradine in one of the most memorable sequences from Robert Altman’s “McCabe & Mrs. Miller” (1971).  These are hard men, sociopaths who kill without remorse, indifferent to the blood they’ve spilled and the lives they’ve pre-empted. They are allied with the forces of chaos, anarchy and lawlessness. The frontier and its rough and tumble ways suits them fine. The new territories opening west of the Missouri are unprotected, each settlement remote from its neighbors, vulnerable to rapine. In such an environment evil, in all its corrupt guises, can thrive.

Who can defend us against the likes of them?

* * * * *

“Hell is coming to breakfast.”

-Chief Dan George, in “The Outlaw Josey Wales”

Let’s be candid right from the outset: we need him more than he needs us.

In his view, his fellow human beings are more trouble than they’re worth. Selfish, foolish, spoiled and hypocritical. His patience with us is limited, his capacity for stupidity nonexistent. He’s not shy about offering correction and unafraid of using his fists if he feels he’s not getting his point across.

We can trust him…to a certain extent. His word is his bond and he will be a loyal, stalwart ally (as long as we don’t take him for granted).

He is, when all is said and done, a “good guy”, a “white hat” (although that doesn’t prevent him from displaying breath-taking ruthlessness). He has no truck with organized religion and the last time he was in a church, it was to rob the poor box.

“Don’t you believe in miracles, Mr. Hogan?” Sister Sara asks in Don Siegel’s woefully under-rated “Two Mules For Sister Sara” (1970).

Hogan, perfectly played by Clint Eastwood, is dubious. A pragmatic man who has endured thanks to his proficiency with weapons and split second reflexes. He sees little indication of anything sacred or divine in his risky, dangerous existence, the low men he is forced to do business with, their mean, degraded lives.

But by the end of the movie, Hogan has experienced a “road to Damascus” like conversion.  Miracle of miracles, Hogan is a man transformed, a friend of the campesinos, a committed revolutionary and (spoiler alert) “Sister” Sara’s new swain (and who can blame him, Shirley MacLaine never looked more beautiful).

Hogan, like most western heroes, is a man of few words but when he says something he means it and woe unto him who ignores his terse warnings. This is an individual who is prepared to back his convictions to the nth degree. And we like that quality, we like it in Hogan, Pike Bishop (“The Wild Bunch”; 1969), Jeremiah Johnson, Joe Kidd, Steve Judd (“Ride the High Country”; 1962), etc. etc.

“When you side with a man, you stay with him! And if you can’t do that, you’re like some animal, you’re finished! We’re finished! All of us!” William Holden delivers his speech at a crucial juncture of “The Wild Bunch” and it is a dictum the rest of the gang, as angry and demoralized as they are, accept at face value. Despite their differences, they will remain together and united to the bitter end (and what an end it turns out to be!).

But sometimes talking doesn’t settle things. The disagreement is too entrenched, the opposing sides bitterly divided. At some point you must take a stand. Say your piece and shut up. Leave it for the other man to make the first move but once he does, don’t hesitate. Aim for the center of the body, point it like a finger. Squeeze the trigger gently, keeping your hand steady, eyes zeroed in on your target…

The Hogans and Pike Bishops of the world don’t stoically endure betrayal.  They aren’t the type to stand idly by while back-shooting compatriots abscond with the gold or patrons refuse to pay what’s owed for serviced rendered. Go back on your word and it can quickly turn ugly.

Reprisals are terrible. Think of the unnamed gunfighter (again played by Eastwood) in “High Plains Drifter” (1973). He might be the avenging shade of a sheriff brutally murdered while the good townspeople stood by and did nothing to save him. He dispenses justice to the local baddies but refuses to spare the citizens of Lago their share of the blame. By the time he’s done, all of the guilty parties have paid dearly and he can return from whence he came in the knowledge that a decent, honest man can at last rest in peace.

Eastwood again plays a kind of dark angel in his 1992 film “The Unforgiven” . Who can forget the ferocious look in Will Munny’s eyes, the blood lust, when he confronts the brutish sheriff (Gene Hackman) at the conclusion of the movie? And his barked warning as he prepares to leave the gore-splattered saloon and walk out into the street. Chilling.

And recall the trail of bodies Steve McQueen leaves behind him in “Nevada Smith” (1966). The knife fight with Martin Landau isn’t for the squeamish.

Vengeance, it seems, was as prevalent in the Old West as it was in the days of the ancient Greeks. As a theme, it is enduring, a sure fire crowd-pleaser. How often have we, every single one of us, felt cheated, wronged, and yearned to do harm to our perceived enemies?

Instead, we appoint murderous proxies, rely on them to do our killing for us while we keep our hands clean and unsullied, kneeling piously in church each Sunday, the Reverend Lovejoy railing from the pulpit on the temptations of evil, the enticing promises the Devil makes to prize away our souls. That image I have of Steve McQueen in “Tom Horn” (1980), facing execution and clearly seeing it as the lesser of two evils. Better dead than a stooge of local business interests, an early prototype of a corporate “hired gun”. The era of the “wild” west officially over when the trap door snaps open beneath him, consigning him to legend.

Poor Tom. Ditto Steve McQueen. “Tom Horn” was his last film.

Vaya con dios, partner.

* * * * *

Humphrey Bogart looked silly on a horse, John Wayne ridiculous without one.

Strother Martin didn’t trust them.

Robert Ryan despised westerns.

Alan Ladd was only five and a half feet tall.

The gunfight at the O.K. Corral reportedly lasted less than a minute.

* * * * *

First there was Gene Autry. Gene Autry, not (firmly) Roy Rogers. You were a Gene Autry guy or a Roy Rogers guy but never both. It would be like simultaneously rooting for the Yankees and Red Sox. To me, Roy and Trigger just couldn’t compete with Gene and Champion Jr.

Gene was my first hero. Neil Armstrong, Tom Seaver, Captain Kirk, they came later. When I was five, Gene was the man.

But Gene was a product of television and at a mere twenty inches high couldn’t compete with his big screen counterparts playing at the local theater and drive-in. When you went to the movies, your heroes were ten times larger than life, looming over the audience, iconic and beautiful, myth made flesh.

Before long, Gene Autry gave way to Clint Eastwood. Eastwood was instantly likeable, possessing irresistible charm and moxie. I liked “Duke” Wayne too but by that time he was old enough to be my grandfather. It was a generational thing, I couldn’t really relate to him.

I liked how Clint pretended not to care.

How much punishment he could absorb and still come back for more.

How relentless he was when crossed. Taking on his opponents two and three at a time and never flinching.  I was small for my age, frequently bullied or, even worse, ignored, considered too inconsequential to torment. Can you get any lower than that?

I had a plastic gunbelt and replica Colt .45. The gun was mostly metal and had some heft. It felt real to me. The belt was too loose and my mother had to punch an extra hole with a paring knife. I liked to wear it slung low on my hip. I affected a swagger that occasionally devolved into something more closely resembling a stagger (I thought cowboys walked lightly, on their toes, had trouble keeping my balance).

I didn’t have a horse but I did have a hockey stick. Reverse it, climb astride the handle, voilá. A custom made steed for those lacking access to the real thing. Texas was too far away but we lived on the edge of town so there was an open field on the other side of the fence. Toppled trees made a functional fort that was the setting of countless sieges and valiant, hopeless last stands.

Riddled with bullets, the hammer snapping down on empty chambers, facing the advancing hordes, defiant to the end. A hero for a few precious hours.

If only I’d been as fearless in real life.

* * * * *

John Ford. Sam Peckinpah. Anthony Mann. Budd Boetticher. Sergio Leone. Howard Hawks. All gone. Irreplaceable, it seems.

Because we don’t see many first rate westerns these days, do we? Instead we get ponderous duds like “The Appaloosa” (2008) or the risible remake of “3:10 To Yuma” (2007). The last truly great western was “The Long Riders” (1980), Walter Hill at the very top of his game, revenge and betrayal front and center once again. “The Unforgiven” is a well-intentioned movie but too earnest and at least twenty minutes overlong.

“The Proposition” (2005) is one recent offering that definitely makes the grade. It is a gory effort from downunder, a tale set in the harsh environs of the outback, scripted by Nick Cave and expertly directed by John Hillcoat. The Coen Brothers’ take on “True Grit” (2010) also impressed, Jeff Bridges’ masterful portrayal of Reuben “Rooster” Cogburn confirming his status as one of our finest living actors. Bridges is fantastic but the entire production delights; entertaining and authentic, a rare combination.

These two films are wonderful…but exceptions nonetheless. The quantity and quality of westerns have declined steadily since their heyday in the 1960’s…now we’re lucky to see an Old West-themed title in general release. The audience isn’t there for them any more, the kids prefer the fantasy related stuff, explosions and heaping dollops of CGI. The demographic for westerns has gotten old and that monosyllabic, stubborn, honorable western hero devoted fans used to love has been transplanted into outer space (Han Solo), stuck behind the wheel of a fast, furious muscle car (Vin Diesel) or crammed into a form-fitting costume of a superhero with a taste for vigilante justice.

But it’s not the same thing.

* * * * *

The man on a horse.

Pale rider.

Protector and avenger.

Sinner and saint.

Apostle of the pistol.

American ronin.

* * * * *

Kurosawa revered John Ford, even wore dark-rimmed glasses, emulating his idol.

Orson Welles and Gregg Toland screened numerous films as they prepared to shoot “Citizen Kane”. “Stagecoach” was a particular favorite. They spent hours dissecting it almost frame by frame, Toland pointing out the peerless cutting, Ford’s ability to dictate pace and utterly absorb the viewer in the story he’s telling. Teaching his young protege by seating him at the feet of a Master.

* * * * *

He’s remote but not detached. The endless, empty miles have stolen most of his vocabulary, the trail dust parching his throat, reducing his voice to a rasp:

“Well, are you gonna draw your pistols or stand there whistlin’ ‘Dixie’?”

He has survived stampedes, floods and cyclones; hostile Indians and irate, knife-wielding whores. Croup, chronic piles and the clap. He belongs to a special fellowship and his name is as well known in certain quarters as that of the sitting President’s. He’s got a whale of a story to tell but when you sidle up to ask him about his life, his stare freezes you to the bone. You quickly offer apologies for your impertinence and scuttle away while you still can. Thanking your lucky stars he hadn’t been drinking and praying he’s not the sort to hold a grudge.

* * * * *

He’s apolitical and cursed with common sense. Is polite in the right company and known to tip his hat to a lady. He doesn’t ask for special favors or handouts. Mostly, he wants to be left alone.

If needed, he can be called upon, but his participation will be reluctant and once his part is over don’t expect him to hang around.

Shane!  Come back, Shane!”

The sun is setting and the trail is beckoning.

Ride on, stranger.

Into the forever past.

All Time Favorite Western Movies:

1) The Wild Bunch (1969)

2) The Long Riders (1980)

3) Two Mules for Sister Sara (1973)

4) Ride the High Country (1962)

5) The Outlaw Josey Wales (1976)

6) Hombre (1967)

7) She Wore A Yellow Ribbon (1949)

8) Jeremiah Johnson (1972)

9) The Good, the Bad and the Ugly (1966)

10) The Stalking Moon (1968)

Honorable mentions:  “Tombstone” (1993), “McCabe & Mrs. Miller” (1971), “Man of the West” (1958), “High Noon” (1952)

About Cliff Burns

I'm a literary writer, specializing in slipstream/ alternative/surreal/science fiction. My influences include Philip K. Dick, Harlan Ellison, Samuel Beckett, Jorge Luis Borges, David Cronenberg, Rene Magritte, any artist who defies convention and busts open genres, attacking the status quo.
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2 Responses to Why Westerns Still Matter

  1. Colleen says:

    well written as always, did stir up old memories of lying on my belly in front of the tellie watching those old westerns…oh ya…

    • Cliff Burns says:

      The late show. First a western, then a bad horror movie around 2:30 a.m.

      Ah, the good old days, before children. When I could still stay up all night and sleep until noon.

      Memories, indeed.

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