Arts - Summer 2008

Grand Horse Opera

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The best Westerns celebrate our history and criticize the ugly stereotypes of the genre

By Richard Locke

June 1, 2008


Every few years a new Western appears and people go once more to gaze at men with guns and horses, at gran­diose landscapes and Tinkertoy towns, at the rituals of conquest and combat. Westerns are not so popular as they were in the 1950s, and their dependence on a sense of the past makes them difficult for our sarcastic novelty youth culture. But Westerns have always looked backward, retelling the story of the birth and manifest destiny of our ever-exceptional nation, the last best hope of mankind, and whether they ultimately celebrate or denounce or yearn or jeer, they draw energy from that basic narrative. Most often they depict how a doomed race of killers prepared the way for American civilization.

Two recent Westerns—3:10 to Yuma with Russell Crowe and Christian Bale, and The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford with Brad Pitt and Casey Affleck—have attracted considerable attention. Both center on the figure of a celebrity outlaw, a melancholy Lucifer, a Byronic man of wit and sorrow in perpetual flight from the law, the leader of a band of squalid psychotic henchmen who are plainly his moral, intellectual, and gunslinging inferiors. In The Assassination, Brad Pitt sulks and glowers with obscure existential intensity and seems to welcome death at the hands of Casey Affleck’s juvenile Judas. In 3:10 to Yuma, satanic Russell Crowe tries to sweet-talk lean and desperate Christian Bale into setting him free, but the temptation fails as Bale goes from loser to hero and wins the admiration of his adversary. (This is ultimately an odd-couple/buddy Western, but much larger, more dynamic and adroit than the stagy original 1957 version with smirking bad boy Glenn Ford and doughty virtuous Van Heflin.)

What both of these new films share with some of the strongest older Westerns is not the settings or the shootouts but the attraction/repulsion toward the celebrity outlaw, a killer who can be neither simply condemned nor excused, since his crimes express a Romantic intensity that questions the small-town civilizing virtues that seek to repress it. For Western movies can exhibit a more complex attitude toward frontier killers and their historical context than is often acknowledged. At their best, Westerns exemplify the strongest kind of popular art—dramatic explorations of national history and culture—not merely self-satisfied or sentimental clichés about a frontier life that ended in the mid-1890s. And though they are built on narratives that usually portray killing as a glorious, heroic necessity of westward expansion, Westerns have sometimes been used to criticize the Mani­chaean stereotypes they often celebrate and to praise figures who embody more complex kinds of American strength, courage, and grace. Some Westerns even aspire to tragedy by dramatizing a fatal conflict between two incompatible virtues, two kinds of moral and physical heroism, two kinds of admirable men.

Westerns can be extravagantly sentimental and melodramatic, and even the greatest can be guilty of egregious racism and sexism. But the major directors have used the form in ways that enliven and enlarge our understanding of ourselves as a nation. The very directors who created the dominant stereotypes of the genre can also undo them. John Ford can condemn as well as celebrate; Sergio Leone can depict triumphant progress as well as cynical virtuosity; Clint Eastwood (as director) can portray Old Testament justice as well as a psychotic return of the repressed.

Take Red River, Howard Hawks’s ranch-empire/cattle-drive movie that made a superstar of John Wayne in 1948. The film is built on generational conflict in the context of economic history and on a contrast between hard and soft masculine styles. Wayne is the bullying, obsessed patriarch who becomes a frontier tyrant—old-fashioned, loud, beefy, and choleric—and Montgomery Clift is his adopted son: seductively beautiful, soft-spoken, flexible, a modern director of the cowboy crew, and an artist with a pistol. The subversive wit of Clift’s underplayed performance suggests masculine vulnerability and virtuosity that far exceed our usual notions of the Western’s moral and psycho­logical range. And for us today, the film’s critique of traditional Western male aggression is enlarged when we see Wayne near the beginning of the film tell two Mexican patrolmen that all the land from here to the Rio Grande is not their boss’s but his—by fiat—and then kill one of them without a flicker of concern. His empire is built on theft and murder, but by the end of the film we understand it can only survive if ruled by less violent means and less macho men.

The complexity of Red River is very different from the moral and aesthetic solemnity of Fred Zinnemann’s High Noon (1952)—with a bewrinkled but dark-lashed Gary Cooper as the “forsaken” noble sheriff who defends the cowardly town from outlaws in spite of itself—and George Stevens’s Shane (1953) with Alan Ladd at his most infuriatingly narcissistic in a perfect blond hairdo as the incarnate Spirit of the West defending the salt-of-the-earth farmers against the despotic cattlemen. Though both films are extravagantly decorative—High Noon in high-contrast black and white to suggest old photographs (and absolute good and evil), Shane in Venetian Renaissance dark blues and browns like a Tintoretto sacred scene—they exude a fatal high seriousness and moral vanity that, in the case of Shane, verges on camp. But these are sacred monsters, and many may disagree.

Though stereotypes abound in Ford’s 56 Westerns, at his best he embraces the conventions so fiercely and intelligently that he transforms clichés into aesthetically legitimate icons or turns them inside out to reveal their deep corrosion. Though Stagecoach (1939) is often described as a classic Western, it’s atypical, closer to chamber music than the usual Western symphony. As critics have noted, the movie performs an anatomy of American society in miniature: its seven main characters are tested in a journey that inverts the conventional social and moral hierarchies. At the very end, the representatives of law, order, and enlightened (if tipsy) civilization—a paternal sheriff and a doctor—shoo an outlaw and a prostitute out of town, away from what they ironically call “the benefits of civilization” into the desert toward the paradise to be regained across the Mexican border in a Rousseauistic state of nature where men are no longer in chains. Southwestern America, with its bigoted townsfolk and violent barrooms and brothels, is clearly no place for this new Adam and Eve to thrive. So much for flag-waving. But seven years later in the more conventional My Darling Clementine, Ford at times portrays Western American small-town civilization at its most joyous and positive. And it’s characteristic of Ford (at his strongest) to complicate things at the very end as Wyatt Earp rides away from the community he’s saved and the woman he’s attracted to. This “town tamer” isn’t quite civilized; he’s naturally courtly and shy, which is to say immature and anxious.

Such masculine anxiety is missing from the Dickensian celebrations of family life and married love that make so much of Ford’s so-called cavalry trilogy memorable. Fort Apache (1948), She Wore a Yellow Ribbon (1949), and Rio Grande (1950) are set on cavalry bases on the Arizona frontier after Custer’s defeat in 1876. Women and girls are active figures (however pert or pure or loyal and matronly), and the rules and rituals of regimental life are seen to comfort and support both officers and enlisted men; the fort is American democracy in all its gender, class, and ethnic (but here always white) variety. There’s little doubt—as critics have noted—that the trilogy does come to suggest that the military is the very embodiment of American civilization, but the recurrent festivals of marriage and family life and praise of male vulner­ability exert something of a counter­vailing force, though hobbled by sexist and ethnic mannerisms.

But Fort Apache also mounts a conspicuous critique of masculine stereotypes that recalls that of Red River. Ford contrasts democratic, pro-Indian captain John Wayne (first seen dancing at a regimental ball) to colonel Henry Fonda as an ignorant, snobbish martinet desperate for military glory. Wayne is flexible, perceptive, nurturing of the young and old cavalry families that surround him, and he draws upon his knowledge of the Indians to negotiate a peace. Fonda arrogantly destroys this and thereby destroys himself and his troops. The film’s ending, set years later, has been condemned as a craven embrace of hypocritical militarism. Wayne, now a colonel, tells Eastern reporters that Fonda was a true hero and that a bogus painting of his self-sacrifice is “correct in every detail.” The myth of glory supersedes historical fact. But Wayne delivers his lines with a tense new self-importance, abruptly barks “any questions?” (a phrase identified with Fonda), and then dons Fonda’s foolish desert cap and marches out like a puppet. Wayne has succeeded Fonda’s command and come to incarnate Fonda’s beliefs and styles. He’s fatally compromised, even possessed. And, most important, the Indian war is still not over. This darkly critical coda (which de­pends on the suddenly ironic presentation of Wayne) is in fact consistent with the social-political-psycho­logical critique of the rest of the film and anticipates Ford’s analysis of mythmaking in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance 14 years later.

Quite different from the predominantly sunny cavalry trilogy are Ford’s two darkest and greatest films: The Searchers in 1956 and Liberty Valance in 1962. In the first, racism turns a mission of rescue into one of psychotic revenge, and though the central character (abruptly and preposterously) does not finally murder his abducted niece, it makes complete narrative sense that, when he does return her to a white frontier family, he is visually excluded from their nurturing community and in the last shot walks off into the desert. This final image of exile inverts the glorious opening sequences of the film. Rather than emerging from the wilderness to rejoin the civilized family of man, the central character has become a shrinking black silhouette against the red Sinai grandeur of Monument Valley. Quite apart from its unconvincing peripeteia, The Searchers remains a ferocious denunciation of American racist male violence.

Ford’s last great Western, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, is a tragic psychohistory built on Freud’s model of the psyche and Charles Beard’s vision of American progress as the product of ever-Westward economic conflict and growth. James Stewart plays the superego, Lee Marvin is the id, John Wayne is the ego. Ford exploits the physical and acting styles of his three leading men to the full. Stewart, washing dishes in a white apron, teaching school, and ultimately famous as “the man who shot Liberty Valance,” is a sententious agent of American progress. Marvin is a manic villain in black, wielding a bullwhip, the personification of frontier anarchy. Wayne is the only man in town as big and quick as Marvin but eager to build a house and marry, a guardian of order who consciously empowers his historical and marital successor, Stewart, by shooting Marvin with a rifle from the shadows (violating every code, of course) and then sinking into drunken, self-destructive melancholy. The movie’s most famous line is a newspaper editor’s cynical adage, “When the legend becomes fact, print the legend,” but the entire film is a dramatic analysis of the evolution and problematic value of heroic Western legends. Ford has come far from the Rousseauistic vision of Stagecoach, the Progressivism of My Darling Clementine, and the sunny militarism and family values of the trilogy.

But what changed the Western genre even more conspicuously—and demonstrated how vigorous a popular tradition could be—were Sergio Leone’s three Italian-made spaghetti Westerns with Clint Eastwood—A Fistful of Dollars (1964), For a Few Dollars More (1965), and The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly (1966). To go from the classical grandeur and moral solidity of Ford’s films to the expressionistic grandiosity and amoral fluidity of Sergio Leone’s is exhilarating and disquieting. The world is suddenly seen in extreme close-up or extravagant long shot; grotesque giant gunmen slowly slide into the frame and then expire in a hail of bullets. Instead of symphonic renditions of Western folk tunes or the excruciating crooning of the Sons of the Pioneers, we hear electric guitars, shrill whistling and unintelligible syllables, a solitary piccolo tune, a soaring grand opera chorus and orchestra. Then abrupt silence or jingling spurs followed by gunshots.

Instead of John Wayne dressed in some variant of a cavalry uniform, with a placket shirt accentuating his torso and shoulders and a pale high Stetson, we see Clint East­wood in a scruffy poncho, black Levi’s, and a black flat-topped hat—not Michelangelo’s David in blue jeans but a skeleton smoking a cheroot. Wayne’s papa-bear rumble is replaced by Eastwood’s soft snakelike rasp (though he’s usually silent and unresponsive, a “block of marble” as Leone once called him, admiringly). Leone and Eastwood had discovered a way to marry extravagant operatic form and cynical laconic content.

These films have often been called hardboiled Westerns. For Leone, the West is Hobbesian nature on horseback, and Eastwood is Bogart—but without the Romantic melancholy. The least cynical moment comes as a twist at the end of For a Few Dollars More, when Lee Van Cleef, usually the coldest killer in the West, confesses he’s acted purely to avenge his sister’s honor and gives his bounty to Eastwood, who calmly stacks 27 bodies in the back of a buckboard and drives off. A mercenary jackal.

All of which makes Leone’s masterpiece, Once Upon a Time in the West (1968), the more surprising. Instead of postmodern Hobbes, he gives us Charles Beard. The film recounts the birth of a nation, here the coming of the railroad, which is seen not as a corruption of the natural order but as American progress, a nurturing triumph of civilization. The two gunmen who facilitate this are aware of their coming obsolescence but stoically play out their traditional roles. Much of the originality of the film arises not only from the grave choreography of the hieratic shootouts, but from the character of a former prostitute who has come West from New Orleans to discover her husband and his three children destroyed on her wedding day. In an inversion of Western clichés, Leone depicts the founding of the new West by a fully independent, sexually active, unsentimental, cou­rageous former prostitute (a more powerful figure than the prostitute in Stagecoach). This remarkable film turns the psy­cho­historical tragedy of The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance into a feminist epic with an affirmative ending.

Nevertheless, Leone is still condemned for nihilism. In fact, it’s Sam Peckinpah in The Wild Bunch (1969) who approaches that ignominious realm. This is not a world of Hobbesian wolf-men but of Nietzschean virtuosity. The notorious slow-motion shoot­outs do go on forever, but the shock is not the body count or gore but our voyeuristic complicity and our understanding that, as Susan Sontag said, courage is a morally neutral virtue. The despairing expertise of this wretched band of brothers caught among American bounty hunters, Mexican autocrats, and naïve revolutionaries becomes one of the only positives left.

A more recent proof of the vigorous flexibility and range of the Western can be seen in three of the 30 films directed by Clint Eastwood. High Plains Drifter (1973) and Pale Rider (1985) are lightly touched with allegory—like Hawthorne’s tales of Puritan self-righteousness and guilt—and re-imagine the situations of High Noon and Shane without the arty self-importance of those earlier films. And unlike the Fistful of Dollars trilogy, High Plains Drifter and Pale Rider are not cynical, but moral, even moralistic. But nothing in these two elegant, fluent, beautifully constructed films prepares us for Eastwood’s 1992 masterpiece, Unforgiven, still the most recent great Western. Deeply embedded in frontier history and its vainglorious self-mythologizing, Unforgiven is scrupulously naturalistic. Its visual world is often dominated by mud, black rainstorms, and a dark, brutal bar and whorehouse. The film never stoops to sentimentality or glamour (or reverse chic) and is never self-important or morally vain. It’s an inexorable condemnation of the Western gunman as a psychotic monster.

The film begins with male violence—a cowboy cutting the face of a whore who laughed at his “tiny pecker”—and female re­venge: the other whores put their savings together and send word out that they want to hire a killer. The cowboy and his sidekick must be murdered. A gun­slinging dandy ap­pears, accompanied by his worshipful young biographer, but the sheriff disarms him, beats him, appro­priates the attention of the biographer, and runs the dandy out of town. Might makes right. Law and order serve the private needs of a sadistic local tyrant.

The critique of conventional violence is enlarged by the figure of Eastwood as a once-famous gunman, now middle-aged and awkward, who has become an impoverished pig farmer devoted to his young children and the memory of his dead wife. By the end of the film he has become the insane killer he thought he’d escaped being.

Like The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, Unforgiven also explores the process of creating Western mythology. The naïve biographer’s book about the dandy’s exploits is called The Duke of Death, and the sheriff mischievously keeps calling it (and the dandy) the “duck of death.” The sheriff himself is a master raconteur who hopes to spin his own life story into literary gold. All the devotees of “the old days” are liars or myopic: the biographer wears glasses; a gun-crazy boy is nearly blind.

The pig farmer is morally blind—rigid, filled with homilies, teetotaling slogans, and sententious self-loathing for his “former evil ways.” He hasn’t killed a man in 11 years, but economic need and some woolly sense that mutilating a woman is wrong, even as “buying flesh” is wrong, lead him to revert to murder and collect the whores’ reward—as if that weren’t buying flesh. By the end he’s declaring “We’ve all got it coming,” and when the fatally wounded sheriff says, “I don’t deserve this . . . to die like this. I was building a house,” he replies, “Deserve has nothing to do with it” and shoots him again. The film’s relentlessly dark style prevents it from glamorizing this sordid violence and the man who dispenses it. There is nothing heroic about these murders; they will only lead to barbaric replication ad infinitum.

A great tradition of popular art can contain multitudes and thrive on self-contradiction. Ford’s Westerns go from Dickensian tolerance and brio to racist obsessions and black melancholy. Leone’s move from sexist cynicism to feminist triumph. Peckinpah’s toy with nihil­ism, while Eastwood’s exult in moralism and then excoriate it. And over the years there have also been comic Westerns and pro-Indian, black, cross-gendered, and postmodern Westerns. But the central subject remains or returns like Banquo’s ghost. Westerns are our national epic, our recurrent dream and nightmare. We have driven our plows over the bones of the dead.


Richard Locke is professor of writing and director of nonfiction at the Columbia University School of the Arts. He is working on a book on the literary use of children from Dickens to the present.


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