Monday, April 14, 2008

Dead Men Walking - The Return of the Cowboy




I was made aware that the Western was dead when I visited a junk shop recently. Looking down at a collection of cowboys and Indians just like the ones I had played with as a boy, I began talking to the shop owner about the fort they came with. She smiled at me and said, “Not many kids these days have an interest in a set like that. They hardly even know what cowboys and Indians are. It’s just not part of their world.”

Standing there in my Levi jeans and blue flannelette shirt, I too had to wonder if I would soon be headed for the ‘antiques’ store? A little more seriously I began to consider the saturating cultural force of the Western in everything from film, radio and literature to art, music and fashion throughout most of the 20th Century.

Though its residual influence remains today in everything from a pair of boots to a Ryan Adams song – not to mention the cowboy poses middle-aged Neil Young fans like me attempt to strike - the truth was obvious: the Western had all but faded from our cinema and television screens, and now seemed as archaic as the history it once so vitally envisioned.

And yet riding in over the horizon has come three major films which fall under a ‘New Western’ star. First there was the Australian director Andrew Dominik’s haunting epic, The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, a contemplation of notoriety and mortality in which Brad Pitt and Casey Affleck feature as the mutually hypnotized outlaw and his Judas. Almost right beside it was James Mangold’s 3:10 to Yuma, a clockwork tight, violent entertainment with Christian Bale and Russell Crowe, respectively, as a good man trying to get a very bad one on the train to jail.

Then the Coen Brothers’ No Country for Old Men came shooting its way into the Oscars, a ‘contemporary Western’ with Tommy Lee Jones, Javier Bardem and Josh Brolin dogging each others’ tracks across the Texas-Mexico borderlands as a drug deal goes wrong and the body count rises.

All three are affected by classic Western tropes: the use of mirror opposites to personify good and evil in conflict as well as affinity; a journeying atmosphere of drifting and propulsion; the solemn moral philosophy and feelings of loss that underline most Westerns, as if something (the past, the frontier, the loner) is being overtaken (the future, civilization, the community); and the significance of an all-embracing landscape, within which lies the absolutes of sacrifice and death, and the almost mystical power of the horse and the gun.



The American ‘West’ has always been a violent place - in myth as much as fact. It remains the necessary imaginative territory America turns to whenever it needs to puzzle out its own identity as a nation, most particularly in the ways that force can lead to honorable ends (if not always honorable means).

Everybody is always trying to kill a cowboy, of course. The same thing might be said of the Western and its cinematic reputation. As a genre it suffers more than most for being judged on its’ worst, and most wooden qualities. As a result the Western has seen a few spells in the graveyard on Hollywood’s Boot Hill before reviving itself and walking back into the commercial maelstrom of Dodge City again.

Three films now do not constitute a movement. Reviving a seemingly dead genre takes a lot more heat than that. But it’s possible to see renewed vigor behind the Western when you also take into account the critically lauded HBO television series, Deadwood (2004-06) - a prosaically brutal take on how the chaos of a gold mining town is civilized – and Brokeback Mountain (2005), author E. Annie Proulx and director Ang Lee’s gay re-visioning of a cowboy romance up in them ‘thar’ hills.

In A Personal Journey with Martin Scorcese through American Movies (1997), Scorcese said that “the most interesting of the classic movie genres for me are the indigenous ones: the Western, which was born on the frontier, the Gangster Film, which originated in East Coast cities, and the Musical, which was spawned by Broadway. They remind me of jazz: they allowed for endless, increasingly complex, sometimes perverse variations. When these variations were played by masters, they reflected the changing times; they gave you fascinating insights into American culture and the American psyche.”

His point about the indigenous nature of these genres is a powerful one. To understand America, one must understand its Western Dreaming. And ask why, now, of all times, the genre has staged a return? Recognizing the way that the Western frontier moved on into Vietnam and the shock of defeat, and how that same sense of the frontier and some final moment of historical trauma continues to this day in Afghanistan and Iraq, might well a the reason.

What is strange about the Western as a genre is that it was dreaming itself into life right from when the American frontier was first opening up, until the West was more or less ‘won’ with the final massacre of Lakota Sioux Indians at Wounded Knee in 1890.

The dime novels of the nineteenth century and sensational news reports had already made the likes of Jesse James, Billy the Kid, Wyatt Earp, Buffalo Bill and Kit Carson legends in their own lifetimes. Kit Carson’s observation on what the dime novels said about him pretty much summed the whole thing up – “It may be true, but I ain’t got no recollection of it.”

By the 1890’s ‘Buffalo Bill’s Wild West’ was touring internationally, a vaudeville circus show that featured the man himself alongside Annie Oakley and Chief Sitting Bull re-enacting moments in the history of the West.

As ‘the reality’ of the 19th century receded the Western would go on to reflect the age in which it found itself: almost purely entertaining in the ‘30s and ‘40s when ‘singing cowboys’ like Gene Autry and later Roy Rogers rode the range; even more heroic and ennobling in World War Two when the Western began to take epic shape in the hands of such fine directors as John Ford and Howard Hawks; then shadowy and edgier in the 50s during the Cold War as Ford’s own palate darkened in films like The Searchers (1956), in which John Wayne played a vengeful and psychologically damaged Civil War veteran twisted up with hatred for Comanche Indians.



Perhaps most remarkable of all in the 1950s were a series of noir Westerns by director Anthony Mann, featuring Jimmy Stuart across eight films as a murderous and damaged figure trying to regain his moral composure and peace of mind. Stuart had once been the Tom Hanks of his age thanks to directors like Frank Capra, and the twisting of his image was almost unbearably bold.

In a renowned essay from 1954 entitled ‘The Westerner’, the film critic Robert Warshow argued that the cowboy “at his best exhibits a moral ambiguity which darkens his image and saves him from absurdity; this ambiguity arises from the fact that, whatever his justification, he is a killer of men.”

Warshow emphasized how the moral centre of the Western universe was defined by the gun. The significance of this cannot be underestimated in a country where democracy and the “right to bear arms” are somehow conflated, an equation born out of the historical violence - that is ‘Western’ violence, ‘frontier’ violence - that first made America a nation in the nineteenth century and later confirmed its place globally as a superpower.

According to Warshow, the Western “offers a serious orientation to the problem of violence such as can be found nowhere else in our culture. One of the well-known peculiarities of modern civilized opinion is its refusal to acknowledge the value of violence… These attitudes, however, have not reduced the element of violence in our culture but, if anything, have helped free it from moral control…”

Violence as an aesthetic, as a moral form, becomes an entirely necessary cultural act in Warshow’s eyes, something the civilized world needs to process. “Watch a child with his toy guns,” he writes, “and you will see: what interests him most is not (as we much fear) the fantasy of hurting others, but to work out how a man looks when he shoots or is shot. A hero is one who looks like a hero.”



George Stevens, the director of Shane (1953), arguably the greatest Western ever made, was considerably sanguine about this mythology. And yet his film Shane is perhaps the most pure ideal of the Western hero in existence, a fable that connects the gun slinger at his best with the knights of old. The director was nonetheless distressed to return from service in World War Two and see just how popular (and poorly made) Westerns had become: “People were using six guns like guitars.”

On the DVD to Shane the director’s son, George Stevens Jnr consults his father’s note books and interviews to reveal how “the film was really about deglamorizing the six-shooter that was becoming a graceful object in the fictional hands of illustrators [comics and advertising], and in particular film people. And it was a time when kids had gone very Western. There were Western chaps and hats and cap-guns everywhere. We wanted to put the six-gun in its place visually in a period as a dangerous weapon.”

You can roll out the statistics like tumbleweeds, but perhaps it’s enough to recall that up until the late 1950s a quarter of the films Hollywood had ever produced were Westerns. They would keep on rolling into day-time and late night television well into the next two decades, with the likes of John Wayne, Jimmy Stuart, Henry Fonda and Alan Ladd (Shane) sent to wander in some immortal loop in every boy’s mind.

It’s in the nature of television to blur historical epochs, repeating and recycling successful formulas till they drop. A list of television Westerns from the late ‘50s well into the ‘70s feels like an iconography of growing up through one unbroken era: among them The Lone Ranger, The Cisco Kid, Hopalong Cassidy, Maverick, Gunsmoke, Rawhide (which established Clint Eastwood as a star), Bonanza, High Chaparral, The Rifleman, The Texas Rangers, Shenandoah, Rin Tin Tin, Zorro, Casey Jones and Little House on the Prairie, as well as a comedy called F Troop and a martial arts Western known as Kung Fu. Even Star Trek fell under this dominating ethos, with creator Gene Rodenberry pitching it to the networks as “Wagon Train to the stars”.

1959 remains the high water mark for Westerns with twenty-six of them running in peak time on TV, eight of them ranking in the top ten most watched programs in America. Initially driven by the Cold War and an American need for moral comfort and heroic certainties, the cap gun age inculcated most of the young teenagers who would go on to fight in Vietnam into the values of sacrifice and bravery on the frontier, and what can be described as an archetypal style of violence.

To some extent television also tried to turn back the clock and deny the darkness of the cinema Western as the genre entered the 1960s. The ‘spaghetti Westerns’ of Sergio Leone, and a little later Sam Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch (1969), exploded with violence and sardonically annihilated the lines between bad and good. Things on television were inevitably more defined and restrained, a kind of soporific propaganda. By the time news of the My Lai massacre in Vietnam was being put before the public in 1969, it was nonetheless difficult to view the mass slaughter of Indians as homogenous heroic entertainment anymore - or to accept a white hats and black hats view of the world.



Artists are not mere vehicles of sociology, however, and it’s easy to cite numerous films that contradict such neat historical positions. Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch, for example, has been variously cited as a fable on the madness and horror of Vietnam War and a slow-motion celebration of bloody gun fighting that turned the ‘60s generation on to the thrills of violence. Like much great art it resists being simply ‘good’ or ‘bad’ within the moral terms we might prefer to frame it.

It’s nonetheless possible to argue that the ‘60s counter-culture killed the Western along with sheer over-exposure on television. As people were watching Slim Pickens slowly bleeding to death to the tune if Bob Dylan’s ‘Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door’ - under what looked like an equally bleeding twilight sky in Sam Peckinpah’s Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid (1973) - it felt like a generation was witnessing the end of an era: “Mama take this badge off me, I can’t use it anymore. It’s getting dark, too dark to see.”

The failure of Michael Cimino’s epic Heaven’s Gate (1980), to even make it through to wide release confirmed that the Western was not only aesthetically exhausted – in Hollywood’s darkest terms it was bad for business, almost bringing down an entire studio in the process. Despite something of a renaissance at the turn of the ‘90s with the mini-series Lonesome Dove (1989) on television and both Kevin Costner’s Dances with Wolves (1990) and Clint Eastwood’s Unforgiven (1992) netting Oscars for best films, all these works were eulogies to the genre in one way or another.

There’s something inherently regretful about most Westerns, which leads to the genre articulating its own demise through an ongoing obsession with mortality and time’s inevitable passing. The cowboy’s way of life is lonely and however noble or needed, it has to die. In fact the eulogy is almost the single common note struck by Westerns since the 1950s. As if at the very high point of American power there was something deeply embedded in the culture which sensed how things would ebb away.

This thread of regret often pivoted around a growing awareness that the ‘red skin’ was not simply a ‘savage’ but an abused and brutally displaced human being. It ran through films as varied as Anthony Mann’s Broken Arrow (1956) and John Ford’s last work, Cheyenne Autumn (1964), before reaching melting point in 1970 with the release of A Man Called Horse, Little Big Man and Soldier Blue, the same year Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee, an elegiac history of ‘the Indian wars’ from a Native American perspective, became a publishing phenomenon.



A sense of indigenous wounds and lost causes was also filtering across into more contemporary American genres like the road movie. What, after all, is Easy Rider (1969) but a cowboy movie where the ‘horses’ are motorbikes. Dennis Hopper knew what he was doing wearing a fringed buckskin coat. The red-neck joke of the era was “Hippies are God’s proof that cowboys still fuck the buffalo”. This new generation was plugging into the spiritual ecology of the American landscape, and the result was they felt like Native Americans themselves.

Jim Jarmusch’s Dead Man (1996) brilliantly twines American illusions about the frontier with these prescient Native American themes. As Johnny Depp heads further and further West by train, he is the very personification of Horace Greeley’s call to “Go West young man and grow up with the country”. This 1860s catch cry was caught up in notions of Manifest Destiny, a hodge podge of philosophies about racial superiority and religious duties to embrace “God’s providence” as set before settlers entering the landscape. That the flow Westward would also be the journey of America’s becoming as a nation, is oddly echoed in Native American ideas of the “vision quest”, where young man would go out into the landscape and receive visions (often drug induced) to confirm their manhood.

In many ways ‘Western’ cinema has been a continuation of this tension between a vision quest and American ideals of manifest destiny. It’s a dream that is played out in the crucial literary references that are made in both 3:10 to Yuma and The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford.

Principle characters in both films are seduced or fascinated the dime novels of the era as if they were true reports. In Jesse James this leads to obsession and disillusionment as the young Robert Ford sees that the real Jesse James is not the romantic hero he thought he was (and wanted to imitate). In 3:10 Yuma it’s actually the source of renewed idealization as a boy looks at a pencil sketch and realizes that it depicts his father just like the heroes on the covers of all the books he has been reading.

The echoes between the seductions of the dime novels and the seductions of these films today are not hard to miss. As visions of a renewed Western Dreaming they speak to rather conflicting enchantments: sometimes you get to play a hero; sometimes you land the villain’s role. By the end of 3:10 to Yuma, the boy’s father has nobly entered the mythology of the Old West before his son’s eyes. By the end of Jesse James, Robert Ford has killed his ‘hero’ and seen the charismatic world of violence for all its futility, only to be murdered himself: “The light going out of his eyes before he could find the right words.”


- Mark Mordue

* Edited versions of this story have appeared in the Sydney Morning Herald Spectrum 'The Essay' pages, November 10-11, 2007 and in Frieze Magazine(U.K.), April, 2008. Quotes from Robert Warshow's essay 'The Westerner' were sourced from The Western Reader, Edited by Jim Kitses and Greg Rickman, Limelight Editions, New York, 1998.


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