Six Guns and Society: A Structural Study of the Western
The Missouri Breaks
Buffalo Bill and the Indians
In John Sturges’s Last Train from Gun Hill (1959), a western much preoccupied with varieties of guilt, as many Fifties westerns were, Kirk Douglas asks a bartender if he can tell him where he might find the men who killed his wife. The bartender, knowing that one of the killers is the son of the rancher who controls the town, says, “Mister, I wouldn’t tell you where they were if they were standing next to you.” Douglas looks down at the bar and then up again, and with a surprising lack of bitterness says, “I can understand that.”
It’s a curious moment, since it reverses all the feelings of High Noon (1952), where the townsfolk’s failure to help Gary Cooper against a returning bad guy is portrayed as a long train of shoddy treasons, and it complicates the assumptions of countless other westerns, which see the citizenry as simply, by definition, cowardly and malleable, a scattering crowd or a lynch-mob in embryo. More than that, it throws some light on the relation between heroes and communities in westerns, because it seems to bring the genre close to the thought of Brecht’s Galileo: “Unhappy the land that needs heroes.” Or less rhetorically, and more in the implicit mood of so many westerns: “Only heroes have to be heroes, and the rest of us are excused.”
Westerns like Shane (1953) are usually taken as puzzled celebrations both of social isolation and social involvement, and High Noon is usually interpreted as an allegory of the McCarthy years. But the scene with Kirk Douglas allows us to link the two readings, if we see the loneliness and superiority of the hero as a wish, and the entanglement and mediocrity of the townsfolk as a reality. Heroes are what we need (unhappily), and chickenhearted companions are what we’ve got, and several dark patches of recent American history begin to look like a western from which the hero is missing. Westerns permit a wide range of sentiments on the subject, of course, and I’m not suggesting that they normally ask us to sympathize with cowardice and self-interest. On the contrary. But they do, I think, help us to expect cowardice and self-interest in everyone except heroes—which outside of westerns is almost everyone. From The Last Round-Up to The Final Days is but a short step, on some levels.
I’m suggesting a continuity in westerns (and in America) where Will Wright, in Six Guns and Society, detects a change. For him, there is a development in the western from a concern with lonely heroes confronting slightly less lonely villains (they have bosses and gangs) for the sake of a growing community to a concern with heroes in groups, fighting villains who are not really villains for the sake of their sense of themselves as professionals. This corresponds to a change in America from a market economy to a corporate one. Shane and all the westerns like it (which …