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 is a lot of westerns, since Shane is more an anatomy of the genre than an actual movie) are examples of the first concern, and Rio Bravo (1959) and The Wild Bunch (1969) are examples of the second; and Wright makes a sharp connection between the camaraderie of crooks and the pictures that technocrats tend to have of themselves—“academics, doctors, executives, scientists, hippies, Minutemen, and Weathermen,” he says, join gangs which separate them from ordinary people.
In between these two kinds of movie, Wright places revenge westerns as a variation on the first kind—the lonely hero has to execute a personal justice which society can’t or won’t enact—and sees three particular films, High Noon, Broken Arrow (1950), and Johnny Guitar (1954), as shifts toward the second kind, since the hero in those movies faces not villains but conventional society—the budding community of the earlier films turned sour and smug and rigid.
Wright arrives at this scheme through a careful analysis of sixty-odd commercially successful westerns made since 1930, and through a dexterous use of the theories and methods of Claude Lévi-Strauss and Vladimir Propp (author of The Morphology of the Folktale), with a dash of Kenneth Burke thrown in for good measure. I think he might well have arrived at the same views without the application of all his apparatus, indeed without the application of any apparatus at all, since the films themselves are clear enough about where their values lie. But his book nevertheless has the great merit of showing lucidly how westerns (and by implication other films and other forms of popular entertainment) offer versions of social thought, that is, are not merely reflections of prejudice or fantasy but are narrative vehicles for the display and displacement of what worries us. “Myths and traditions,” Wright says, echoing Lévi-Strauss, “are not opposed to reason but are forms of reasoning.”
The two faults of Six Guns and Society, in my view, are the broadness of its social and political perspective, which turns a lot of it into tautology—presumably everything in America reflects changes in the economy in one way or another, and finding such a reflection in westerns is rather like discovering that film stars get wet when it rains—and an insufficiently subtle sense of what society means in westerns. Society is not really a serious element in westerns, because it is not there—yet. What we see are the backward shadows of our own world, banks, railroads, big business, cities, law courts, everything that will do away with the West as it is shown. This means that although western heroes look like wishes, as I have said, and cringing western settlers look like reality, the imaginative pull of these movies goes entirely the other way. We care about the heroes and we forget the settlers, because the settlers are merely a step on the road to what we have become; not “society” at all except in so far as society itself is seen as a fall from nature, a lapse into dependence and mutual debt.
This particular unreality in westerns, their invention of a world released from the present time, alleviated of the diminished, ordinary hindrances of contemporary living, must be what allows them to be enjoyed by people all over the world who know and care nothing about America, but can recognize a grand old myth when they see one. Westerns constantly revamp American history—they are almost always set between the Civil War and the closing of the frontier—and it would be absurd to deny their insistent and enduring Americanness. But they also, very frequently, leave history and America behind, escape into those international regions of the imagination where society itself has been taken away, where revenge, for example, is still possible and honorable, where you might meet and kill your enemy with the ease and grace one knows only in dreams. Even having a single, identifiable enemy is a luxury which has been denied to serious literature since the Middle Ages.
Admittedly, there is a difference between American and European (and, I imagine, other) responses to all this, since an escape from society is inextricably caught up in the idea of America itself, while Europeans consider flight from society only after a very bad day or a lot of drinks. But still, the western accommodates both sets of responses, and as continuing myth or intermittent fantasy, it offers an invented moral and political landscape.
This means that “modern” westerns, which set out to correct errors about the old West, to show us all the real dirt and violence in the scenes we have romanticized for so long, are on peculiarly shaky ground. One can correct sentimental or idealized versions of the past, certainly. But invented versions?
This question is faced both by Arthur Penn’s The Missouri Breaks and by Robert Altman’s Buffalo Bill and the Indians. In the first case it produces a series of scampering evasions; in the second a series of unequal but interesting further questions. The Missouri Breaks is a good instance of what Wright calls the “professional” plot in westerns, concerned with jobs and roles and skills and friendship rather than settlement and the situation of the individual. Or rather, it is a “professional” western which flirts, in the person of Jack Nicholson, a rustler masquerading as a farmer, with the idea of settlement, since Nicholson at times seems to want to become what he is pretending to be.
What goes wrong is that the two jobs in the movie—rustler and “regulator,” the man who tracks crooks and kills them off with his deadly shotgun—are not really connected to each other in any way that we can care about. It is true that Nicholson surprises Marlon Brando, as the regulator, in his bathtub, and fails to shoot him, but there doesn’t seem to be any very good reason why he should be able to catch him out in this way, or having caught him out, be unable to kill him. It is also true that Brando trails and kills four of Nicholson’s comrades, and is then killed by Nicholson in his turn, but this again, with one exception, is done as if by magic, people simply appear where they have to appear, and the deed is done.
The point of a western based on jobs and skills is that we should see some of the skills in action—Burt Lancaster dynamiting a canyon in The Professionals, say, Woody Strode using a longbow in the same film. One might argue that Penn is commenting on that notion of the western, but it seems rather that he is lazily leaning on it. Skills are asserted, but are not supported by any evidence of parallel skills in the director or the writer, Thomas McGuane.
There are interesting things in the movie, moments, possibilities: Brando disguised, for no reason at all, as an old woman as he sets fire to the rustlers’ shack; Brando picking up a corpse in a coffin and shaking it; Nicholson’s performance as a sly, amiable crook; the notion of the regulator as psychopath, since Brando becomes increasingly crazy as the movie wears on. But what Brando offers here is not a character but a series of fragmentary essays at character, trial runs and rehearsals that should not have survived into the film: erratic Irish brogue, various other voices, and a set of assorted mannerisms. Nicholson is convincing as a crook, but very unlikely as a killer, and indeed, although the general western flavor of the film seems all right, an air of pastiche is never far off, as if this were really a western made not by Arthur Penn but by Monty Python’s Flying Circus. The implication, flickering throughout the movie, that this is the real West, tougher and scruffier and nastier, and even in some senses fancier, than our imaginings, thus becomes a rather undisciplined bad joke.
This last effect arises partly from the writing, which is wordy and coy, and partly from the effect of the direction, which seems the work of a desperate man looking for ways to paper over the cracks: sudden high angle shots; dark, smoky cabins; faces moving in and out of the lamplight; grassy pastures instead of dry red prairie. The Missouri Breaks is what movie people call a package, a set of star ingredients: Penn, McGuane, Brando, Nicholson. There is no doubt about the talents of those men, but this particular movie is a shabby concoction, only a package, a package that failed, during shooting and editing, to turn into a film.
A recurring theme in the westerns of John Ford is the way in which the past is rewritten. A military blunder turns into an act of heroism in Fort Apache (1948), the man who shot Liberty Valance in the film of that name is not the man who shot Liberty Valance, although the only people who know this are the man himself, his wife, some newspapermen (who are not going to tell, because when there is any discrepancy between fact and legend, they “print the legend”), and the movie audience. Ford seems to accept this state of affairs, since legends are needed, but it is a complicated acceptance—not least because the plots of these movies are here commenting on what the movies themselves are doing—and behind it lies a decent, slightly depressed populism, for the facts are usually humble or foolish, unsung soldiers doing the work of glorified generals and heroic legends. Ford, of course, is not thinking of an invented West, and this, in part, is what distinguishes his westerns from most of the rest of the genre.
Altman’s Buffalo Bill and the Indians is a meditation on the same theme, with the possibility of total invention added to the probability of drastic rewriting. The film is based on Arthur Kopit’s play Indians, but it borrows only its premise: Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show as the occasion for questions about the identity of heroes and America’s treatment of its Indians—not that that isn’t a considerable borrowing. What separates Altman from Ford is Altman’s rather erratic grasp on the problem of the revision of the past, and his conviction that legends are far from beneficent. Both Ford and Altman, that is, see legends as what we need, only Altman turns on us to castigate the need. Ford thinks we may require something rather more heroic than the truth, but Altman thinks we are actually looking for fraud, longing to be cheated. In a remarkable moment, redeeming a whole sloppy scene in which a drunken Buffalo Bill communes with a vision of Sitting Bull, Paul Newman, as Buffalo Bill, looks uncertainly at a large picture of himself astride a horse, and asks, “Is he sitting that horse right? He’s not sitting that horse right.” And then, after a pause, “If he’s not sitting it right, how come all of you took him for a king?”
Altman insists on double takes, slithers from illusion to apparent reality, which is merely a controlled illusion, and his film, like those of Ford, regularly comments on itself. Thus it opens with a shot of a peaceful western farm, high mountains behind it, and a mood that seems to belong to the end of a day. Then Indians swoop down, killing or carrying off palefaces of various ages and both sexes. At this point the credits appear on the screen, and Altman’s film is described in words which are a quotation from the advertising for Buffalo Bill’s own spectacle: “An Absolute Original & Heroic Enterprise of Inimitable Lustre.” Altman is Buffalo Bill and Hollywood is his Wild West Show. Behind the credits, Indians circle the ravaged farm. The camera then pulls back and we see that all this has been a rehearsal for a scene in Buffalo Bill’s show, although one of the fake Indians, pretending to be dead, has really been hurt by the trampling hooves of a real horse. From here we are whisked into a rushing world of show business, rehearsals, quarrels, announcements, deals, decisions.
Altman invites us to see the historical Cody behind the public’s Buffalo Bill. “Where’s my real jacket?” Cody grunts when he has to go out and track some real Indians, whom he fails to find; and asked by Annie Oakley why he doesn’t tell the truth in his show for once, he says, “I got a better sense of history than that.” In the movie, as in Kopit’s play, Ned Buntline, the inventor of Buffalo Bill as myth, appears as a one-man chorus, reminding Cody that he is a writer’s creation, a man who is both victim and purveyor of one of history’s hoaxes, and Burt Lancaster, in the movie, gives the character of Buntline a tough, articulate authority.
But Altman also insists on the actor Paul Newman behind the historical Cody, so that Newman, causing his horse to rear and waving a hand to the crowd, and then quickly, too quickly, getting his horse down and his hand back on the rein, infiltrates another degree of falsity into the whole process (Buffalo Bill can’t even ride a horse all that well) while getting a sort of confession across (this is how Paul Newman rides a horse). This is probably not a planned effect, but it is repeated at least three times in the movie, and thus seems intentionally kept, if not intentionally found.
Newman is particularly good at the shiftier sides of Cody—answering Sitting Bull in a lamentable jumble of metaphors, and commenting to an aide that he thinks he has got hold of that meaningless idiom of theirs pretty well; dropping forgettable sayings that are clearly designed for history’s ears (“Remember,” he says on the subject of death, “the last thing a man wants to do is the last thing he does”); explaining to a girl he let down the night before, because he passed out drunk, that he has become—a half-plausible grin appears on his face at this point—“something of a morning man.” He doesn’t quite have enough force to tower properly over his company of agents and managers, loudest and most powerful among whom are a very large and long-haired Kevin McCarthy and a tiny but insistent Joel Grey, and this is perhaps a fault. In a way, though, it continues the demystification of Cody.
The movie is full of intelligence and invention. Altman not only makes Buffalo Bill’s famed opera-singers real opera-singers but has them really singing opera all the time, in French, German, and Italian, so that Saint-Saens, for example, suddenly floats out among the raucous noises of haggling, hard-drinking men. Similarly, having Annie Oakley’s manager visibly scared as he holds out cigars and playing cards for her to shoot is an ancient enough gag, but to have her, later in the movie, actually shoot him by mistake, causing a flesh wound, and then not to overplay that, either as comedy or as meaningful irony, requires a touch of genuine delicacy.
What Altman can’t seem to do, either here or in his other movies, is to convert atmosphere and situation into a story that means anything; and when he tries, things begin to go wrong. The Indians in the movie are sentimentalized to the point of condescension, so that decent feelings begin to turn toward the reverse—the Indians are not human enough to have any faults, or to lose, morally, any tricks in the game played against the white man—and the complicated questions of the movie keep lurching toward rather cheap formulations. The film keeps looking for a big scene that it can’t find, or that won’t play. Nevertheless, the questions are there. What does it feel like to be an invented man? Why do we need to be lied to so much? What are the ethics of giving people what they want? How much of history and politics is really a wild west show? What is the role of a movie-maker in all this, since he’s in the business himself?
Buffalo Bill and the Indians lacks the intensity of the best moments in Nashville; but it’s much better-humored, and if it seems a bit shallow, that is partly because of its tact, its refusal to pretend that it knows the real truth, about Cody or anyone else. And no director has shown better than Altman what people are like when they are busy, especially when they are busy in a group, hustling, lying, cooking up a big fiction, like a country and western hit, or a wild west show, or a practical joke, or a movie, or a civilization.