West of Everything: The Inner Life of Westerns
Box-Office Buckaroos: The Cowboy Hero from the Wild West Show to the Silver Screen
What did Josef Stalin and Douglas MacArthur, Ludwig Wittgenstein and Sherwood Anderson, Jorge Luis Borges, Akira Kurosawa, and the janitor of a rooming house I once lived in have in common? They all loved Westerns. Such a taste was a leveling factor of modern culture, cutting across classes and nationalities. Whether as pulp stories, novels, movies, or television shows, Westerns were basic cultural wallpaper for most of the century, offering the simplest of simple pleasures: a fist fight on the roof of a stagecoach, a body falling out of a window, a man drinking from a river, a horse crossing a plain at full gallop.
Westerns were reliable, minimal, direct, mindless, a series of clear actions occurring in an empty world where there was ultimately nothing to worry about. Indians, outlaws, rustlers, and crooked railroad men emerged out of nowhere and were duly erased. A Western was not expected to depart from precedent any more than a baseball game would experiment with new rules or novel plays. The genre was an antidote to complexity, enjoyed precisely because of its apparent lack of any subtext to parse or interpret. Ironically, the simplest of genres ultimately succumbed to a host of problems it had never anticipated: problems with history, with gender roles, with racial stereotypes, with faded notions of heroism and honor.
When Jean-Luc Godard, in an enthusiastic review of Anthony Mann’s Man of the West (1958), called the Western “the most cinematic of cinematic genres” he did not add that it is also the most generic, or consider whether repetition and formula might be crucial to his notion of the “cinematic.” All that movies really have in the way of tradition has come from reenacting the same situations, the same fights and chases and fires, decade after decade. In 1958 a movie like Man of the West exerted emotional power simply by being there, by displaying its monolithic title on the marquee, by starring an aging Gary Cooper, whose face belonged, according to Godard, to “the mineral kingdom.” Having maintained its simple repertoire of images and devices with less visible change than any other genre, the Western was symbolic home, a last living link with the primordial pre-cinematic world.
The movies were of course only the most prominent feature of a huge stretch of territory encompassing battle sites, ghost towns, and federally protected rock formations; tourist attractions ranging from Walt Disney’s Frontierland to woebegone theme parks like New Jersey’s Wild West City, where you can still see the marshal confront the outlaws on Main Street at high noon; plastic figurines of cowboys and Indians, toy six-guns, tom-toms, war bonnets; Vaughan Monroe singing “Ghost Riders in the Sky” and Sonny Rollins playing “I’m an Old Cow Hand.” The clichés have been so thoroughly absorbed that they are almost ready to become exotic again, as exotic as childhood pictures of one’s grandparents.
Whatever aura of authenticity Westerns possessed arose from the piling up of fantasies in a cultural compost: Buffalo Bill dime novels, the lyrics of “Get Along Old Paint” and “Streets of Laredo,” the paintings of Remington and Russell, Owen Wister’s Virginian, Zane Grey’s Lassiter, Clarence Mulford’s Hopalong Cassidy, movie heroes from William S. Hart and Tom Mix to Gene Autry and Roy Rogers, the radio exploits of The Lone Ranger. After a while it seemed as if there must be something real at the bottom of all that. How else could it have stayed around so long?
In the period after World War II Westerns enjoyed renewed popularity, indicating perhaps a nostalgia for the certitudes they had once offered; but they also evolved and mutated at a pace suggesting a desire to try out all the genre’s possibilities, to get to the root of it once and for all. The years between 1945 and 1960 encompassed the golden age of a form which turned out to be ideally suited to the entertainment needs of cold war America, offering history as escape, violence as morality, and “adult” and “psychological” elements as proof that everyone had gotten a little bit more mature.
They also, in an era of ostensible political consensus, provided a field where ambiguity and dissension could flourish. Since from the outside they all looked the same, Westerns made excellent cover for a wide range of peculiarities and hidden messages. There were McCarthyist Westerns (Springfield Rifle), anti-McCarthyist Westerns (Silver Lode), antiracist Westerns (Walk the Proud Land), racist Westerns (Arrowhead), homoerotic Westerns (Johnny Guitar), sadomasochist Westerns (Valerie). From a commercial point of view they were all salable. Location shooting, flexible color cinematography, and wide-screen formats gave even the oldest plots a new look, making it possible to remake old B pictures as major-motion-picture events. Along the way an astonishing number of excellent movies, large and small, managed to get made.
Just at that moment, when the Western’s durability was becoming an axiom of film criticism, it was in reality nearly exhausted. A decade of cinematic oversaturation was followed by an onslaught of television shows: Have Gun Will Travel, Maverick, Gunsmoke, The Rifleman, Rawhide. In 1958 there were thirty-one Westerns running in prime time. This sustained plundering of the genre’s resources had by 1960 pretty much run it dry. The generation that grew up in the 1950s knew the mechanics and conventions so well that new forms of excess and rule breaking were required to maintain excitement.
The fifteen-year decline and fall of the Western (roughly between 1960 and 1975) was for many more interesting than what came before, punctuated as it was by the spectacular contributions of Sam Peckinpah and Sergio Leone. It certainly featured more unrestrained violence, went to new lengths to create an aura of historical accuracy, and agonized in unprecedented fashion over the ultimate purpose and significance of the form. Far more conscious creative effort went into the Western’s decadence than was expended on its heyday. Even the worst of the “revisionist” and “dirty” anti-Westerns were at least remarkable for the pretentiousness of their ambitions. Unfortunately, when the rules went, audience interest went not long afterward. A genre that was essentially based on seeing how many changes could be rung on a small set of unvarying elements lost its point when granted absolute freedom.
One of the things that helped kill off the Western was the quest for realism and historical accuracy. Westerns had always had a connection, however oblique, to a notion of reality. As Jane Tompkins remarks in her study West of Everything: The Inner Life of Westerns, “Westerns satisfy a hunger to be in touch with something absolutely real,” a statement as applicable to The Great Train Robbery as to Dances with Wolves. Even the gushingly sentimental novels of Zane Grey satisfy, in between times, a craving for grittiness: skillets, stirrups, cattle tracks, dry boulders, the smell of sagebrush and leather. Western writers and film makers often practiced a stringent but selective accuracy with regard to the minutiae of horses or firearms or wagon wheels, no matter how fantastic and ahistorical the context in which those details were set.
That delusory aura of realness was the product that was being sold. Westerns were created for the benefit of audiences remote—at first geographically, and then temporally—from the settling of the West. From history the genre borrowed settings and props for a game of make-believe; it has had little further connection with anything that actually happened in the nineteenth-century West. Not that Westerns are indifferent to history; on the contrary, they are excited by it, and by the pretense that they are connected to it. Its artifacts, from watch fobs to Winchesters, provide fetishistic embellishment for narratives that otherwise exist completely outside of history.
From time to time, fresh infusions of the real helped spice the fantasy. For one generation, authenticity might be represented by the folksy humor of Gabby Hayes or Smiley Burnette, for another by the luxurious pseudo-historicism of romantic pageants like Jesse James (1939) and They Died with Their Boots On (1942). The innovative although vague psychosexual furies of Duel in the Sun (1946) and Pursued (1947) gave way to the self-congratulatory tolerance of Broken Arrow (1951) and the “mature” social questioning of High Noon (1952). By the late 1950s, the Western tended to demonstrate its maturity by introducing themes of sexual violence (Jubal, The Bravados, Man of the West, Last Train from Gun Hill) and racial conflict (Trooper Hook, Flaming Star, Sergeant Rutledge, The Unforgiven). It was only when film makers began to suffer from the delusion that they were reconstructing the way things really were that the genre started to lose its reason for existing.
One might possibly be able to make a movie that hewed closely to the known facts of life in the Old West, but such a movie would have nothing in common with Westerns, and it is unlikely that many people would go to see it. “The West was not dull,” writes Evan S. Connell in Son of the Morning Star. “It was stupendously dull, and when it was not dull it was murderous.” Speaking of the southwestern cavalry life that provides the setting for so many movies, an actual participant (Second Lieutenant John G. Bourke) lingers on “sickness, heat, bad water, flies, sand-storms, and utter isolation,” and concludes: “The humdrum life of any post in Arizona in those days was enough to drive one crazy.” The question then is not so much whether it would be possible to recreate such a past as what would be the point of doing so. The Western had a point, ignoble as it might appear: to provide a rather simple diversion for the widest number of people, in which deserts and mountains functioned more or less as the seacoast of Bohemia or the forest of Arden. Any deeper concern with history, myth, or moral struggle evolved late in the game.
Yet no one can let it rest quite like that. The Western is a largely childish entertainment that trespasses on something that almost everyone wants a piece of. It’s history whether it wants to be or not, if only the history of its own diffusion; it speaks for a huge stretch of still contested territory. So the critical corpus that has grown up around it reflects a more or less openly acknowledged state of war. What’s up for grabs is the story that will be told about America and by extension about the modern world: the Western is, by default, the heritage of the global communications tribe which this century has created, a tribe flung together haphazardly by the forces of technology and mass culture.
In that culture, the Western is common property that anyone can appropriate, an international artifact making itself at home in anyone’s culture. Shane is as much a Japanese movie as it is American, and Django as much a Jamaican movie as it is Italian. For that matter, Billy the Kid belongs as much to modernist artists like Aaron Copland and Jack Spicer as to King Vidor and Sam Peckinpah. The process has been international and self-consciously aesthetic from the start. Balzac absorbed Cooper, Karl May created Teutonic transpositions of the frontier myth which continue to fuel a subculture of German Wild West aficionados, Puccini turned the Golden West into aria. A comprehensive history of the Western would not pass over the childlike pulp novelist in Renoir’s Le Crime de Monsieur Lange (1935), exulting in his fantasies of Arizona Jim, or Anna Magnani in Visconti’s Bellissima (1951), watching Red River in a Roman slum and becoming jubilant over a scene of cattle wading through a river: “Look! The cows are all getting wet! It’s marvelous!”