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 …