Beyond Cowboys and Indians

{The following was first written for my defunct Medium.com account in 2012. In some sense it has been overtaken by events. The success of the indie film Bone Tomahawk, among others, in some sense supports my premise. And the points it has to make about the nature of the Western, especially as against the Noir, are worth reconsidering.}

I am an unrepentant fan of Westerns. I love old ones; I love new ones. I love John Ford and Sergio Leone. I appreciate them at their most romantic, and at their darkest. I enjoy it when they confound the genre’s expectations and when they play to them. And I weary of the contention that they are irrelevant.

People have been declaring the genre dead for decades. They said it in the Eighties. They said it in the Nineties, despite the existence of two big-budget films — one the truth, one the legend — about The Gunfight at the OK Corral (Everybody loves Tombstone, but it’s Costner’s Wyatt Earp that gets better on repeated viewings). Most recently, the utter collapse of the big-screen remake of The Lone Ranger prompted Atlantic writer Michael Agresta to offer an interesting premise:

If The Lone Ranger goes down in history as the last of the big-budget oaters, it’ll be a sad milestone for moviemaking—and for America. For a century plus, we have relied on Westerns to teach us our history and reflect our current politics and our place in the world. We can ill afford to lose that mirror now, especially just because we don’t like what we see staring back at us.

He goes on to craft a curiously incomplete history of Western films of the last quarter century, seeming to believe in the hype of Unforgiven as the “last Western”. He makes no mention in his piece of the 2007 remake of 3:10 to Yuma, of 2003’s Open Range, 2008’s Appaloosa, all of which were traditional westerns with known stars, and all of which turned a profit (a more modest one in Appaloosa’s case, but still better than The Lone Ranger’s utter commercial flop).

Agresta then praises The Lone Ranger on highly questionable grounds: for being a film with the courage to stare the subjugation of the American Indian in its face without blinking, thus faintly suggesting the film’s honesty made it simply too much for an American audience, clinging quietly to the white privilege of a conquered continent, to bear. He also suggests that such continued honesty might be the seeds of a reborn Western, heroically confronting the baggage of the past.

This is wrong for two reasons. In the first place, The Lone Ranger hardly broke new cinematic ground on the suffering of the American Indian. In the second, Western stories are not really about the Indians.

Indians are less important to the Western than they would seem. Most of the time, they exist as part of the backdrop — a threat that can irrupt, but may not. True, some films — John Ford’s 7th Cavalry trilogy, for example — deal with the conquest of North America directly. But even these do so with a great deal of moral ambiguity. The righteousness of white colonization of the West is rarely assumed, and often challenged.

The Red Man’s View, 1909

In fact, awareness of the injustice meted out to the American Indian is present in the earliest Westerns, from D.W. Griffith’s The Red Man’s View, to Buster Keaton’s The Paleface. Even 7th Cavalry films like Fort Apache and They Died With Their Boots On, make a point of portraying the natives as more sinned against than sinning.

This does not mean that those depictions of Native Americans are without their own problems — how could they be? And certainly, the Nations should be encouraged to tell their own stories, find their own voices (provided, of course, they want to do so). But collective guilt over the conquest of North America is a nonsensical reason to avoid our homegrown genre of romance. We can deconstruct it, and we have. But we can reconstruct it, too, and that must be just as legitimate.

In any case, most Westerns take place in a land where Indians are already gone, but the new civilization barely present. The reality that everything could come crashing down is the true driver of the plot. You can argue that this glossing over of how and why the Indians are gone is itself questionable, but it’s a problem of what it doesn’t say, rather than what it does. Every act of writing or speaking consists of saying one thing and not another. The existence of once voice does not preclude another.

Claudia Cardinale on the set of Once Upon a Time in the West, 1969

So if the Western is not really about the Indian, what does that leave us? A bunch of white people killing each other? How is the Western then any different from any other setting of shoot-em-up?

To answer this, I compare the Western with that other old-school genre of violence, the noire. In noire, evil triumphs, or at least survives. The rich bastard has the cops in his pocket and gets his way. Forget it, Jake; it’s Chinatown. No matter what happens, the powers that be remain the powers that be. They have been too long on the ground, they fulfill a need. They have become respectable. Noire takes place in the tight, square urban landscape: the only way out is through a door that only leads to another room. The city has been built, and you cannot fight city hall.

But the western takes place in the wide open, in untamed land. Possibility has not yet been closed off into concentric squares of concrete and steel. Have gun, will travel. Civilization is light on the ground and we can make up the rules as we go.

And as Deadwood points out, that’s not always a good thing. Natural man is remarkably un-free from exploitation; indeed, he makes exploitation his common coin. When the powers-that-be are still in flux, they are the more ruthless because of that.

James Caan, Robert Mitchum, Arthur Hunnicut, and John Wayne, El Dorado, 1967

But they can also be fought. The first Western I ever saw, Howard Hawks’ El Dorado, pits a ruthless, cruel cattle baron against a drunken sheriff (played with flinty brilliance by Robert Mitchum) and his gunslinger friend (John Wayne, showing a few small chinks of vulnerability in his usual heroic panoply). Indians are mentioned only once, in passing and already passed. The rich man employs thugs to push out competitors and acts as thought the law does not apply to him; the sheriff must see him punished. Law and wealth are directly opposed to one another, and it’s possible for one side to win, and for that victory to matter.

Or take Sergio Leone’s Fistful of Dollars, the jumping-off point in the Man With No Name Trilogy and at first glance, the polar opposite of a film like El Dorado (both were made around the same time). A reimagining of Kurosawa’s Yojimbo¸ Fistful depicts a border town under the uneasy dominance of two warring clans, one Anglo, one Mex. Both claim to be the true authority, both employ gangs of hoods and engage in an endless cycle of murder on each other. Our anti-heroic protagonist plays both against each other to put money in his own pocket. This would seem a brutal inversion of the law vs. lawlessness tale that El Dorado spins, in which the camps of good and evil are clear.

But it happens that the leader of the Mexican clan, Ramon, exceeds his opponent in cunning and cruelty. He is a man without scruple, who murders the innocent and forcibly steals a poor man’s wife. That the level of his corruption differs only in degree from his enemies does not matter. He is manifestly a bad man. He’s got it coming, and in the Wild West, one man with courage can make sure he gets it.

Clint Eastwood in A Fistful of Dollars, 1964

“What does it take to make justice happen?” is a common question in Westerns, from True Grit and The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance to Shane. “What are the fruits of violence?” is another, found from The Magnificent Seven to Unforgiven and on and on. These issues are timeless, and they should be discussed at face value. Westerns are a good vehicle for discussing these issues precisely because the wildness of the backdrop puts them at the center of human existence, where they belong.

So I propose that we dispense with the notion that the Western needs to be “fixed”. It doesn’t. It just needs to do what it always does, spin tales of good and evil, of corruption and honor, of exploitation and heroism. And it will adapt itself naturally to the needs of our culture, if we let it. The Western is only as dead as we declare, and nothing that has to be declared dead ever really is.

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