The Big Screen's Myth of the West
HE was young and handsome, expert with the horse and the gun, courteous to women, loyal to his employer, and possessed of a strong ethical sense - he knew right from wrong and he never drew first nor did he ever shoot a guy in the back. Heir to the knights of legend, knightly virtues defined his behavior. The western hero may have sprung from the myths of the American West and descended from the trashiest dime novels on the 19th-century market, but he came into his own in the movies. His is the "drama of
restraint," the force for good who comes to destroy evil as it threatened not only the innocent, but the cherished virtues of the frontier. He is the wilderness man and his innate nobility makes him struggle for a better world.
He's all but gone from the big screen for many years now, and I for one miss him, since he took with him not the myth of the West but the aspirations that myth represented. Oh, sure, he resurfaces once in a while, recently in "Dances With Wolves," but his stay is tentative and the public scarcely knows how to respond to him.
The latest evolution of the Westerner, Clint Eastwood's Will Munny in "Unforgiven," still bears the traces of the old heroism - he is a loner whose loyalty to friends and employer and whose ultimate trustworthiness is unquestionable. Middle-aged and discouraged now, he is a father who cannot provide for his children adequately. He has lost some of his prowess with horse and gun, but even though his return to gunslinging (after 11 years of farming) is motivated by money, he figures those he is about to di spatch in cold blood "have it comin' " for having harmed a woman. The fact that she is a prostitute is no excuse for the horror she has experienced.
"Unforgiven" proposes a world so dark, so fouled by self- interest, brutality, and the weight of past violence, no one in it can forgive or be forgiven. All actions have consequences which lead to other consequences, and everybody pays for their sins. He who lives by the sword in this film either dies by it or lives an intolerable life because of it.
I always wondered as a child watching a great John Ford western or any one of a number of John Wayne classics how anyone could participate in violence like that even for a good cause and go on to lead a perfectly normal life. Well, no one could. Eastwood demonstrates the effects of violence on the perpetrators of violence. "Unforgiven" is an important film, well-made and honorable. And it brought me up short about all those elegant old westerns. It made me rethink them and what it was I really cared for in them. If Eastwood is right, was John Ford wrong?
Well, Eastwood is only partly right and Ford was not wholly wrong, nor were William Wellman, George Marshall, Howard Hawks, or George Stevens, among others. The films they made covered different ground, captured another edge of American character, and they made those films in an age more innocent, more idealistic than our own. Movies reflect the times they are made in more accurately than the historical periods they depict.
Having looked at a good many westerns recently and rethought what they mean today, I found the best of them hold up very well. The films do not usually jibe with the best historical wisdom of our times, but then they were never meant to be historically accurate. Certainly, most of the old films are unenlightened in their treatment of native Americans and other minorities. This is a grave fault, one common to the culture in general. And many of the historical figures they celebrate actually were more vill ainous than heroic.
But films like Ford's "Stagecoach" (1939), "My Darling Clementine" (1946), and "The Searchers" (1956), Hawks's "Red River" (1948) and "Rio Bravo" (1959), Marshall's "Destry Rides Again" (1939), Stevens's "Shane" (1953), and Wellman's "The Ox-Bow Incident" (1943), as different as these are from each other, propose a vision of the West as open possibility, a great landscape against which largeness of heart and purpose was absolutely required in order to face the challenges of the wilderness and dispose of evil. The petty, mean-spirited, cruel, and selfish impulses were depicted as detrimental to community survival as well as to the individual.
While the western hero was usually a loner, a man of few words, often on a private mission, he came when the community called him. But the Westerner gradually began to change over the course of the 1950s, and with him, the western genre. Already in "High Noon" (1952) the community is unworthy of being saved. Many critics believe this is a metaphor for the McCarthy hearings. Selfishness, hypocrisy, and mean spiritedness have ruined this particular Eden of the West, and the noble sheriff stands alone again st the evil that threatens to engulf him. Once he disposes of the villains, his faith in the community dashed, he leaves the town deeply embittered. His only consolation is his new bride. But plenty of other westerns like "Gunfight at O.K. Corral" kept the hero intact.
The '60s, however, brought further disillusionment as the Vietnam conflict waged on, and the influx of "spaghetti westerns" with their emphasis on perversity and revenge gave us anti-heroes who were all style and no substance.
Clint Eastwood starred in several Sergio Leone epics, playing a man whose entire motivation centered on money - who was the good guy primarily because the bad guys were so much worse. True, he avenges the helpless as he gathers the gold, and the community benefits from his cool avarice. But these films reduced the western to its worst elements. Incorporating all the icons (six guns, cowboy gear, and old western towns) into its agonizingly paced, gratuitously violent revenge dramas, the Italian "westerns"
constituted a weird departure from everything truly interesting about the myth of the West. They were attractive to an action-oriented public because America was busy questioning all its values and having a hard time with its self-image.
Arthur Penn's "Little Big Man" (1970) was a very good picture that tried to present a native American perspective on the history of the West. Here the hero languishes between two cultures, unable to live as an Indian because he is white and unable to live as a white because he has been raised Indian. He is lost, too, because it was politically correct at the time to depict white western culture as despicable.
Funny, complicated, and sometimes very perceptive, "Little Big Man" was really an anti-western, a film that tried to debunk all the myths. It was important in its own right for its attempt to defend native American culture and for its parody of false heroism. But the Westerner had little chance for survival in such a climate.
By the time "Silverado" rolled around in 1985, westerns were becoming as scarce as hens teeth. A failed attempt at recapturing the innocence of the past, "Silverado" did develop a number of interesting characterizations and lambaste a number of ugly prejudices (against blacks, women, and people of small stature). Loyalty, prowess, courtesy, and generosity are restored as positive virtues, and the Four Musketeers of the range (Kevin Kline, Danny Glover, Scott Glenn, and Kevin Costner) make a terrific bunc h of heroes.
Only, it just doesn't work. Director Lawrence Kasdan tried to recapture the truth of the western myth, but he didn't understand its real nature, so his film has too many false moves, and every familiar plot device is self-conscious.
"Unforgiven" is a logical development in the western. It graphically demonstrates that violent action creates reaction which heaps repercussions upon repercussions. And its melancholy view of men and women living outside of redemption (unforgiving and therefore unforgiven), does, oddly enough, presuppose a genuinely moral point of view. We are told repeatedly in the film how hard it is to kill a man, and all the killing that goes on is never romanticized or made to seem anything other than frightful. No one is right in brutality, and the price for acts of evil is high indeed.
But it is really about contemporary society more than the old West. And as good as it is, it lacks something so many of the great westerns realized. Layered with meaning, it still fails to come to terms with meaning.
Films like "My Darling Clementine," "The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance" (1962), and even "The Searchers" spoke to us of worthiness, honor, the conscious choice to do well and to do right in spite of personal shortcomings and ingrained prejudice. True, they were always made in the Hollywood factory for the express purpose of entertaining the public and making money at it. They may have fed the illusions of "manifest destiny." And they certainly fed the American public's illusions about history. Some of the m were shamefully racist, and some of them tried to expose racism for what it was. None of them was politically correct by the standards of the late 20th century, except those made recently.
But whatever the failings of the genre, there was something noble in these films too, something found only rarely in films made in our own time. They affirmed that the American character should stand for integrity, moral courage, individuality, responsibility to community, justice, generosity, diligence, compassion, and achievement. The Westerner may not have been too humble, but neither was he an egotist. He just knew who he was and what job he needed to get done. He could be wrong as Dunson in "Red Riv er" was wrong to abuse his cowhands. But when he was wrong, he generally had enough humility (and humor) to see his faults and change, even if it took a punch or two to open his eyes to his flaws. The Westerner was a tough man, a good man, but complex and flawed, too.
However short these films fell of enlightened social consciousness or of telling the real history of the West, I believe they still accomplished something very important, something that keeps them fresh even today for those of us who still watch them and still care for them.
They recorded the history of a people's desire to do well, to seek innocence, to find new possibility, and to build a better future for the children. The poor immigrant and the educated Easterner found equal opportunity in that future. Against a landscape as enormous in imagination as Monument Valley, the Westerner stood for something significant: He stood for greatness of spirit.