Things aren't so great at the OK Corral.
Standing there on the sidewalk in downtown Wiesbaden, I was watching "Rawhide" in the Rhineland, "Death Valley Days" on the Danube -- and discovering that long before EuroDisney would ever show up on the outskirts of Paris, or McDonald's would sell its first fries in Moscow's Red Square -- Westerns, those uniquely American tales of romance and adventure, were popular around the world.
I felt a very different sort of culture shock a dozen years later when Marlon Brando sent a Native American woman to turn down the Oscar for his performance in "The Godfather," informing a stunned audience at home and abroad that Hollywood Westerns had too long promulgated violent and racist lies about the United States' treatment of its native peoples. Clint Eastwood who was the next presenter, must have felt some of the same surprise and awkwardness -- he made a rather sheepish joke apologizing for all the Indians he had "killed" in his movies. Westerns, it seems, were not so popular with everybody.
These two memories were triggered by my recent reading of Gary Wills' latest best-seller, John Wayne's America: The Politics of Celebrity (Simon & Schuster, 1997). Wills' book purports to be more than a biography of Hollywood's most famous cowboy (and offers a lot less salacious gossip than we might have gotten from Kitty Kelley or any single episode of "Inside Edition").
Instead the cultural historian who has written on Lincoln, Reagan, and Shakespeare examines the enduring and puzzling popularity of the Western and offers an extended essay on the evolving character and influence of one of the longest-running shows in American pop culture.
The Western, according to Wills, is the American myth, as uniquely and identifiably ours as baseball and jazz. But it is also a legend with a few rough edges.
Although literary and film critics have long reviled it as a cheap and juvenile form of entertainment, Westerns have enjoyed nearly two centuries of popularity with U.S. audiences. James Fenimore Cooper's novels of frontier adventure known as the Leatherstocking tales feature one of our first Westerners, the wilderness scout Hawkeye, who entertained generations of Americans as he negotiated the wildernesses of upstate New York, the Ohio River Valley, and the western Plains.
Later 19th-century readers were eager for stories about the real life adventures of Westerners like Daniel Boone, Davy Crockett, and Wild Bill Hickok. They devoured glamorized accounts of the military campaigns of General George A. Custer and other western horse soldiers and were titillated by bloody tales about the exploits of outlaws like Jesse James, Doc Holiday, or Billy the Kid.
And Western stories by Mark Twain and Bret Harte were wildly popular, as was Owen Wister's 1902 best-seller The Virginian, which introduced many of the conventions of the classic Hollywood Western: the strong, silent hero, the Eastern schoolmarm who deplores violence, and the climatic gunfight before a gallery of frightened townsfolk.
As Wills and others note, Hollywood itself began with a Western, and Westerns were a staple of American moviemaking (and TV) for more than 60 years, making up more than a quarter of the movies produced during much of that time.
"The Great Train Robbery" (1903) was the first American film to tell a story of any complexity, and this early shoot-'em-up saga started things off with a bang.
Early silent film stars like Tom Mix, William S. Hart, Harry Carey, and Bronco Billy Anderson made hundreds of cowboy movies. And during the Depression more than one beleaguered studio kept afloat by producing a torrent of B-Westerns for Saturday afternoon double features at the local theater.
By the close of World War II Westerns were entering into their golden age, and for nearly two decades classical Western stars like John Wayne, Jimmy Stewart, Henry Fonda, Gary Cooper, Glenn Ford, and Gregory Peck gave us wide-screen spectacles with dramatic backdrops, thundering stampedes, and shoot-outs. On top of this, TV networks in the '50s produced a glut of horse operas, filling their programming schedules with frontier tales of marshals ("Gunsmoke"), ranchers ("Bonanza"), gunslingers ("Have Gun, Will Travel"), and covered wagons ("Wagon Train"). Even as the popularity of Westerns began to ebb in the late 60s and early '70s, new stars like Clint Eastwood continued to find audiences for their cowboy stories. In the '90s two Westerns ("Dances with Wolves" and "Unforgiven") went on to win Oscars for Best Picture.
Why have Westerns been so popular? Wills argues that it's because they celebrate our central myth of the frontier. Americans love Westerns because we think of ourselves not as city folks leading tame and mundane lives, but as rugged and daring men and women packing up and moving out onto the frontier, adventurers settling and taming the wilderness. The city, too crowded and stultifying for the likes of us, corrupts and weakens our spirits. The wide open spaces of the frontier, on the other hand, give us the elbow room we need, as well as a place to start over, to be reborn or redeemed. And the wilderness provides us with fresh challenges and exciting adventures with which to test our true mettle.
We love Westerns, Wills continues, because they celebrate and reinforce that image we have of ourselves as both pilgrims and adventurers. They are optimistic tales of our discovery of a New Eden and exciting adventures of our conquest of an untamed jungle.
Of course all of that wrestling with the wilderness can be pretty heady stuff. In Westerns we get to play against huge backdrops and dastardly villains. Here we don't just hop in a car or take the bus. Instead we can ford dangerous rivers, scale rocky cliffs, or trek across barren deserts. We get to chase waves of stampeding cattle, outrun marauding bands of hostiles, or face down menacing gunslingers. The backdrop of Westerns is "as big as all outdoors," and in this challenging and often menacing playground our heroes and heroines must confront dangers and villains from every side. Long before theme parks or video games, wide-screen Westerns were the original adventure land -- places in our imagination where derring-do was possible. No wonder they were such hits.
In Westerns we never had to deal with all the messy constraints and bureaucracy of civilization. Here was a place where the police never needed to read anyone their Miranda rights, where defendants never got off on a technicality, where killers -- not juries -- got hung. In Westerns one often didn't have to worry about the law at all. The circuit judge wasn't due in town for another six months or the marshal was dead or in the pay of corrupt ranchers. If there was any real problem, you needed to solve it yourself -- usually by strapping on your six-gun and walking out into the noonday sun.
It's easy to understand the appeal of stories celebrating a rugged sort of individualism and offering simple and direct solutions to life's most frustrating problems. How does one handle the problem of evil and injustice in the world? Easy. Practice your draw.
Still the deepest appeal of Westerns probably flows from the fact that these horse operas were largely morality plays defending the status quo. Although Westerns were supposed to celebrate a pioneer spirit, they actually offered audiences an extremely stable view of the world, providing a sense of comfort and stability. In the highly formulaic plots of the classic Western, one didn't encounter a chaotic wilderness, but a social and political world as fixed and inflexible as any ancient caste system -- and as predictable as a roller coaster ride. It was that very predictability and inflexibility that audiences liked. The dance hall girl would never marry the marshal, the wronged Indian would never win the final battle, the fallen friend would always find redemption by catching the last bullet, and at least one innocent farmer would always be wrapped in barbed wire. And when the rare exception did occur, it only confirmed our faith in these conventions and in the stability of our world.
Classic Westerns, then, were not just stories of the frontier, but defenses of the borders with which we kept our households and world in place. The rigidity of the boundaries separating saloon girls and schoolmarms, gunslingers and sheriffs, as well as cowboys and Indians, justified America's attempts to maintain sharp borders between the genders and races at home and our friends and foes abroad.
Every frontier town in a Western was also a border town, a place where the lines of demarcation between the genders, races, and opponents had been drawn with barbed wire and etched in black and white and red. These borders would always need to be defended with force; in Westerns violence was the only means we had to keep chaos at bay. This explains why the climax of every classic Western story had to be the shoot-out on Main Street or the cavalry's charge to the rescue. The lesson of the classic Western was that public order could only be maintained through force.
No wonder Westerns were so popular for the two decades after World War U. They were a perfect vehicle for defending the United State's involvement in the Cold War, and justifying its participation in dozens of unilateral incursions in Third World countries. Westerns we saw at the movies or on TV assured us that -- just like Wyatt Earp in Dodge City or Tombstone -- the United States needed to be the world's marshal. Our cause was noble and our use of force justified because we couldn't depend on others -- like the United Nations -- to contain the violence of rustling murderers like the Clantons or the Soviet Union. According to this mentality, the arms race and a dozen little proxy wars were just a part of our cavalry's pacification of the hostiles. Violence had worked against the Apaches and Comanches and it would work in Latin America and Southeast Asia. And this was, as John F. Kennedy would argue in 1960, our new frontier.
Of course it didn't work, and by the mid-'60s Westerns were were beginning to show their age. Race riots at home and the war in Vietnam had shaken the confidence many Americans had in their institutions and foreign policy. Perhaps there were problems with seeing ourselves as the world's marshal and with our treatment of other races as primitives.
Maybe our cause wasn't so true or our history so unblemished. In the '70s feminism added to the Western's difficulties by rejecting its stereotypical treatment of women as prostitutes or schoolmarms, and Native American activists awakened a nation's conscience to its deplorable treatment of its native peoples. By the time "Dances with Wolves" and "Unforgiven" won their Oscars in 1990 and 1993, the cavalry had become the bad guys, and the marshal was a villain. Not much comfort there.
But the parables of Jesus don't give a great deal of comfort either. The parables undermine our self-assurance, topple our neatly defined categories, and invite us to beat our swords into plowshares. In the parables of the Good Samaritan and the Pharisee and tax collector, for example, Jesus ridicules the dividing lines drawn between friend and foe, saint and sinner. Only God, we are reminded, is really good or innocent. And in the parable of the unforgiving debtor and the prodigal son, it's mercy -- not a six-gun -- that's called for.
When violence does show up in the gospels, it has none of that redemptive power attributed to it in Westerns. Instead it is a brutal weapon of oppression and injustice that crushes the weak and the powerless. Any final evidence of the disjunction between the gospels and most popular Westerns, however, can be seen in the climax; here the hero is not an enraged avenger who manages to outdraw the villain, but someone who is hung on a tree between two thieves -- and someone who begs for their forgiveness with his last breath. Yippy-aye-eh!
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|Title Annotation:||ethics of Western stories and films|
|Date:||Jun 1, 1997|
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