BY Mark Mordue in Profiles | 01 APR 08
Featured in
Issue 114

Dead Men Walking

No Country for Old Men's recent success at the Oscars heralds the return of the cowboy - a figure who, after decades of phenomenal popularity, had all but disappeared from the big, and small, screen

BY Mark Mordue in Profiles | 01 APR 08

Joel and Ethan Coen, No Country for Old Men (2007)

I discovered the Western was dead when I visited a junk shop. Looking down at a collection of model cowboys and Indians, I asked the assistant about the fort that came with them. She smiled and said, ‘Not many kids these days have an interest in a set like that. They hardly even know what cowboys and Indians are. It’s just not part of their world.’ Standing there in my Levi’s jeans and blue flannelette shirt, I wondered if I too would soon be heading for a junk shop. I began to consider the saturating cultural force of the Western in everything from film, radio and literature to art, music and fashion throughout most of the 20th and early 21st centuries. Yet although its residual influence remains today in everything from a pair of boots to a Ryan Adams song, until recently it seemed that the Western had all but faded from our cinema and television screens, and had become as archaic as the history it once so vitally envisioned.

And yet three major new films all fall under the ‘New Western’ star: Australian director Andrew Dominik’s haunting epic The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (2007), a contemplation of notoriety and mortality in which Brad Pitt and Casey Affleck feature as the outlaw and his Judas; James Mangold’s 3:10 to Yuma (2007) a clockwork-tight, violent entertainment starring Christian Bale as a good man trying to get a very bad one (played by Russell Crowe) on the train to jail; and then, of course, the winner of Best Picture, Best Directing and Best Adapted Screenplay at this year’s Oscars, the Coen Brothers’ No Country for Old Men (2007), a ‘contemporary Western’ starring Tommy Lee Jones, Javier Bardem and Josh Brolin dogging each others’ tracks across the Texas–Mexico borderlands as a drug deal goes wrong and the body count rises.

3:10 to Yuma (2007)

Although No Country for Old Men was accorded the victories, all three films were nominated in various categories at the Oscars. All three are influenced by classic Western tropes: the use of mirror opposites to personify good and evil in conflict as well as affinity; an atmosphere of drifting and propulsion; the solemn moral philosophy and feelings of loss that underline most Westerns, as though something (the past, the frontier, the loner) is being overtaken (by the future, civilization, the community); the significance of an all-embracing landscape, within which lie the absolutes of sacrifice and death; and the near-mystical power of the horse and the gun.

No Country for Old Men (2007)

The American West has always been a violent place – in myth as much as in fact. It remains the necessary imaginative territory to which the USA turns whenever it needs to puzzle out its own identity as a nation, most particularly in the ways that force can lead to honourable ends (if not by always honourable means).

Everybody is always trying to kill a cowboy – and the same might be said of the Western and its cinematic reputation. As a genre it suffers more than most for being judged on its worst, and most wooden, qualities. As a result the Western has seen a few spells in the graveyard on Hollywood’s Boot Hill before reviving itself and walking back into the commercial maelstrom of Dodge City again.

Three new films do not, of course, constitute a movement. But it’s possible to see renewed vigour behind the Western when you also take into account the critically lauded HBO television series Deadwood (2004–6) – a prosaically brutal take on how the chaos of a gold-mining town is civilized – and Brokeback Mountain (2005), author E. Annie Proulx and director Ang Lee’s cowboy romance.

In A Personal Journey with Martin Scorsese through American Movies (1995) Scorsese declares: ‘The most interesting of the classic movie genres for me are the indigenous ones: the Western, which was born on the frontier, the Gangster film, which originated in East Coast cities, and the Musical, which was spawned by Broadway. They remind me of jazz: they allowed for endless, increasingly complex, sometimes perverse variations. When these variations were played by masters, they reflected the changing times; they gave you fascinating insights into American culture and the American psyche.’

Scorsese’s point about the indigenous nature of these genres is a powerful one. To understand America one must understand its Western Dreaming. Why, now, of all times, has the genre staged a return? The way that the Western frontier moved on into flms relating to Vietnam and the shock of defeat, and how that same sense of the frontier and some final moment of historical trauma continues to this day in Afghanistan and Iraq, may well suggest the reason.

What is strange about the Western as a genre is that it began dreaming itself into life when the American frontier first opened up, until the West was more or less ‘won’ with the final massacre of Lakota Sioux Indians at Wounded Knee in 1890. By then, dime novels and sensational news reports had already made the likes of Jesse James, Billy the Kid, Wyatt Earp, Buffalo Bill and Kit Carson legends in their own lifetime. Carson dryly observed: ‘It may be true, but I ain’t got no recollection of it.’

As the 19th century passed into history, the Western would go on to reflect the age in which it found itself: almost purely entertaining in the 1930s and ’40s, when ‘singing cowboys’ such as Gene Autry and later Roy Rogers rode the range; even more heroic and ennobling during World War II, when the Western took epic shape in the hands of such directors as John Ford and Howard Hawks; then shadowy and edgier in the 1950s, during the start of the Cold War as Ford’s own palette darkened in films such as The Searchers (1956), in which John Wayne played a vengeful Civil War veteran consumed with hatred for Comanches.

The Searchers (1956)

Perhaps most remarkable of all in the 1950s was a series of eight noir Westerns by director Anthony Mann, featuring Jimmy Stewart as a damaged man trying to regain his moral composure and peace of mind. Before these movies Stewart had been the Tom Hanks of his age, thanks to directors such as Frank Capra, and the recasting of his image as something darker was an incredibly bold move.

In a renowned essay from 1954 entitled ‘The Westerner’ the film critic Robert Warshow argued that the cowboy ‘at his best exhibits a moral ambiguity that darkens his image and saves him from absurdity; this ambiguity arises from the fact that, whatever his justification, he is a killer of men’.1

Warshow emphasized how the moral centre of the Western universe was defined by the gun. The significance of this cannot be underestimated in a country where democracy and the ‘right to bear arms’ are somehow conflated. According to Warshow, the Western ‘offers a serious orientation to the problem of violence such as can be found nowhere else in our culture. One of the well-known peculiarities of modern civilized opinion is its refusal to acknowledge the value of violence […] These attitudes, however, have not reduced the element of violence in our culture but, if anything, have helped free it from moral control.’

Violence as an aesthetic, as a moral form, becomes an entirely necessary cultural act in Warshow’s eyes, something the civilized world needs to process. ‘Watch a child with his toy guns’, he writes, ‘and you will see: what interests him most is not (as we much fear) the fantasy of hurting others, but to work out how a man looks when he shoots or is shot. A hero is one who looks like a hero.’

George Stevens, the director of Shane (1953), arguably the greatest Western ever made, was considerably sanguine about this mythology. And yet Shane, which starred Alan Ladd, is perhaps the purest ideal of the Western hero in existence, a fable that connects the gunslinger at his best with the knights of old. The director was nonetheless distressed to return from service in World War II and see just how popular (and poorly made) Westerns had become: ‘People’, he said, ‘were using six-guns like guitars.’

You can roll out the statistics like tumbleweeds, but perhaps it’s enough to recall that until the late 1950s a quarter of the films Hollywood had produced were Westerns. They would keep on rolling into daytime and late-night television schedules well into the next two decades, with the likes of Wayne, Stewart, Ladd and Henry Fonda sent to wander an immortal loop in every boy’s mind.

It’s in the nature of television to blur historical epochs, repeating and recycling successful formulas until they drop. A list of television Westerns (many of which were also films, radio shows, comic books and dime novels) reads like an iconography of growing up through one unbroken era. They include, in various incarnations, The Cisco Kid (1919–94), Zorro (1919–2005) Rin Tin Tin (1930–59), The Lone Ranger (1933–2003), Hopalong Cassidy (1935–50), Gunsmoke (1952–75), Tales of The Texas Rangers (1955–59), Maverick (1957–94), The Rifleman (1958–63), Rawhide (1959–66), Bonanza (1959–73), Shenandoah (1965–6), The High Chaparral (1967–71) and Little House on the Prairie (1974–83), as well as the comedy F Troop (1965–7) and a martial arts Western known as Kung Fu (1972–5). Even Star Trek (1966–ongoing) fell under this dominating ethos, with creator Gene Roddenberry pitching it to the networks as ‘Wagon Train to the stars’.

The high-water mark for Westerns remains 1959, when 26 of them were running at peak time on television, eight of them ranking in the top ten most watched programmes in the USA. Initially driven by the Cold War and an American need for moral comfort and heroic certainties, the cap-gun age inculcated in young teenagers, many of whom would go on to fight in Vietnam, the values of sacrifice and bravery on the frontier.

As the genre entered the 1960s, television also tried to some extent to turn back the clock and deny the darkness of the cinema Western. The ‘spaghetti’ Westerns of Sergio Leone, and a little later Sam Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch (1969), sardonically annihilated the lines between bad and good. Things on television were however inevitably more defined and restrained. But by the time news of the My Lai massacre in Vietnam hit the headlines in 1968, it had become rather more difficult to accept a white-versus-black-hats view of the world.

Artists are not sociologists, however, and it’s easy to cite numerous films that contradict neat historical positions. The Wild Bunch, for example, has been variously cited as a fable on the madness and horror of the Vietnam War and as a slow-motion celebration of bloody gunfighting that turned the 1960s’ generation on to the thrills of violence.

It’s nonetheless possible to argue that, along with sheer over-exposure on television, 1960s’ counterculture killed the Western. As people watched Slim Pickens slowly bleeding to death to Bob Dylan’s ‘Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door’ – under what looked like an equally bleeding twilight sky in Peckinpah’s Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid (1973) – it felt as though a generation was witnessing the end of an era: ‘Mama take this badge off me, I can’t use it any more. It’s getting dark, too dark to see.’

The disaster that was Michael Cimino’s epic film Heaven’s Gate (1980), which almost financially crippled United Artists, confirmed that the Western was not only aesthetically exhausted but also bad for business. Although there was something of a renaissance at the turn of the 1990s, with the mini-series Lonesome Dove (1989) on television and with movies by Kevin Costner (Dances with Wolves, 1990) and Clint Eastwood (Unforgiven, 1992) netting Oscars for Best Film, these could be seen, in some ways, as eulogies to the genre.

There’s something inherently regretful about most Westerns, which leads to the genre articulating its own demise through an ongoing obsession with mortality. This thread of regret often pivoted on a growing awareness that the ‘redskin’ was not simply a ‘savage’ but an abused and brutally displaced human being. This ran through films as varied as Delmer Daves’ Broken Arrow (1950) and John Ford’s last work, Cheyenne Autumn (1964), before reaching melting-point in 1970 with the release of A Man Called Horse, Little Big Man and Soldier Blue, the same year Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee, an elegiac history of ‘the Indian wars’ written by Dee Brown from a Native American perspective, became a publishing phenomenon (before becoming an award-winning HBO movie in 2007).

In the late 1960s and ’70s a sense of indigenous wounds and lost causes began to filter into more American genres, such as the road movie. What, after all, is Easy Rider (1969) but a cowboy movie in which the horses are motor bikes? The redneck joke of the era was: ‘Hippies are God’s proof that cowboys still fuck the buffalo.’ This new generation was plugging into the spiritual ecology of the American landscape, and the result was they identified more with the Native Americans than with the cowboys.

Jim Jarmusch’s Dead Man (1995) brilliantly entwines American illusions about the frontier with these prescient Native American themes. As Johnny Depp heads further and further west by train, he becomes the personification of Horace Greeley’s call to: ‘Go west young man and grow up with the country.’ This 1860s’ catch cry was caught up in notions of manifest destiny, a hotchpotch of philosophies about racial superiority and religious duties to embrace ‘God’s providence’ as laid out before settlers entering the landscape. The idea that the flow westward would also be the journey of the USA’s becoming as a nation is oddly echoed in Native American ideas of the ‘vision quest’, where young men would go out into the landscape and have visions (often drug-induced) to confirm their manhood.

In many ways Western cinema has been a continuation of this tension between a vision quest and American ideals of manifest destiny. It’s a dream that is played out in the crucial literary references found in both The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford and 3:10 to Yuma. Principal characters in both films are seduced or fascinated by the dime novels of the era as though they were news stories. In Jesse James this leads to obsession and disillusionment, as the young Robert Ford sees that the real James is not the romantic hero he thought he was (and wanted to imitate). In 3:10 to Yuma it’s actually the source of renewed idealization, as a boy looks at a pencil sketch and realizes that it depicts his father just like the heroes on the covers of all the books he has been reading.

The echoes between the seductions of the dime novels and the seductions of these films today are not hard to miss. As visions of a renewed Western Dreaming they speak to conflicting enchantments: sometimes you get to play a hero, sometimes you land the villain’s role. By the end of 3:10 to Yuma the boy’s father has nobly entered the mythology of the Old West before his son’s eyes. By the end of Jesse James Robert Ford has killed his hero and seen the charismatic world of violence for all its futility, only to be murdered himself: ‘The light going out of his eyes before he could find the right words.’

1 The Western Reader, edited by Jim Kitses and Gregg Rickman, Limelight Editions, New York, 1998, pp. 46–7

Mark Mordue is an Australian essayist, editor and poet. He is the author of the travel book Dastgah: Diary of a Headtrip, Hawthorne Books, Portland, USA, 2004. His favourite Western is High Plains Drifter (1973).