As a kid,
I grew up on westerns. So had the generation before me. The fading
of the Western can be dated: the 1960s. That was part of an overall
shift in American culture: a shift for the worse.
I lived in
Los Angeles, which got television early. My parents bought a TV
with 10-inch screen in 1949. The first show that I can remember
watching is The
Lone Ranger, starring Clayton Moore (usually) and John Hart (two years).
A year later, I became an avid fan of the local Tim McCoy Show.
Former B-actor McCoy gave us a half hour of western lore and then
an hour-long McCoy western. McCoy was the real McCoy. He had been
the U.S. Army’s expert in Plains Indian sign language before World
In those days,
Saturday morning TV was filled with B-western movies from the late
1930s and early 1940s. We watched Buster Crabbe, Bob Steele, Ken
Maynard, Hoot Gibson, and the ever-present bearded sidekick, Al
“Fuzzy” St. John. Sunday evening was Hopalong Cassidy night: a national
TV phenomenon for kids. William Boyd had seen what TV would become
and had purchased the rights to the 60+ Hoppy movies in which he
had starred as the white-haired ranch owner. Song writer Steve Gillette
speaks for my generation:
wanted to grow up just like Hopalong Cassidy. I just never expected
to look like him.
In 1950, Boyd
owned Sunday nights in the large cities that had TV. He became a
millionaire as a result.
is uniquely American. Most of the westerns focused on a brief period
in American history, 1865—1890. This was also true of western
has had tremendous appeal outside the United States. There is something
about westerns that appeals to the whole world. But what?
I think it
has to do with the fundamental themes of the western. Most westerns
have at least one of these themes.
the defense of private property (land)
the moral limits of vengeance
These are masculine
themes. Girls rarely have the same aesthetic commitment to westerns
that boys do. When I think of women in westerns, I think of Jean
Arthur’s character in Shane and Grace Kelly’s in High
Noon. Arthur doesn’t want her husband to risk getting killed
defending their little farm. It’s cheaper just to move. Kelly plays
a newlywed pacifist Quaker who doesn’t want her marshal husband,
with one day to go on his job, to stick around town for an extra
day to defend law and order. It’s easier to run from the gang that
is due on the 12-noon train. Both women are logical, but their husbands
reject their cost-benefit analysis. It leaves out cowardice vs.
of these four themes points to the foundations of civilization.
If most men are cowards, if private property is not defended by
the law, if the law enforcement system becomes corrupt and unjust,
and if there are no limits on personal vengeance, then civilization
is at risk. Society loses liberty.
In the B-westerns,
there were white hats and black hats, good guys and bad guys. Occasionally,
a good guy could wear black, but it had to be all-black: a consistent
fashion statement. There was no doubt that the bad guys were consistently
evil. Shades of gray were for adult westerns. Kids wanted things
morally clear, and westerns made things morally clear.
OF PRIVATE PROPERTY
The theme of
the evil railroad company was a continuing one. The railroad’s owners
were always about to grab some family’s farm. The railroad’s attorney
was utterly corrupt. The governor was probably in on the deal. That
was a good lesson for pre-teen boys: don’t automatically trust the
state to defend your property when big money is on the table.
was the large land owner who was cutting off water to local farmers
or small ranchers. He would then offer to buy them out, dirt-cheap.
He was in cahoots with the local sheriff, who was on his payroll.
But one local would resist. The two questions were: “Who would defend
the resisting property owner, and how?” Sometimes it was a U.S.
marshal, operating alone and anonymously. That was a basic theme
of the New Deal era: you could trust the U.S. government more than
governors and sheriffs. Sometimes, however, the hero was a private
citizen, a range-riding bringer of justice. The Lone Ranger was
the archetype. He could afford to do this because he owned a silver
mine. He even used silver bullets. That was my generation’s introduction
to the precious metals market.
was gold mining. A mine was owned by an old man, a widow, or a marriageable
young woman who had inherited it from her father, who had died at
the hands of unknown bushwhackers. Somebody was after the gold mine
— somebody corrupt. Somebody had tampered with the deed. Lessons:
(1) gold is valuable; (2) deeds are important documents, but they
are vulnerable to crooked local officials.
It has been
two decades since Silverado,
which was an A-grade B-western. The genre, except for Clint Eastwood’s
westerns, was pretty much dead when Lawrence Kasdan directed Silverado.
The basic themes were there: a land-grabbing big rancher, the vulnerability
of deeds, a crooked sheriff who was an ex-outlaw, defenseless homesteaders,
the question of the locus of law-enforcement, and the issue of the
limits on personal revenge. Tossed in for good measure was John
Cleese, who played another town’s sheriff: the merciless agent of
a hanging-justice town, who was wise enough to recognize new jurisdictional
boundaries in the face of a distant, unseen sharpshooter armed with
a Henry rifle.
key words were spoken by Danny Glover: “This ain’t right.” That
phrase was the heart and soul of the old-time westerns. Significantly,
Glover was the man with the Henry rifle. This fact complemented
his follow-up line: “I’ve had enough of what ain’t right.”
In the brief
media transition from the Saturday morning movie to Saturday morning
TV, my generation cheered on silver screen heroes who found second-amendment
ways to deal with what ain’t right.
DEATH OF THE WESTERN
With the 1955
ratings triumph of Gunsmoke,
TV had a flurry of prime-time westerns. Gunsmoke lasted for
two decades: the longest running dramatic series on evening TV.
It had done well on the radio before the TV version. But the genre
faded rapidly after 1963.
If I were to
date the death of the Western as a cultural phenomenon, I would
use John Wayne’s McLintock
(1963). It was more of a comedy than a western. Wayne’s character
had tamed his share of the West. The Indians were old men. The Indian
agents had taken over — conniving government officials without
wisdom or honor. It was a movie about leaving the inheritance, not
about building it. It was the culmination of Red
River, where Wayne had played an empire-builder.
That was also
the year of Kennedy’s assassination: the visible end of can-do liberalism.
Within months, American culture shifted, as manifested six weeks
later by the arrival of the Beatles. The counter-culture overwhelmed
youth culture for six years; then it was co-opted. The result has
been described well by David Brooks in his book, Bobos
in Paradise: the fusion of Bohemian and bourgeois culture.
The classic western no longer plays a role.
western was also a fusion of cultures: individualistic, yet bourgeois-supportive.
The western upheld private property, which is surely a bourgeois
value. But the defender of property was an individual or a small,
independent team. This was not the individualism of the bohemian,
who rejects bourgeois culture in the name of the transvaluation
of values. This was the individualism of the person who is committed
to permanent moral standards and who sees these standards betrayed
by crooked officials. Bourgeois culture depends on the moral individual
who is not afraid to take action in defense of fundamental principles.
all Westerns that brought this message home, Johnny Concho
(1956) remains my favorite. It was a low-budget western starring
Frank Sinatra. It was seen by very few. As a teenager, I went back
to the theater to see it several times. It grabbed me almost as
much as Shane
had and far more than High Noon had.
Johnny Concho, a small-time gambler in a small town. His older brother
is the legendary gunman, Red Concho. Then one day two gunmen ride
into town. They have just killed Red. They are now taking over the
town. They tell him to get out of town, permanently.
does nothing. He informs Johnny that he must leave. The only reason
why he had won at cards is because everyone let him win. The townspeople
wanted his brother to stay away, but the brother’s reputation had
served as protection from men like the two who have just come to
town. The sheriff was a fake. Johnny was a fake. The town will not
defend itself. He has to leave.
rides out. But wherever he goes, he is a marked man. Red made many
enemies. Finally, he winds up in a church. There, he meets a pastor
who tells him that running away will not solve his problem. The
pastor was played by Keenan Wynn. It was a great small part, though
not so memorable as his Col. Bat Guano in Dr.
Wynn has a
gun on his hip. This was true to life. There were gunslingers-turned-pastors
in the West. A good book on this is Ross Phares’ Bible
in Pocket, Gun in Hand. Wynn holds off a pair of killers
who have come after Sinatra, while Sinatra heads back home. Wynn’s
line to the two killers is memorable. “Gentlemen, get your damned
hands away from your guns.” They do.
home. He confronts the two gunslingers in the middle of the main
street. They promise to shoot him down, piece by piece. But word
has gotten out about the confrontation. From the second story windows
of every business/home on main street, the citizens begin firing
into the two. The two fall, writhing. The shooting continues. This
scene would earn an R-rating these days. I loved it. “Shoot ‘em
again.” They do.
an act of life-risking courage by one man brings the bourgeois shopkeepers
to their senses and then to their guns. They take the enforcement
of the law into their own hands, revolver by revolver. The sheriff
is gone. The gunslingers are the law. Then they are dead.
in High Noon do not come to the aid of their sheriff. The
citizens in the tavern are on the side of the revenge-driven criminals.
The citizens in church are in favor of peace at the expense of both
liberty and law. The pastor cannot make up his mind.
is about armed citizens who finally make up their minds.
We never see
it on late-night TV.
grew up watching western movies. So did those before us for two
decades. Before them, generations of boys had read dime novels,
a genre that extends back to the actual era of the cowboy. We learned
through fiction the centrality of four principles: honor, private
property, the integrity of the law, and the moral limits on revenge.
de Wilde shouted “Shane, come back!” as Shane rode up the hill,
past the graveyard, and out of the community, he spoke for my generation.
We were his age, and we wanted someone like that to live among us.
A decade later, McLintock made it clear that nobody like
that was coming back.
Then Han Solo
and Indiana Jones arrived: a pair of armed independent entrepreneurs,
produced and directed by a pair of independent entrepreneurs. They
became worldwide heroes.
The old themes
persevere, and they still have a huge audience. But the black hats
and white hats seem gone forever. A pity.