Open Range

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ain't your normal western. I have just finished watching it and
I could not help be reminded of several libertarian themes. The
plot of the story is centered around a small group of late-1800s
cowboys who are free grazers: ranchers who herd their cattle nomadically.
Starring Kevin Costner (who also directed), Robert Duvall and Annette
Benning, Open Range deals with the supremacy of life and
property, its necessary defense (with guns of course; this is a
western, after all), the issue of land ownership and homesteading,
and last but not least, government law enforcement vs. personal
law enforcement.

When the group
arrives at a particular spot, they head into town to look for supplies.
There, they encounter one Denton Baxter, a man who immediately tells
them that he does not like free grazers and that they need to quickly
leave town and move their herd or face the consequences. They tell
him that free grazing is legal; Baxter says that times are changing.
As if that were not enough, Baxter has paid off the local sheriff
to do his dirty illicit eviction deeds. Later on, our brave grazers
learn that Baxter has sent several men to stampede their herd. Spearman
(Duvall) and Waite (Costner) find the men and give them a warning
consisting mostly of a series of recoverable non-lethal beatings.

To make a long
story short (this is a slow-moving western), Baxter's thugs end
up killing two of the grazers, leaving only Spearman and Waite.
At one point in the movie they walk into the saloon and start talking
to the sheriff. Spearman does the talking:

u201CWe got a
warrant sworn for attempted murder for them that tried to kill
the boy who’s laying over there at the Doc’s, trying to stay alive.
Swore out another one for them that murdered the big fella you
had in your cell. Only ours ain’t writ by no tin star, bought
and paid for, Marshal. It’s writ by us, and we aim to enforce
it… Man’s got a right to protect his property and his life, and
we ain’t lettin’ no rancher or his lawman take either.u201D

As an anarchocapitalist,
those words rang in my head like a choir of angels announcing the
arrival of Sam Colt. (I actually had to watch it a second time to
make sure I had heard it right). True to their word, Waite and Spearman
head back into town to exact justice on their friends' killers.
And here is where the gunfight takes place. It is also the only
action scene in the film. Open Range presents the gunfight
in novel way. It is dry, soulless, quick, brutal and unglorified.
One could almost call it u201Cfactual.u201D Costner is no fool here. I believe
that he wants to convey the point that guns are just tools. It's
as if he wants to shatter the myth of the cowboy as a bloodthirsty
gunslinger and instead replace it with the cowboy as man of courage
and a proper understanding of justice and rights who is willing
to take a stand. Granted, Costner could very well be a leftist pinko;
if so, he pulls off a great magic trick by hiding it.

That Waite
and Spearman became their dead friends' defense agency is taken
for granted in the film; it correctly assumes that this was the
norm. Indeed, the West, "although often dependent upon market
peace-keeping agencies, was, for the most part, orderly." (Anderson
and Hill, 1979) In Open Range, the grazers are placed in
the situation where they must become law enforcers in lieu of a
far away federal marshal.

In terms of
style, I must also credit Costner who does something that is almost
a lost art in Hollywood: real understatement and honest subtlety.
The way he constructs the story and the manner in which he directs
the film both strongly suggest a desire to present the situations
as necessary and unavoidable. The murder of the ranchers inexorably
leads to the just killings of the culprits. Perhaps I am over-analyzing,
yet I find it hard to reject the notion that the movie is indeed
geared towards downplaying the actual events while gracefully elevating
the theme of the movie beyond its plot. "Do what is right,"
it beckons us, "since it is the only way to bring justice and
uphold rights." This film is not a slap in the face. Rather,
it gently massages the brain with libertarianism.

I recommend
Open Range not only because of the themes, but also because
it is a great film in spite of them. The cinematography is beautiful:
this is not a traditional dry and yellow western; the open range
is lush and green. The dialog is sparse yet effective, meaningful
but not forced. Finally, if you are an apologist for the state,
at least watch it for Robert Duvall's magnificent performance.

In the end,
Open Range is a story about the right to life and property.
Politically incorrect, it appeals to the necessity of preserving
our inviolable rights and that absent a government to enforce those
laws protecting them, it becomes necessary and justified for individuals
to exact justice. Open Range takes us back to the libertarian
American Old West. Costner's nostalgic film delves into the moral
rectitude of an era based on rugged individualism as the basis for
societal order. Thus, taking the law into one's own hands need not
be demonized. On the contrary — this film makes it a moral and efficient
necessity. In the absence of formal government, the western frontier
was not as wild as we've been told (Anderson and Hill, 27).


Anderson, Terry
and Hill, P.J., u201CAn
American Experiment in Anarcho-Capitalism: the not so Wild,
Wild West
,u201D Journal of Libertarian Studies Vol. 3, No.
1, 1979, pp. 9–29.

13, 2005

Lora [send him mail] is
a freelance TV producer and multimedia specialist in New Orleans.

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