Hollywood Westerns, Guns, and Property Rights

I love westerns. I always have. My tastes were formed, age 6 to 14, first by radio westerns, mainly the Lone Ranger & Tonto and Cisco & Pancho (early examples of team multiculturalism), and then, beginning in 1949 when my parents bought a 10-inch television set, by Los Angeles television — the Lone Ranger, the Hoppalong Cassidy weekly movies, and Saturday morning re-runs of 1930’s B-westerns — and finally by Saturday morning movies in Denver, which had no TV stations in 1950. For a ride on the bus and 25 cents, I could see half a dozen cartoons, a Western, and a weekly serial — very often a western.

Westerns were about good vs. evil, white hats vs. black hats. (In how many of his 254 B-grade westerns did Charles King play a villain named Blackie? Actually, only nine, but it seems like a lot more in the fading memories of graying heads.) They were morality plays about people who owned guns. I think this is why there is not much of a market for Westerns any more, except for Sam Elliott or Tom Sellick TV movie versions of Louis L’Amour novels. Fewer and fewer Americans are of the opinion that there is a positive relationship between justice and an armed citizenry.

The western is popular all over the world. The genre is based on a brief period in American history: 1860-1889, but with 1865 to 1881 as the focus for most westerns. The hey day of the wild west lasted from the end of the Civil War to the gunfight at the OK Corral.

The classic western movie is about justice. Sometimes the local civil government is the source of justice, as in "High Noon." Sometimes it is the source of injustice, as in "Silverado" — a very fine but late example. Sometimes there is no civil government. The classic example of this theme is "Shane." But always the drama is local. There may be a U.S. marshall involved, but he is dealing with the problem of local injustice.

Though there must be an exception, I cannot recall any traditional western in which the U.S. marshall was the villain, and the sheriff who opposed him was the good guy. (There is one recent exception to the pro-U.S. government bias: see below.) Occasionally, a governor appointed a special agent, but we never saw the governor on-screen again.

I am partial to "Shane." Here we see the war of two cultures: the cattleman vs. the farmer. There is a wonderful scene in which Ryker, the cattleman, argues late at night with Starrett, the farmer, about how the cattlemen settled the land. They fought the Indians. Starrett replies that trappers and explorers were in the region even earlier.

Here we have a dramatic incarnation of Locke’s defense of private property. Whose labor established title to the land? Whose efforts count? Is ownership based on first come-first served? Locke said original ownership comes by mixing labor with land, which has too much metaphor in it to serve as a solution to the movie’s dramatic issue. Ryker was closer to it: his land was land mixed with blood. He who shed the last blood became the owner. This is what "Shane" is really all about: Who will be the last man standing?

The key to the movie is established early: there is no U.S. Marshall — no law — within a hundred miles. This is the wild west: no government-enforced law and order. The movie never mentions the source of the conflict: the absence of legally enforceable property rights. The U.S. government owns the land, not the cattlemen. The government has changed the rules. Farmers are given title if they stay on the land for a few years. So, they come, as pre-owners, to siphon off the water and fence off the ponds. That was Ryker’s complaint. His strategy was to drive them off the land and reclaim operational title to the land and the water.

The judicial-moral issue is settled by a pair of private gunslingers. Shane is the good guy; Wilson is the bad guy. They shoot it out. Shane also kills the two cattlemen brothers, since they shoot first. Then Shane leaves town, the last of the breed. The implication is that the West was over. Shane has to leave. Farmers’ wives don’t like guns — another theme of the movie. The disarmed farmers would inherit the West.

"Silverado" is a movie about multiple forms of injustice, and the local government is behind them most of it. One town automatically convicts and hangs anyone who kills another man in a gunfight. The sheriff, played magnificently by John Clease, makes it clear that right and wrong are irrelevant. There is no fair fight in his town.

The town of Silverado is run by the local corrupt cattle baron, who has hired a bank robber and his gang to police the town on his behalf. He, too, wants to shove the farmers off his land. But it isn’t his land. It’s the U.S. government’s land. The government is now allowing homesteaders to buy land by settling: the essence of Locke’s theory of original ownership. The cattleman’s thugs set fire to the local land title registration office, killing the man who runs it. (You will recognize his voice: Wilson from "Home Improvement," whose face was never seen.)

If the U.S. government, as "the last man standing," had sold the land to the highest bidders, beginning as soon as the Indians had been defeated, there would never have been a western genre. Cattlemen would have kept out the homesteaders by law — and railroads, too, if the cattlemen had so chosen. But the law of eminent domain prevailed, and still does.

Time and again in westerns, the central mortal issue is property rights. Who lawfully owns a piece of land? The bad guys are land thieves: cattlemen, railroad companies, lawyers, or the powerful man behind the local government. Ultimately, the issue is settled by guns — guns in the hands of good guys. (I never did like "Destry Rides Again," about a lawman who refuses to wear a gun.)

I was a big fan of “Gunsmoke,” both the radio version (413 episodes, 1952-61) with William Conrad and the TV version with James Arness (1955-75). Combining the two versions, they survived as long as the actual era of the wild west. Back in 1982, I had a chance to meet Arness and chat with him. He made a very telling point: “By the time CBS canceled the series, the higher-ups had determined that there would be almost no gunplay. I had to stop the bad guys with my poison ring.” The script writers have not liked westerns since the 1960’s.

The wildness of the west of literature and film was essentially the product of two factors: armed injustice vs. armed victims or their representatives. The underlying presupposition of the drama was the absence of legally enforceable property rights. The end of the frontier was defined as the end of private citizens who carried guns. Gangster movies were always about bad guys — private citizens — who carried guns and the police, who for a time were outgunned.

The battle still goes on. The U.S. government still refuses to sell its land, leasing the land rather than selling it. The result is political conflict, as well as forest fires that spread, this way or that, in terms of wind patterns coupled with the latest theory of land management in the highest circles of the Federal land-management bureaucracies.

The last of the old-time gunfighter-lawmen was Bill Tilghman, portrayed well by Sam Elliott in "You Know My Name." He died in 1924 with his boots still on as the Marshall of Cromwell, Oklahoma, shot down by a corrupt, drunken agent of the U.S. government — a Prohibition enforcer. This is the one example I can think of where an agent of the U.S. government is the movie’s bad guy. I wish there were more.

Guns and Justice

One of the most famous movies in American history is "High Noon" (1952). Gary Cooper won an Oscar for his performance. It is the story of a pathological murderer who had been given life imprisonment by the state government even though the local jury and judge had mandated his execution. Then, a few years later, the state commuted his sentence. In short, it was what happens to most murderers today, and why juries are hesitant to convict.

He is now returning to town on a train that is scheduled to arrive at 12 noon. He has vowed vengeance against all those in authority who had arrested and convicted him. The judge and the Marshal receive word on Sunday morning — the day of judgment — that the man’s gang is waiting for him at the train station. High noon on the clock becomes the symbol of judgment in the film. The questions are: Whose justice? Whose sanctions?

The judge prepares to leave town. He warns the Marshall that he had better leave, too. The judge reminds the Marshall that the killer had vowed revenge while sitting in the court’s chair of condemnation. That is, the condemned man had taken a blood oath, although the judge did not use this language. The judge explains to the Marshall that the townspeople will not risk siding with him; they will not interfere with the executioners. He gathers up his saddlebags, puts a couple of law books into it, as well as the scales of justice, and leaves town. It was a powerful representative scene: the literal departure of justice.

The movie hinges on the question of sanctions. Whose oath will prevail: the marshal’s oath of office or the killer’s oath of revenge? The Marshall refuses to leave town despite the fact that he had just resigned from his job. He thinks the law should be upheld until the new Marshall arrives the next day. He has just married a young woman, a Quaker who hates violence. She leaves him because he refuses to leave town before the shooting starts. But he knows that the gang will pursue them and kill them wherever they flee.

He goes to others in the community to form a posse to defend the town. He recognizes that the threat against him is in fact a threat against law and order. He is facing a revolution against authority. He expects people to stand up against this revolution. But no one will join him. They decide to let him face the gang alone. The first group he approaches is in a saloon; they side with the gang. The second group is in a church; they side with the leading politician, who recommends doing nothing, allowing the criminals to kill the Marshall rather than risking the bad publicity of a shoot-out between townspeople and the gang. The pastor, true to the Hollywood image, cannot make up his mind which approach is best: armed resistance or sacrificing an innocent man. Rev. Wimp.

The Marshall eventually kills every member of the gang, with the unexpected assistance of his wife, who quietly returns and shoots one of them in the back while he is re-loading his revolver. Love for her husband conquers her Quaker pacifism. But the key to the story is this: the residents are unwilling to defend law and order by risking their lives to defend their judicial representative. They fear death or bad publicity more than they fear the destruction of the law. They fear the face of men. The movie ends when he throws his badge into the dirt and rides out of town in a wagon with his wife. He leaves them without law and order for one more day, and without their self-respect permanently. The married couple’s covenantal problem is resolved. They had participated in the legitimate shedding of guilty blood. But the town’s covenantal problem remains unresolved.

The movie’s theme song, which is generally believed to have contributed substantially to the movie’s success, begins with the words, "Do not forsake me, oh my darling." It refers to the man’s love for his wife. But he loves law and order more. He regards his vow to defend law and order as superior in authority to his vow to love her. He loves her on his terms, not hers: his law, not hers. As it turns out, she also loves him on his terms. In the end, there is no love lost between him and the town, no sense of commitment. He severs his civil covenant by taking off his badge and tossing it into the dirt, like Moses casting down the tablets.

The message of that movie rang true in the hearts of Americans in the early 1950’s. It reflected a view of heroism and law that would be replaced publicly in the 1960’s. When men’s confidence in the legitimacy of final civil sanctions faded after 1960, so did men’s confidence in the law. Americans more and more became like the townspeople in the movie. When the judge packed his saddlebags, he warned the uncomprehending Marshall that people are fickle. They side with power.

A truly obscure western was "Johnny Concho" (1956). It starred Frank Sinatra, with William Conrad as — sorry, I cannot resist — the heavy. It had a very similar theme. In it, a pair of gunmen ride into a small town and announce that they will be running it from now on. The sheriff is helpless. He had always been helpless. The town had bought its freedom from outlaws by means of another gunslinger, Red Concho. The town had paid Red to stay away, but Red’s reputation had kept out evildoers. His recent demise at the hands of the two gunmen launched a new era. His executioners had decided to run the town directly.

His younger brother Johnny had been unaware of this arrangement. He had been winning at poker for years. The townsmen had let him win. Now his winning days were over. The gunslingers mock him; the townspeople mock him. He flees in disgrace. No other town wants him: his brother’s unsavory reputation has made him unwelcome everywhere.

Then two other gunslingers start to pursue him, to get even with Red. He flees into a church. Here, he meets the pastor: a former gunslinger-turned-preacher — a common figure in the American Wild West. (Ross Phares, Bible in Pocket, Gun in Hand: The Story of Frontier Religion [Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1964].) This preacher is the opposite of the minister in “High Noon.” Holstered gun on his hip, he scares away the pursuing gunmen. Then he tells the victim (and anti-hero) to go back and face his problem, which he does. Keenan Wynn played the preacher, and while his performance did not match the fame of his portrayal of Col. Bat Guano in “Dr. Strangelove,” I think it was the most meaningful role he ever had.

The final scene in the movie comes when the two gunmen shoot the town’s prodigal son in the leg and threaten to kill him slowly, shot by shot. At that point, every man in town pulls out his gun and fires into the two gunmen. The heroism of this coward-turned-citizen shames the rest of the town’s men into risk-taking. Together, in a spontaneous action, the men of the town eliminate the tyrants, who never get a shot off at any of them. At the end of the movie, the townspeople ask Concho to stay, and he does.

The difference between the two endings is monumental, despite the fact that the bad guys in both movies die in the street ("bite the dust" — an old biblical theme: Genesis 3:14). The citizens of both towns initially were unwilling to defend themselves against evil. The second town was initially worse. The citizens had bought their protection by submitting to evil. But evil always progresses if left unchecked; their protection was no better than the speed of Red Concho’s draw.

The first town does not change. The second town, initially more corrupt than the first, recognizes its sin and, to a man, atones for that sin by shedding guilty blood. The killers are killed. The newly righteous man is defended. The willingness of a repentant sinner to die for the sake of a principle — that evil should not be allowed to reign uncontested — transforms his former enemies into his defenders. That town clearly has a future. The town in "High Noon" does not. The newly righteous hero stays in the second town; the originally righteous hero leaves the first town forever.

Both movies were about courage. Both were about justice. Both were about a well-armed citizenry. We never see "Johnny Concho." I wish we could.

Conclusion

The death of the western movie has matched the replacement of courage in this culture — and the replacement of justice. The masters of the media prefer disarmed citizens. Joe Starrett’s wife has become a soccer mom, and she votes against guns. In the wild west, most men owned guns, and occasionally they used them. Today, they own insecure titles to property that are vulnerable to a change in the law at any time, especially environmental law. They are too much like the townspeople of "High Noon."