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 War I.
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:
I 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.
The Western is uniquely American. Most of the westerns focused on a brief period in American history, 1865—1890. This was also true of western novels.
The 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.
cowardice vs. honorthe defense of private property (land)law enforcementthe 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. honor.
The universality 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.
IN DEFENSE 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.
Then there 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.
Then there 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.
The movie’s 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.
THE 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.
The classic 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.
Of 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.
Sinatra plays 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.
The sheriff 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.
Sinatra/Concho 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. Strangelove.
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.
Sinatra arrives 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.
The lesson: 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.
The townspeople 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.
Johnny Concho is about armed citizens who finally make up their minds.
We never see it on late-night TV.
My generation 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.
When Brandon 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.
July 18, 2005
Copyright © 2005 LewRockwell.com