Open Range

Open Range 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).

Note

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.

August 13, 2005