The American Western

TheSearchersby Steve Lancaster   2/3/14
Much has been said about the western recently. Brad has written movingly about the characters in Lonesome Dove, Open Range and Broken Trail. These are great movies in their own right and there is little I could add to the commentary.

The western is an art form uniquely American. I have a selection of movies for your consideration which I believe have a common theme, but are also distinctively American in their characterizations. Three were made in the 1950’s, the final trio in 2005-2012. There are many others. These, I must admit, are some of my favorites.

Each of these movies pits a defender of civilization against the barbarians. Each faces an existential crisis in dealing with evil and the challenges faced are great. Each movie deserves a long review, but to illustrate my point I am truncating the review to basics.

Will Kane (High Noon) is retiring, marrying his sweetheart and leaving town. A man Kane has put in prison, is coming for revenge on the train arriving at noon. Kane attempts to rally the town to fight the criminals, he asks for assistance from the people he had defended for many years. If you have seen the movie you know how it goes; if you have not seen it I won’t spoil it for you.

Shane (Shane) is a gunfighter who desires to put up his weapons and live peaceably. Involvement in his community forces him to act, picking up his weapons for the preservation of his community.

Ethan Edwards, (The Searchers) is a veteran of the Civil War (CSA). He returns home well after the end of the war. There is some question about his activities during the years post war and a suggestion that it may not have been entirely legal. Edwards and his nephew spend years searching for his lost niece (Natalie Wood), captured by Indians as a young child. The movie ends with families reunited except for Edwards who remains outside.

Tom Doniphon (The man who shot Liberty Valance) is a rancher in the wild west town of Shinbone. A town that is terrorized by Liberty Valance and the only man that Valance fears. Random Stoddard is a newly flocked lawyer from the east who is humiliated and robbed by Valance. It is not a good idea to piss off a lawyer even in the west. Stoddard and Valance ultimately come to a shootout that Stoddard thinks he won by some miracle. In reality it was Doniphon who shot Valance from hiding. Stoddard goes on to marry the girl Tom is in love with and becomes a senator for the new state. When he tells this story many years after the fact, the newspaper editor says, “When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.” Again, the defender of civilization, Tom Doniphon, is on the outside.

The last is not a traditional western, but exhibits the same values as the others. The Dark Knight series of Batman pits Bruce Wayne against not only crime, but a conspiracy seeking to bring down civilization in the form of Gotham City. Wayne is trained by this very same conspiracy but rejects the ideology when asked to murder to prove his faith in the cause.

Throughout all three movies Bruce Wayne/Batman battles with the moral dilemma of protecting the citizens of Gotham and at the same time maintaining his integrity. Batman is torn by the need to defend and the concepts of freedom. He is the embodiment of the Psalm 121, “Behold, he that keeps Israel shall neither slumber nor sleep”. Wayne achieves relative freedom by destroying Batman in the last movie, however, the unanswered question is will Batman return if needed. The Batman, like Will Kane, Shane, Ethan Edwards, and Tom Doniphon will always return to defend those who cannot defend themselves and their culture even without thanks. • (1005 views)

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11 Responses to The American Western

  1. Timothy Lane says:

    There are Western novels from other countries (there was a very popular German series, though I’ve never read any of them and know little about them), so I assume there are some movies as well. If nothing else, we have Sergio Leone’s “spaghetti westerns’, which helped make Clint Eastwood’s name.

    We saw Shane and High Noon one year when one of the movie channels was doing an Academy Awards special one February. I’ve mentioned The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance as a favorite before, and even have a review of it here. I would note that we don’t actually know that Doniphan was telling the truth when he told Ranse that he had shot Liberty Valance (he may simply have been trying to make Ranse, who was upset about it, feel better). And I would add the final scene, when the train conductor or whatever gives Ranse a light for his cigar because “Nothing’s too good for the man who shot Liberty Valance.”

  2. Brad Nelson Brad Nelson says:

    The American Western is the opposite of Pajama Boy. The American Western represents the ethic and ideal of the rugged individualist. And not just the rugged individualist, but the morally rugged individualist.

    The American Western typically features a singular hero who goes up against all manner of villains. The hero of the American Western is in no way a postmodern or Marxist anti-hero. The hero of the American Western does not single out “the rich” nor are “the poor” necessarily innocent. In the American Western, the villain can be a rich rancher looking to run out the free rangers or a dirt poor road bandit looking to ambush anyone passing his way.

    In the American Western, there is no 911 you can call when trouble hits. A man has to stand up for right in the face of wrong. Even as civilization filled in behind him and brought some of the welcome niceties, this did not diminish the need for the good, strong, courageous man who does not blur the lines of right and wrong simply because wrong has begun to wear a suit a tie.

    John Wayne is not an anachronism. We need his type far more than we need the morally dubious pansy-type Pajama Boys.

    • Kung Fu Zu Kung Fu Zu says:

      “John Wayne is not an anachronism.”

      He was very popular in Europe and seen as an American prototype. He had such a distinctive voice that it is very strange to see him in a movie where his voice is dubbed in a foreign language.

  3. Glenn Fairman says:

    Nice work Steve. I’ve been thinking of writing a piece about the Western’s effect on America’s moral weltanschauung……in particularly, the 1950’s series “Wagon Train.”

  4. Kung Fu Zu Kung Fu Zu says:

    ‘there was a very popular German series, though I’ve never read any of them and know little about them’

    Karl May’s books about Old Shatterhand and his friend Winnetou were very popular with German readers from the time they were written in the late 1800’s until at least the 1970’s. May never visited the places he wrote about in these books, but apparently his writing was so descriptive that people thought he was Old Shatterhand himself. There was at least one movie which I saw part of starring Rex Barker as Old Shatterhand. I guess there are a number of others.

    Interestingly, Adolf Hitler was a big fan.

  5. Kung Fu Zu Kung Fu Zu says:

    ” If nothing else, we have Sergio Leone’s “spaghetti westerns’, which helped make Clint Eastwood’s name.”

    There is another set of movies with the famous Italian cowboy, Terrance Hill. The one I recall is “My Name is Nobody”.

    “Once Upon a Time In the West” with Charles Bronson, Henry Fonda and Claudia Cardinelli was extremely popular in the German speaking countries.

  6. Kung Fu Zu Kung Fu Zu says:

    While we are discussing movies, I have to admit that for the first time, I saw “High Noon” today in its entirety.

    I have, so often, heard how great this movie is that perhaps I had overly high expectations. But even so, I can only express my great disappointment with this film.

    To get an idea of the great possibilities of the Western genre’, one only has to look at Steve’s list. Compared to those films, “High Noon” is a real bust.

    To my mind, it was nothing more than a bunch of crass cliche’s strung together in a slow moving way. I did not even like Grace Kelly in it, which says something.

    • Brad Nelson Brad Nelson says:

      Everyone has his own taste . . . blah blah blah. But I’ve never understood why this movie is considered a classic. It’s just boring. And don’t be afraid to criticize a legend. One reviewer writes:

      Three criminals wander into a Western town to wait for the 12:00 noon train to arrive. Their leader, Frank Miller, will arrive on it and together they will get revenge for Miller’s jail time (he was supposed to be hanged). The man who put him in jail is Will Kane (Gary Cooper). He has just been married (to Grace Kelly) and is about to leave town, but he figures he can’t while those criminals are there to start trouble. He goes back to raise a posse to take the outlaws before they can do anything. No can do, though. Everyone else is out for him/herself, and they all either refuse or ignore Kane when he asks them to be deputees.

      High Noon telegraphs its every move ten minutes in advance. There’s nothing special about it, and its themes are rather trite. It would be passable if any of the performers were good. It’s actually kind of depressing, considering how good some of them are elsewhere.

      To each his own. Blah. Blah. Blah. I still don’t see it.

    • Brad Nelson Brad Nelson says:

      There’s another interesting aspect about movie tastes, Mr. Kung. Again — blah blah blah — we all like different things. No one need defend their preference for vanilla-flavored ice cream over chocolate.

      But such things as gastronomics really do intersect most heavily on matters of literal taste. Sure, some might try caviar, and even call it good (even if they can’t stand the taste) in a social setting. But few actually will fool themselves about liking caviar if they truly don’t like it and sit around eating it at home.

      With movies and other forms of art, I’ve found “taste” to be highly influenced by culture — by groupthink, if you will. What is “good” in cinema can have more to do with fashion. And thus if one says that one enjoys a fashionable (even if bad) movie, we can take their word for it just as we would if they enjoyed wearing a codpiece because it was a raging fashion item. A codpiece would look quite out of place (and unfashionable) in most places today. But love for politically correct “virtue signally” movies with themes that mirror these popular conceits (such as the awful Avatar), are not out of place in many “fashionable” places. Avatar was a cinematic codpiece.

      The obvious question is: Are people faking or exaggerating their love for a bad or mediocre movie in order to fit in with what they perceive is the taste of the crowd and/or of their betters? The answers is: Yes, to some extent, but more significantly, no to a large extent. As much as the Left says they love “free thinkers,” it’s the group thinkers who tend to populate that side. But more important is the phenomenon of groupthink itself — right or left. Groupthink is not a matter of faking it. It’s a matter of forming opinions based solely on what others think, unwilling or unable to have a core knowledge-base (or aesthetic base) of one’s own.

      It is human nature to tend to enjoy things that others enjoy. We are more likely to laugh at a joke when we hear many others laughing at it. This is an aspect of being a “social” species. Objectivity is rare, even an attempt at it. In fact, it goes to the heart of what it means to be if one is not connected to others.

      To know one’s own mind is never easy in the best of circumstances, but certainly not today with so may groupthink Nazi-like forces pushes us into correct thought in more and more fine-grained areas. We might see a clown such as Branagh and laugh that he fills an otherwise mediocre (but competent) movie with obviously laughable PC garbage. But then having a mind of one’s own, and expressing it, are not easy.

      This is the reason for the emphasis here on avoiding being sucked in by The Daily Drama. Express your opinion — whether popular or unpopular — but make it your own. All the warnings of groupthink also are relevant to just being a knee-jerk curmudgeon as well, disliking stuff only because others like it.

      I work hard to be objective about such things. I do think High Noon is a bore. Although it’s not anywhere near as high in the pantheon of Western classics, I much prefer High Plains Drifter as a story of “the bad guys are coming and we must prepare.” It may have the label of “spaghetti western” instead of “classic,” but I find it a far more interesting and entertaining movie. And the themes are far richer than the muddle of High Noon.

      • Timothy Lane says:

        I’ve had caviar a few times, and the main thing I noticed was that it was very salty. I probably would compare it to anchovies — nice in small quantities.

        In the movie Sleuth, Milo as Inspector Doppler is offered caviar by the writer Andrew Wyke, but says he doesn’t care for it — “Tastes like fish eggs.”

        I saw Outland before I saw High Noon. A friend pointed out the similarities between the two.

        High Plains Drifter was no spaghetti western (Eastwood only did 3 of them). It was all right, but I’ll take Pale Rider over it. It may have been my favorite Eastwood western after The Outlaw Josey Wales, which is simply superb.

        • Brad Nelson Brad Nelson says:

          I’ve never had caviar. I’ve had escargot — which I thought was okay-to-good. I mean, you could slather a piece of Silly Putty with enough butter and garlic to make it tasty.

          I much prefer Outland to High Noon. I love that movie. I love the moral tussle of it. I’m not sure that Gary Cooper plays the disgraced cop as Connery does. But this is Connery’s chance to prove himself, if only to himself. Cliff Clavin’s mother, Frances Sternhagen, is extraordinary and crucial as the lone person to have Connery’s back.

          This movie is very well done. Note that it is rated at 6.6 at IMDB while High Noon has an 8.0. But I would never watch High Noon again, even if Grace Kelly was made digitally naked in it, while I will hopefully soon watch Outland. Am I a Philistine or just stating the obvious outside of the inhibiting pretense of what groupthink considers a classic?

          I love this one reviewer’s comments:

          Grace Kelly certainly is easy on the eyes (I’m a male) but her character in here is unbelievably shallow and annoying. She plays Cooper’s wife and, get this – five minutes after she marries him, she wants to leave him because he decides he has to stay and fight off the bad man who is coming to town to kill him. Talk about devotion! Talk about commitment! No wonder marriage was never taken seriously in Hollywood and its films.

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