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. • (981 views)

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6 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.

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