Considering that I wasn’t born until basically all western tv shows (I’m not including Dr. Quinn Medicine Woman) were off the airwaves, it’s kind of ironic that I have such an affection for a couple of old western TV shows and a few b-movies. Some of them were pretty cheesy, and they didn’t have the pizzazz of modern film technology, and they often didn’t have the money a lot of other films did, too (theirs was a brief heyday). But there’s something that resonates with me, and I think it’s probably why, even when they are a bit dated, they aren’t irrelevant.
The first thing obvious has to be the setting. A number of westerns mirror the attitudes the arose from, a sense that man was under assault by increasing “civilisation”, not in the sense of philosophy, but real estate, that the cities sapped something out of people. I’m not sure if I can say conclusively what it was, but it had something to do with a person feeling honest about who they were. I happen to be a big fan of what I consider “politeness” but it can be used to shield true intent, or restrain people from being themselves. It also could be that more people living closer together seemed claustrophobic. But at its essence, I think westerns reflected a great love for the idea of some sort of solitude in which a person could discover who he was, and test himself against that idea, even if that solitude took place with a whole bunch of livestock.
But even more than that, the westerns reflected a sort of certainty about a few things, a certainty I think a lot of people long for (even if it’s not always a good thing to be so certain). There was no modern sense of a flexible moral order (not on the big things anyway); and, contrary to our modern sensibilties of feeling stifled very quickly, these were a reassurance. So, the lone wrangler could take on the cattle baron, not in spite of his relative lack of temporal power, but because he had a sense of something more powerful than him that he could call upon, a final justice, even if it were only a whisper in his soul. The tale of a man taking upon himself an enemy who has much greater power than he does isn’t new in any sense, but it does resonate, mostly, I think, because people more often feel themselves as Davids, not Goliaths.
My favorite thing about the westerns, though, isn’t that. It’s that they are often little morality plays. I think here it’s helpful to review a couple of my favorites, watched once or twice on TCM or AMC. And surprisingly, for all the gunslinger mentality, in some of them there really is a very strong attitude of non-violence. Two of my favorites, both starring Gregory Peck and both dealing with being haunted by violence (and doing some hunting) have striking endings. In The Gunfighter, the main character wreaks vengeance with his dying breath, but because of the torture he has endured, it’s a very hollow, sad sort of victory. And while there is a firm sense of “moral order” in The Bravados, it’s not unexamined. Peck’s character pursues five criminals for killing his wife; he manages to capture or kill four of them. His dogged pursuit seems a righteous cause until the last few minutes, when he discovers that his certainty of guilt was misguided the whole time. (I recommend both these films, although be aware that Bravados has an entirely useless love interest.)
So, even though both these films seem violent and (initially) to justify the very vengeful paths of the main characters, in the end they take a much more critical approach. In fact, I’d go so far as to say that both films condemn it very strongly through showing the hollow victory and the depth of wrongdoing it can lead one into. Now, not every western has these themes, but there are a lot of good ones. The Searchers is a classic that addresses grief and despair poignantly but with great subtlety. I would also consider Cheyenne Autumn, a fantastic film about governmental mistreatment of Native Americans, to be a good example of the genre. That film challenges viewers on ideas of justice, kindness, honesty and honor, right as might versus right as doing right by others, etc. Many other films towards the end of the sixties and into the seventies explored the difficulty of change and growing older. Of course, there were plenty of shoot ‘em up films, too. But I think as a genre it has a lot to offer. Even western TV series are surprisingly full of mini-morality issues. Though they had interludes of love interests and plenty of shoot-outs, they didn’t shy away from tough subjects.
They also didn’t shy away from the idea of conscience. And perhaps that’s why this topic came to mind. I have to admit, TV is a big temptation for me. I really enjoy film and TV, and there’s something about my imagination that latches onto characters. My mom likes to remind me that the characters in books, plays, movies and TV shows aren’t real, but I often treat them like they are (not in a disturbed way (no creepy stalker photograph walls with candles), but I really have a knack for understanding characters). In the past year, I’ve really come to like a couple of shows I think are great. But there’s been something bothering me, and it’s that conscience seems to have taken a big hit.
I think it’s that conscience seems to have become subjective. So, Burn Notice, which is a great spy/action show, has a character who helps people and is generally on the “right” side. But he doesn’t care what happens to anyone on the “wrong” side. He has set people on the wrong side up a few times to take a pretty nasty fall, usually involving their deaths. And not only does he seem unconcerned, but the show offers no sympathy for those characters. I also really like NCIS, which has a great cast of characters. But the lead, who is completely heartbroken and blaming himself for the murder of his family, seems to have no compunction about murdering their killer, or generally doing some shady dealings. Where in a western, a character would be torturing himself over whether he’d done the right thing (or outright acknowledging that he’d done the wrong thing), these characters take it all in stride. And so, even though I watch them faithfully, there’s a jarring disconnect between the characters I like and some actions which are more easily swallowed when done by the villain.
What makes the cowpoke eternal? Well, it’s not the writing oftentimes (which can get pretty canned), and it’s not the guns and horses. I think it’s that the heroes of those films often seemed to stand outside of the society that spawned them (both as 20th century creations and characters grounded in a past reality). There’s a timelessness because they don’t yield to the age, either age, setting or movie. The cowboy was an almost accidental splicing of surety that there was a good, and a good deal of doubt that he fit the category. There are a lot of great films and TV shows out there these days, but sometimes I really miss the cowboy.