A grave matter
The phrase Boot Hill (or Boothill) became a watchword. Everyone knew that Boot Hill was where gunfighters ended up. Back in 1937 Johnny Mack Brown starred in the epic Boothill Brigade, and in 1942 Ray ‘Crash’ Corrigan made Boot Hill Bandits, another adventure with the Range Busters. Both of these are available on YouTube and, ever the completist, I am sorely tempted to review them later on, to further our scholarly study of Western interment. In 1958 Charles Bronson led the cast in Showdown at Boot Hill and in 1969 there was one of those dire Terence Hill/Bud Spencer spaghettis, La collina degli stivali (a rather literal translation), released in English as Boot Hill. That too is on YouTube but I don’t know that I can face it. There is even a Boot Hill videogame.
In the famous title song to Gunfight at the OK Corral (1957) Frankie Laine crooned
So cold… so still…
There they lay, side by side,
The killers that died,
The poster for the 1939 Frontier Marshal, the one with Randolph Scott as Wyatt Earp, reads “I’m the law in Tombstone and from now on it’s up to you whether the city or the cemetery grows the fastest…!” Leaving aside the dubious grammar, we get the point.
The funeral ceremony at a cemetery was frequently a scene in the Western movie. It underlined the transitory nature of life on the frontier, heightened the pathos and also underlined the sense of community. When John Wayne interrupts the funeral in The Searchers by barking, “Put an Amen to it!” because he wants to set out immediately on his search/vengeance quest, he emphasizes his loner status as an outsider. Later, he doesn’t just disrepect the obsequies; he actively desecrates a grave, when he shoots out the eyes of a disinterred Indian.
Few Western-movie funerals are more illustrative of this than that of Stonewall in Shane (1953). We see the whole local population, including animals and children, and stolid farmers sit on wooden chairs they have brought. The harmonica player does a mournful Dixie, then Taps. Starrett says, “Torrey was a pretty brave man, and I figure we’d be doin’ wrong if we wasn’t the same. We can have a regular settlement here, we can have a town and churches and a school.” Shane adds, “You know what he wants you to stay for. Something that means more to you than anything else. Your families. Your wives and kids. Like you, Lewis, with your girls. Shipstead with his boys. They’ve got a right to stay here and grow up and be happy. That’s up to you people, to
have nerve enough and not give it up.” This is the funeral as community.
Funerals were often accompanied with fine photography which emphasized the mournfulness. This was certainly true of Shane (Oscar winner Loyal Griggs) but even in much lower-quality films such as Forty Guns (1957) cinematographer Joe Biroc created real atmosphere for the funeral scene.
In Rebel in Town (1956) the death of the little boy and his parents’ difficulty in coping with the tragedy are compassionately and sensitively handled. The shot of John Payne cheerfully bringing in a small saddle he has bought for the boy’s birthday party and letting it gradually drop from his hand as he hears the news, for example, is movingly done. The funeral of the child, the wife’s hearing the boy’s ghostly yahoos when they return home in black and the father’s gazing at the boy’s toy sword, are all very powerful.
John Ford had a slightly sentimental way with graves. In Young Mr. Lincoln in 1939 he had had Abe (Henry Fonda) talk to his late sweetheart, committing himself to a better future, and Ford used this idea twice afterwards in Westerns, first with Fonda again as Wyatt Earp in My Darling Clementine (1946), when he speaksover the grave of his youngest brother, killed by the Clantons, also promising a better future, and then again when he had Nathan Brittles (John Wayne) talk chattily, though less optimistically to his late wife in the cemetery.
One of the worst things that can happen is to die and be buried out on the prairie, a fate wagon-trainers often suffered. The wind and rain would blow away the rudimentary marker and no trace would be left of the person who had been.
In the plaintive words of The Cowboy’s Lament,
These words came low and mournfully
From the pallid lips of a youth who lay
On the bloody ground at the close of day
But we took no heed to his dying prayer
In a narrow grave just six by three
We buried him there on the lone prairie
Where the body lies when the heart grows cold
Yet grant, oh grant, this wish to me
Oh, bury me not on the lone prairie.
This fate even befell John Wayne, in The Cowboys (1972) when arch-baddy Bruce Dern shot him, and his young cowpokes had to fashion a rudimentary grave which they could not later find. Only in extremis may the dead be abandoned. In The Last Wagon (1956) Richard Widmark has difficulty persuading his young charges to leave their dead companions, despite the imminent danger from Apaches.
In the last scene of DW Griffith’s The Last Drop of Water (1911) we focus on the mournful grave of the man who sacrificed himself for his fellows, as the wagon train recedes into the distance.
In Five Bold Women (1960) the Comanche have used one of the ladies brutally and so her worst fears have been realized. She is buried by the other four on the trail in a touching funeral, as they try to pray and sing but can’t remember all the words.
In Brigham Young: Frontiersman (1940) Tyrone Power buries his wheelwright Mom Jane Darwell along the wagon trail, leaving a carved wheel as a marker.
And often cowboys will gather round and take off their hats and want to “say some words” over the corpse, but they do not know the words to say. Cattle-drive Westerns, especially, felt obliged to have one of the cowboys interred on the trail – Red River, Lonesome Dove, and so on.
So yes, many are the funerals in Westerns, and, at first anyway, there was always a kind of respect for the dead.
In Ride Clear of Diablo (1954) there’s a classy Irving Glassberg traveling pan as Audie Murphy and the Reverend Denver Pyle walk down from the cemetery hill discussing the morality of revenge. Dignified, man.
In Allied Artists’ 1957 Western Oregon Passage soldiers are stationed in a cemetery outside the fort because they know the Shoshone foe are too superstitious to enter a graveyard. When the attack on the fort comes the troopers rain down flanking fire on the braves. So a cemetery can even be a strategic adjunct.
Of course there were real Western funerals which were notable. There was a good turnout in Deadwood in 1876 when Wild Bill was laid to rest after Jack McCall had shot him dead in a saloon. At Buffalo Bill’s interment in 1917 on Lookout Mountain, Colorado (where I felt when I visited that there is still a palpable atmosphere despite all the souvenir stores and so on) we are told that “all morning three thousand motor cars toiled up the seven and one-half miles of Lookout Mountain”. It must have been an astonishing spectacle – fittingly. Bill’s biographer Don Russell calls it “Denver’s gaudiest funeral.” Then William S Hart and Tom Mix were pallbearers at the funeral of Wyatt Earp in Los Angeles in 1929. So there was quite a to-do when Western heroes were laid to rest.
Though when Pat Garrett died there was no coffin long enough to hold him and the undertaker needed five chairs to lay him out on.
Sometimes in Western movies, though, funerals were played if not for laughs, then at least for impact. Take Gunslinger, for example, Roger Corman’s bizarre 1956 low-budget Western. The heroine, Rose Hood (Beverly Garland), gets the mayor to pin the marshal’s badge on her comely bosom while her late husband, who had been wearing it, is being interred. In fact, during the funeral service she casually shoots to death one of the attenders at the graveside, who was one of the murderers, she claims. No one seems to mind a bit.
A rather unusual farewell occurs in The Shepherd of the Hills (1942) when instead of a traditional interment we get a Viking funeral, brilliantly well shot by Charles Lang.
Italian Westerns loved cemeteries, of course. I put the origin of this down to two American pictures, proper Westerns, Ambush at Tomahawk Gap (1953) and The Law and Jake Wade (1958). In both of these men are after ill-gotten loot which has been hidden in a graveyard. Here there is a ghoulish lack of respect for the dead. A grave marker is simply something convenient to lean against, and the place makes an ideal venue for the dénouement between the bad guys and the even worse guys.
Probably the most ‘cemetery-centered’ spaghetti was Django (1966), where the showdown also takes place among the dead. This was copied, or quoted, perhaps we should say, in Sukiyaki Western Django (2007). Django was also one of the very many ‘casket’ pictures. The spaghettis just loved coffins, which usually contained every kind of weapon (Django’s held a machine-gun) – anything but an actual corpse. There were endless titles with the word coffin in, Coffin Full of Dollars, Sartana’s Here … Trade Your Pistol for a Coffin, A Coffin for the Sheriff, and so on. The final shoot-out of The Man from Nowhere aka Arizona Colt (1966) takes place in a coffin shop (which obviously saves time).
Mind, it wasn’t only spaghettis that held coffins dear. In the opening of High Plains Drifter (1973) Clint Eastwood quotes that moment when in A Fistful of Dollars (1966) he rides into a town to the sound of exaggerated over-dubbed clip-clopping, sees a coffin-maker at work and then shoots three importunate thugs. And Eastwood quoted the Italian western cemetery tradition in the picture when as a joke/homage he had two of the grave markers bear the names of Sergio Leone and Don Siegel. And what about The Deadly Companions (1961), when Brian Keith and Maureen O’Hara very improbably carried an empty wooden box (you can tell it’s light) slowly – very slowly – across the Arizona desert while escaping from Apaches.
Sergio Leone took the cemetery as showdown venue to an extreme (of course he overdid everything) in The Good, the Bad and the Ugly (1966) with the final absolutely interminable three-way shoot-out in a circular plaza in a cemetery, which managed the extraordinary feat of making a Western showdown tedious.
Before leaving this fell subject, a word or two about morticians. While due respect is often paid in Westerns to the rituals of death, undertakers, by contrast, were often comic, or at least amusingly lugubrious figures. In the 1932 Law and Order, the parlous state of law and order in Tombstone is underlined by the presence, power and prosperity of two splendid twin-brother undertakers, the Parkers (D’Arcy Corrigan and Nelson McDowell) who look almost as cadaverous as their clients. In the 1953 remake, Chubby Johnson has the colorful old-timer role as Denver, the mortician.
There’s a comic undertaker (Tom Fadden) who has some good lines in The Lawless Breed (1952) – in fact director Raoul Walsh had a rather irreverent attitude to death; he once borrowed John Barrymore’s corpse from a funeral parlor to frighten a drunken Errol Flynn.
In The Westerner (1940) the busy top-hatted undertaker/barber with the comic name of Mort Borrow (Charles Halton) measures up Gary Cooper for his coffin even before Judge Roy Bean has reached his verdict.
In The Quiet Gun (1957) there is also an entertaining undertaker played by Vince Barnett, that professional insulter and prankster of a comic, and Cripple Creek (1952) too all ends in a saloon brawl and a comic undertaker (Byron Foulger). I like the Doc’s sign in Man from Del Rio (1956): it advertises his services – Physician, Dentist, Veterinary and, in case all the above fail, Undertaker.
John Carradine relished the part of undertaker and was an obvious casting choice for the crowlike Beckum in The Shootist (1976). Soon after that there was an undertaker in the (pretty dire) The White Buffalo, and who else could be cast but Carradine?
Other memorable morticians include Walter Brennan (he doubles as the doc) in Bad Day at Black Rock (1955), John Doucette in The Sons of Katie Elder (1965) and of course Peckinpah himself in Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid (1973). One of my favorites was the amiable undertaker in The Magnificent Seven (1960), who wants to bury a dead man but the townsfolk won’t let him because the deceased was an Indian. Chris (Yul Brynner) says, “I didn’t know you had to be anything but a corpse to get into Boot Hill.” The hearse ride up to the cemetery that follows is not only the best scene in the movie, it’s one of the greatest moments in Westerns.
This list is not exhaustive. I’m sure you’ll be able to think of others.
One thing is clear, death and its accoutrements play a key role in our beloved genre.
A last thought: who paid for these funerals? In Run for Cover (1955) there’s a good bit when Matt (James Cagney) takes the lawman’s job, and he slips a rolled banknote into one of the cartridge chambers of his Colt. He says old lawmen do this so they always have money for a funeral on them. A nice touch.
Back soon with a slightly less Cimmerian subject.