The End of the West
In the 1960s and 70s Western movies often highlighted the notion, in an elegiac and almost nostalgic way, that the Old West was dying, there was no place anymore for gunfighters and drifters, and ‘civilization’ and ‘progress’ were destroying the old ways.
Even as early as 1960, in a Western that seemed in many ways new and modern, the colorful John Sturges actioner The Magnificent Seven (1960), the heroes are men out of their time, dinosaurs on the verge of extinction, professional gunslingers who take a miserably paid job chiefly because it’s all there is and all they know how to do. At the end of that decade, in The Wild Bunch (1969) Peckinpah gives us four old gunfighters, suitably played by older Western actors, who prefer to walk down to a dusty death and go out in a blaze of gunfire rather than rot away in some prison or work at some banal job.
Or think of two early-60s pictures, both high examples of the genre, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance and Lonely Are the Brave (both 1962). John Wayne’s character in the first and Kirk Douglas’s in the second are essentially throwbacks, men who can’t relate to the new world, and they die alone. In The Shootist (1976) Wayne again, as JB Books, a gunman entirely out of place in the new century, also prefers to die violently rather than to succumb to a miserable death from cancer. These films are really all about the end of the West, the death of the Western spirit, symbolized by the demise of their lead characters.
There is perhaps the suggestion in these films that the ‘death of the West’ stood for the death of the Western. Certainly, the glory days of the oater had departed and the genre was much in decline from its zenith of the 1950s. First, TV Westerns pretty well replaced big-screen features, then even TV shows started to be canceled. Of course reports of the death of the Western were exaggerations but nevertheless both the big-studio A-picture and the lower-budget series Westerns and second features were clearly on the endangered species list.
Of the ‘old masters’, Delmer Daves made his final Western in 1959 and Anthony Mann in 1960, John Ford and Raoul Walsh made their last ones in 1964, Howard Hawks in 1970 and Henry Hathaway in 1971.
Such Westerns as were produced tended to the ‘revisionist’. They were self-questioning, referential, and they could no longer be played ‘straight’. Sometimes they verged on the parody. In the mid and late 60s Italian westerns became the new thing, and in some ways contributed to a revival. Sergio Leone, Sergio Corbucci and the other ‘spaghetti’ film-makers were often old fans of 40s and 50s American pictures, and they tried to copy them, or anyway they quoted them. But these European movies were really commentaries on the genre without truly being part of it. And many of them were very bad indeed.
Roberto Donati at https://offscreen.com/view/nostalgia_leone (external link) says, “The nostalgia and crepuscular melancholy of Col. Douglas Mortimer (Lee Van Cleef) in For a Few Dollars More (1965), or, later, of Harmonica (Charles Bronson) and Cheyenne (Jason Robards) in Once Upon a Time in the West (1968), and, above all, the protagonists of A Fistful of Dynamite (1971) and of Noodles (Robert De Niro) in Once Upon a Time in America (1984) are nothing more than a reflection of Leone’s own nostalgic feelings towards an America which he imagined and discovered as a child, an America perhaps idealized, and definitely desired and naively longed for.”
It’s true that Leone’s beloved title Once upon a time… (C’era una volta…) is itself an intensely nostalgic one, but I don’t think Leone was any more nostalgic than other Western film-makers. Anyone who made a Western in the late 60s was in a way bound to refer to the famous pictures of the decades before.
In reality, though, while these later decades concentrated on ‘the end of the West’, the notion had actually been an essential part of the mystique right from the start. French academic Bernard Dort has said, “This nostalgia for a lost time and for lost purity, which underlie every story, has always been at the heart of the West.”
The term nostalgia was first coined by a 17th-century medical student to describe the anxieties displayed by Swiss mercenaries fighting away from home, and it comes from the Homeric word νόστος (nóstos), meaning homecoming – “Home is the sailor, home from the sea” – and ἄλγος (álgos), meaning pain or ache. In some languages it retains this meaning of melancholic homesickness. But it soon came to signify more widely the idea of a sentimental pining for the past, regret for an imagined happy time with happy personal associations or some golden age when things were better.
Perhaps the whole appeal of the Western and the Wild West generally was fed by such nostalgic ideas. The Old West was a notional time and place when men were free (men, though, not women), when legal constraints were few, horizons were open, and land was there for the taking; a time when a man could go his own way and do what he gotta do. Many civilizations have lauded lone wanderers, whether they be Greek odysseans, medieval knights errant or roaming samurai in Japan. In the American context, Daniel Boone, Davy Crockett and Fenimore Cooper’s Natty Bumppo were heroes for just these reasons, and this fed into the (entirely fictional) idea of the roving gunslinger wandering the West and righting wrongs with his Colt .45.
It’s still happening. Writer James P Owen’s book, Cowboy Ethics: What Wall Street Can Learn from the Code of the West, shows this. This book and its sequel, Cowboy Values: Recapturing What America Once Stood For, as well as the offshoot, the Denver-based Center for Cowboy Ethics and Leadership, are dedicated to the premise that everyone needs an Old West belief system in order to make good decisions. Anyone reading Owen’s books would be left with the impression that life was better four generations ago than it is now. Owens says as much in Code of the West, about how he yearns to get back to “simpler times, when right and wrong were as clear as black and white.”The Greeks had a word for this rather pathetic projection: epigoni, the concept that all of us are inferior descendants of greater ancestors and live in an era inferior to a vanished ‘Golden Age’. But the Western seems particularly susceptible to it.
And latter-day Western movies were redolent with it. The contemporary Western The Misfits (1962), with Clark Gable and Marilyn Monroe, was about nothing else. Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, the same year as The Wild Bunch but much more ‘mainstream’ (a huge hit, it was seen by many who would not normally go to a Western) looked back regretfully to those days of yore when outlaws were free to ply their trade. Sheriff Bledsoe (Jeff Corey) says to Butch and Sundance (Paul Newman and Robert Redford), “It’s over, don’t you get that? Your times is over and you’re gonna die bloody, and all you can do is choose where.” Even a movie like The Mountain Men (1980), which you would expect, it being set so early and describing trappers and pioneers in uncharted territory, to be a tale of the young West and its possibilities, is actually about old geezers (Charlton Heston and Brian Keith) whose day is past. The beavers are all trapped out, nigh on extinct, the price for their pelts has in any case plummeted, and the old guys now have nowhere to go and no future. The same Charlton Heston had, in The Last Hard Men (1976) groaned, “Modern times. I liked the world the way it was”.
But as I say, this is not new. Nineteenth-century dime novels took up the theme while the West was still ‘wild’, and writers in the twentieth century, be they popular sensationalist ‘historians’ of the Stuart Lake or Eugene Cunningham stamp or pulp novelists building on the Victorian dime pamphlet tradition, carried the torch into our own times. But it was the advent of the Western motion picture that really made the concept widespread (not only in the US) and rooted it in the popular psyche.
Twentieth and now twenty-first century enthusiasts live in a world of cities and laws and obligations, legal and social. They can only look with sad regret on the Wild West, whose glory has departed. It was natural that Westerns, books and films, would include an element of this.
In 1893, a year of crash and economic depression, The World’s Columbian Exposition was held in Chicago. On July 12th, a young assistant professor stood to the podium to address the eminent historians there gathered, at a meeting of the American Historical Association. Frederick Jackson Turner’s paper was greeted less than ecstatically (there were those who fell asleep and not a single question was asked at the end) yet it would come to be enormously influential. The Significance of the Frontier in American History became, as John Mack Faragher has called it, “the single most influential piece of writing in the history of American history.”
Turner’s ‘frontier thesis’ argued that “the existence of an area of free land, its continuous recession and the advance of American settlement westward, explain American development.” He said that this frontier accounted for American democracy and character; and that at the time he was writing the continental frontier finally closed for ever, with uncertain consequences for the American future. “American democracy was born of no theorist’s dream; it was not carried … in the Mayflower to Plymouth. It came out of the American forest, and it gained new strength each time it touched a new frontier,” said Turner. His view was that the “advance of the pioneer into the wastes of the continent” defined America’s unique national heritage and that it amounted to the purest expression of the nation’s idealism.
The master of ceremonies of this idea in the popular imagination, the public who did not necessarily read historical works, was William Frederick Cody, Buffalo Bill. He was in fact putting on a show right beside the venue for Turner’s talk, and indeed quite a few of the delegates had sloped off to watch Cody’s spectacle instead of listening to the last talk of the day. Buffalo Bill’s Wild West toured the United States and Europe, turning the notion of “manifest destiny” into a bankable asset and establishing it as orthodoxy. The Wild West was now dead but here’s how it was, and wasn’t it thrilling? Hundreds of thousands of spectators on different continents agreed.
Philadelphia and Harvard writer Owen Wister imbibed these notions. He spent several summers in the American West, making his first trip to Wyoming Territory in 1885, to shoot big game, fish trout, meet the Indians, and spend nights in the wild. Like his friend Teddy Roosevelt, Wister was fascinated with the culture, lore and terrain of the region. His 1902 hugely best-selling novel The Virginian, set against a highly mythologized version of the Johnson County War, was romantic and elegiac. Its pages of action, violence, hatred, revenge, love and friendship were infused with a sentimental idea that those were the days, when men were men and they were free on the far frontier, but those days are no more. It is hard to overstate the influence of this book, on later Western writers like Zane Grey and Louis L’Amour, on art, and especially on the nascent motion picture industry (the film often regarded as the first narrative Western movie, Edison’s The Great Train Robbery, was released in 1903, very soon after The Virginian).
The Virginian as myth was reinforced by the paintings of Charles Russell and by those (and the writings) of Wister’s friend Frederic Remington. These both specialized in elegiac, often very beautiful treatments of the passing West.
The idea was now rife that the frontier was closing or closed and the old ways were no more. The vanishing cowboy was becoming a sad figure of the past. This aspect is strong in Wister. In 1895, at the request of Remington, Wister wrote The Evolution of the Cow-Puncher in which he said that the cowboy, “now departed, never to return”, had been driven out by progress. One of Wister’s greatest works was the short story At the Sign of the Last Chance (1928), a wonderfully moving and sympathetic treatment of old Westerners remembering the past. We are left, as Wister said of Remington’s painting ‘The Last Cavalier’, which illustrated the essay, “to withdraw and mourn” for a past that will haunt us forever.
And so ‘the end of the West’ was built into the genre from the very start.
Many big silent Westerns were not nostalgic end-of-the-West works, being forward-looking, ‘manifest destiny’ pictures, such as Paramount’s The Covered Wagon (1923) and Fox’s The Iron Horse (1924), which described impressive nation-building enterprises sanctioned by the great patriarch himself, Abraham Lincoln, and this trend would continue into the talkie era, with the likes of Wells Fargo (1937) and Western Union (1941). But even in the silent days there were pictures that lamented the dying of the old ways. In Tumbleweeds (1925), set in the 1889 land rush at the opening of Oklahoma Territory to settlement (and thus a priori part of the forward-looking manifest destiny tradition), William S Hart’s take was that tragically the old cowpokes of the territory had to give way to the settlers, and it was the end of the West. The subtext was, of course, that it was also the end of the Western. Movie versions of Zane Grey’s The Vanishing American (1922), such as Paramount’s 1925 picture with Richard Dix, regretted the end of the way of life of the American Indian. It was remade as a talkie in 1955.
A simple way to understand just how much ‘the end of the West’ was an integral part of the form is to note just how many titles contained the word last in them: The Last Challenge, The Last Command, The Last Day, The Last Hunt, The Last Outlaw, The Last Post, The Last Posse, The Last Rebel, The Last Round-Up, The Last Stagecoach West, The Last Sunset, Last Train from Gun Hill and The Last Wagon, as well as The Last of the Badmen, The Last of the Comanches, The Last of the Desperadoes, The Last of the Duanes, The Last of the Fast Guns, The Last of the Mohicans, The Last of the Pony Riders and The Last of the Redmen all testify, and this list is far from exhaustive, to the once-upon-a-time harking back to what was, but would not be again.
Some directors used the automobile as symbol of the new world displacing the old in Westerns. Sam Peckinpah was especially fond of this, and Jason Robards being run down by one in The Ballad of Cable Hogue, the old cowboys being horrified by one in Ride the High Country and William Holden & Co marveling at Mapache’s car in The Wild Bunch all represent the change. In The Shootist, JB Books arrived in town on a horse but one of his enemies (Richard Boone) comes in by auto. Sometimes there’s a last hurrah as the cars are shown to be not up to the task and the horse will take over again to finish the job, as in The Last Hard Men and Big Jake. In Tom Selleck’s Monte Walsh Monte leaps his horse over the auto stuck in the mud, laughing in the face of modernity.
This of course harks back to another Western trope, the railroad. While John Ford’s The Iron Horse and its successors such as Union Pacific (1939) praised the building of the trans-continental road for its unifying and nation-building spirit, many Westerns did also describe the railroad companies in terms of ruthless corporate destroyers of the old (and for old, read better) way of life. They drove the stagecoach lines out of business, for example, and what would be more nostalgically ‘Western’ than the stage? A tradition arose by which marauding outlaws (Jesse James being the prime example) justified their depredations by saying they were hitting back at the railroads, those oppressors of the little man. The classic example of this regret for a bygone era (an era already gone by) is the elderly Ransom Stoddard (James Stewart) in the barn in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance looking at the old Overland stage and remembering how he had first come to Shinbone on that coach and how Valance had held it up. Now it’s gathering cobwebs and the railroad has changed everything.
“The place sure has changed.”
“Well, the railroad done that.”
Not just the railroad but machines generally undermine and threaten the good old Western ways. In Jim Jarmusch’s Dead Man (1995) the industrial town of Machine signifies filth, misery and degradation, contrasted with the life of the American Indians, in harmony with nature. The Old West is a place of wide-open vistas, mountains, rivers and trackless deserts. Towns are established, yes, but there is always a kind of conflict between on the one hand the urge to civilize, to bring order to the frontier, to establish institutions, and on the other the desire to safeguard the freedom of the individual to roam unmolested. Barbed wire is often the enemy of the Westerner, who sang Don’t fence me in, for it tied him down, limited his wanderings and put up boundaries.
In Westerns it is often the women who are the most committed townsfolk, the ones who go to church and teach school, while the men are the ones who go on cattle drives, set out on revenge quests, ride in posses and explore virgin land. By extension, it is the males who repine, who feel the passing of the West the more, while their womenfolk embrace modernity and law and order more willingly.
Of course not all Western movies and books dealt with the end of the West. But many did, from the very beginning and right through. It’s a deep-seated idea in the genre. Cowboys ride off into the sunset, not the sunrise.