Jeff Arnold’s West

The blog of a Western fan, for other Western fans

Commie Cowboys by Ryan W McMaken

 

Are cowboys right-wing or left?

 

After recent discussion on this blog by readers about a book, Commie Cowboys: The Bourgeoisie and the Nation-State in the Western Genre, by Ryan A McMaken (an economist who taught political science) with a foreword by the late Paul A Cantor (a writer on popular culture), first published in 2012, revised in 2022, I finally decided to read it. I was reluctant at first because I was put off by the title: I don’t generally care for the practice of “intellectualizing” Western films, and am wary of books which discuss the politics or economics of cowboy movies, and above all their “philosophy”. But I did read it in the end, because, well, it’s a book about Westerns. And it was only 120 pages long. I thought I might as well see if it contained anything interesting.

 

 

McMaken believes that the Western is “one of the most message-laden genres extant due to its status as a type of American origin story” and I suppose there is something to that. The idea of the ‘Wild West’ frontier as a dangerous and wild place where order could only be imposed at the point of a gun – with the wielder of that gun the noble hero – “continues to shape American ideas about the nation’s history”. The author suggests that even though the Western is in decline now compared with its “classical” heyday of the 1940s and 50s (down but not out, I’d say), modern genres such as zombie movies or superhero epics continue the theme. “Zombie films provide similar story lines to the Indian extermination narratives” and “superheroes act as modern gunfighters on a global stage.”

 

Writer McMaken

 

And the writer concludes by saying, “The Western is more powerful than these other genres, however, because it purports to be a type of American history.” Myself, I’m not so sure about this. Yes, Western movies sometimes did begin with (absurd) claims about ‘this is how it really happened’ but in general you have to suspend your disbelief to watch the films at all, and few people, I reckon, or few reasonably intelligent and well-read people anyway, really believed that what they were seeing on screen was some kind of historical truth.

 

Still, there’s no denying that the Western as genre has been enormously popular for well over a century, since the dime novel in fact, not just in America (even if it is “the most distinctively American of pop cultures”), and it still is in certain quarters (guilty). Films do reflect the mores of the times they were made in (much more that of the times they purport to be set in) and maybe that is especially true of our beloved genre.

 

And there is equally no denying that an intelligent Western (there are such things) can raise such questions as individuality as opposed to community, freedom versus order, and, yes, issues of American history – the episodes to admire and the ones to be less proud of.

 

The basic thesis of the book is that the Western is often regarded as a politically conservative genre, providing ideological support for capitalism, and that has been reinforced by its big stars, the likes of John Wayne and Clint Eastwood, being identified with right-wing causes. “The gunfighter of the classical Westerns is now often viewed by many Americans as a symbol of a sexist and racist American value system that is best left in the past.”

 

 

In fact, however, as Cantor says in his foreword, “the American West has proved fertile ground for liberal and even left-wing storytelling.” The capitalists are the bad guys: rich ranchers, shady businessmen (especially saloon owners), corporate interests such as railroads, and so on. Often they have a corrupt official, such as a crooked sheriff, to do their bidding. The goodies are the individuals, the small farmers and homesteaders, the store owners and such – the ‘little man’.

 

McMaken says, rightly, “The real story of the West was one of tedium and repetitive agricultural and mining work … and not of showdowns on Main Street.” In fact, “Westerns aren’t really about the West at all.” They are myths, set on the frontier. They are great myths, and the author loved Silverado and Louis L’Amour’s The Tall Stranger. But they are fables. As the writer says, from the silent era on, “The moral certainty and the violence of the Western dominated cinemas for decades more.”

 

In reality, says, McMaken, quoting W Eugene Hollon in his book Frontier Violence: Another Look, “the Western frontier was a far more civilized, more peaceful and safer place than America society is today.” Robert Dykstra found that in the cattle town of Abilene, so often in Westerns a place whose streets and saloon floors were stained with blood, “Nobody was killed in 1869 or 1870. In fact, nobody was killed until the advent of officers of the law, employed to prevent killings.” Or, to quote another author, Richard Shenkman, “Many more people have died in Hollywood Westerns than ever died on the real frontier.” Deadwood, SD and Tombstone, AZ during their worst years of violence (so beloved by Westerns) saw four and five murders, respectively. Disappointing, ain’t it?

 

Many believe that the Western genre embodies such values as hard work, private property, family, community and a Christian moral framework, and as such, novels and movies of this kind are pretty traditional and conservative. Politicians such as Ronald Reagan and George W Bush believed this and referred often to these traits as being all-American.

 

But is this really so? In so many Westerns the dull toil is not for the hero: he (it was always a he then) is too busy gunfighting, chasing down bad guys. Family and community? No, he was more often than not a loner, going his own way, free of ties. Maybe he had a wife, once, but now he is a widower. Religion? More often than not the Western hero is, if not atheistic, at least not a part of a regular congregation. Often clergymen are shown as crazed and/or incompetent. “Put an amen to it!” angrily rebukes Ethan. Churches, and family life, schools too, are the woman’s domain. The Western male is not interested.

 

As McMaken says, “Bourgeois middle-class values would eventually be established on the frontier, but only after the gunfighter successfully tamed the land.”

 

Despite what the likes of Reagan and Bush said, the typical ‘bourgeois’ inhabitants of the Western frontier, those God-fearing merchants and schoolteachers and mayors, were as often as not in Westerns if not the villains, then at least pusillanimous townsfolk who hadn’t the guts to stand up and be counted. They wouldn’t stand by their (heroic, gunfighting) man. “The gunfighter serves a near-messianic role on the frontier,” says McMaken, “as he saves the bewildered townspeople from their enemies, pulls them away from their petty bourgeois concerns, and unifies them in a struggle against evil.” Those Reaganite folk are naïve, selfish and hypocritical. Sometimes all on the same day.

 

Naïve, selfish and hypocritical

 

And the worst of all, of course, in the Western hero’s eyes, is the Easterner. Incompetent, stupid, effete, wrongly dressed, unable to ride or shoot, what on earth good were they? City dwellers, pshaw!

 

The Western is overwhelming a male genre. Women are essential, for the love interest, and to act as contrast, to heighten the heroism of the man, but for much of the history of the Western, that’s all. Women fail to grasp the vital importance of the hero’s mission. Females such as Yorke’s wife in Rio Grande or Kane’s in High Noon try to convince the hero to abandon his quest and put away his guns. They even give him ultimatums. It’s only at the end that they learn how wrong they were, and come over to the side of their man (and his gun). We often talk about the ‘good badman’ being redeemed the love of a woman (in William S Hart Westerns, especially) but just as often it’s the woman who is ‘redeemed’ by finally learning to stand by her man. In some Westerns there are no inconvenient women at all. Pa Cartwright in Bonanza is a widower with three male offspring. Dunson in Red River explains to his (unnamed) love that frontier life is “too much for a woman” and leaves her (she is killed by Indians shortly after and never repined). Wyatt Earp leaves Clementine in the last reel and The Man from Laramie rides off alone too. Women, who needs ‘em?

 

As the “classical” Western declined, and the “revisionist” Western came in, things changed. The mythology of the West, and the Western, altered, to reflect the zeitgeist. The image of the heroic gunfighter as righter of wrongs, restorer or order and harbinger of civilization no longer had the same moral authority or credibility. Government institutions, especially, are shown far more negatively. ‘Heroes’ become cynical and self-interested types out for Number 1, like Leone’s cowboys, or more than half-crazed men like Peckinpah’s Major Dundee or Custer in Little Big Man. These figures aren’t “right wing” or “left wing”. They don’t really have a philosophy at all – apart from personal profit or bloodlust. Erstwhile goodies (even outlaws like Jesse James and Billy the Kid had been goodies) now became lowlife punks. The US Cavalry was just as likely to slaughter women and children in an Indian village as protect them. Women and African-Americans could be the central characters, even the heroes.

 

McMaken does make some (to me) perplexing statements and indeed some mistakes (he talks about “Howard Hawks’ The Furies,” for example, and “The Broken Lance.”). He thinks John Ford made only four cavalry Westerns. He says that “Everywhere in the Western, the railroads are a sign of Eastern decadence.” No, not everywhere. In The Iron Horse, just as one example, they are a sign of nobility and progress. He thinks that “The conventions of the classical Western require little moral uncertainty or ambiguity” and “in the Western, people are simply good or evil”. Not in good ones, they aren’t. Heroes have failings and bad guys have saving graces. “Classical Westerns almost unanimously treat Indians as a uniformly malevolent force.” Not after Devil’s Doorway and Broken Arrow, they didn’t. Some sentences I just didn’t understand, such as when talking about the TV show Deadwood he says that Al Swearengen (Ian McShane) works to “ensure the political interdependence of Deadwood”. Surely he must mean ‘independence’? And surely he must mean ‘Deadwood’ and not ‘Deadwood’?

 

But these are quibbles. Overall, the book wasn’t as dreadedly “intellectual” as I feared, and it did get me thinking. Or what passes for thinking in my case.

 

 

22 Responses

  1. Without a doubt, this take on Westerns is a pass, but the points are well taken. Teh immoral lack of character exemplified by townsmen is front-loaded in Abilene Town. Only Randolph Scott can save them, even against their will, and he does. Thank God! but they are such bores. The reference to Shane is clear, and despite the fine production, turns me off. The easterners are too woke for this old man.

    1. Yes, Abilene Town is a good example. I suppose High Noon is the standout one.
      I didn’t say it in the review but perhaps all of us who like Westerns are like those townsfolk. We have ‘lives’ – family, community, duties, responsibilities, businesses, and so on. But we rather nostalgically wish we were like those heroic gunfighters, free of ties, loners, carrying out justice without pesky constraints such as laws to consider, and of course ridin’ off into the sunset afterwards. We wish, but we know it’s never going to be. So we watch Randy tame Abilene on the big or small screen, or read another Luke Short.

  2. Thank you for the resume !
    The most interesting in all this ? A book about the western ! It is somehow heartening to see such documents when some may think the genre decline is still going on. The interest in the western, the films and the history, is very international. In France, the books wether popular or academic are
    countless as Jeff can have seen it thanks to the link I had sent a few weeks ago. I have not read this new one (see below) which is more a history book than focused on the western only,
    but written by an associate professor of
    contemporary history. Not sure of
    learning something really new but who
    knows, it seems to deal with history and
    myths, one of the essential themes of
    the western.
    https://www.unilim.fr/criham/2023/09/19/passes-composes-nouvelle-histoire-de-louest-par-soazig-villerbu/

    1. Yes, that might be interesting. If, as advertized, “Sans s’y soustraire, Soazig Villerbu corrige la légende”. That’ll be quite a trick if he pulls it off!

  3. Helpful summary of a book I’d never read. I’m skeptical of any unified field theory of the western. It’s just too big a subject to corral.

  4. Excellent review. A very interesting book on violence in the West is ‘Gunfighters, Highwaymen, and Vigilantes’ by Roger McGrath. It is very readable and an important look at the ‘real’ West. I highly recommend it.

    1. I read that once. I recall the writer argued that the frontier was not as violent as Western movies suggest (that’s pretty obvious) and probably not more so than Eastern cities of the time. I might re-read it.

  5. Of course if we talk of the West of the white man, except à few cities such as San Francisco or Saint Louis, the numbers of people living on the frontier was much smaller than in the East. But violence is inseparable from colonization which is synonymous of violence, particularly against aboriginal people…
    The construction of the railroad was one of the key factor as developed below.
    The Chinese have also suffered from the white violence as illustrated by the 1885 Rock Springs (WY) followed by others in Oregon and Washington state.
    https://www.independent.org/publications/tir/article.asp?id=803

    1. That is a fashionable view that makes absolutely no sense. The white man, and we mean Europeans built the world as we have known it, and the Woke Progressives are now in the process of destroying it. Let us not limit the accomplishments, inventions, and creative standard of living, that white Europeans gave us to criticize and destroy. We are much more than a tribal culture.

  6. Is it only fashionable to say that violence goes hand to hand with colonisation and vice versa !? It’s just a proven historical (and human) fact all over the world and not only by the Europeans, historians have been telling this story far before wokism…
    I agree that wokism (an other american invention) is pushing the envelope much too far by erasing history.
    Back to the western, if you suppress violence there is no western anymore. Take men, money or gold (or land, water, timber, oil, or cattle etc), spirits and liquors, add a woman or two, do not forget weapons. Mix everything and set the cocktail in a wild landscape and you will have all the ingredients to make the volcano erupt.

    1. Add hard work and vision. They are the things that build a nation and define civilization. Without the
      Spanish, no horses in the Americas. Withut the British and French, with a few Germans here and there, no culture, that is music, literature, and medicine. I have no interest in the tom-tom or voodoo doll. Do you?

  7. I am late to this interesting discussion. I probably won’t buy the book (too many books out there and too little time and bookshelf space… besides the f). act that the author managed to attribute The Furies to Hawks puts me off a little…). But I do find the issue of politics and Westerns an interesting one. When it comes to analysing Westerns (and many other things), I think people can go too far in one direction or other, either judging films only by what they think are its politics – sometimes seeing politics where it isn’t even there – rather than judging the film in its many aspects as an all round entertainment and art form, or or the other hand completely ignoring the ideological overtones or undertones, when they can be part of what makes a film interesting.

    A related tendency, very common nowadays especially among many people younger than most of those likely to read this website, is for people to choose what entertainment they consume based on whether they think it’s in line with their own political views. This seems to me a boring way to experience the world. Based on his comments above, I would hazard a guess that my political views are many degrees to the left of Barry Lane’s, however we can at least unite on liking Westerns, in my case despite their supposed conservative bias – though as Jeff patiently explains in his book review, it’s actually a much more varied genre than non-aficionados tend to think.

    Btw a book that I think does a solid job of placing Westerns politically, without going overboard on that aspect or getting pretentious about it, is Kim Newman’s Wild West Movies. It’s a sort of thematic survey of the genre, pretty readable and at the time I first read it (it came out in 1990) it really helped open my mind to the scope and variety of the genre.

    1. I agree that it’s absurd to watch a movie and only consider its (real or imagined) political slant. Pictures like HIGH NOON, which have been discussed largely – or even sometimes only – in their political context are great works of art wherever you (or the film’s makers) come from politically.
      The Newman book is one of those I’ve had on the shelf for ages but never got round to reading. You have prompted me to take it down and peruse it. So expect future comments!

      1. I’ll be interested to know what you think! How well it stands up I wouldn’t know since I’ve not looked at it in a while but I’m fond of it because at the time it was the first book-length and serious – but fairly unpretentious – treatment of the Western I’d encountered.

        Yes, foolish in my opinion to judge a film or any other piece of art/entertainment only by politics, on the other hand foolish to turn a blind eye to the political context and implications that sometimes can be found there. Is my boring middle-of-the-road opinion!

    2. The Newman book is superb. I’ve read it over and over. Front to back and back to front. Love how he pulls the threads together. So entertaining. Really like his chapter on the Civil War and Westerns. Great stuff in every chapter. I love Westerns and don’t like the idea that they are considered just this or that politically to enjoy them. They are far more important than what divides people! Excellent post RR.

  8. An other excellent and quite funny book is The Hollywood History of the world by George McDonald Fraser with a specific chapter on western.

    1. That is a great book! Just picked it up in the last few years. The Western chapter is very good. Glad he praises two of my favorite war films ‘Waterloo’ and ‘Zulu’. His appraisal of the Roman epics is also excellent.

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