Today’s little essay concerns an aspect of the Western which I have noticed and maybe you have too. It kind of leads on from what I was saying about the Western in my recent review of the book Commie Cowboys (click the link for that).
Heroes of the Western are men (almost never women) who strive to bring law ‘n’ order to the wild frontier. Their mission (it’s almost a divinely-ordained one) is to tame savagery and overcome lawlessness, and bring civilization to an untamed land, making it, shucks, American. To do this they overcome Indians or outlaws or corporate interests or other threats to peace and security so that communities may thrive, settlers may settle, towns may grow, and statehood will eventually arrive (it is always assumed that with statehood all will prosper; see Liberty Valance as the classic example). That’s the message of the Western, if there is one.
But what then? The quintessential Western hero is a man of few words, good with his gun, and a loner. Sometimes he does ‘get the girl’ in the last reel but till then he’s been free, without ties, and oftentimes he doesn’t even get the girl at all but instead rides off into the sunset alone, departing, Shane-like, as he had come. Like Preacher in Pale Rider. Or, like Ethan, he can’t fit in and turns away from domestic life.
Such men are not adapted to the settled town life they fought to establish and protect. They don’t want churches and schools or to own a store or become a farmer. In The Magnificent Seven, guns-for-hire Chris and Vin leave that dusty Mexican village at the end to find some other gun work. Only Chico remains, but then he was more than half campesino anyway. The gunfighters have done their job, Calvera is dead, but they are free spirits. So what do they do? Why, they move on, of course.
This happened from the beginning of the myth. Fenimore Cooper’s Natty Bumppo fought the fearsome Hurons (and the French) in upstate New York but then, in The Prairie (1827) came to his death out West, in the time of the Louisiana Purchase and the Lewis and Clark expedition, where he has come to find a place where he cannot hear the sound of people cutting down the forests.
Daniel Boone, on whom in some ways Cooper’s hero is based, became famous for the exploration and settlement of Kentucky but then moved to pastures new in Missouri. Once a place has become settled and peaceful, these heroes’ feet get itchy and it’s away to new frontiers for them.
In more classic Westerns, too, once the danger is past and the threat removed, it’s time to move on. In Stagecoach, Ringo is suitably heroic, fighting off the Apache and then winning his showdown in Lordsburg with the Plummers. What happens then? Well, thanks to the marshal, he and Dallas get in that buckboard and off they go in the last reel to Mexico. Mexico is the ‘new West’ or the ‘even more West’, a land that is still wild enough where a free spirit can remain free – and maybe his gun will still be needed.
Or it might be California. That was geographically even farther West than the West. Enough of Arizona or Colorado – it’s too damn civilized now! A new life in California beckons. Morgan Hickman (Henry Fonda) in The Tin Star teaches young lawman Ben Owens (Anthony Perkins) how to tame the town and then, job done, it’s up on the buckboard with his new wife and son (Betsy Palmer and Michel Ray) and away they go. Clint Walker did the same in Yuma. After cleaning up Dodge City, Errol Flynn immediately left for Virginia City. There are very many examples, and I am sure you will think of others.
Sometimes it was much farther: James Garner’s Jason in Support Your Local Sheriff! and Robert Preston’s Ace Bonner in Junior Bonner dream of going to Australia. Quigley (Tom Selleck) doesn’t just dream: he actually goes Down Under.
Here we see a basic conflict. All these heroes have battled, usually at great personal risk, to overcome the dangers and obstacles to civilized life in the Wild West. Yet that civilized life is not for them. As Kim Newman puts it in his book Wild West Movies, they are “torn between the need to bring polite values to the frontier and the desire to have wilds worth conquering.” Indeed. They need, as Newman says, a new frontier “against which they can test their heroic stature.”
Aye well, that’s the Western for you.