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The Western movie is usually set in a time before automobiles, most typically in the twenty-odd years after the end of the Civil War. Cowboys move around on a horse, sometimes by train, and most wheeled conveyances are confined to horse-drawn stagecoaches, wagons, buckboards and the like. Of course there are some Western movies set later, at the turn of the century, for example, and so we do get the odd car.
The westernsallitaliana blog tells us that cars appear in Sergio Leone’s Westerns quite a lot – though only by error. In For a Few Dollars More there is a car passing outside the window, moving at high speed, after the conductor collects the tickets, and during the gunfight at the climax of the movie, automobiles can be seen driving on a highway in the background. In The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, when Tuco and Blondie are under the bridge in waist-deep water strapping dynamite to the supports, a car passes from right to left where the poles form a V to the right of Blondie’s hat just after Tuco says “You go first.” And you can see a car passing by in the background when Tuco is balancing on the cross on the graveyard in the end of the movie. I must say, I didn’t spot any of these but more eagle-eyed spaghettisti evidently did.
There’s also a persistent story that in the opening sequence of Santa Fe Trail (1940), the West Point graduation, an automobile can be seen zooming along a tree-lined road in the background and this was driven by Errol Flynn, now at daggers drawn with director Michael Curtiz, in an attempt to sabotage the scene. Flynn was certainly capable of such a prank, yet the car remained in the final print. Perhaps it was too expensive and long to re-shoot. But we’ll probably never know if it was really Flynn at the wheel.
Today, though, I want to look at the automobiles in the Western which were there by design, as symbol.
Sam Peckinpah was especially fond of using a new-fangled horseless carriage to signal the ‘end of the West’, the idea (prevalent in his films) that the Old West was dying, true Westerners were dinosaurs and the dreaded twentieth century, with its scientific progress and ‘civilization’, would bring about the demise of all that was fine and manly on the wild frontier. We’ve already discussed this end-of-the-West notion, and the nostalgia for the good old days that was an integral part of the Western myth, in our essay The End of the West (click the link for that). Peckinpah thought the motor car was a good way to symbolize this.
In an early scene of Ride the High Country (1962) – which is really about little else except the end of the West – an irritated policeman calls Judd (Joel McCrea) “old man” as Judd rides down the street and the cop saves him from being run down by a passing automobile (actually a 1907 Schacht).
In The Wild Bunch (1969) the gunfighters in Mexico after their failed robbery, old men with no future, wonderfully well played by aging Western actors, come across bandit leader Mapache (Emilio Fernandez) who, to the wonderment of the Americans, rides around in a large red automobile. Film production notes talk about the car being a Stanley Steamer but it clearly isn’t. It is in fact a 1914 Oldsmobile 54 (even though the story is set in 1913). Kim Newman, in his excellent book Wild West Movies, even calls it a Model T Ford. Mr Newman knows a huge amount about movies; veteran and vintage cars, not so much. He makes the point, though, with which I do concur, that Mapache has his new machine gun mounted on it “as a presentiment of the kind of automated engines of death the twentieth century has in store.”
And in Peckinpah’s The Ballad of Cable Hogue (1970), Hogue (Jason Robards) is like Judd and Westrum (Randolph Scott) in Ride the High Country, a man out of his time. He wants nothing to do with the future. The local prostitute Hildy (Stella Stevens) becomes rich and returns to see Hogue in a chauffeur-driven automobile (a Thomas Flyer). Hogue understands that in the world of the car, his desert stage relay station is finished. It is indeed finished when the Flyer symbolically crushes him.
But it wasn’t only Peckinpah.
Think of that great Western The Shootist. Here we have another old gunfighter, JB Books, out of place in the new century, dying of cancer, played, poignantly by the great John Wayne in his last film (an actor soon to die of cancer) who is determined to go out in a blaze of gunfire, the old way. He sets up a duel in a saloon with some old enemies, (Richard Boone, Hugh O’Brian and Bill McKinney). Books has ridden into town on a horse, of course. But how does Boone arrive at his rendezvous (a rendezvous with death as it will turn out)? By car, naturally. He putters up to the saloon in a 1903 Oldsmobile (which is quite clever because it’s 1901 in the story but we don’t want to split hairs). More symbols.
Or take the rather charming 2003 version of Monte Walsh. Yet again we have an old cowboy, Monte (Tom Selleck) having difficulty with coping with the new age. There’s a wonderful scene when a new-fangled motor car passes and Bob the storekeeper (Barry Corbin) and Cal the retired rancher (William Devane) spit in unison, but even more telling, the agent of the new Eastern corporate land management outfit, responsible as Monte and his pards see it for the death of the Old West ranching system, rides around in an automobile, scorning horses. But he gets stuck in the mud, and appeals to old Monte for help to tow him out. Monte’s answer is to gallop up and leap his horse right over the car with a yeehar. That’s his response to the new age. Let it remain stuck in the mud.
By the way, I can’t ID that automobile. Maybe if there are any (other) old car nerds out there they can tell me what it is.
Back in 1969, the same year as The Wild Bunch in fact, we had The Good Guys and the Bad Guys. It was a moderately good Western at best, I fear (Burt Kennedy was always a better writer than director), and lead Robert Mitchum (it was his last starring mainstream oater) looks tired and fed up in it (in fact he kept on saying on the set, “What the hell am I doing here?”) In a sort of leaden ‘comic’ version of Ride the High Country, Mitchum plays an old-time marshal – his town is rather obviously named Progress – who teams up with an old-time outlaw (George Kennedy) to best the new breed of long-haired punk bad guy (David Carradine and John Davis Chandler) that they both detest. The climax comes when the townsfolk of Progress pursue the villains with cars, the new putting paid to the old.
So we’re beginning to see a pattern here.
Also in 1969, actually released two months before The Wild Bunch, was 100 Rifles, another Western set in the Mexico revolution, this time in 1912. General Verdugo (Fernando Lamas) rides around in a very Mapache-like way. I suppose it isn’t too surprising: automobiles then were expensive status symbols and generals and suchlike would want to flaunt their wealth and power. I’m not sure what Verdugo’s car is. It’s quite like Mapache’s and could be an Olds, or is it a Packard Six?
In 1971 John Wayne did one of those big Batjac Westerns shot down in Durango, Big Jake, and cars were key in that one. As I said in my review of the picture, “It’s set in 1907, really quite late for a Western, and the intro shows us modernity, with pictures and voiceover describing Albert Einstein, modern technology and fashions, before slipping back to a generic Wayne West that could be any time in the 1870s or 80s. Automobiles are there, but only to be shown up as useless by comparison with the horse. Modern means of transport and communication are all well and good but when it comes to a revenge pursuit, they are feeble by comparison with a good ole mounted cowboy with his six-shooter.”
In The Last Hard Men (1976) we have a similar theme to Big Jake. We are in 1900s Arizona, with telephones, automobiles, refrigerated trains and automatic pistols. There is a strong end-of-the-West tinge to the movie, as bitter and sour Charlton Heston disparages these accoutrements of present-day society (“Modern times,” Heston moans. “I liked the world the way it was”) and returns to the saddle and six-gun to chase evil James Coburn, leading an old-fashioned posse against Coburn and his gang. The motor vehicles break down, of course, while Chuck and his horse keep on.
It’s not a car, but I suppose the huge semi driven by Carroll O’Conner and carrying ‘bathroom fixtures’ in Lonely Are the Brave, which finally and tragically does for Kirk Douglas’s horse, is also an appropriate symbol of the way the new age kills off the cowboy way of life.
Can you think of any other examples?