Toward an Aesthetics of Failure
Or: Why I Actually Sort of Like Westerns (And You Should Too)
The Lone Ranger, ABC, 1956
by John Crutchfield
Friends and acquaintances will have heard me claim that I grew up without a television. This is not strictly speaking true. In fact, one of my earliest clear memories is of sitting directly in front of the tube in the living room of our apartment in Austin, Texas. This must have been 1975 or 1976, while my father was writing his dissertation on The Picaresque Hero in Seventeenth Century Spanish Literature at the University of Texas. We lived in Married Student Housing, an apartment complex surrounding a central open area with playground, sandbox, and expansive sidewalks convenient for riding a Bigwheel® or pulverizing quartz crystals with a hammer. There was also, as I recall now with pleasure, a communal laundry-mat furnished with a soft drink machine. Twenty-five cents bought you a root beer.
My adventures on these and other appurtenances, however, are a different story. What concerns me here is my first fully semi-conscious encounter with American Popular Culture.
Not surprisingly, given the part of the country where we lived, this encounter took the form of the black and white TV series, The Lone Ranger—black and white because it had been made two decades earlier, in the 1950’s, a fact which in the innocence of my youth I never suspected. To me it was all thrillingly real and present. And I think I can safely say that on some till now mostly unconscious level, it has influenced the course of my life. So dear to my heart, in fact, do the mis-named Lone Ranger and his loyal side-kick Tonto remain, that I have (as of this writing) scrupulously avoided all contact with the recent feature film version starring Johnny Depp, whom I otherwise enjoy watching onscreen. I’ve heard it’s a pretty nonsensical affair, this film, and I receive the news with a feeling of relief: my childhood myth remains inviolate.
Imagine my delight when, some months ago, as I was making a quick grocery-run at the local Ingles, I happened to notice a 5-DVD box set on sale for $9.98 that bore the breathtakingly honest title, Gun Justice. The cover featured a snazzy, tinted, promotional still of none other than the masked man himself, as embodied by the intrepid Clayton Moore, and at his side, the buckskin-clad and totally righteous Jay Silverheels—both, it goes without saying, with six-shooters at the ready. At once I was whisked away to those interminable afternoons in Texas, when it was too hot to play outside, and I sat alone in front of the TV, feeling around in my scalp for embedded shards of glass (accident w/table lamp), and swooning with fear and admiration for my hero.
The Lone Ranger, by any adult standard, is a terrible show. In fact, it is of a terribleness scarcely to be believed. The dialogue is composed in a language no man ever spoke, nor should he attempt to. The sentences have all the pliability of driftwood, but none of the interesting shapes and textures. The voice-over during the overture is a prodigy of expository compression (“He was a fabulous individual!”). The characters are of a piece with the language: everybody is One Thing, and come hell or high water, They Do Not Change. If you have the misfortune to be a bad guy, you might as well enjoy it while you can, because the narrative will grant you no hope of reform. If you’re a good guy, say adios to anything that might help you resemble an actual human being: a moment of doubt or weakness, a capacity for actual emotions, a troubled conscience—not a chance. You won’t even be granted a little good old-fashioned blood-lust, for as the first episode makes clear, you will “Shoot to wound, not to kill. For killing is wrong.” Suffice it to say that the acting, directing, costume and set-design, editing, sound engineering—all are so hideously clunky that (you know where I’m going with this) they’re almost kind of good.
In fact, it’s all fascinatingly good in its very badness. I won’t say it’s of the same caliber of schlock as Ed Wood’s now legendary Plan 9 From Outer Space––arguably the most eloquent expression of brilliant incompetence ever made––but I will say that The Lone Ranger is a thing of strange and archaic beauty. If you’ve ever had occasion to watch Edwin S. Porter’s 1903 The Great Train Robbery, then you have a sense of what I mean. In Porter’s short narrative film, it’s really only the surface that is corny and flat; an enormous vitality surges underneath, monstrous and excessive, as of a kid discovering for the first time what he can do with a set of magic markers. You can almost feel Porter thinking, “Wait a minute! Let’s put the camera on the moving train! No, I know: let’s put the camera right up in Justus’s face and have him shoot at the lens!” The actors, too, clearly have no idea how the camera is “seeing” them; and they act their hearts out for an audience they can only vaguely imagine.
The Great Train Robbery, Edison Manufacturing Company, 1903
Which is not to deny that such cultural products are a matter of taste. But in an age of digital wizardry and ironic cool, such products—with their earnest storytelling and their utter lack of artistic pretension, to say nothing of skill––such products come as a breath of clean desert air. Here we see actual people working, struggling to create something they hope will be beautiful, struggling against the limitations of technology, of time and money, of personal disaster, professional incompetence, and random, catastrophic accident. In short, we see something approaching a human reality. And as the medium of film advanced over the next century, that reality is increasingly what gets left on the cutting floor––or in the “Delete”-cache. Films and television these days, and not only those with computer-generated images, are industrial products that by the time they reach consumers have been through rigorous quality control. What we have in The Lone Ranger is something closer to folk art. Commercial, to be sure, but more modest in its claims on the viewer; less tidy, and in the end, less totalizing.
Now. There are those who will laugh at the original Lone Ranger, as they laugh at The Great Train Robbery and at Ed Wood; i.e. with a smug sense of their own cultural superiority, an ironic sneer and a chortle of schadenfreude. To these debauched souls I have nothing further to say. For it is only the generous of heart to whom these folksy, obsolete entertainments will reveal their secrets. To understand them, one must be susceptible to that “double-vision” which allows at once a childlike pleasure in the story itself and a grownup interest in (and compassion for) the storyteller, hapless as he may be.
Writing in the middle of the last century on “The Evolution of the Western,” the French critic André Bazin pointed above all to the B-Western and the TV-Western as the place where what he calls the “Classical” form of the genre still lived on. While the major studios after WWII were seeking ways to “enrich” the genre either extrinsically (by bringing in other themes not native to the genre–such as sex) or intrinsically (by creating more and more “novelistic” characters), the B-Westerns and TV-Westerns were turning a good profit simply by sticking to the old formulae. By the time I sat watching The Lone Ranger in the mid-70’s, however, most critics considered the genre to all intents and purposes “dead.” Re-runs there were, of course, to fill the dead hours of the afternoon, but the major studios had seen the writing on the wall of the ticket booths, and turned their attention elsewhere. Some attribute the turn to Vietnam: after Sergio Leone had ripped away the moralistic veneer of the Western in his Dollars trilogy in the mid-60’s, all that was left was violence–spectacular and cynical. And with more and more body bags laid out in military hangars, the vision of America that the films seemed to offer had ceased to be persuasive.
So rarely are Westerns made any more, that one can count a decade’s worth on one hand. Clint Eastwood’s 1992 Unforgiven was probably the last truly great western, and already scholars were calling it a “post-western,” “revisionist western,” or even an “anti-western.” To be sure, Eastwood’s film powerfully de-constructs the Western Myth (more on this later), but it does so within the framework of a first-rate iteration of that myth. The film was very successful. One wonders, was the Western really “dead” after all? Was it being reborn? Or was it somehow “undead”? A decade and a half after Eastwood’s success, we have James Mangold’s remake of 3:10 to Yuma (2007), Ed Harris’s wry Appaloosa (2008), the Coen Brothers’ remake of True Grit (2010), Mateo Gil’s Blackthorn (2011), and more recently, Quentin Tarantino’s much-lauded Django Unchained (2013). But where the former are essentially hyper-violent and profane throwbacks to the pre-Unforgiven era, Tarantino’s offering is like everything else he’s made: it consists largely of ironic pilferings from the genre he’s working in, and boils down to a morally dubious exercise in “revisionist vengeance.” Morally dubious because, instead of generating interest within the plot itself, the film cynically exploits the audience’s real-world desire for revenge against the villains of history. And in doing so, it reinforces a communal blood-lust. (Think of Inglorious Bastards: Everyone hates Hitler. Why not shoot him in the face a thousand times? In Django, we merely substitute Southern Slave Holders for Nazis, and slaughter them in a mansion instead of a movie theatre.)
In other words, when Westerns get made nowadays, they’re often someone’s “project,” and an oddball one at that. Increasingly, one has the feeling that something about the genre itself no longer speaks to us, or no longer provides a living set of conventions through which a film-maker can speak to us. Even Clint Eastwood, whose screen persona, like John Wayne’s before him, was forged, so to speak, in the desert sun, has sought greener pastures late in his career. One could argue that, in films like Gran Torino (2008), the spirit of the Western lives on; but that’s a little like saying Bob Dylan is Chaucer: provocative perhaps, but convincing only if one is willing to treat one’s conceptual categories with a certain undergraduate insouciance.
Is it that the Western is now felt to be too simplistic? Too “black and white”? Do its stories of “gun justice” provoke unease in a world where mass shootings seem to have become a regular suburban occurrence? Or has the Frontier itself—the definitive and necessary setting of these films–ceased to interest us, to “resonate” for us as metaphor? Or is it perhaps something else, something more formal: is it possible that the Western is simply too rigorous, too ascetic in its formality? It demands, finally, too much silence and stillness, too much watching and waiting for the right moment. Like the Broadway musical, it is an aesthetic world with a specific character and specific rules, and as long as that world is felt to reveal some deeper structure or truth about the Real World, then the genre will fill the theatres with connoisseurs. But at some point, this feeling fades. The Real World changes, the deep structure shifts, the art becomes not a living means of communication but a curious relic, or else a means not of understanding the Real World, but of forgetting it.
The Virginian, Paramount Pictures, 1929
The Western is in many ways a world of pure forms. It is a genre for minimalists. One has the feeling that the screen is, or ought to be, mostly empty. We hear the desert wind. We see a man on a horse, a town in the distance. We see a weathered face and a pair of steely eyes shifting ever so slightly. When too many objects fill the frame, or when too many words fill our ears, the tension dissipates, the proceedings start to seem silly, random, inconsequential. And when the violence comes, it has to come in the right way. Since the spectacle of violence is one of the chief “visual pleasures” the genre offers, the show-down has to be properly prepared for, so that it feels justified and morally clean. Otherwise it is merely a murder, an occasion for revulsion, not pleasure. Generally this preparation takes the narrative form of earlier violence done to the hero or to those he loves, such that the hero’s slaying of the villain is rationalized as a vengeance killing. Thus the villain must be truly villainous, in both act and word. It helps too if he looks like a villain. Here, the traditional iconography of silent melodrama serves an important function: to help make the slaying of the villain feel right. It feels right because it rights a wrong, and thus sets the world back in balance. Which also explains why the Frontier setting is so crucial: only in the absence of external constraint (in the form of effective jurisprudence), do we finally see a man’s character as it truly is. If he is evil or weak, this will become evident. If he is good, if he is strong, this too will come to light.
Once Upon A Time In The West, Paramount Pictures, 1968
At the height of their popularity–around the time The Lone Ranger series was made–Westerns accounted for a huge part of Hollywood’s output. This is perhaps hard for us to imagine today. Even the seemingly unstaunchable hemorrhage of vampire movies in recent years does not begin to rival the almost universal appeal of the American Western in its time. All the major studios put out multiple Westerns a year throughout the thirties, and again after the war, throughout the fifties and into the sixties. Many major directors cut their teeth on them. Many major stars tried their hand at playing in them: Gary Cooper, John Wayne, Henry Fonda, James Stewart, Gregory Peck, and later of course, Clint Eastwood. A whole army of supporting actors like Thomas Mitchell, John Carradine, Ward Bond and Woody Strode appeared over and over again.
And despite the rigid conventions of the genre, many filmmakers found ways to make brilliant and innovative films, films that are still ranked among the top one hundred ever made. And in an industry as financially skittish as Hollywood, none of this would have happened if it hadn’t been a safe bet: American moviegoers could be counted on to go see a Western. Even internationally, audiences could be counted on. One is tempted to say that something must have been at stake in these films, some core set of concerns, questions or paradoxes, some fundamental drama, some national “primal scene.” (And to the degree that America was, for many Europeans and Asians as well, the subject of intense and conflicting mythologies, that “primal scene” was also international.)
In his monumental work Gunfighter Nation, the cultural historian Richard Slotkin makes a persuasive argument along these lines, saying that the Western—precisely because of its conventional themes and setting–became an eloquent (and eloquently ambiguous) way of addressing certain troubling aspects of American experience. As Homer’s Odyssey and Illiad apparently did for the Greeks of Sophocles’s time, these films function as a kind of “cosmogonic myth”: they purport to tell us who we are and how we got here. In other words, they inhabit a volatile zone of interaction between historical experience and social ideology. Watching these films, we may feel (in our post-racial and post-industrial Enlightenment) that we learn little about the actual Frontier; but we learn a lot about this paradoxical thing called America, about the way Americans have both seen and wanted to see themselves—and about how those self-perceptions have changed.
Certain emblematic moments come to mind here. There’s the scene in The Virginian (1929) when the otherwise unnamed title character (Gary Cooper) catches his best friend Steve (Richard Arlen–the original Harrison Ford) branding another man’s cattle for the villainous rustler Trampas (Walter Houston). There’s something utterly contemporary about the “bromance” between Cooper and Arlen, to say nothing of the “metro-sexual” fashion of form-fitting outfits, boots, and scarves. But in this crucial and rather quiet scene, something else enters in. Steve remains on his horse, while the Virginian stands at his side, gazing up at his friend and gently trying to convince him of the dangers he faces if he remains in Trampas’s gang. The text itself retains the “joshing” and informal tone that seems to be the rule between the two friends, but the way the scene is staged, framed and edited exactly matches the conventional visual grammar of lovers pleading. The effect is tender, lyrical, and openly homo-erotic in a way that both wrenches the heart and raises the stakes of the dramatic conflict exponentially. Nor is this all: it reveals a surprisingly complex understanding of masculinity and of masculine friendship; and in retrospect, our last glimpse of the doomed Steve, as he turns on his horse in the middle distance to bid his friend a cheerful goodbye, is also in a larger sense elegiac, marking as it does the departure of this complex image of manhood from American film, and from American culture, for the next two generations. Only since the Millennium has it become possible again to portray male friendship in this way in popular culture.
Ten year later, we have the dramatic entrance of The Ringo Kid (John Wayne) into the narrative of Stagecoach (1939): a rack-focus shot that begins with him standing like a god against the desert sky and twirling his Winchester in one hand, and ends with a close-up of the young man’s smooth, sweat-streaked face in an ambivalent and somehow very realistic expression of innocence and anxiety—an expression we will never see on Wayne’s face again. It’s the defining shot of the role that made Wayne an international star and an icon of masculinity for an entire generation, and at the same time it contains an internal tension and dynamic, a paradox of values, that has never yet been resolved in American culture. Like the thousands who come home from our wars, he’s at once a “good kid” and a killer. It’s the only rack-focus shot in the film, and it lasts a little more than two seconds.
Stagecoach, United Artists, 1939
Cooper and Wayne: two iconic American stars at the beginning of their careers––making Westerns. And twenty years later, we have them again. A now rather frail-looking Cooper plays Marshal Kane in Fred Zinnemann’s High Noon (1952), a film whose dramatic structure, by the way, is eerily flawless; and Wayne plays Ethan Edwards in John Ford’s The Searchers (1956), a dark, disturbing role that many consider his best work. Here too, we have emblematic shots. Just as the noon train arrives carrying the leader of the gang that intends to kill him, Marshal Kane steps out from his office into the street where he expects to die a violent death. We see in close-up Cooper’s weary, deeply-lined face, frightened but resolved, pale beneath his signature black hat. Then all at once, we seem to pull back and lift up and away from him, until we’re high above the miserable, empty street looking down—a crane shot that isolates Kane physically, morally, existentially. We’re made to feel what the character feels, knowing his friends and fellow townspeople, and even his new bride, have abandoned him to his chosen fate. There’s something of Camus in this desolate image: hopeless, absurd, and yet defiant. It just feels right.
High Noon, United Artists, 1952
Again, it’s the only shot of its kind in the film. But here’s the thing: as the camera rises higher and higher, in the background we begin to see…not the open desert, but the back lots of the Warner Brothers studio where High Noon was shot. A “blooper,” the bloggers will claim. Maybe; but given the scrupulousness and “aestheticism” of every other shot in the film, we might be justified in imagining another meaning. The shot confronts us with what we would really rather forget: that “Hadleyville” is Hollywood, it is America in the 1950’s. Like the fictional town, our beloved Democracy is crumbling under a threat that simple civic courage could otherwise defeat. Cowed by Senator McCarthy’s paranoid demagoguery, we hole up behind our picket-fences and willingly surrender our civil rights in order to feel safe. Our security is more important than our liberty. Not surprisingly, John Wayne (an energetic collaborator with the House Un-American Activities Committee) found the film “un-American,” and did everything he could to get its writer, Carl Foreman, blacklisted.
That Wayne went on a few years later to star in The Searchers is an interesting twist. Like High Noon, The Searchers is ambitious in addressing contemporary issues—in this case, racism. Here we have Wayne in the role of a bitter, violent, sexually frustrated, and virulently racist veteran of the Civil War—an unreconstructed Confederate, no less, who seems to have spent the years immediately following Appomattox robbing banks and doing a little mercenary work in Mexico. In short, Ethan Edwards is not a nice guy. And in a way that is, upon reflection, rather unsettling, The Searchers offers a shot of Ethan that exactly parallels the rack-focus shot of Ringo from Stagecoach a quarter-century earlier. As Ethan is leaving a cell where he has examined white female captives recovered from the Comanche Indians, he pauses in the doorway and turns to look back one last time. The camera tracks in rapidly on Wayne’s face. The shadow of his black hat slants across his eyes. His face, in contrast to The Ringo Kid’s, is unshaven and slack with age, and is framed by the collar of his heavy dark coat. His expression? Hateful. When one of the officers in charge of the traumatized captives remarks, “It’s hard to believe they’re white,” Ethan remarks, “They ain’t. Not anymore.” If anyone watching the film has somehow managed up to this point to identify with Ethan, this moment should dispel it.
The Searchers, Warner Bros., 1956
Since both Stagecoach and The Searchers were made by John Ford, we may assume the parallel to be no self-imitation, much less an accident, but rather a deliberate juxtaposition. Ford is up to something quite sophisticated here: by casting Wayne as Ethan, he’s using Wayne’s iconic status–which he (Ford) himself created via The Ringo Kid–to insure that we begin by identifying with Ethan as the hero. And as Ethan’s racism becomes more and more apparent and unsavory, we are forced to question that identification—and hence to question ourselves. This was in 1956, a year after Brown vs. Board of Education. It’s not entirely clear whether Wayne himself realized his iconic status was being used this way.
A few years earlier, in 1953, we saw the title character of George Steven’s Shane ride down into a scenic valley and approach a small homestead, where he finds an emblematic “nuclear family” happily doing their daily chores. His approach is observed by the young Joey, who sees the strange rider from afar, framed, oddly, between the horns of a buck in the middle distance. Immediately upon seeing Shane (Alan Ladd), the buck bolts. There’s something uncanny about this figure, something ominous; and this feeling lingers even when we finally get a look at him. He appears like a mythical god, clad in white buckskins and a white hat, and sporting a silver pistol in a finely-tooled leather belt. His hair, moreover, is perfectly coiffed, and a large ring glitters on his finger. And while his expression is gentle, even melancholy, it is also not-quite-human. When trouble shows up in the form of the Ryker Brothers, miffed about the homesteaders’ encroachment on what they see as their grazing lands, Shane sticks around and joins the homesteaders. But soon it becomes clear that Shane belongs to a different breed: he is a “gunfighter,” a killer, and his arrival in the valley, far from pacifying the Rykers, actually stirs up their animosity. In a kind of miniature arms race, the Rykers soon call up their own gunfighter, one Wilson (Jack Palance) out of Cheyenne, whose appearance is as supernaturally evil as Shane’s is good. The story ends happily for the homesteaders, I suppose, but at the cost of a bloodbath.
Shane, Paramount Pictures, 1953
In other words, something begins to seem not quite right about the “deep narrative” of the gunfighter. Ostensibly, he is the hero, the embodiment of American values and ideals. But what the stories actually show us is that even when setting out to do good, the gunfighter spreads destruction around him like an Angel of Death. There’s a kind of pathology festering underneath the skin of these stories–and hence (Slotkin might argue) within the American Mythology itself. Things just don’t quite add up; but it took a European to actually sit down and do the math.
Sergio Leone seems to have had the emblematic first sequence of Shane in mind when he made Fistful of Dollars a decade later, in 1964. Here too, a stranger (Clint Eastwood) rides in out of the desert for no apparent reason, with neither past nor plan for the future. But his physical appearance is quite different from Shane’s. He is no mythical Spirit of the West, but a shabby derelict wearing a Mexican peasant’s poncho and riding a mule with no saddle; and where Shane’s face was softly handsome, gentle and melancholy, this man’s is hard, squinty, cold and calculating. Here too, the stranger’s first encounter is with a young family; but it is a family torn asunder. In fact, what The Man With No Name actually sees is a couple of thugs tormenting a little boy as his mother and father look on helplessly from separate houses. What could be simpler, from a moral point of view? Tormenting a child is simply bad. Anyone with any sense of decency would intervene. But unlike Shane–or any of his predecessors, for that matter–The Man does not intervene. In fact, he merely watches, apparently without much interest; and after the harried father has finally bundled the terrified child safely back into one of the houses, The Man goes back to sipping water slowly from the well. When he finally does “intervene” in the politics of the nearby town, it is for one reason alone: money.
Fistful was reviled by critics at the time for its “cynicism” and “gratuitous violence,” and Leone was accused of setting out to “destroy the Western.” But audiences loved the film, and its success made the relatively unknown Clint Eastwood a major star. But The Man With No Name is a different kind of hero, to say the least. He has many of the aesthetic qualities of a hero (tall, blonde, handsome, cunning, laconic of speech, flawless with his weapon, cool under pressure, etc.) and none of the moral qualities. Even Ethan Edwards believes, in his pathologically racist way, that he’s doing the right thing in deciding to murder his kidnapped niece instead of rescuing her. The Man With No Name believes in nothing at all, except perhaps that a .44 is better than a rifle. He may at some point have heard of morality, but it doesn’t interest him. He’s there to make a buck off his skill as a gunfighter; and his first four murders in town are his preferred form of advertisement.
Why this type of “hero” should have had such overwhelming appeal for young audiences during the Vietnam Era is an interesting question. During a time when the “grand narratives” of American goodness were starting to ring hollow, if not to say downright false, it stands to reason that the young and disaffected might feel drawn to a hero who combines ineffable cool with cold-eyed cynicism. Stripped of its simplistic and self-righteous moral “superstructure,” the Great American Myth is revealed to be a story of greed, trickery, wrath, sadism, and spectacular violence. You can almost hear American college students in 1967 (when the film was finally released in the U.S.) saying, “Yeah, man. That’s the way it is.”
A Fistful of Dollars, United Artists, 1963
Looking back, we can see how the figure of the hero has evolved in these films, from the sensitive and androgynous “aristocrat of the spirit” in The Virginian, to the one-dimensional “good kid” in Stagecoach, to the mature man of conscience in High Noon, to the melancholy pariah in Shane, to the conflicted and complex anti-hero in The Searchers, to the full-blown sociopathic killer in Fistful. And through the lens of the hero, we might even see an evolution in the mode of relation between film and society. Where The Virginian and Stagecoach clearly set out to confirm prevailing attitudes, High Noon, Shane, and The Searchers offer more critical points of view. Fistful neither confirms nor criticizes prevailing attitudes, but rather seeks to crystallize a new attitude altogether, or to seize upon a new––let’s call it postmodern––Zeitgeist, even as it was slouching toward Bethlehem to be born.
I could go on. I have favorite scenes in dozens of Westerns, scenes I continue to turn over in my mind and discover new richness of meaning in. They are not merely artistic, not merely “cool” in a technical or even simply narrative sense; they are truly significant: they raise questions, they trouble me, they teach me something about being an American, they upset what I think I know about the culture I grew up in. What astonishes me is the thought that these are not primarily “artistic,” much less “critical,” statements, but rather, popular entertainments. In other words, they make a place for themselves in the very center of American life, and yet, like Plato’s pharmakon, they are both antidote and poison. They present a deeply ambiguous image of America—which is to say, a true one.
But that may be just me. Sometimes I think it is. And I will admit, it’s hard to watch Shane and not be distracted by the pristine silliness of Alan Ladd in the title role, or by the ceaseless annoyance of Brandon de Wilde as the kid Joey. But the final showdown with Wilson in the empty saloon is a work of genius. All the narrative pieces are in place, the foundation has been laid. The spare dialogue brings it all together before the bullets fly. And, contrary to what one might expect, it’s somehow honest too. Yes, Shane kills Wilson and the Ryker Brothers, but he himself ends up wounded—perhaps mortally wounded. And as he says to little Joey after it’s all over, “You can’t go back from a killing.” In other words, while indeed there are now “no more guns in the valley,” this security has been gained at a troubling price. Shane has indelible blood on his hands—and it’s not just his own blood. He has made himself a killer, a pariah, an Ancient Mariner of the high plains, and he does the only thing he can do: he goes away, he rides back up into the mountains from whence he came. When one considers that Shane’s arrival in the valley was what set the deadly violence in motion in the first place, the deep and troubling ambiguity at the center of the story becomes unavoidable. This is true of many Westerns, and of all the great ones.
In his famous essay “The Westerner,” Robert Warshow argued that one reason the Western “continues to interest us” (this was at the height of that interest, in the early 1950’s) is that it is the only genre to consistently and seriously raise the question of “the value of violence.” The answer it offers, again and again, is illuminating—and at the same time Sophoclean: We make our choices in ignorance, and hence every moral act is also an immoral act. It is impossible to “do the right thing” without incurring a stain upon the soul. The Virginian, The Ringo Kid, Marshal Kane, Ethan Edwards, Shane, The Man With No Name, and even William Munny of Unforgiven–none of them escapes the stain of violence. Why? Because violence begets violence, and the cycle of retribution spirals back into some unknown prehistory. From this point of view, the religious concept of Original Sin makes about as much sense as anything else as a way of explaining how it all got started.
Granted, most narrative art forms—novels, films, plays, whatever–attempt to “contain” the violence they depict, by giving it a beginning, a middle, and an end. Westerns do this too, but I would argue that they are less successful in their containment, and that’s what makes them interesting. The Searchers makes this very porousness its main theme: Ethan spends most of the narrative hunting down the Comanche war-chief Scar, who has slaughtered most of his family and abducted the rest—only to discover, when he finally has a talk with Scar, that Scar is merely taking vengeance for the slaughter of his own family at the hands of the white settlers. Thus the rug is pulled out from under the primary moral justification for the violence we’ve been waiting the whole film to see; and when it finally happens anyway, we watch it not with pleasure, but with misgiving, knowing it’s merely one more iteration in what is actually an endless cycle of revenge. Claims about who “deserves to die” no longer suffice to distinguish between hero and villain.
Little Bill: I don’t deserve to die like this. I was building a house.
Will Munny: Deserve’s got nothing to do with it.
Unforgiven, Warner Bros., 1992
Perhaps this is what finally draws me back to the Western. It is a fundamentally serious genre. It deals with serious questions, and it does so, at its best, with an admirable economy of style, wasting little time on frivolity. The questions it raises are the ones that do not go away, though every culture, including our own, attempts to work out its own answers. And the answers the Western gives are, despite appearances and despite what even the filmmakers themselves may have intended, rather sophisticated, often quite disturbing in their ambiguity. It’s as if the fundamental grammar of the genre itself–the basic elements of man, gun, horse, frontier–were generating these ambiguous answers automatically, inexhaustibly, like a hieroglyphic language whose metaphorical power is inversely proportional to the number of words.
Thus I have to take back what I said earlier about Bob Dylan and Chaucer. The Western genre is, in many ways, our Greek Mythology. The Searchers does in fact have much of The Odyssey in it, just as Fistful of Dollars remarkably parallels the Illiad. They are myths about our history, and they confront us with inconvenient truths about that history. But like all myths, most of the truths they tell us are not what actually happened there and then, but what we want to have happened there and then in order to understand ourselves here and now.
I will not, however, say that Stephen King is our Shakespeare.
The Shining, Warner Bros., 1980
I’ve often heard it said that Westerns are “all the same.” But for anyone who loves, say, Mississippi Delta Blues, or Southern Appalachian Old-Time, or, for that matter, Swedish Death-Metal, this is no real criticism, but merely an admission of the critic’s own limitations, if not to say intellectual and imaginative laziness. Of course in a certain sense it’s “all the same”; but this sameness, this formal conservatism, this very narrowness of materials means that subtle variation becomes extremely expressive. Each individual Western film embodies, from this point of view, a serious attempt to “get it right,” to discover that perfect arrangement of character, plot, word and image that will express as purely as possible the fundamental thought at the center of the Myth. Something eternal.
I can’t say whether other genres of film or other creative media evoke the same longing to see perfection achieved. What I can say with confidence is that, while most Westerns offer glimpses of that Perfect Western but through a glass darkly, certain others seem to bring us nearly face-to-face. I think of the opening sequence of Leone’s Once Upon a Time in the West, for example. But honestly, I hope it never actually happens–so that I can keep hoping it will.
Once Upon a Time in the West, Paramount Pictures, 1968
About the Author:
Writer and performer John Crutchfield grew up in Watauga County, North Carolina, and lived for many years in nearby Asheville. He now makes his home in Berlin, Germany. His plays Ivory, The Songs Of Robert, Ruth, Twelve Treatises On Memory, The Labyrinth, Solstice, Landscape With Missing Person, Come Thick Night, and The Strange And Tragical Adventures Of Pinocchio have been produced regionally in the U.S., as have numerous shorter works. He has collaborated and performed with X Factor Dance, Sans Pointe Dance, J. Alex and The Movement, Legacy Butoh, Asheville Contemporary Dance Theatre, and Anemone Dance Theatre, and has been an artistin residence at the Djerassi Artists Foundation, Headlands Center for the Arts, the Association d’Art de La Napoule (France), and the Pädagogische Hochschule Karlsruhe (Germany). At present, he teaches at the Free University of Berlin and freelances as a literary translator. More info at: www.johncrutchfield.com