When I was a little boy, cowboys were all over the place. There
were singin' cowboys, shootin' cowboys, rootin'-tootin' cowboys and cowboys
who didn't use guns but managed to win out just because they were right and
good. Ah, life was so much simpler then. What was it that made being a cowboy
such an appealing idea? Even Ringo Starr in far-off Liverpool dreamt of riding
the range on the back of a good horse with a ten gallon hat perched on his
head. Let me say right up front that, for the purpose of this article, the
generic term "cowboy" is used to describe those characters who rode
horses and wore guns in motion pictures and is not strictly limited to the
proud occupation of cattle rancher.
Hopalong Cassidy, Gene Autry and Roy Rogers were the first cowboys I can remember -- good guys with white hats and rather bland screen presence. Nobody was shot (seriously at least), good always prevailed, and there might be a song tossed off at night 'round the campfire. Wagon Train, The Rifleman, and Bonanza came a bit later, and were more like soap operas which happened to be set in the West. After Adam (Pernell Roberts) left Bonanza, the Ponderosa held no allure for me. Roberts was the real cowboy on that show. Not a clown like Hoss, or a goofy kid like Li'l Joe (I mean...who could take a character named Li'l Joe seriously?), Adam smoldered. He did not suffer fools gladly, and was quick to respond to perceived wrongs. He was a loner. A bit of an outsider even within his own family. He was a Westerner.
The Westerner virtually defines himself in the American myth. He is the man (usually the man, only rarely the woman) who stands alone, who fights the good fight, who knows the rules because they are fair and just, and who prevails because he lives by those rules. Film-makers worked for decades to create this myth, and film-goers accepted and enjoyed it for just as long. One of the hardest working propagators of the myth was John Ford, American film-maker par excellence.
The son of Irish immigrants, Ford came to Hollywood after graduating from high school. He was 20 when he portrayed one of the hooded Klan riders in The Birth of a Nation in 1915. In the '30s and '40s he created a series of films celebrating the American West so rich and so iconic that his images continue to haunt the American cinema thirty years after his death. So important is his contribution to film, that when Orson Welles was asked which American directors most appealed to him, Welles replied, "The old masters, by which I mean...John Ford, John Ford and John Ford!"
In 1939 Ford introduced American cinema-goers to a new actor and a new way of looking themselves. John Wayne had been a bit player in a string of minor films when his pal John Ford cast him as the Ringo Kid in Stagecoach. He was 32 years old, but looks like a teenager, all lean and lanky, folding and unfolding his 6'4" frame into and out of the cramped carriage. He has a presence that shines from the screen, and he projects the pioneering spirit of someone who heard Horace Greeley's invitation to "Go West, young man!" and leapt at the chance. Basically a soap opera set in the cramped quarters of a stagecoach, this film introduces most of the set characters used by Westerns ever since, and allows Wayne an opportunity to perfect a posture, an attitude, and the walk that would serve him for years to come. John Wayne would turn this look into a career. Often in the films of his dear friend Ford, and often surrounded by the same group of support players, Wayne would grow older and grizzlier but continue to portray the same kind of character -- simply older and more confident. The Searchers (1956) found Wayne in a role which tested his mettle as an actor to the hilt. He plays a veteran of the Civil War who finally returns home, only to discover his niece has been kidnapped by Apaches. He sets off on a journey of many years to track her down, first to return her to her family, and later to put her out of her misery at having to live as a squaw. Wayne is outstanding in this role, utterly convincing as the driven and angry loner, unable to settle down, unable to let go of the bit between his teeth. He is the epitome of the cowboy. He would play many similar roles throughout his long career... gruff, 'take no guff from anyone' characters... the stand-alone icon of the Westerner. He finished his career, playing the same type, as a gunfighter, in The Shootist (1976). This is a poignant and appropriate end to Wayne's career; his character echoes the actor's life, unable to leave his past behind, haunted by his demons, and suffering from the same disease which would soon claim Wayne, the shootist goes out guns ablazing.
The heroic loner is not the only icon of the West. Within the films of Ford and Wayne were other regular types, characters who were recognizable and became part of the Old West in the eyes of the viewer. The crusty doctor with his flask at his hip, the harlot with the heart of gold, the would-be gunfighter with a temper and an itchy trigger finger, the cavalryman, the judge, and the brain damaged side-kick. These same characters soon found themselves in all Westerns, whoever was the star, or director, and the filmgoer started looking for them.
The judge, who has his own way of dealing with outlaws, was best exemplified by Walter Brennan in the William Wyler classic The Westerner (1940). This film, which starred Gary Cooper as the laconic cowpoke who rides into a range war, provides a superb example of the interpretation of the "law west of the Pecos". Brennan's portrayal of Judge Roy Bean, won him an Oscar, and set the standard for Western judges in decades of motion picutres. Brennan's personal style also found itself transformed into the model for crusty sidekicks in future movies. Bean was a historical figure who ruled with an iron fist (and a length of rope) who harbored a not-so-secret crush on songstress Lily Langtree. The Langtree connection provides a sympathetic twist on a not-particularly sympathetic character. Characters in his lineage include Gene Hackman's hateful sheriff in both Clint Eastwood's revisionist masterpiece Unforgiven (1992) and the Sharon Stone debacle The Quick & The Dead (1995). Bean himself was portrayed by Paul Newman in a 1972 film entitled The Life & Times of Judge Roy Bean. Directed by John Huston, this film is not for everyone. I remember laughing out loud at much of its tongue-in-cheek humor and slightly surrealistic approach. In one particularly gruesome but hilarious moment, Stacy Keach, as evil gunman Black Bart, calls out the Judge. "C'mon out Beano!" he rages, and Newman's Judge Bean blows a hole that you can see through in his midsection with a shotgun. This has been done many times since, including by Quentin Tarantino, but Huston did it first, and most effectively. Lily Langtree is portrayed by Ava Gardner, herself an icon by the time the film was made.
Huston's film came at a time when we were reassessing our heroes.
The biography was developing from a celebration of the achievements of its
subject, into a psychological dissection of their quirks and foibles. Lawrence
of Arabia was no longer the man who beat the Turks, but a latent homosexual
with tendencies towards sadomasochism. Whether one or the other was true,
these changes were also reflected in the way we looked at cowboys on film.
The squinty eyed loner was still the hero, but now his methods differed only slightly, if at all, from the villain; his motives were equally shadowy. The spaghetti Westerns of Sergio Leone opened the door to new interpretations of the American myth. Clint Eastwood, who got his start in an American TV series Rawhide, became the successor to John Wayne in a series of brutal but somehow light-hearted oaters. A Fistful of Dollars, and its manifold sequels, set the tone which was then emulated by Hollywood film-makers. Kind of a roundabout way to adjust an American myth! I recall the first time I saw the Eastwood films. It was a Saturday matinee, three movies for the price of one. The Man With No Name extravaganza! Each film echoed the first, both in theme and even in cast. The same Italian villains were killed off, in the same order. It was spectacular. The copycats quickly xeroxed Leone's approach, and Ringo Starr was able to fulfill his childhood dream portraying a Mexican bandito in 1972's Blindman, a bizarre twist on the squinty eyed gunfighter who is this time sightless but still never misses!
The brilliant Butch Cassidy & the Sundance Kid (1969) managed to make heroes out of members of the same Wild Bunch which director Sam Peckinpah portrayed the same year as ruthless, cold-blooded killers. This juxtaposition of humor with graphic violence (while in two disparate films) signalled a change in the way the Old West was presented. There was a cynicism which ran through society as a whole but especially in popular entertainment. William Goldman's script for Butch & Sundance was a masterpiece of wit and entertainment, as the laconic train robbers move from adventure to adventure, scheme to ill-fated scheme, until the final showdown in the Bolivian jungle town. Beatles' director Richard Lester attempted a prequel to this film, which maintained the light-hearted approach and look of the original, but lacked one main ingredient...a story! Nonetheless, 1979's Butch & Sundance: the Early Days is worth a viewing, if only to marvel at the replicant actors playing the lead roles (William Katt & Tom Berenger look just like younger versions of Newman & Redford)!
The Western seemed to disappear from the silver screen in the '80s and '90s. Replaced by spies and martial artists, cowboys were just passe. Every once in a while, someone would attempt to revive the genre. Walter Hill told the stories of the James Gang in The Long Riders (1980), Wild Bill Hickock in Wild Bill (1995) and Geronimo (1993). Geronimo was part of a series of films which attempted to tell the story of the west from the other perspective; it was a brave experiment, if not completely successful.
The superstar-filled epic Silverado (1985) (which featured a young Kevin Costner as a Li'l Joe knock-off) had more to do with Bonanza than the classic Wayne or Eastwood Westerns. It was chalked full of famous faces in cameo roles that were distracting, and the story was mundane enough to be a B-movie in the 40s, but was blown out of proportion by the budget and cast. Jackie Chan's Shanghai Noon (2000) was an interesting halfbreed of Western and Eastern martial arts, with Chan portraying an Imperial guard named Chon Wang (say it fast)!
Space limitations restrict discussion of some of the other classic Western films. John Ford's tremendous cavalry trilogy, Fort Apache (1948), She Wore a Yellow Ribbon (1949) and Rio Grande (1950); Sam Peckinpah's Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid (1973); Eastwood's The Outlaw Josie Wales (1976) and Kevin Costner's production of Lawrence Kasdan's Wyatt Earp (1995) come to mind, and an amazing, subtle Canadian film about the end of the train robbing era, The Grey Fox (1982), deserves special attention, at the least for the remarkable performance of Richard Farnsworth.
When I was a boy, the Western was everywhere. Today the genre is resting. I can't help but think that it will revive itself again. The time is right for heroes -- strong, silent types who see injustice and seek to right it; men and women who stand tall in the saddle, who do what they're expected to do and ask for nothing but water for their mount... who turn and, without looking back, ride off into the sunset.