The Zen of Watching Westerns
When Contemplating Art Just Ain't Enough
By: Martin Mugar - 11/12/2013
For Mugar it all started as a kid with Hopalong Cassidy.
The Marlborough man conflated smoking with testosterone.
The master of frontier violence Sam Peckinpah.
The Wild Bunch as high art.
The Duke as an American icon.
I am taking a break from fine art and western philosophy to write about the philosophy of Westerns. The ones I have seen lately have impressed me with the depth and complexity of their understanding of the human condition. I grew up with the TV Westerns: Cheyenne, Maverick, Bonanza, and Gunsmoke, but I have no recollection of watching them at the movies. I do recall that during a hospitalization at the age of five for a tracheotomy I had an argument with another patient about whether to watch Howdy Doody or Hop Along Cassidy. I wanted Howdy Doody and he wanted Hop Along Cassidy. The latter with his ten-gallon hat already seemed dated to this five year old. I don’t recall who won that argument.
That there was something more to them than the idealization of the Marlboro man in the wide open spaces of Monument Valley became obvious to me when a Polish friend in Paris, Bogdan Borkowski, a filmmaker and photographer, who went on to document the Solidarity uprising (I have a picture of him with Lech Walesa somewhere), invited me to participate in his very private ritual, which involved a screening of Peckinpah’s “The Wild Bunch”.
Drinking rectified vodka ahead of time, which is almost 200 proof, we prepared ourselves for the delirium of the last scene, where the Mexican Federales are picked off and fall from the rooftops of the Mexican town they are holding hostage. During this scene Bogdan shouted out at the top of his lungs in utter approval of the massacre. I don’t recall the response of the other theatre goers; maybe his cries were masked by the sound of the machine gun fire, but for an outrageously disruptive public display it ranks up there with Charles Giuliano cracking jokes about the play we were watching during a performance at the A.R.T. and getting the audience immediately around us to laugh in approval.
For Bogdan the over the top delirium of “the Wild Bunch”, his cheering on of the massacre was a purge of all those years of emotional repression and enforced sadness in Poland. Under the Communist regime, one’s emotions were always in check. It was PC run amok. What did the authorities know about you? Who was in the Party and who wasn’t? Were you going to end up in prison for a seemingly benign comment about the regime? There was little personal wealth to allow for any self-indulgence. At a restaurant once in Paris, the waiter asked us what we wanted for desert. Bogdan, in a typical gesture of excess, ordered another round of steak. Poland was a world of enforced equality, where gray was the operative color of the scenery and the soul.
I came across a poster on the Internet from the era of Solidarity in Poland. To promote its cause it borrowed an image from “High Noon” of Gary Cooper striding down the center of town. While the Americans at the time were promoting a notion of détente in their dealings with the Soviets, the citizens of Soviet controlled countries were looking to symbols and stories of raw individualism from the West for inspiration in their struggle against the totalitarian regime. It is a film that is quintessentially American, and, although not chosen by Bogdan for his blow out, it is even more iconic than the “Wild Bunch” of the struggle of the individual against the oppressive weight of the group. My recollections of the “Wild Bunch” are thirty- five years old. If I can discuss “High Noon” in some depth, it is because it shows up at least once a week on cable.
Being an artist, a rather solitary profession, I identified with its theme of the loner, who is willing to risk his life for what he thinks is right. The depiction of the crowd, which only thinks of material wealth and comfort and seeks the easy way out of the impending crisis, is well drawn and accurate. Most people in the town believe the arrival of a criminal, who has just been released from prison before the end of his sentence for murder by a weak kneed judge does not concern them. It was the Sherriff Kane (Gary Cooper) who put him away and it is Kane he wants, not the town’s folk. They tell Kane, who is about to leave on a honeymoon with Mrs. Kane(Grace Kelley), to leave town, hoping it will deflate the impending crisis.
Frank Miller, the bad guy, disrupted the life of the town’s folk the last time around, making it “unsafe for women and children” as they say, although the smarmy hotel manager seems to think the rough and ready style that Miller fostered made town life a lot more exciting and lucrative, especially for the undertaker. However, with sidekicks like the sinister (I don’t think he speaks a word) looking Lee Van Cleef, waiting at the depot for Miller’s return on the noon train, things probably wont turn out too well for town folk if Kane leaves. Kane looks world-weary; every step he takes is slow and measured. Abandoned by the townsfolk, he then has to fight Lloyd Bridges, one of his deputes, who wants Cooper to leave, so he can have his day in the sun alone to prove his mettle. The sense of utter fatigue and the raw drive that keeps him going is inspirational. Like all the Westerns I have seen, people are transformed by these existential crises. How they respond changes their lives and those around them for the better.
Religion also plays an interesting role in several of the Westerns I have seen, where it is perceived as providing comfort for the sheepfold. The minister at the church, where the whole town is worshipping that ominous Sunday morning, is against violence on principle, but allows Kane nonetheless to make his case to echort the parishioners to defend the town. One of the town fathers seems to agree that they must support the Sherriff as he begins his speech only to end it by saying it would be bad PR for the town’s economy if the shoot out takes place. Kelley, who plays Kane’s wife, has lost family to gun violence and has converted to Quakerism.She abandons Kane and prepares to leave town on the next train. At the depot, she finds herself, surrounded by Miller’s sidekicks, waiting for Miller to arrive. Kane is abandoned by everyone.The level of anxiety mounts as the clock moves closer to high noon.
Cooper’s ex–lover, Helen Ramirez, who is also the ex-lover of the antagonist is leaving town on the same train that Miller is arriving on. Earlier at the saloon she owns, Ramirez meets Mrs. Kane and tells her in no uncertain terms she should stand by her man. At the train station, when Kelly hears that a fight has broken out, she runs furiously back into town. Kelley abandons her religious dogma, and kills the Miller, just as he is about to take down Kane in what is the deciding moment of the shoot out.
Religion is perceived as irrelevant in this film for not seeing their prohibition against killing in the context of society as a whole, where murder and mayhem and outright sadism are the standard mode of operation of the bad guys. The only way to control them is through the bold actions of the courageous few who step up to the plate. The minister, who lets Kane interrupt his Sunday sermon to make an appeal to the townsfolk for more deputies, conveys his helplessness in the face of the impending arrival of Frank Miller, when he says he is constrained by his faith to encourage violence. All he can say is: “I am sorry”. One message of the movie is that you don’t have to embrace religion to do good. Life is messy and to maintain a semblance of order, sacrifices have to be made. The hero is self-less in a way that all religious doctrine seems to encourage. In the final showdown Kane is bereft not only of the support of the people but also of any excess of bravado. There is no swagger in his gestures, just a man doing his job. But I suspect that this selflessness has different origins than the selflessness of a monk or a saint. It may have its origins in a notion of the warrior, or of feudal knights, as depicted in ‘The Seven Samurai’, which provides the story line for “the Magnificent Seven”. Their values derive from their selflessness and loyalty to the feudal lords. Self-discipline and emotional control were the code of honor crucial to their success as guardians of their lords, that prepared them to act efficiently and forcefully at a moments notice. Their code of honor states implicitly: slovenliness and lack of self-control are sins to be eradicated in oneself and in others. Like Kane They no longer act for either the town folk or some higher authority but to live up to some personal code of honor.
“High Noon” has been a political football from its first showing. The screenwriter was black listed during the McCarthy era, which leads some commentators to see it as a commentary on McCarthyism. Although Gary Cooper appearing before HUAC didn’t name names, he is reported to have said he didn’t know much about Communism but as far as he could see “it was not on the level.” John Wayne, appalled by the possible allegory of McCarthyism in “High Noon” and the inability of Kane to drum up resistance to Frank Miller had Howard Hawks make “ Rio Bravo” where Wayne succeeds in putting together a ragtag group of deputes to fend off the bad guys.
“High Noon” was a favorite of both Reagan and Clinton, who frequently showed it in the White House. But the essence of the film is a critique of any sort of groupthink that threatens to undermine notions of fairness and decency. To be chosen by Solidarity for a symbol of its uprising clearly skews the film in my opinion toward an anti-communist line.
My artist friend Addison Parks is a fan of Westerns. He recommended “Shane” which like Peckinpah’s “Ride the High Country” deal with the moral ambiguity of the gunslinger. They are referred to as guns for hire .The term may imply that thye are amoral but in the end they tend to risk their life for a sense of what is right. But what is right and how do you know it? The film deals with the historical transition from open range grazing to farming. One is no better than the other. These protagonists are not ideologues nor do notions of Marxist inevitability make them students of history. In “Shane”, as in the “Seven Samurai”, the farmers are perceived as vulnerable and in need of protection: the very group nature of their activity and the required patience and gentle care for the crops and cattle make them ill-suited for self-defense. Of course it helps that Shane in the past had been a lover of the woman, the farmer’s wife. Again, the decision to protect the farmer is totally personal.
There is always a code in play that is adhered to. In “Ride the High Country” all the same themes reappear that we saw in “High Noon”: the limitations of religion, the necessity of decision and the moral ambiguity of what is right and wrong. The code seems to say that there is no moral relativism in the face of moral sloth and sadism toward the weak. When the younger sidekick in “Ride the High Country” hits on the girl who has joined up with them to escape her fundamentalist father’s beatings, the two older gunslingers put him in his place with a few judiciously placed punches. It is intriguing to me that the two actors Joel McCrea and Randolph Scott are in there sixties. Any superiority they have over those younger than them obviously does not come from raw strength, but from being more seasoned and wise in the way they use their limited strength. When the miner, that the girl is trying to rejoin and ends up marrying, turns out to be a moral reprobate, McCrea and Scott, through subterfuge, succeed in annulling the marriage. They subvert societies’ law entrusted to the slovenly lush of a justice of the peace, by forcing him at gunpoint to foreswear the validity of his legal authority to perform marriages. Their personal code is more important than the laws of society.
It is interesting that just annulling the wedding cannot enforce the code in the end. It has to be enforced in a battle of wills and ruse. Enforcing the code is not an academic exercise: Evil is never seen for what it is until good eliminates it. Of course sacrifice is inevitable. In the final shoot out, the dissolute miners, who have learned of the ruse used to annul the marriage, have come to the woman’s farm to retrieve the young bride. They kill her father and in the shoot out Joel McCrea dies, probably the most noble of the three. The most intriguing aspect of the story is that Randolph Scott conspired to steal the gold that McCrea has hired him to help bring down from the miner’s camp. He is arrested and tied up by McCrea, a former lawman,who will turn him in when they get back to civilization. He escapes but in the end reappears to fight in defense of McCrea, the girl and the young sidekick at the farm. Even the self-serving plans of Scott do not impair his sense of right and wrong when it comes to protecting Joel McCrea, the girl and his former sidekick.
The girl ends up with the young sidekick, who is no longer the randy young man he was at the beginning of the film. Like a scene out of Shakespeare the wrongs of the world are righted; the woman finds the right man..
The films I saw in college at the film society were all European. They didn’t show Westerns. Just Bergman, Fellini, Truffaut, and Godard. “The 400 Blows” was always my favorite and still is. It is a film, whose plot is always rolling down hill and inexorably ends with Antoine Doisnel having nowhere to go. French films have a knack for choosing gloomy endings. I remember seeing “Sideways” with Paul Giamatti, which has a choice of having either a French or American ending. I was betting on the French ending (he would lose the girl). I was wrong. The subject of the film may have been about a French grape, pinot noir, but the “terroir” was clearly American.
There is sometimes in European, films especially the Latin ones, a notion of grace that seems to bless and raise up the heavy sensuality of the lives of the characters, such as moments of transcendence at the end of “La Dolce Vita”, when Mastroianni, after a night of carousing, sees a blissfully innocent girl on the beach that puts all his sensuality in doubt. Is she a reincarnation of Dante’s Beatrice? a glimpse of transcendent beauty that lifts the individual out of the mundane. Catholic grace still plays a role in this most earthbound of filmmakers.
The Europeans have a bias toward the metaphysical. Bergman in the “Seventh Seal “struggles with “Death”. Godard embraces nihilism to such a degree that every gesture and every scene in “Pierrot Le Fou” seems to radiate emptiness and futility. All the activity fits into the ideological mold. The same can be said of ”Mon Oncle d’Amerique”, which rigidly has each character portray the grim materialist philosophy of scientific Marxism. It is interesting to put the American and European movies side by side. Postwar the horrors of the devastation, which America had not experienced on its soil, were still fresh in the minds of the European filmmakers. Two hundred years of revolution and two world wars have made them skeptical of big political aspirations. In the sixties America had civil rights to aspire to, the protest against the war in Vietnam and the hippies romantic return to the land and nature. Except for the short lived burst of freedom on May ’68, and their obsession to transcend their violent history with technocratic management, the Europeans have little to get them excited.They tend to look to America for their enthusiasms. It was the German filmmaker who said he was saved by Rock and Roll. The French films have of course have adultery. Life always seduces, tantalizes you with its endless illusions. The message of these European films is that life is either surface or nothingness or surface and nothingness combined as in Godard . Truffaut’s ending to “Jules and Jim” makes a sudden chilling shift from surface to nothingness with the cremation of their lover of their ménage a trois. Or it is the heavy nostalgia in Truffauts’s “Stolen Kisses” with the Charles Trenet’s theme song “What is left of our love” The mood is bittersweet.
I commented once to my French brother in law (my wife’s’ brother to be distinguished from my sister’s husband who is French and interestingly enough a fan of American westerns) on how I liked the honest gloomy endings of French films. His take was less sanguine: it was a reflection of the rigidity of the French social structure. The society was and still is hierarchical and, when you can’t move up you either go round and round on a carousel or just down. What is done to the young Doinel in “The 400 Blows” is just the nature of things. There is no critique of the system or an attempt to see his fate as possibly turning out better if the reform schools reformed themselves. The society is structured with a sort of original sin, which ignores the individual for the sake of some perverse sense of order and hierarchy. Antoine is born into an unloving family, an unloving world. He struggles against it but is entrapped like a fly in a spider’s web. When Doinel grows up in “Stolen Kisses” he is totally disaffected and disinterested in pulling his weight in the world of commerce. He is in love with love. Life is a carrousel. It is his turn to go around on the circle of life. The options are either down or around but not up.*
Growing up, the messages I got from the boy’s prep school I attended and my family were clearly on the side of machismo. We still had a religiously oriented daily chapel service and sports taught us that life was the constant agonic battle against ones peers and oneself: Self-surpassing, self-discipline, added to academic self-consciousness. In reaction, I was attracted to the irony of Woody Allen, the nihilism of “the Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner” or the romanticism of nature in the novels of Knut Hamsun. But you can’t live your life successfully beyond a certain age with any of these principals as guides. Pragmatically, there are always decisions to be made on how you interact with other people. Cynicism, a gloomy melancholic stance, or the pagan love of the wild are of no help in the day to day navigating of the politics of ones multiple societal roles of parent, spouse and the work place. Although the typical character of Westerns has failed in marriage, they do provide a model for acting within society without having to feel like you have been bought and sold by some higher social order. You do good, you save the day. The only fantasy that does not have any practical relevance to day to day life is riding off into the sunset.
*my wife and I have noticed the recurrence of people falling into comas in recent French films. It is a sort of running joke when a film starts whether someone will become comatose. Now what does that stay about European culture!