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Taming the Savage White Man

The western mythos remade in the age of Trump

“What did you expect: ‘Welcome, Sonny. Make yourself at home. Marry my daughter’? . . . You’ve got to remember that these are just simple farmers. These are people of the land. The common clay of the new west . . . You know . . . morons.”

—The Waco Kid to Black Bart in Blazing Saddles (1974)

People have been saying westerns are over for such a long time that even the act of saying they’re over is, well, over. On the face of things, the cultural coroners would seem to be right. Nowadays, moviegoers are turning out in huge numbers to Black Panther, Wonder Woman and, if the trend continues, Captain Marvel to rescue Hollywood (and maybe themselves) from pale male cultural hegemony. There’s scarcely any aesthetic trace of the frontier shoot-em-up, a genre that no less an authority than the sainted French film critic André Bazin declared in a 1953 essay to be “the American film par excellence.” Today’s stoic-yet-bloody fables of the conquered American West are, at best, studies in curatorial indie homage. At worst, they’re straddling oblivion.

Even so, some of the homages are truly distinguished. Last year, Jacques Audiard, a sixty-six-year-old French director of such critically acclaimed contemporary fare as 2009’s A Prophet and 2012’s Rust and Bone, submitted his own contribution to the genre. The Sisters Brothers’ poker-faced grit, polished production values, and dryly idiosyncratic storytelling were redolent of the edgy, crisply wrought, and irony-laden 1950s westerns of Budd Boetticher and Anthony Mann. It was, by my own reckoning, one of 2018’s best movies—and, from the box office numbers, one of the year’s biggest duds, grossing in a theatrical run of less than ten weeks roughly $9 million against its $40 million budget.

Such dismal returns tempt the unwary and indifferent to get that plywood casket ready for the western movie’s sorry cadaver. But while today’s film industry isn’t exactly awash in dusty boy-meets-horse epics, the western’s spirit is everywhere—not unlike one of the mid-twentieth century’s great augurs of the vanishing frontier, the ghost of Tom Joad.

Cowboy Country

Indeed, the closer you look at recent film history, the more you marvel at the sheer adaptability of our fables of interior conquest—power-mongering sagas that were supposed to be laid to rest with the Vietnam era’s bloated presumptions about manifest destiny and frontier justice. But even in the wake of the My Lai massacre and the Tet offensive, American filmgoers weren’t ready to let go of their cowboy dreams just yet. The western genre got an extensive makeover in the wake of the sixties, featuring full-frontal attacks on white hubris (1970’s Little Big Man, 1974’s Blazing Saddles) and canny countercultural sendups of traditional gun-toting heroism (1969’s Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, 1971’s McCabe & Mrs. Miller). There were also extended, sobering renderings of the American West in the mode of gore-stained elegy (1972’s Bad Company and The Great Northfield Minnesota Raid, along with practically every Sam Peckinpah movie set in pre-World War I America).

The western’s spirit is everywhere—not unlike one of the mid-twentieth century’s great augurs of the vanishing frontier, the ghost of Tom Joad.

But such formal stabs at modernizing shoot-’em-ups also concealed a deeper truth about the genre. Nearly all the western’s key narrative elements—from righteous individual vendettas to barn-raising evocations of the continent-settling communities—were absorbed by such far-flung big-screen series as the Dirty Harry cycle or the Star Wars chronicles. And don’t call everything since 1969 a “revisionist” age for westerns, at least not around me. As near as I can tell, the genre has been perpetually revising itself at least as far back as John Ford’s foundational 1939 character study Stagecoach up through Nicholas Ray’s bonkers high-Freudian gender-anxiety opera Johnny Guitar (1954) and ever onward toward the Coen Brothers’ Netflix-streaming pastiche of irony, sawdust, and gore, The Ballad of Buster Scruggs.

So the western’s not going anywhere, no matter how many Sisters Brothers are swept beneath the box-office rapids. But what does go all over the map and back again are people’s attitudes toward westerns. Since roughly the late 1960s, you’ve had to be careful when bringing up western movies in some circles. In duly self-congratulatory liberal-left circles, you could reliably expect a confessed weakness for the western to be met with a didactic reminder of the genre’s irredeemably imperialist tendencies, simplistic moralizing, and cavalier racism. You’d also be righteously informed that this latter failing was not simply restricted to the western’s rote demonization of Native Americans but also encompassed the relative invisibility and/or patronizing depictions of black, Asian, and Latinx characters. Among right-thinking people, one’s affinity for westerns had to be qualified with a “guilty pleasure” tag or, worse, a big paisley flag emblazoned with the all-purpose cultural alibi of “camp.” But no matter what politics are projected upon them, beneath however many layers of self-protective irony, westerns can still supply bracing doses of catharsis and inspiration to whoever needs them—and for whatever reason.

Marshall Law

An example: early in Showdown, Wil Haygood’s 2015 chronicle of President Lyndon Johnson’s 1967 nomination of Thurgood Marshall to the Supreme Court, you find out, when reading of Marshall’s rise to prominence as a swashbuckling civil rights attorney traveling throughout the segregated Deep South during the 1930s and 1940s, that he liked to spend long layovers between train rides going to what one of his secretaries at the time characterized as “they-went-that-a-way pictures.”

It’s a tiny detail when measured against more significant events in Marshall’s enormously consequential life. But it raises some deeply complicating thoughts around the political ramifications of the western. After all, as the genre’s many detractors on the cultural left have noted, the political worldview shared among the name-brand directors and stars who made the modern western—John Wayne, John Ford, and Randolph Scott, to name a few—veered distinctly rightward. Such figures were very far indeed from the vanguard of the civil rights struggle and likely wouldn’t be caught dead hosting Hollywood fundraisers for the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, under whose auspices Marshall had been risking life and limb to battle legally sanctioned discrimination. At the same time, though, you can readily appreciate how a steady diet of films about bold men staring down menace on the rugged frontier would fortify Marshall as he ventured into hostile courtrooms with little more than simple justice on his side. Why wouldn’t he? A man’s gotta do what a man’s gotta do! And Marshall—his last name is as relevant to this interpretation as the soundtrack of a showdown—was as ramrod-solid a believer in The Law as any white-hat-wearing, tin-badge-bearing, pistol-packing hero of a Depression-era B-western.

A man’s gotta kill what a man’s gotta kill—or does he?

In other words, the enchantments of a western movie, whatever its context or however it unravels, can be accessible to anybody’s politics. In the grip of the Hellish American Now, when every day under President Donald J. Trump’s administration seems to bring hot, fresh lies and evasions of responsibility, westerns can provide the same kind of reinforcement as they did to Marshall—and, I’m willing to guess, to a new generation of left-leaning activists steeling themselves against indignities to common decency. It’s easy enough to dismiss westerns as relics of a reactionary age, and it takes no small leap of the imagination to think of the western movie mythos as an outlet for antifascist thinking and for coping—perhaps even contending—with whomever’s showing up for the president’s rallies. How different, after all, are some of these folks from the provincial rabble refusing to help Gary Cooper’s Marshal Will Kane stare down criminal gangs in 1952’s High Noon? Native Americans weren’t the only “savages” that needed taming in the civilizing crucibles depicted by western movies.

Gun Crazy

A miniature epiphany descended on me this past summer as I watched Support Your Local Sheriff! (1969) at the end of a bone-weary-of-other-people’s-bullshit day. This was director Burt Kennedy’s wry variation of the western sub-genre in which a gun-slinging stranger is hired by jittery townspeople to occupy a sheriff’s chair whose previous occupants had terminally brief tenures because of a marauding family of entitled bullies. (The family’s name, in this case, being Danby.) James Garner brought his droll Zen-Okie brand of cagey nonchalance to the role of Jason McCullough, who accepts the badge but insists he’s only there for a while because he’s en route to Australia. Though nobody in town got around to putting bars in the jail, Temporary Sheriff McCullough manages to convince Joe (Bruce Dern), the dimmest bulb in the Danby family, to stay in his cell with little more than an ugly splotch of red paint delicately applied upon the jail floor. “Oh, that’s the poor fella who crossed the line earlier today,” a contrite Joe is told.

The Danby patriarch (an uncharacteristically snarling Walter Brennan) is not amused and demands Joe’s release from behind a revolver he’s pointing directly at the sheriff’s head. McCullough takes the unusual but effective step of putting his index finger in the gun’s barrel, where he leaves it until Daddy Danby agrees to take his own index finger off the trigger. “If that gun’d gone off, it’d have blowed right up in my face,” Danby huffs. “Wouldn’t have done my finger a helluva lot of good either,” McCullough quips. I’d seen this movie at least a half-dozen times in the last four decades and scenes like this never had let me down when I needed a giggle.

But in view of the another-day-another-mendacity political atmosphere in which I was now re-watching the film, I also picked up on an up-to-the-minute subtext: the reason Joe’s in a stir in the first place is because McCullough saw him shoot a man in cold blood and falsely claim self-defense. What’s implied here is that Joe and his grubby-wealthy kinfolk have gotten away with twisting reality around to suit their needs—that is, until somebody smarter, less credulous, and generally more prone to unruffled exasperation with empty horseshit calls them on it. I’m not sure what specific day this was, but I’m certain, given the blur of cynical dishonesty and cluelessness coming from the Trump administration, that I was, in that moment, seeing something conspicuously missing from whatever passes for public dialogue these days. Put another way, I wanted James Garner, or someone very much like him, in the Senate chambers or on a cable panel sticking his index finger directly into whichever gun barrels that Trump’s fusillades of entitled hate were poised to explode out of.

Of course, Support Your Local Sheriff! doesn’t count as a “real” western any more than Mel Brooks’s far more discursive and irreverent 1974 spoof, Blazing Saddles. Almost as much as Kennedy’s movie, however, Brooks’s roughhouse farce manages to nail down something essential in this western movie mythos even in the act of sending it up: the struggle to bring civilization, or at least civil behavior, to wild terrain abundant in savagery and bereft in due process. It’s true that the exercise of lampooning runaway greed in high places—harnessed in the film by the (whaddya know?) slithery state attorney general Hedley Lamarr (Harvey Korman) to arouse viciousness and race hatred among the lower orders in an economically challenged town—may these days sound a bit too close to home to be all that funny. It still is funny, but mostly what Blazing Saddles is, at least from the angle of the throttled American sensibility of the Trump era, is semi- prescient. One doesn’t often associate a gag-driven Mel Brooks vehicle with farseeing social criticism—that is, until one remembers that humor, especially the kind of anarchic scatology for which Brooks is venerated, emerges from a species of rage against status-quo behavior. (To paraphrase the theme song of Brooks’s prior, totally non-western period comedy, 1970’s The Twelve Chairs, expecting the worst has always proved a sounder basis for prophecy than hoping for the best.)

White Mischief

It’s hardly necessary, however, for a western to be a self-referential goof to evoke the frustrations and obstacles involved in trying to bring justice and civilization to mean, ignorant, and/or selfish white frontier people. The theme is hiding in plain sight. If you watch enough westerns, you start believing that the same basic story line is applied to every five, ten, or twenty of them. Usually there’s a mysterious stranger riding into a town or, as in the case of Shane (1953), a community of homesteaders being harassed, bullied, or threatened into forsaking their patches of land to the coarse selfish yahoo who owns it all. Sometimes, the mysterious stranger is running away from something: the law, perhaps, as in The Far Country (1954), whose protagonist, unlike Shane’s eponymous, impeccably mannered angel-in-buckskins (Alan Ladd), is a wary, jittery fellow (James Stewart, of course) whose fugitive status is arbitrarily overturned in the Klondike by a corrupt judge (John McIntire). By the third reel or so, that jurist’s far more flagrant transgressions are challenged by the erstwhile fugitive the judge exonerates—which at first bemuses then galvanizes the locals into fighting off the judge and his henchmen.

The great thing about classic westerns is the way they could empower each of us to believe that right could prevail over wrong.

Far Country was directed by the aforementioned Anthony Mann, who, along with Budd Boetticher, brought the moral ambiguities and abrasive ironies of post-World War II urban crime movies into the western genre’s more sunlit vistas. Support Your Local Sheriff’s director Burt Kennedy wrote the scripts for such Boetticher westerns as Seven Men From Now (1956), The Tall T (1957), Buchanan Rides Alone (1958), Ride Lonesome (1959), and Comanche Station (1960). These B-pictures all had Randolph Scott playing variations of the same hero-figure: laconic, vigilant, and ramrod-straight, bearing a nickel-plated voice and a sad acknowledgement of middle age and its discontents. In almost every instance, Scott’s characters had to deal with the treachery, brutality, and near-comedic misapprehensions of fellow westerners (“you know . . . morons . . . ”) who lacked his hard-won self-knowledge and sense of propriety. Blazing Saddles invoked Scott’s name with a rapturous, church-like flourish, which for those who grew up on his movies may have sounded at first like random smart-assery. But I suspect Brooks, who well understood the traditions he was mocking, knew how much his movie’s beleaguered Black Bart (Cleavon Little) may have had in common with Scott, particularly as both suffered a long string of set-tos with the genteel barbarism of hidebound townspeople. Scott may not have shared my politics, but his stoic grace, too, helps make it a little easier for me to withstand another round of Trump-enabled bullshit.

Fake Noose

In a similar vein, William Wellman’s The Ox-Bow Incident (1943), features a mean mob of townspeople that talks, or rather fulminates, itself into lynching three innocent men for a crime they not only didn’t commit but that actually never happened. The leader of the lynch party is a grim-faced, wild-eyed ex-Confederate officer named Tetley (Frank Conroy), and despite the efforts of a pair of cooler-headed drifters (Henry Fonda, Harry Morgan) to hold back the rowdy necktie party, the hanging goes ahead as scheduled. The town sheriff’s revelation of the dead men’s innocence comes too late to do any good. The original script had the sheriff telling the vigilantes he’d deny any knowledge of their crime, but Hollywood’s production code insisted that the sheriff come down harder. “God better have mercy on ya. You won’t get any from me,” the sheriff tells the mob. James Agee, reviewing the movie upon its release for The Nation, regarded it as “very firm, respectable, and sympathetic. But I still think it suffers from rigor artis.” If what Agee implied was that the movie’s moral uprightness seemed more like uptightness, then contemporary audiences will likely get that same feeling, even though the movie, coming out in the middle of a global war against fascism, struck a deep chord with audiences of the early 1940s. At times, its black-and-white photography evokes passages of terror more akin to the shadowy, cloistered aura of film noir than the western’s vaunted wide-open spaces.

A more ironic spin on Ox-Bow’s narrative came twenty-five years later with Hang Em High (1968), an early and paradigmatic Clint Eastwood movie, in which Eastwood’s Jed Cooper character is strung up by vigilantes on false charges of rustling cattle that he’d bought fair and square. But Eastwood survives—he’s cut loose and exonerated by Judge Fenton (Pat Hingle), who anoints Jed with the title of federal marshal so he can hunt down his would-be murderers. The only stipulation is that Cooper must go strictly by the book, bringing them in alive for a proper trial.

Today’s corporate system of globally marketed films is less inclined to make anything resembling a straight-on western, however complex, insurgent, or ambitious said western may be.

This was Eastwood’s first movie star turn in the United States, following the success of his Man-With-No-Name trilogy of “spaghetti westerns” for Italian filmmaker Sergio Leone. Much of the movie’s visual pace and tone attempts to emulate Leone’s flair for arid landscapes and long takes. The storytelling is far more traditional than in Leone’s A Fistful of Dollars (1964), For a Few Dollars More (1965), and The Good, The Bad and the Ugly (1966), which remain closer to the playful spirit of Kennedy’s Support Your Local Sheriff! than to Boetticher’s harder-boiled psychodramas. But Hang Em High’s moral vision is somewhat blurrier than The Ox-Bow Incident’s. One member of Jed’s lynching posse, a low-life rustler named Cooper (Bruce Dern, again), is complicit in a separate murder, and Jed employs two teenaged brothers, first-time cattle thieves, to help track Cooper down. Jed keeps another unruly mob from lynching Cooper and the boys, insisting they be brought back to trial before Fenton. The judge does try all three—and sentences them all to hang anyway. Such thematic complexities deserved a better, leaner movie than Hang Em High, but the film’s conceptual ambitions offer a persuasive argument against those who still think westerns are too simplistic to be taken seriously. In this and countless other examples, the genre’s core animating notions of law and order are challenged, transgressed, and then reinforced, sometimes in ethically questionable ways. A man’s gotta kill what a man’s gotta kill—or does he?

Not-So-Lone Gunmen

In the westerns of Howard Hawks, notions of democracy are cunningly reinforced despite the countervailing insistence by at least one character, usually played by John Wayne, that individual action has to override the popular will. In Red River (1948), Wayne is a mule-headed cattle baron who acts as his own arbitrary hanging-judge-and-jury with his employees. His ruinous, hubristic leadership of a cattle drive is opposed and then overthrown by his cooler, consensus-building surrogate son (Montgomery Clift).

But perhaps the most subversive turnaround on a western’s original intentions came a decade later with Hawks’s other western masterwork, Rio Bravo (1959). This sly, cool chamber piece was intended by both Hawks and Wayne as a rebuke to the Oscar-winning High Noon, released seven years earlier. Scripted by Carl Foreman, a victim of the Hollywood blacklist, High Noon was widely interpreted as a metaphorical attack on the blacklist and the movie industry’s craven refusal to resist the demagogic pressures of McCarthyism. Wayne, an avowed right-winger, hated the movie and wanted most of all to dismiss its depictions of a principled lawman forced to go it alone because others are too scared to help him fight evil. What if, Hawks and Wayne wondered, you had a lawman facing similar dangers who kept insisting he didn’t want any help, but kept getting it anyway?

Hence Rio Bravo’s story of Sheriff John T. Chance (Wayne) and his deputies—a toothless, talkative, and “game-legged” old coot (Walter Brennan) and a dissolute, lovelorn alcoholic (Dean Martin)—pitted against a ruthless landowner willing to do whatever it takes to spring his brother from jail, where he’s being held for murder. Chance keeps telling everybody he and his dysfunctional posse have things covered. But whether he likes it or not, he’s got additional help from a deceptively callow young cattle hand (Ricky Nelson) and a sultry cardsharp (Angie Dickinson). By the final face-off, even the hotel manager’s bringing heat to the party.

“Who else is gonna show up?” Chance blusters, though he’s finally figured out that any help is better than none at all. In this quirky twist, what was conceived as a conservative rejoinder to pious liberal self-regard becomes in its realization one of the most delightful, persuasive, and enduring briefs for cooperative endeavor over rugged individualism.

Because movies like Rio Bravo take their sweet time with character, action, and dialogue, it’s unlikely that contemporary Hollywood, which, to paraphrase the words of one veteran director, tends to shoot movies from cannons, will bother making action movies that are as alert to human possibility. Today’s corporate system of globally marketed films is less inclined to make anything resembling a straight-on western, however complex, insurgent, or ambitious said western may be. Yet there are movies staged in contemporary settings that borrow so robustly from the genre that you may as well throw in an honorary horse and deputy.

Strangers in Town

One thinks principally of the work of Taylor Sheridan, a onetime cast member of the TV series Sons of Anarchy, now better known for his work as a writer of such screenplays as the drug war chase thriller Sicario (2015) and its 2018 sequel Sicario: Day of the Soldado. He also directed his original script for 2017’s Wind River, a grisly whodunit set in the Wyoming badlands where three cops search for a rapist-killer. Sheridan weaves elements of race and class conflict into this story as deftly and pointedly here as in what I believe to have been his most resonant script so far: Hell or High Water, a 2016 cops-and-robbers thriller directed by David Mackenzie in which Texas Rangers pursue a pair of bandit brothers aggrieved by this decade’s ongoing economic fallout. Sheridan’s work carries on the legacies and austere glories of mid-twentieth century westerns while enhancing the moral conundrums and emotional complexities of their more recent descendants.

But among recent examples of modern-day western cinema, the cheekiest by far may well be Spike Lee’s BlacKkKlansman, which has some of the go-for-broke brashness and flamboyant racial humor of Blazing Saddles while also evoking the hard-wired, stranger-in-town-under-pressure elements of a Budd Boetticher-Burt Kennedy-Randolph Scott 1950s collaboration. Consider its basic storyline: a lawman walks alone into hostile western territory where not even his fellow peacekeepers entirely trust him. On his own, he sets off after a savage outlaw gang, leading a reluctant posse into covert, perilously direct engagement with the miscreants. Along the way, our hero is swept into uneasy romance with a prim local woman who, however fond she is of him, disapproves of his calling to uphold the law—a situation that only magnifies his own agonizing conflict between duty to what a man’s gotta do and that same man’s obligations to his own soul.

Tweak the plot, reorient the themes, push the time period back to about 1880-something, and you could imagine this lead role being played by Scott or any number of other fifties western stalwarts like Joel McCrea, Dana Andrews, Glenn Ford. It wouldn’t even have been that much of a stretch for Ronald Reagan, even though his imagination would likely be taxed by Lee’s unhinged-yet-based-on-real-shit narrative. And it’s safe to say that neither Reagan nor Scott and his other B-western compadres would know what to make of a protagonist like the gloriously Afro-sporting Colorado Springs police detective Ron Stallworth (John David Washington), whose hairstyle is pointedly juxtaposed with his use of a “white voice” as a subversive means of undermining the white power structure. (It bears noting that Stallworth shares this latter talent with the hero of last summer’s other Afro-modernist epic, Sorry to Bother You.)

My own enthusiasm for Lee’s movie is restrained by his customary inclination to ramp up the volume on his melodrama; by now it should be clear that I prefer my westerns, modern-day or otherwise, to be decidedly cool and dry in their execution. Lee, by contrast, is rarely happy unless and until he’s driven the last didactic message on his agenda firmly into the ground.

Nonetheless, I root for any and all efforts to bring the standard elements of the “they-went-that-a-way” movies of Thurgood Marshall’s era into greater and more direct alignment with the social, cultural, and, yes, racial polarities of the present ghastly historical moment. God knows the delusion- prone America of the Trump age could benefit greatly from any kind of civilizing suggestion that the rabble settle down and the no-good varmints pay for their crimes against sense and justice. Which is not to say that I’m pining for any particular strong silent mystery man, or woman, riding into town to clean things up; the sell-by date on that particular plot device has long passed. But the great thing about classic westerns is the way they could empower each of us, sitting rapt in dark rooms full of strangers, to believe that right could prevail over wrong. The meaning of both words may shift position over time, but dreams of justice, especially for those who acutely feel its absence in their lives, abide in many places—even, and indeed most especially, those places we’ve neglected to look or can’t imagine existing yet.