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Thursday, May 5, 2011

PERSONAL NOTE: Where Have All the Cowboys Gone?

James Dean represents the salt of the earth and the bitter pill 
of the American struggle in Giant.

I didn't always understand the Western. It seemed too select, too geared toward a certain demographic, too cliched... In the modern day of Political Correctness, watching the token battles of Cowboys vs. Indians seemed a bit silly to say the least. I was never exposed to these films, thus my curiosity and appreciation for the genre remained dormant for several years, while I studied Noir, Musicals, Horror, etc. With a little prodding from Armando Jose Prats, (a man under whom I had the privilege of studying at the good ol' University of KY and author of Invisible Natives: Myth and Identity in the American Western), my eyes were finally opened to the beauties of the Western and its many versions of the American epic. Perhaps more than any other type of cinema, the Western epitomizes, glorifies, and translates the core of Americana, while other branches of the artistic medium are left to merely dissect its mutations. At long last, I "get" the Western, and having been awarded this second sight, I have too suffered a painful repercussion, for I witness in current society a compete dearth of like films. The recent remake of True Grit by the Coen Brothers, which was widely hailed and popularly ignored, and my recent reevaluation of James Dean's last film, Giant, made me start asking questions about this filmic fiasco. As such, pardon the following tangent:

The Western is no longer comprehensible to modern audiences. Why? Because the Western by default investigates and poeticizes the American Frontier. Today, it seems like such a thing doesn't even exist, nor is it fathomable that it ever did. For those of us who came of age in the silver spoon era of the Internet, technology has become our frontier. We adventure and explore realms of megabytes, gigabytes, iPhones, iPads, faster connections, more RAM, etc, etc, etc. Our experience of human evolution is inseparable from the Computer's metamorphosis. I remember my family's first Apple computer. The thing was slow as Hell and black & white. Today, I can watch a living color movie on the Blackberry I hold in my hand. In this era, which is not about land, roads, or even outer space, our final realm of conquest is unseen to the naked eye. We travel on highways of signals and waves. We cannot make a physical pilgrimage across the microchips we depend upon; we travel only mentally. It is because of this that our appreciation of the Western has suffered. (Gary Cooper and Mary Brian in The Virginian, left)

In the filmic terrain of the wild west, land is everything (as in The Massacre, right). Americana, the masculine identity, the establishment of country, and family roots are always dissected. This represents the very establishment of our country: people making a great and daring move to the unknown, staking their claim, and creating a foundation upon which to build a life. Land, the earth, and the eternal struggle of claiming it and building upon it: that was what the West was all about. Sadly, the treatment of the American Indian was rarely portrayed with accuracy-- somehow, when history was brought to life in technicolor, the Native who had been kicked off his land was the bully, and the white man with the steel toe boots was the innocent victim. (This philosophy was later brilliantly mocked in Little Big Man). However, the ideals, if not the facts, remain in tact. Today's civilization does not face the same challenges as the frontiersman. In the beginning, we built up and out, and now that we've hit the roof on physical structure, we're downsizing. 

Strange as it sounds, Tron Legacy (left) is one of the only films that has accurately portrayed this alteration. Tron is a Cyber-Western. Because man can no longer build out literally, so he must build inwardly in the landscapes of cyberspace. An alternate universe and dimension is created in Tron-- a new America produced by Jeff Bridges's very God-like figurehead. A pure people-- natives-- is being wiped out by an invading new breed of computer-generated beings-- foreign invaders-- when a renegade outsider/cowboy saunters into town. He journeys in the name of his father to inherit the burden of the land that he made. He arrives, in the quest of his roots, to better know himself. While there is no dual at dawn with pistols, there is an electronic Circus Maximus battle with Frisbee... thingies. There are no horses, but there are magic wands that turn into motorbikes. This film was, thus, our first adventure into our new mythical, technological frontier. In a surprising sort of way, it represents our generation's Star Wars in that it has opened up a new universe for us to play in. After all, with nowhere else to go on planet earth, the only realm left for expansion seems to be that of imagination.

But does this new mutation possess the same heart and depth of its predecessor, the true American Western? The films that made heroes of John Wayne (right in Stagecoach)Gary Cooper, and Alan Ladd, were not sleek, streamlined, and pumping with adrenaline. They were dirty, gritty, violent, and brimming with an integrity that both survived and was born of these factors. Man and God, God and Country... These were things worth fighting for, which too seems like an insane proposition considering the pagan society we live in presently, where our golden idols of pop stars and green tea smoothies have eclipsed any prospect of a "higher power." If God does exist at all, he cannot exist in this America. The heavy fabric of smog, cell phone signals, and radio waves make it impossible for him to penetrate our world. And besides, we're not looking to the heavens above for guidance when we have Google. In the previously expansive continent of the unknown, America demanded His participation far more. Modern faith interprets the old faith of the Western, thus, with cynicism.

This snobbery is a shame, for Westerns are a reflection of our very nature. The society in which we currently live is unarguably the ancestor of the pioneer society. Before racism was explored in Spike Lee's Do the Right Thing, John Wayne portrayed early American prejudice in The Searchers. Before gang warfare became synonymous with inner-city life, it was graphically detailed in the violent, survivalistic camaraderie of The Wild Bunch (left). While people continue to bicker back and forth about politics-- left wing, right wing, who's right, who's wrong-- they sometimes forget that at one point there were no "wings" at all; that our entire political system, government, and right to a free life was not born in a day. This subject too is showcased in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, where structure, order, and bravery overcome lawlessness and subjugation; where man's ability to govern himself and escape oppression reveals itself in the establishment of government.

Giant is a film that reflects all of these qualities. While it is not remembered as the pinnacle Dean film, an honor that belongs to Rebel Without a Cause, it is just as important to our cinematic history and just as indicative of our cultural history. The small town of Marfa, and indeed the whole state of Texas, was not initially keen on the idea of this famous novel being turned into a movie. They felt that Edna Ferber's account of their lifestyle was negative and accusatory. However, director George Stevens used his charm to convey to the locals that he was dedicated to telling their own story, a faithful and true depiction of country life and morality, and not a glamorized Hollywood concoction. His diligent striving for this authenticity is one of the many contributing factors that has allowed Giant to maintain its classic stature. Stevens asked locals to teach his actors how to speak with the proper Texan twang, he used them as advisers on farm life, and many of these small town people served as Extras in the big Hollywood film. Most particularly, the Marfa community embraced James Dean, who probably spent more time with the cowboys, who taught him to ride and lasso, than he did with the rest of his cast. He studied their accents until his original Indiana drawl was drawn out into the bashful and broken Southern dialect of the tragic hero Jett Rink.

The film's themes were universal: racism, interracial romance, honor, wealth, roots, gender roles, family, and above all land. Cowboy and rodeo man Bob Hinkle was proud to refer to his new friend Jimmy (left) as a "good ol' boy," and it was because of his instruction that James so adeptly stole one famous scene from powerhouse actor Rock Hudson: while Jordan Benedict (Rock) tries to outwit Jett (Jimmy) from a piece of land, offering him money instead, Jett barely listens, playing all the while with a piece of rope. He then stands, performs a little trick in which he ties a knot in mid-air, politely refuses the dough, keeps his land, and exits with his now notorious Jett Rink wave. This, to the locals, was Texas: a simple man, building himself up from nothing, who knew that there was more value and dignity in the soil beneath his feet than in all of the money in the world. Of course, the opposing forces of Jett and Jordan are later inverted. After Jett strikes oil, his greed and need for power, his desire to one-up Jordan (the man who had it all: the land, the money, and the woman of his dreams), destroys him, while the older Jordan unlearns his old prejudices, adapts to the changing times, and finds true honor inside himself after he witnesses the fruits of his labor maturing into a different generation of life-- one that he still loves, because it is of his blood.

Another important moment comes from Elizabeth Taylor, who takes one of the first feminist stances in Western cinema history when she defies her own stereotype (right with Rock). From the beginning, her culture and forward-thinking politics combat her new husband Jordan's old-fashioned ways. It is she who enters the ghettos of the Mexican laborers; it is she who talks to her servants as equals. It is she who too stands up against a crowd of smoking men, whose conversation she would like to share. After she is insulted by them, told not to worry her "pretty, little head" about politics, she snaps back. "You mean my pretty, empty head, don't you!?" (Only Bette Davis can match Liz in her bitchy retorts). Liz as Leslie Benedict too represents the eternal mother, one who not only nurtures her children's wishes, even when they digress from old traditions, but embraces Jett and his need to better himself, and indeed envelopes the whole community as it struggles to thrive. Giant, in cinematic history, thus remains a giant, for not only does it explore old American themes, but it expands upon them, breaks them, and translates them to future generations. We recognize the battles of our forefathers while honoring them with change. We evolve, yet maintain our roots.

This is what is lacking today. There are no roots. There is no history. Every day is brand new. Thus, there is no room for the Cowboy. His struggles are forgotten, and his battles of saddle and spur are, in turn, received as visual gibberish. He is as mythic as Zeus on Mt. Olympus. In the old West, the cowboy was God, even when sitting and smoking in his little shack, watching the sun rise and fall, or riding off into the sunset. He had what we do not, which is an America of the earth, not an America at the push of a button. Though the cowboy is the figure that will forever represent the heart of America, he exists today as the mysterious foreigner who does not fit into modern movies. Today, we are concerned with action; yesterday, man was defined by his actions.

Shane (Alan Ladd) has trouble leaving behind little Joey.

 Shane perhaps best epitomizes the last hurrah of the cowboy, with Alan Ladd's Shane riding into town, bringing with him a history of violence, yet an honor and a dignity that shakes up and alters local life. His brief presence forever changes the land he has set foot upon. But, at the end, he must leave. He must bow his head and ride away, for he has nothing more to teach. What is done with the knowledge he has left behind is up to those who remain. He rides off into the distance to new territory, but perhaps more symbolically to Heaven. His disappearance leaves behind a vacancy, a curiosity. Was he a man, or was he a ghost? Whatever the case, he stands as the spirit of America, a land that, like the Lost City of Atlantis, can only be visited in the movies.


  1. What a great piece of analysis. I hate to sound like an "old guy," but I think the rootlessness of our society today is going to an accelerating decay of our art and culture. The fall of the classic Western is a small sign of it, and you've pointed that out with great accuracy.

  2. Steve, it is good to know that others are echoing my sentiments! I appreciate your words. Thank you.

  3. Another wonderful, thoughtful post. At the risk of sounding too social media-ish, I wish your blog had a "like" button for posts, because sometimes I want to let you know how much I enjoy/agree with you, but I don't always have much to add! :)

    1. Thanks! Not a bad idea, really... Maybe there is a way to add that in. I know some people do the google +1 thing, but I'm not sure if that's the same thing. I do have the Facebook share button at the bottom of every post should you wish to use it though! :) I'm just happy you visit. Thanks, sweet lady!