The Classic American Western As Emblem of Historic American Culture
Since the beginning of the twentieth century one of the newer art forms and expressions of our culture has been cinema—“motion pictures.” It was the novelty of live theater and acting captured as moving images in film and presented on a screen. In many respects, like other art forms, film represents what is happening in our culture. At its very finest it is capable of shining a vivid light on our beliefs and values, portraying them, dissecting them, and, like other art forms, it may be used as an instrument to affect or even shape our outlook and our politics.
The first significant commercial film produced and shown in the United States was The Great Train Robbery (1903), starring Bronco Billy Anderson. It was just twelve minutes long. American film culture began, thus, with a Western, and, indeed, it is arguable that the unique cinematic contribution made by the American film industry was the Western (according to Elia Kazan). It was from the classic Western that crime dramas and adventure films were spun off. One could well argue that major American crime movies up through, say, The Untouchables or even some more recent representations were “Westerns dressed up with cops and robbers.” And, those magnificent adventure films about space exploration—the Star Wars and Star Trek series—are they not Westerns transported into the relative infinity of space and time, with our unquenchable desire to explore new frontiers “where no man has gone before”?
It is the Western—and its multiple, modern cinematic godchildren—that represents so well and encapsulates so aptly the movement of American history, the aspirations and insatiable curiosity of our citizens, and just how we as a people overcame various challenges in building what became the United States of America. It is a story of conquering frontiers as a symbol for the growth and evolution of the American nation. It offers graphically and sometimes with violence the effects of right and wrong actions, and the absolute requirement for law and order in any civilized society. And it is, at its best, a chronicle of great persons—some real, some idealized, others made up—by whose hands a nation was fashioned.
We hold those persons up as heroes and as models. Thus, a Davy Crocket, a Wild Bill Hickok, a Sam Houston, a Buffalo Bill, a Jesse James—all real flesh-and-blood people in our past—have vividly emerged from the pages of our history books and have entered our consciousness, into our everyday lives. Sometimes, as in the case of a Billy the Kid or maybe the Clantons of Old Tombstone, they become iconic representations of the “bad guys”—of the less savory symbols of our history. But in all cases, they have become reference points that make our history alive and tangible.
Recently, The Playlist published a list of what it called “The 25 Best Westerns of All Time.” Reading that list is to understand that as much of Hollywood has moved strongly to the ideological Left over the past decades, the Hollywood Western also reflects that movement in the subjects and messages it seeks to portray. Indeed, the fact that since the late 1960s and early 1970s the Western has receded as a major film genre is, in itself, significant. For the Western, more than other cinematic manifestations, is autobiographical about the growth, trials, and, above all, successes of and pride in the American experience. Since certainly the late 1960s, Vietnam, and the great success of cultural Marxism in our society, the role of the Western as a reflection of the triumph of traditional “good” over “evil,” of the ever-advancing and intrepid frontiersman triumphing over natural hazards, over the elements and fierce aborigines, has receded. America no longer celebrates those heroes; if it celebrates “heroes” at all, it is the vaunted pioneers in civil rights, a Susan B. Anthony or a Nat Turner, or hitherto unknown feminists (who, save for political correctness, should have remained unknown).
Right and wrong, black and white are muddied; we live in an age of the anti-hero, where inherited and tried-and-true standards of morality and moral conduct are not only shunted aside, but often ridiculed.
What does John Wayne in, for example, The Searchers or She Wore A Yellow Ribbon, have to tell us in our society now where even the concept of duty and obedience to moral right is largely downplayed and considered unsophisticated by the dominant culture?
In one of the last great classic Western epics, Sam Peckinpah’s Ride the High Country from 1962, Joel McCrea is asked by his co-star, Randolph Scott, if he doesn’t really want more in life than just what appears to Scott to be his drudgery as a lonely, low paid deputy marshal. McCrea’s character, Steve Judd, responds laconically in one of those immortal lines that epitomizes both the representative and the didactic roles of the American Western: “All I want is to enter my house justified.” That is, I want to fulfill my duty, my God-given duty and appointed role in society, to obey and keep the law, to receive the precious legacy of the culture I inherited, perhaps add to it a bit, and then pass it on, unsullied, to my children and my posterity.
Is this not the message that the classic Western offered us, and, as well, was inculcated into the imaginations of millions of young boys and girls, as well as older adults, during its heyday? Was this not the message of Matt Dillon on TV’s “Gunsmoke” or Ben Cartwright of the Ponderosa?
In that incredibly rich John Ford Western, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, also from 1962, after Jimmy Stewart has recounted to the assembled newsmen the long history of how he almost inescapably took the credit for John Wayne’s gun down of the infamous bandit Liberty Valance (played deliciously by Lee Marvin) and how it propelled him to fame and to the United States Senate—and how what has been believed for years was essentially built on a legend, a stunned news reporter replies: “This is the West, sir. When legend becomes fact, print the legend.”
America—the America we have loved and wish to preserve and restore—has been dying a slow death for years for lack not only of genuine heroes, but for lack of sometimes shadowy, often times mythical, legends. For our society, our culture, is not only built on the quantifiable advances of science and materiality, or on the history of new civil rights laws, or on the growth of the sports and entertainment industry. Every culture has its legends, its quasi-mythical past that inspires it and adds a certain attractive richness and purpose to its existence. Without the great Norse Sagas of Scandinavia, or the legend of King Arthur of Britain, or the story of Pelayo in Spain, something integral, something very real and essential in the history of those entities would be lacking.
I remember going to see Ride the High Country with my dad at the old Ambassador Theater in downtown Raleigh. It was one of those indelible and intensely moving experiences that always remains with me. My father, growing up in the Charlotte area, had actually known the family of Randolph Scott, so the event was special for him. After the movie, he took the time to explain to me that the Scott character who, initially, had skipped out on McCrea but returned to help him fight one last battle with the bad guys (led by James Drury), had earned redemption and paid the price for his “sin,” by returning. McCrea, in one of the most memorable death scenes in all film, has a final conversation with Scott. Scott tells him: “Don’t worry, I will take care of everything.” (Including getting the gold shipment back into rightful hands.) McCrea replies: “Heck, I always knew you would—you just forgot for a while.”
Blessed are those who have the opportunity to repay the price for evil in this life—that was a message I took away from it. In a marvelous film representation, two old cowboys brilliantly and wonderfully illustrated and taught much about duty in life, about the importance of complying with our obligations, and, finally, about redemption for the sins we have committed.
Back then there were dozens of films coming out of Hollywood each year that represented what was noble and right in our history and that served as teaching models as we reached manhood. We wanted to be Gene Autry—we thought Matt Dillon the finest lawman ever—we laughed out loud with the lovable Hoss Cartwright and Gabby Hayes—we held up John Wayne as our national hero, whether on a horse out West or aboard a World War II battle wagon afloat. Tell me who society’s heroes are, and I will tell you what that society values—and that society’s future.
Those classic Westerns continue to be popular, although you wouldn’t know it from the Academy Awards or the hoopla generated by contemporary Hollywood. I remember a left-leaning film critic remarking in condescending tones last year that in all likelihood those much-abused “deplorables” who ended up voting for Donald Trump were probably “the same people who like old John Wayne Westerns and wanted to be Roy Rogers when growing up.”
I think he was right; but for the wrong reasons. For many of the “deplorables” are people who grew up with the inherited moral consciousness, a sense of right and wrong, essentially a religious sense, that had given birth and admirable vitality to this nation, but which is sorely lacking among so many of our fellow citizens today. Mention John Wayne, Audie Murphy or Clint Eastwood (of Outlaw Josey Wales fame) to a “deplorable” of a certain age, and you get a smile of acknowledgement and agreement. I don’t know many liberals who like Fort Apache….
To enliven the moral imagination and to also appreciate the legacy of our endangered culture there is no better and no simpler way than to engage in viewing the best of classic Westerns.
And, so, I’d like to offer a short list of some of the finer Western films out there, all available on DVD. Some are catchable occasionally on the TCM and Encore Westerns channels. The list is mine, and you may have your own favorites.
First, the collaboration of director John Ford and John Wayne was truly unique in cinematic history. Some of their finest films are: The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, which has to rank near the top of any list of great Westerns. Then, there is the cavalry trilogy from the late 1940s (Fort Apache, Rio Grande, and She Wore A Yellow Ribbon). None of these films is politically-correct—consider the band playing “Dixie” at the cavalry pass-by at the end of Rio Grande or the moving respect given to deceased former Confederate general “Private John Smith” (aka, Rome Clay) in She Wore A Yellow Ribbon. Critics generally consider Stagecoach and The Searchers to be the best Ford/Wayne collaborations, and, again, political correctness and modern egalitarianism find no defenders therein. Rather, obedience to duty, moral courage, loyalty to one’s state and family—these are the virtues celebrated and heralded.
The late Professor Mel Bradford once told me that the John Wayne vehicle, Red River, was his favorite film, and I can see why, as it is the story of post-War Between the States Texas and the great legendary cattle drives. But also it unravels in detail conflicting loyalties, the father and son relationship, the belief in honor and in keeping one’s word as a bond of trust.
I have mentioned Sam Peckinpah’s Ride the High Country, with Randy Scott and Joel McCrea, both, by the way, hard core conservatives politically, as were the vast majority of Western actors. Right before playing in Ride the High Country, Scott did a series of seven lean Westerns with director Budd Boetticher, beginning with Seven Men from Now and ending with Comanche Station, each recounting the story of a man alone against the elements and against those who would stop him: always there was duty to be fulfilled and honor to be kept.
Many Westerns are, to be correct, “Southern Westerns” that use the War Between the States as an essential backdrop, an integral “player” in the plot and action. Thus, such standout films as Jesse James (with Tyrone Power, Henry Fonda, Randolph Scott), The Return of Frank James (with Fonda), Run of the Arrow (with Rod Steiger),The True Story of Jesse James (with Robert Wagner and Jeffrey Hunter), Rebel in Town (with John Payne) and the largely unknown, but personal favorite, Rocky Mountain (with Errol Flynn and Slim Pickens) are movies that at the least present the Southern viewpoint, unmarred by modern political correctness or the cultural Marxist fascination about race that everything must revolve around that subject.
James Garner is well-known for his portrayal in TV’s “Maverick” series, but he also starred in several underrated oaters, most notably Hour of the Gun from 1967, a kind of continuation of the classic 1950s Gunfight at the O.K. Corral. Featuring Garner, Robert Ryan and Jason Robards (as Doc Holliday), it continues the famous O. K. Corral narrative to its deadly conclusion. At first ignored by film critics, it has gained in reputation in recent years. It’s one of my favorites as a superb study of how Wyatt Earp’s (Garner’s) character changes over time and through tragedy.
Two more John Ford creations fill out this short list, and they both emphasize a fundamental moral understanding—that underlying and undergirding the basis of our culture there is a religious sensibility. First, there is his 1948 version of Three Godfathers, again with Wayne and also Ward Bond and Harry Carey Jr. (Ford has his famous “stock company” of dependable and outstanding actors), with its deeply Christian symbolism of penance and redemption. And, then, Wagon Master (with Carey, Bond and a young Ben Johnson), a lyrical chronicle of pilgrims searching for that ideal valley, that eventual home where they may set down roots and raise their families under both Natural and Divine Positive law. In so many words, is it not the story of the American experience, of blood and land, and rootedness and faith?
We cannot separate our politics from our culture and history. The culture of our society reflects in large measure the religious outlook we have and exhibit. As Cardinal John Henry Newman observed more than a century and a half ago: political issues always reflect an essentially religious question at their base.
Classic Westerns offer insight into who we have been as a people, our hopes and aspirations, our trials and tragedies, but also our triumphs. They offer in film the stories of legendary heroes and heroic events, hold up honor and duty as admirable benchmarks, emphasize the importance of family and of place, and they reveal the necessity of a grounded religious faith in the pursuit of our ideals.
In all the talk about “Making America Great Again” we must understand that such efforts involve a panoply of activities on different levels, not just about how we vote, but also in the family, the church, the school, and what we do for entertainment. And one way to accomplish this is, in the place of the tawdry and garish “kulchur” that parades before us, to gather in family and view a classic John Wayne/John Ford film or something with one of those fine Westerners of yesteryear, a Joel McCrea or a Randolph Scott or maybe a Audie Murphy.
Our heritage and those principles we hold most dear will live but only if we let them live first within us, and if we pass them on, unsullied, to our children. The culture we have received from our ancestors, in the great legends and wonderful stories brought to the silver screen, nourish the moral imagination and help repair the disintegrative diseases of the modern mind.
“All I want is to enter my house justified” — to do my duty and fulfill my purpose before God, my family and my fellow men…and, indeed, doing that make America great again.
Written by Boyd D. Cathey and published by The Unz Review ~ December 21, 2107.
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