The End of the Myth
“A gun is a tool, Marion, no better or no worse than any other tool, an axe, a shovel or anything. A gun is as good or as bad as the man using it. Remember that.” – Alan Ladd, “Shane”
Most of us have seen a western. The influences of western mythology and its romantic qualities are inexorably bound to American society. The ideals and the ethics embodied in the western myth have been celebrated through the western film genre. The post WWII generation spent countless hours in dark theatres immersed in the epic moment of the west – – a moment which existed in a time when our virgin continent beckoned settlers to farm its lush valleys and conquer its high mountains. It meant the possibility of creating a new life where no social or economic impediments could keep a good person from realizing their dream. In this epic moment, the settler stood face to face with the forces of nature and overcame all obstacles to realize their manifest destiny. There were clear heroes and villains. Perhaps most memorable was the western hero who was the embodiment of all the virtues in society. Actors such as John Wayne, Jimmy Stewart, Gary Cooper, Randolph Scott and Alan Ladd became larger than life manifestations of all that was true and right in America. In these classic westerns, directors like John Ford, George Stevens and Howard Hawks manipulated the myth creating romantic distractions and a deep longing for simpler times.
George Stevens’, “Shane”, is perhaps the quintessential classic western film. Set in the pristine yet dramatically menacing Teton Valley, Shane appears like a savior in a saddle, a lone, almost supernatural figure in buckskin descending into a valley to defend honest homesteaders against a corrupt rancher. Befriended by the Starrett family, Shane is seen through the eyes of young Joey Starrett who idolizes the mysterious visitor. Shane temporarily removes his buckskins and tries to become part of the community. However, Shane is at his core, a gunfighter and cannot shake his violent past. In the end, he straps on his guns and resolves the homesteaders’ conflicts but now, having unleashed his violence, he must once again ride on to inevitable isolation. As Shane rides away from the valley, young Joey Starrett is heard yelling, “ Shane, come back. Shane “. And not unlike Shane, the classic western soon found itself unable to live among a changing society.
Film is reflexive. It serves as a mirror on our communities and points of view. As the 50’s became the 60’s, a new Western began to emerge – – a western that questioned the myth and in some ways implied that the myth was corrupt. Directors began to view the West as a period of time where settlers corrupted a sort of the garden of Eden. The men and women that were depicted as blameless, endearing, strong and brave were transformed into ambiguous characters who eventually corrupted the Garden they sought to tame. The new western offered less romantic, grittier realism and heroes that were more morally and personally ambiguous.
John Ford was perhaps the most successful of all classic western directors. His films – -“Stagecoach”, “The Three Godfathers”, “Fort Apache” and “My Darling Clementine”, all set among the red rock cathedrals of Monument Valley, depicted a west as wild as the dust devils and chaparral winds that buffeted the crude homesteads and forts that sat at the edge of civilization. After WWII, Ford returned with a darker vision of the west in movies “The Searchers” and “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valence”. New directors, Martin Ritt, Arthur Penn, Robert Altman and Sam Peckinpaugh painted a west where blood, violence, realism – – all signature symptoms of encroaching civilization , overtook our heroes and revealed deeply ambivalent fissures in their character and their value to a changing world.
“McCabe and Mrs Miller”, “Little Big Man”, “Lonely Are The Brave”, “Will Penny” and “The Wild Bunch” became radical disjunctions from the classic western. They were a new genre of film – – the contemporary western. In Penn’s “Little Big Man”, native Americans were referred to as The People and its revisionist and satirical deconstruction of the epic moment left us with a bitter taste for the epic west. In these movies, sinners were as responsible for the founding of society as saints. Heroes died, they cheated in fights, they shot people in the back, they swore, slept with prostitutes and often made the wrong decision. Like all of us, they were flawed humans. This dovetailed with a pessimistic view of society and echoed a deep longing for a mythic west that perhaps never existed but in the minds of dime novelists and on the canvases of the great Western artists Albert Bierstadt, Thomas Moran, Charles Russell and Frederick Remington.
In the 1970’s, we returned to the epic moment but it was no longer in the corrupted garden of Eden of America, it was instead in outer space. “Star Wars” recreated the epic moment of good and evil clashing a virgin wonderland where anything was possible. There was the Force and the Dark Side. Siths and Jedis were yesterday’s gunfighters fighting on the behalf of a society in which they were unable to live among. Space became the final frontier as the iron horse has now stretched coast to coast and in doing so, brought a corrupt civilization to every corner of the mythic west. The epic moment was gone and with it an ideal as elusive as a snowflake. A few modern day westerns briefly caught our imaginations – – Clint Eastwood, Kevin Costner and Robert Duval have done their best to keep the myth alive but in the end, it has died. Lawrence Kasden, director of “Silverado” was quoted as saying “nearly every western over the last 10 years has failed, except for ‘Dances With Wolves’.” The modern western began to depict modern society as hypocritical, sterile, scared and vulnerable. Society corrupted Eden. “Doing for yourself” was replaced by “getting what you can while you can”.
America needs westerns now more than ever. We need to be reminded of a time when heroes were celebrated and heroism took many shapes – – the courage to reinvent oneself, courage to stand up for what was right, courage to fight corrupting influences, courage to live a life defined by a firm set of morals and beliefs. Maybe the epic moment of the west never really existed but it appeals so deeply to us because each of us secretly longs for a more innocent time. So why is it that the western film is no longer commercially viable? Perhaps we have gotten to the point where our own cynicism precludes us from believing in all its possibilities. Or perhaps even worse, we can no longer even recognize it when we see it.