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America Likes Its Cowboys Strong and Silent

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From John Wayne’s clipped delivery to Heath Ledger’s mumbling Ennis del Mar, cowboys tend to be more at ease with the natural world than with their fellow man — at least, in del Mar’s case, until the tent flap is closed.

Blame The Great Train Robbery , from 1903, which many consider the first Western. The gunfighters had no other choice than to keep quiet: With sound yet invented in films, these desperadoes talked with their six-shooters. In the iconic final shot, a gun was fired at the camera, terrifying unsuspecting audiences of the time.

At the dawn of the sound era, the Wild West remained a land where suspicion arose in direct proportion to a man’s word count. Run off at the mouth and you were likely a snake-oil salesman, a preacher, or (worse yet) a city slicker — one multisyllabic noun away from getting tarred and feathered!

The strong-and-silent tradition reached its pinnacle in Clint Eastwood’s spaghetti Western performances, in which his disdain for words extended to his own name. But his silence was also a perfect foil for Sergio Leone’s operatic storytelling. (Watch the director’s mesmerizing opening to Once Upon a Time in the West : the whine of a windmill, the drip of water, and the buzz of flies are all that can be heard.)

But sparse dialogue doesn’t preclude emotional resonance. As John Ford proved, rugged landscapes can have a poetry all their own. The same is true in Sydney Pollack’s pastoral Jeremiah Johnson . Robert Redford, the shaggy, laconic mountain man of the title, lives a Spartan life, but the beautiful landscape — filmed on Redford’s recently acquired property in Sundance — is all that’s needed to tell this tale of man pitted against nature.

For a full schedule of Jeremiah Johnson on AMC, please click here.

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