Westerns have always incorporated traditional elements more than other genres do. But as time’s gone on, some characteristics have calcified into cliches. Look no further than Blazing Saddles for a wonderful spoof of all the outworn cowboy hokum. Ah, but all the same, what would a Western be without morally challenged townsfolk, saloon brawls, and men in black and white hats vying for fashion supremacy? Throw them together and you’ve got a Western; subvert them and you may have a classic on your hands.
You know the type: Greedy, monomaniacal capitalists who are out to bleed the common man and collect the dividends. In Westerns, they’re usually unscrupulous landowners who squeeze out everyone from the public land and keep the profits for themselves. Witness Edward G. Robinson’s cattle baron in Violent Men, or the multi-generational Waggoman clan who mutilate Jimmy Stewart in The Man from Laramie. These guys won’t stop until they’ve put their brand on everything in the world. Weapons of choice: barbed wire, No Trespassing signs, smug smiles, hired thugs, and the Law.
A stranger comes through the swinging doors. The piano player pauses in
mid-song. All eyes watch the intruder as he saunters across the saloon.
The faint-hearted head for the doors or hide under the tables. It’s a
moment of tension explodes into violence when a punch is thrown, a gun
is drawn. From there, it’s like a set of dominoes! Bottles smashing over
heads, glasses smashing into the mirror behind the bar. With an uncanny
sense of their surroundings, the cowpokes take sides and pummel the man
beside them. Unforgiven, My Darling Clementine, El Dorado… Here’s looking at you.
As seen in High Noon and The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance,
the body politic is generally unbelievably apathetic — they’re more
concerned with their store receipts and safety than the virtues of
truth, justice, and freedom. They let bandits overrun their town. They
let honest men die. As Thomas Jefferson said, the tree of liberty must
be refreshed with blood — and it usually takes an outsider to
rehabilitate the municipal spirit, and restore law and order. Usually
by turning the town into a shooting gallery.
The Evil Sheriff
… Of course, just as often, corruption comes from within. Usually it’s the fault of unscrupulous sheriffs as memorably
embodied by Gene Hackman in Unforgiven, Billy Zane in Posse, and John McIntire in The Far Country,
who makes life difficult for Jimmy Stewart. Often they mask their
dastardly intentions with a genial mask of civic duty. And often these
evil lawman don’t like to get their hands dirty themselves — they’re aided by
a band of despotic deputies who treat their tin stars as licenses to
Riding Off Into the Sunset
It’s one of the most indelible images of the West — a horse and a
cowpoke ambles off into the horizon. It’s also one of the most
hackneyed: More than a few
films have had their cowboys heading in the wrong direction just to complete
the image. And isn’t sunset the wrong time to begin a journey in any
case? Apparently not, according to movies like Stagecoach, My Darling Clementine, and Unforgiven. But of course the image comprises certain mythic elements of the
West: the ever-unraveling horizon, leaving civilization behind you, new beginnings, and fading into history.
Heroic, Mysterious Loners
They ride through town on
a solitary horse. Ask them where they’re from? “Around.” Where they’re
headed? “Over there.” Their saddlebags are full of skeletons. They’re
fleeing painful pasts, torturous secrets! And they’re usually seeking revenge.
Witness Gregory Peck in The Bravados:
He shows up in town to
witness a hanging before bothering to mention — halfway through the movie! — that the doomed men killed his wife. The ultimate mysterious
cowpoke? The Man with, uh, No Name (commonly known as Clint
Eastwood) who, as far as we know, might actually be a dentist from
Savage, Noble, Spineless, Illiterate Injuns
First of all, they’re magnets for bullets. John Wayne squeezes
the trigger and twelve hollering braves crumple to the ground.
Meanwhile, all their arrows naturally go wide of the white man. Not
only are they evil scalping savages and poor shots, Indians are haters
of proper grammar. You know: “White man make good medicine.” “Lightning
stick me want.” And the immortal “How.”
When not talking in strange caveman argot, they’re scalping, killing,
and yeehawing or —
into the ’90s and ’00s — dying nobly at the hand of white intrusion and
laying a comfortable liberal guilt trip on the audience. The
characterizations in movies like Comanche and Stagecoach are prime
examples: Coming straight from the cigar store, these
cliches aren’t only the most tiresome, they’re also some of the most
If you want to find the villain out in the Western, it’s not hard:
Look for the guy decked out in black who’s sweating profusely. In the Wild
West, fashion wasn’t simply a matter of utility, it was
important in maintaining one’s image. For instance, when one walks into
frontier haberdashery you’re not just asked for just your size, but
also about where you fall on the hero-villain spectrum. And while
today’s cowboys may frown on a dress code, it is a good way to know
who’s who. And with Humphrey Bogart (The Oklahoma Kid), Jack Palance (Shane), and Kirk Douglas (The Villain) among
it’s wearers, the black hat may be an overused accessory — but it’s
also a classic.
The Duel to End It All
You’ve seen it a million
times. Wind scrapes across
the empty streets. Two
figures heading stoically toward each other at high noon. Frightened
townsfolk peaking through their closed shutters. The Western duel
serves as a great dramatic climax, but such battles rarely happened
rarely in real life. It’s hard not hard to see why: Why not shoot your
enemy in the back? Or kill him any other way besides a head-on confrontation? While
Sergio’s Leone’s movies went wild with the concept — complete with at least one
ten-minute long showdown — The Great Silence
reversed the cliche in wonderfully cynical fashion. But of all Western
cliches here, this is the one that won’t go away — and that few
Westerns can do without.