Real Men Drink Milk; or, Overturning Wild Western Clichés

The Number One Silver-Screen Western Drinking Cliché

Real men drink whiskey, right? Wrongo.

Example #1: Destry Rides Again (1939) In which the new sheriff in town turns every expectation the town has about him upside down.

Deputy Thomas Jefferson Destry, Jr., (James Stewart) arrives in town with a killer reputation to clean it up and discover the killer of the previous sheriff, but the crooked mayor, bullying saloon singer (Marlene Dietrich), and the rest of the townspeople find out he prefers carving wooden napkin rings over more manly pursuits, doesn’t carry a gun, and  lets himself be pushed around by the town bullies. The mayor, who knows exactly who killed the previous sheriff, reacts in stupefied amazement at everything Destry says, and so might the viewer, if he or she misses the touch of menace in Destry’s words and looks: they’re the fools not he, as they soon find out.

Drinking cliché overturned moment of perfection: “What’ll you have, Destry?” asks the mayor after he’s delivered a smartass proclamation about this wimpy deputy. The bartender tries to get in on the act, “M-m-milk?” he offers, sputtering in laughter. “Yeah, think I will,” says Destry to general hilarity. Dietrich’s Frenchie puts the icing on the wimp cake by giving him a mop and bucket. “I can see how you cleaned up Tombstone. You can start right here…and don’t forget the corners.”

The saloon offers an amazeballs mini cosmos of the town, in which Destry meets all of his nemeses…including the love of his life. The icing on our cake is the catfight soon after the milk scene; Frenchie and a town housewife tussle on the floor, overturning every barroom brawl cliché in history.

Example #2 Shane (1953) In which a gunslinger walks into a bar and orders a treat for a boy who idolizes him.

Shane (Alan Ladd) rolls up his guns in his frontier fringed suit and puts on the duds of a farmer. On the way out of town to go back to the farm where he is staying, he stops to get a “soda pop.” Within the saloon are hardcases employed by the rancher who wants all the farmers O-U-T and off his land.

You talking to me?

“Soda pop” is a cue for those thugs to gang up on some schmo they think is just a spud digger. Shane endures epic humiliation in the form of the thug leader (Callaway, played by Ben Johnson) calling him a sissy and tossing a glass of whiskey on him, which for some reason in westerns is provocation for a shooting. Shane’s seen as less of a man because he doesn’t fight back, but if those gunnies knew what we know, that who they’re messing with is ALAN LADD, they’d be on the floor weeping in fear.


Drinking cliché overturned foreshadowing of perfection: “Here, have some of this,” Callaway says, tossing his whiskey onto Shane’s nice clean shirt. “Smell like a man.” Guess he ate his words later when Shane came back and broke his nose so he couldn’t smell anything, man or whiskey.

Note the dagger-throwing eyes. Callaway's history. Or will be soon.

And best overturning of common use for a shotglass that also overturns another western cliché, the shootout, Doc Holliday in Tombstone (1993), for his brilliant, drunken wtf one-upping of the Ringo Kid’s stupid braggadocio. Who thought of this? Val Kilmer? The director? Michael Biehn, who played the Kid? At about 3:10 in this clip, but everything before it, from smartass snark to western Latin competition to the tense “what’s Doc Holliday going to do to beat that” looks everyone’s giving each other, is worth a pause in the day to see.

Oh yeah! And answers from yesterday’s quiz:

Silver-Screen Western Grip A is for cannon fodder. Don’t use it.

Silver-Screen Western Grip B is for Eastern dudes who drink sherry or whatever. Don’t use it.

Silver-Screen Western Grip C is the real deal: Be epically awesome. Go ahead. Make your day.

2 comments to Real Men Drink Milk; or, Overturning Wild Western Clichés

  • Tim

    Bucko – You’d find sobriety in odd (ie non-religious) places even in my old West. I think people could drink more with that life because of the intensely physical nature of it – but no one could kid themselves that the drinking didn’t cause immense damage. Especially after the intensely physical part stopped (as it did for my Dad’s first boss – a very Western figure, self-made, incredibly energetic and imaginative, a hard drinker – who drank himself to death).

    Maybe the hard drinking came partly because it was so hard to drink . . .all over the Canadian west you still see taverns with separate entrances for men and women, and draconian drinking laws remain in place – no beer from grocery stores, no or limited booze sales on Sundays. The tough men of the West were like perpetual teenagers . . . hmmm, what does THAT say about our culture?


  • bucko

    It says a lot, esp. as hard drinking–chronic drinking tends to stunt problem solving and emotional intelligence, so I’d say it makes people worse that teenagers, as teens at least learn from their mistakes. I hadn’t thought of the balance before between hard livin’ and hard drinkin’–you mean one cancels out the other? They demands of both find completion in the other? And, btw, in western PA, it’s still hard to get a drink on a Sunday. What’s a good Episcopalian to do? But separate entrances? *rolls eyes*

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