Men Will Be Men and Women Will Be Women; or, The Sexual Frontier of Epic Westerns

Westerns = Greek drama. And shut up, Aeschylus is so not rolling in his grave.

He’d have appreciated the golden-boy good looks of John Wayne in John Ford’s Stagecoach and the film’s subtle yet sharp critique on so-called civilized society–the stagecoach journey as a vehicle for a development of a humane community  that cannot survive in the actual, oh-too-human world. The best westerns have such a simple story in their hearts, simplistic at their worst and elemental at their best.

Gratuitous Ringo Kid pic

And then there are the epics.

Spoiler alert: I don’t like epic westerns. If you do, you are required to send me a a three-page essay on what is so great about those hot messes of story-line stew, or at least a recommendation of a good one in the comments. But fair warning, an epic western that doesn’t have James Dean lounging around in jeans and cowboy boots in it (Giant), isn’t compelling to me.

oh-so-gratuitous James Dean pic

What is an epic western? It’s a long, drawn-out affair about the Winning of the West, which takes a Triumphant tone (white civilization won!) or an Elegiac tone (white civilization won but at a cost, drat it all). It’s seen as a Very Important Film, because it is talking about Society and the State of the World, which they forget that other westerns do, more subtly and in a shorter space of time. They have a stance on Men, Women, and the Frontier that powers celluloid storytelling because of the age-old, pesky, at-the-root-of-everything dramatic struggle of the Masculine and the Feminine. And no, I haven’t been drinking too much corn whiskey.

Glenn Ford as Man in Cimarron, 1960

MEN: In epic westerns, the Men symbolize the free-flying sperm of buckos having a good time with the Wanton West. They explore Uncharted Territories, spawn lots of rough-riding Towns, score Untold Riches or Go Broke or Die Trying, and otherwise live of a life of Unfettered Independence. No condoms, no compromises.

Maria Schell as Madonna Woman in Cimarron, 1960

WOMEN: In epic westerns, the Women are the Whores or the Madonnas of Society. The Virtuous Women are the Schoolmarms, the Mothers, the Shopkeepers, the Daughters and Sisters of their Wild Western Men. They seek to button up the West’s dresses and prohibit rye whiskey and gunfights. They want to comb out the Tangles of the Frontier, make it safe for Churches and Commerce and Schools and Children. The Whores are part of the Wanton West (and usually seem to have more fun than the Madonnas), but they must, eventually, shape up into new Madonnas or ship out to the next Frontier.

RKO Encino Ranch in Cimarron, 1931

THE FRONTIER: In epic westerns, the theme is the Battle of Frontier versus Civilization, in the guise of Men being Men and Women being Women to the tune of a Town Being Created, or fragile, newly born Law and Order Surviving the Fierce Anarchy of Gunplay. Men seek to expand the West. Women seek to shape it. Ultimately a life-or-death struggle of freedom against the straitjacket of the modern world. Or heck, a do-or-die conflict between progress and lawlessness. Voila! The Feminine versus the Masculine, with horses.

But aren’t these elements within every western? Why yes, buckaroos and buckarettes, but only in an epic western are they used as hammers to hit the viewer over the head. Repeatedly. Only in an epic western are they mixed and matched with so many themes (lone gunfighter, prostitute turned madam, newspaper writing, racism in the west, oil drilling, land rushes, etc., etc.) that the three-hour-plus extravaganza will turn into a bland stew of vaguely patriotic flavor.

Hence the epic quality of the length of time it took me to watch 1960’s Cimarron, one of the finest examples of the best and worst of epic westerns.

So epic, it deserves its own post. To be continued…

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