Shut up; or, The Eternal Silence of the Western Hero

It’s a well-worn stereotype that western heroes don’t talk about their feelings. But it’s not that they don’t have them. Western heroes are deep wells of emotion, actually. If you flicked a pebble into one of those wells, that little “plink” would echo and re-echo a thousandfold-fold-fold-fold-fold…

Spoiler alert: Coop gets the gal in The Virginian.

Take the Ur-western hero, Owen Wister’s Virginian, who chooses strict vigilante law over the sissified order of his East Coast sweetheart. He lynches a cattle rustler and loses the girl, who is repulsed by his actions–and also his best friend, who happens to be that cattle rustler. That totally harshes my mellow, especially as I know the book is less about rugged individualism than stalwart guarding of moneyed corporations, but you can tell me to shut up now and I’ll get to the point of this: at the moment the Virginian’s friend dies, the laconic cowboy hero can’t believe that his friend had said nothing to him. Soon he finds a scrap of paper with plaintive yet manly words: “I could not have spoke to you without playing the baby.” As the “slim young giant” reads his friend’s last farewell, Wister casts a stillness over the moment–the hero, standing by his horse, rests his forehead on his saddle. He doesn’t play the baby either, and soon he rides on. Being that this is fiction, the pall of this scene soon dissipates and he gets the girl in the end. What he doesn’t get is the weighty emotional baggage that this kind of choice would have inflicted on a mortal man.

The Ur-Silver-Screen Cowboy Hero

Less is more, in the canon of westerns. It allows the Silver-Screen Western Hero to shut up and look damn good silhouetted against buttes–especially if the hero is as rugged and monolithic as the rocks. I know you think I’m going straight to a certain person with this, Clint Eastwood, blah, blah, blah–but I’m talking Spencer Tracy here.

I’m talking Bad Day at Black Rock, a 1955 stellar flick from John Sturges.

Silver-Screen Western Heroes always have a good entrance.

And it is a totally  bad day for the war veteran missing one hand, Tracy’s hero, who is just visiting a little podunk town in the middle of nowhere to do one last good deed in this crummy little world–handing over a medal to the man whose son had died valiantly in battle. Disillusioned and worldweary, John. J. Macreedy’s seen it all until he trips over the traces of a hushed-up murder to see racism, xenophobia, and greed wriggling like maggots under the veneer of small-town values. Macreedy doesn’t say much but he sees way too much, especially in the eyes of Robert Ryan’s Reno Smith, the ringleader of the thugs who had killed a Japanese farmer long ago.

Tracy’s hero says little but his words cast a big shadow. Macreedy becomes a threat to Reno Smith–being a real man, with real-man values of honesty, courage, and tolerance–and so he must be killed. The cast is stellar (Lee Marvin and Ernest Borgnine round out the thugs), and there’s lots of chest thumping as the men of the town try to intimidate the man who’s seen it all and done more. A scene that shows more than it tells is in a flyspecked diner in the town, where Ernst Borgnine’s character, Coley Trimble, is pushing pushing pushing Macreedy to react so he can be killed in “self-defense.” The one-handed man says little to having his chair taken from him and his food ruined, but then as he leaves, Coley insults him as man. (I felt myself backing up away from the screen at this point, such is the smoldering volcanoness of Tracy.)

Silver-Screen Western Heroes always let their enemy prove themselves to be total assholes.

Coley puffs himself up like a bantam rooster, crowing lots of crap like, “I’m half horse, half alligator. You mess with me and I’ll kick a lung outta’ ya’!” With an overblown boast like that, you know his lungs are going to be on the floor in a second. (Although I want to say that someday but am so scrawny that people would stomp a body organ out of me.)

But you don’t say this to the man who is as crafty as a fox. And like a fox, Macreedy moves swiftly, using his one hand to judo chop the burly Coly Trimble to the ground. Repeatedly.

Ow.

Macreedy has played it cool, kept his emotions and words in check, but his slow simmer boils over in a flash and then is gone. He moves decisively from then on, drawing the poison out of the town and bringing down the fury of big petty kahuna Reno Smith on him. You can guess how that showdown ends, but Sturges’s mid-century take on a traditional western is worth plenty of views.

War veteran Macreedy also feels too much, despite what we would now call his post-traumatic stress disorder from being in the thick of battle. He feels injustice most keenly, which pricks him back to life. Just as the evil lurking within the town is swabbed out in no-prisoners-taken fashion, his own disillusionment is swept away by the cleansing winds of the west. Yeah, people suck, but it’s possible to do the right thing. To defend peace and tolerance at risk of your own life. (And this being a western, it has to be done pretty violently, although you have to admit the villains had it coming to them).

Lesson learned? Western heroes have feelings too. But don’t mess with a man (or woman) of few words, buckos.

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