They’re the snarling thugs behind the mustache-twirling villain. The what’s-his-name-again guys holding prisoner the beautiful cowgirl in distress. The cannon fodder who aim their guns at the well-armed Silver Screen Western Hero. On cue they say “Okay boss,” “Let’s get him!” or just grunt.
Henchmen come in all sizes, most ethnicities, one gender, and some eventually hit the big time.
If the villain is the brain of the rule-the-town operation, the henchmen are his burly limbs, ready at a command from Mr. Evil to rush a jail, bushwhack a rider, or kidnap the one woman the hero loves. Whether they’re stocky and sullen (the thugs) or furtive and whippet-thin (the cowards), they’re used to fill up the corners of the screen with plenty o’ danger until the stalwart hero disperses them into kingdom come with swift one-two punches.
In researching henchmen for my novel (may the blasted thing someday get finished), I’ve come to view henchmen with the same wonder I view ants: I used to think ants were synonymous to dumbly obedient, nameless drones that never questioned, but they’re actually part of a very complex hierarchy, each ant having an essential role. Like ants, henchmen are not there to question authority–if they do, it’s a serious breach in henchman code, usually punishable by death. As in ant colonies, each henchman serves a role, from the so-called lieutenant, the bromantic confidant of the villain (who does everything from pour the evil mastermind a drink to take a bullet for him) to the guy who gets a single line “let’s beat it before the sheriff comes, we got what we came for!” to the bullet-fodder who tumbles into a fight only to get carried out again feet first.
Henchmen are the bit players who are familiar to viewers because they’re in every western under the desert sun. In the early days of western serials, the henchmen were shorthand for Really Really Bad Guys, and so the actors were chosen for their scare-worthy scars, pitbull-like faces, body-builder arms, and stuntman skillz. Movie studios must have had corrals full of these guys milling around, bawling for a job, or standing in dark corners practicing their mean looks.
Some were deemed so ugly, they became a caricature of themselves, like Jack Elam, whose walleye from a childhood accident got him the epic close-up he deserved in Once upon a Time in the West.
Some were so beautiful you couldn’t keep your eyes off them, like Lee van Cleef, who earned his starring role as Angel Eyes in The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly from toiling away year after year as yet another gracefully lethal gunhand.
Some were so weird they get their own books, as did the infamous Sisters brothers in the darkly funny novel of the same name by Patrick DeWitt.
But most were interchangeable, their leers and grimaces part of the code of the western that said “we hate everything the hero stands for, and so you should hate us too–and totally want to play us in your cowboys-and-Indians games.”
But the beauty of the henchmen is in their seeming immortality–the fact that most actors playing henchmen kept working, on and and on. Sure the silver-screen heroes and villains got the glory, but the actors eventually faded away. Johnny Mack Brown was replaced by John Wayne, who was replaced by Tommie Lee Jones, and Tom Tyler was eclipsed by Gene Hackman who was in turn overshadowed by Javier Bardem. But the henchmen keep coming, getting knocked out, roughed up, and killed off countless times. Like zombies, they never really die.
Henchmen deserve their own starring roles but due to the nature of their business, they’re not ever going to get them. But it’s worth checking out the fab site B-Westerns.com to discover more of these fine “henchies” as well as cracking open my personal B-movie bible, In the Nick of Time: Motion Picture Sound Serials by William C. Cline, for a discussion of the “emissaries of evil” role.