Two pics from Django, Unchained are seeding the Wild Western Web. Be still, my beating heart. You’re making me type typos.
One is of Leonardo DiCaprio wielding a hammer and Mephistophelian eyebrows, the devil with a red suit on, degeneracy signified by not only a cigarillo in a holder (instead of tucked into the corner of mouth, a la Eastood) but also a common utilitarian object. Yes, there will be blood, hammer style.
Hate me, hate my hammer.
The other!!!! Ah, the other. The sheer handsomosity of Jamie “Unchain My Heart” Foxx aside, what this carefully calibrated photograph portrays is western-myth making, 2012 style. Whoot!
Love me, love my hip green pea jacket.
Two manly men striding along, shoulder to shoulder. Men. West. Etc.
But there is more. In the story Schulz (Christophe Waltz) and Django (Jamie Foxx) are business partners of sorts (not to cut a complex story into a byte-sized piece. OK, I will). But visually, equality is nowhere to be seen. And it’s not the slave/bounty hunter relationship I’m talking. The heft of the saddle swings Django’s chest out, sets his shoulders back, puts a swagger in his step. Without any doubt, he is Silver-Screen Western Hero material.
Let me count off the ways.
Readiness. Silver-Screen Western Heroes are coils of energy, capable of leaping into action at the click of a hammer going back on a gun. But fuhgeddabout introspective heroes like Alan Ladd’s Shane, who always seems to be looking far in the distance or dreamily at his friend’s wife. This Django’s gaze stabs at the middle ground, where trouble will soon erupt.
Like me, like my small but epic stature. Alan Ladd as Shane. The Everett Collection
Preparation. Who carries a saddle around but a Silver-Screen Western Hero? He doesn’t need any dumb telephone booth, just a fleet steed ready to go.
Style. Low-key is the word in 2012. No flashy 1980s cowboy here. In the real world, less is more because it has to be—we’re all counting pennies. In the reel world, less is awesome. The gun is minimal. The hat has a low silhouette, its concessions to style the high roll of its brim and the simple studded band. The coat collar is not too wide and not too narrow, avoiding both excess and ostentatious austerity. But this isn’t going to be the usual mud-and-guts kind of western. Django’s green coat glows jewel-like in the muddy frame. Compare this with the staged photos of Silver Screen heroes of yesteryear, the Stewarts and Waynes, sweat stains on the brims of hats and dirt in the very pores of their buckskin coats. What we have here is less a working-class cowboy than a mod creative class bucko.
Hug me, hug my sweat-stained clothes.
Presence: Casual yet aware. He strides along as if a humble bit player on the stage of life, but every Silver-Screen Western hero knows that all eyes are on him, or will be, as soon as this film hits theaters. Rangy and intent; compare this cowboy with the middle-aged Silver-Screen Western heroes of old, who fulfilled more of a patriarchal role than a sex-symbol standard.
Love me, love your father. Hopalong Cassidy
But, big question, how will it play out on screen? Foxx said in an interview that they were going for a Richard Roundtree / Clint Eastwood vibe. I beg to differ; his expression pulls from the tradition of Charlton Heston (Foxx probably couldn’t sustain the Clint Eastwood squint), which, unless Tarantino’s wanting Foxx to be Moses next, will hopefully play out as dogged stubbornness (Heston in Will Penny) and not wooden acting (Heston in everything else).
We can haz beefcake?
But a note to Tarantino—next time, show the cowboy boots! Sheesh. I mean, spurs or no spurs? Pointy or squared-off toes? High stirrup-worthy heels or low practical heels? Inquiring minds need to know!
Only a real man can wear these.
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.
Let's get 'em, boys!
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.
"Why, I otta..."
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.
"You can't stop me!" from Western Caravans. Courtesy of Buddy Bryant
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.
"I'm the handsome gunnie on your left, bucko." (Portrait of gunhands in High Noon)
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.
"Let's get that novel, boys!"
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.
Huh. And I thought it was all in the camerawork.
A recent (April 2012) study at UCLA funded by the US Air Force has found that humans will perceive a man with a gun as larger than he really is. Study participants were asked to judge the size of men holding things like caulking guns, saws, drills, and handguns (and I’m assuming these weren’t cute little weapons that fit under a saloon girl’s skirts).
No matter if the man in the photo was wimpy or bulky, the weapon-holding ones seemed to dwell in the participants’ collective mind’s eye as monolithic and dangerous–which proves why Silver Screen Western Heroes don’t have to say or do very much. That hogleg they’ve got holstered at their side makes them as bigass as a mountain.
To make sure people weren’t just equating guns with muscles, ala every Rambo movie, they showed also images of different sizes/strengths of men holding a kitchen knife (generally feminine associations), a paintbrush (generally masculine associations), and a toy squirt gun. What did the participants choose as the largest men in the bunch? The men holding a kitchen knife–it’s the associated threat that makes the assailant bigger, not necessarily the objects they are holding.
As study author Daniel Fessler, an associate professor of anthropology at UCLA, said in a statement, “Danger really does loom large — in our minds.”
The US Air Force funded this presumably to study decision making in potentially dangerous situations, but they could have saved some money by just studying a few westerns, where there are guns aplenty.
For example, check out this modern (2011) take on spaghetti western, Sal.
Call it an Chilean western, where in flat dry Atacaman landscape appears a mysterious stranger (a filmmaker from Spain), who meets a beautiful woman, a lethal group of gunhands, and very nearly his maker. Guns appear in almost every frame of this trailer, held to great advantage in innumerable poses lifted from the great spaghetti western scenes like vibrant Colorforms play pieces (Stick Like Magic!). It’s probably an excellent film–stylish, violent, mythic, and starring guns. I mean, big people wearing guns and looking bigger.
Or take a classic like High Noon, with the grim Kane (Gary Cooper) turning from his Quaker wife to strap on his shooting iron. The man looms like no other. And Gracy Kelly has never looked so beautiful, nor so big as when [spoiler alert!] she’s holding on to that gun at the end.
Don't underestimate the power of Grace Kelly, bucko.
But what about the lack of guns–Bad Day of Black Rock, which I rhapsodized about here, is all about the one-armed man who doesn’t need to stoop to the level of the common gun-carrying thugs of a small western town. His weapon of choice, which he chooses only when he is backed into the proverbial corner, is a Molotov cocktail, explosive and strategic, flaring up as it hits his nemesis and wreaking more damage than a bullet can do. Or he can just use his hand.
And for another kind of deadliness, give a listen to the other weapon of choice, the so-called feminine kitchen knife, in the chilling “The Southern Gothic Wedding Waltz” by the great Glenna Bell. Once you get on her site, click on Music and then the song. You’ll never know what stabbed you.
Oh heckola. I can’t help it. Must include the talk of the town with a gun.
Gratuitous Timothy Olyphant shot.
Silence is golden. Combine that with a serious western hero, and you have gunpowder to burn.
(Just one of the many promos pics of Olyphant aiming a gun. Note the un-western tie.)
One of the best modern takes on the classic laconic western hero is U.S. Marshal Rayland Givens, from the master of gab, Elmore Leonard. Leonard’s dialogue–from his westerns to his caper novels–bobs and weaves around the swift arc of his plots, telling most of the story and more than the story in the characters’ evasions, missteps, silences and/or verbal diarrhea, stutters, jitters, and elisions.
Note the white hat.
Givens, in Leonard’s novellas and recent novel, Raylan, and in FX’s series Justified with Timothy Olyphant, is the ur-westerner: gimlet-eyed, tight-lipped, smoldering-volcano-deep-inside, sex-on-a-stick. And he’s just so refreshingly modern.
This lawman’s territory is Harlan County, Kentucky, one of the last U.S. places imbued with a fabled wildness akin to lawless western towns. The villains are the crazed cowboys of oxycontin dealers, wife beaters, and bankrolled goons. The heroes still wear the badge. Guns still spark the showdowns. The epically awesome hero still says little and clears the riffraff out with a hard stare; if a look doesn’t work, then he’s still a dead shot with a gun the size of Texas. There’s still an intense bromance between the hero and the local criminal, and someday there’s still going to be an armageddon of a showdown. And basically, fundamentally, reassuringly, there’s still good guys vs. bad guys (and gals–this is a modern western after all, where the best villains tend to be female).
Bromance on Gangstergrass
But this hero is not a man without a mysterious, barely hinted-at past, as so many Man with No Name clones are; Raylan’s past kicked his ass to Harlan County, and nobody is letting him forget it.
He doesn’t ride a horse. He drives a gleaming sedan (I’m sure with air-conditioning and those seats that warm up your buns in the winter) and he has a college degree from someplace far from his hometown of Harlan County.
Fuggeddabout Shane-style hero worship. His fellow Harlan County denizens call him out on his western hero thing, one fellow marshal accusing him of thinking up bon mots under the cover of smoldering silence. His sultry one-time girlfriend tells him and his muscles, “I’m a big girl, Raylan. I’ve been taking care of myself long before you rode into town on your white horse.”
The theme song is no Frankie Laine swoony stuff.
And we have a western hero who can’t abide old-boys’-club “humor” or anything that smells like bullying. In the name of the law, Raylan not only protects the weak and unfortunate by shooting villains (and sometimes talking them out of shooting him or others), but he can’t stand misogyny and racism, making him palatable for sensitive modern folk. (Although in a throwback nod to the heterosexual male viewer, apparently there seem to be plenty of super hot women in rural Kentucky.)
Exhibit A: The ex. cr: Frank Ockenfels III / FX
It’s hard to write a good western hero these days without falling into a color-within-lines stereotype. Or weighing the hero down with the task of redeeming all the misogynistic, racist, no-good-bums of western lore. But Elmore Leonard manages to toe that line: His hero knows he’s acting the western lawman–cowboy hat, badge, shoot-from-the-hip instincts, and even goddamn cowboy boots–but he truly, honestly can’t help being one.
Justified season trailer: Bottle of oxycontin. Camera focuses on label reading “Harlan.” Sound of gun being cocked. Ka-blammo! Bottle blown to bits. Timothy Olyphant lets his gun hand fall and leans back. Eases hat over face. Job done, bucko. Job done well.
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.
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.
I get two questions every day as I ride the high country writing a novel (don’t ask about progress, please),
as I work hard (thank you, all the editors I work for–if I could, I would buy you all cayuses),
and as I look for awesome land to purchase out west for my own little rancheroo (possibilities but nothing yet).
Question 1.) How many cowboy boots do I own? Around 40, last count. And that’s not counting the stylin’ painfully pointed pair I can’t wear anymore. I’m about to take out the kitchen cabinets so as to have more room to show them.
Question 2.) Why don’t you wear a cowboy hat? Because I would look like a dork. It takes a special person to wear a Stetson, such as the delicious Timothy Olyphant playing Raylan on Justified. I would insert a gratuitous shot of him but I’m on a mission.
Call it a “fringe” mission.
What’s up with fringe? I have an ambivalent relationship with the flappy little pieces of leather/fabric myself, having grown up in the 1970s and had my own style mishaps. But some people can carry it off. Or I should say characters. Fringe on a jacket, shoes, or shirt brings a hyper-western to the wear that usually seems better on the big screen than off. There are exceptions but the standard for looking good in fringed coat is pretty darn high. As you will see…
Fringe could have been merely utilitarian, as it wicks moisture away from the body and provides useful ties for your mountain man needs, but it also elaborates on one’s stature–useful for priests.
Fringe in olden, Mesopotamian times
Long fringe seems to envelop something larger than one’s physical body. Not to get all metaphysical on you, but there must be a reason why it’s used in cultures throughout the world for ceremonial costume.
Fringe becomes this elder dancer.
Westerners used it for its usefulness. Trust me, badass Calamity Jane would not have chosen something so decorative unless it helped shelter her from the elements.
Calamity Jane takes no prisoners in her fringe.
Western performers used fringe because it looked super awesome. Roy Rogers and Dale Evans didn’t need no stinky buckskin fringe. They had umbrellas for the rain and heaters in their cars.
Roy Rogers and Dale Evans at the 61st Academy Awards. Photo by Alan Light
As for me? Am I long fringe or short? I prefer the short fringe. It goes well with the fast-paced urban lifestyle and doesn’t get tangled up in the subway doors as they close.
Or maybe I prefer it because I know I can’t compete with someone like Neil Young, whose awesomely long fringe deserves a special video shout-out.
But basically I wear mine to borrow a little piece of the Coop, because who doesn’t need to feel like a Silver-Screen Western Hero? That’s the real reason behind the fringe. Call it dorky. Or not. But I’m in good company.
Gary Cooper. Looking good.
Gratuitous Timothy Olyphant "Justified" pic.
What to do when your long-awaited field trip to the West didn’t produce lanky cowboys dropping into your lap?
Take this tall glass of cool water I found at a Long Beach bookstore.
A twofer special from Monarch, from the collection of es
Monarch Books doesn’t reveal the illustrator of this western by King of Cowboy Lit Ernest Haycox, but the style is distinctly Robert Stanleyish (and the foreground bucko looks like Stanley too–the illustrator often used himself as the manly model).
Ernest Haycox wrote moody, atmospheric westerns wherein each ten-gallon-hat-wearing, low-slung-holster-bearing protagonist had a chip on his shoulder, a tobacco pouch peeping from his pocket, a woman to conquer, and a gimlet-eyed gunslinger to face down. A tall order for any writer to accomplish but Haycox could write westerns riding backwards on a horse with Apaches raining arrows down on him. Blindfolded. With two hands tied behind his back. And his wife could do the same but backwards and in high heels. Um. Anyhoo, this particular title (which I must admit first drew me to pick it because I read “Brand Fires on the Fridge,” which must be the kitchen-sink kind of western) was formed from two separate pulp magazine short stories published in 1929, which gives me pause. Was it written in the bright days before the stock market plunged? Did penniless stockholders and out-of-work laborers absorb the tight-lipped shoot-from-the-hip style of the hero and lift stakes to go West, young man?
Monarch was known for its pulpy mass-market books, which ranged from titles with the words “Flesh,” “Fury,” and “Fire,” to erotic tales. I heard that they were planning to scent their books–romances with Chanel No. 5, for example. Westerns would’ve smelled like…leather? Horses? Rye? One too many cigarettes and saddle sores? The smell-o-matic book never happened, but the possibilities are intriguing…
Sage? Stinky socks? Campfire? Gunpowder? Sweat?
With his Colt and his fists... from the collection of es
Steer the rattling wagons into a tight circle! Protect the women and children! Draw your six-shooters as whooping Indians on painted war ponies streak over the rise of a hill!
Look sharp, Tonto! This isn’t just a tired western stereotype, it’s a Silver-Screen Western Hero Equation!
c. 2011 es cowboylands
In reel life: Earnest pioneers moving to promised lands because of lack of opportunity in nineteenth-century America (+ free land) + marauding Plains Indians (x outrage of desecration of hunting lands and sacred places) =
(a.) massacre, which yields in the presence of a lone survivor the ripe beginnings of a classic vengeance plot
(b.) cavalry riding to the rescue, which yields in the presence of handsome leading man and handsome leading woman the immediate commencement of the classic civilizing of the west plot.
In real life it’s a little different.
Earnest writer journeying to the promised land of FinishNovelandia (+ agent [epically awesome urban cowboy x friends x writing colleagues]) + marauding job demands (rent + health care + saving + love of fine red wine) =
potential MASSACRE of all aspiring writers’ hopes and dreams!!!!!
Fear not. Grow a pair of brass…spurs and follow the wisdom of the west!
1.) Circle those wagons. Protect time and energy at all costs!
2.) Those marauding Apaches/Sioux/Comanche didn’t pop into the picture out the blue just as marauding job demands didn’t exist until you got yourself trapped. Next time, before you venture into paycheck territory, learn when to say no. Get an extension on an unreasonable schedule. Increase skillz so you can charge more for working less.
But you’re in the thick of the battle now! Arrows whizzing overhead! You’ve got two bullets left! And you’ve blown a novel deadline and been up all night to complete a paying freelance project!
3.) Hope you’re the lone survivor. Vengeance will be sweet.
4.) Or hope a super handsome cavalry officer strides up in his glossy boots to save the day, your writing life, and your novel.
I call dibs on Woody Strode!
I knew where it was going. Anyone who’s done his or her western homework would.
There are two American archetypes that were sometimes played against each other in old Westerns.
The egghead Eastern lawyer who lacks the skills or stomach for a gunfight is contrasted with the tough Western rancher and ace shot who has no patience for book learnin’.
–Maureen Dowd, “Egghead and Blockheads,” New York Times Op-Ed, September 17, 2011.
First, the analogy: James Stewart’s ineffectual lawyer. John Wayne’s blustery westerner. The woman who loves them both. The villain who’s so nasty the rule of law can’t put him away. The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, 1962. Yessss!
Liberty Valance–making womenfolk hide (they’d hide) and men step aside
“…Because the point of a gun was the only law that Liberty understood
When it came to shooting straight and fast, he was mighty good…
And the man who shot Liberty Valance would be the bravest of them all.” (Thanks,Gene Pitney!)
It was an anti-western, maybe the first of its kind–a western that gave a nod to all the oater conventions (good hero and bad villain; earning the love of a civilizing feminine force of a woman; showdown with awesome theme music) then deftly reversed and flipped them.
Marvin, Stewart, and Wayne in Liberty Valance. OMG! And Lee van Cleef!!!!
- The villain who is as bad they come–Lee Marvin being so bad he’s good (“This time, right between the eyes.”)
- The tough-talking cowboy who can walk tough too–John Wayne acting so much a piece of the Wild West you’d think he was a prickly cactus.
- The woman yearning for book learning–a beautiful Vera Miles (“I know the Good Book from preacher talk; but it’d be a soul comfort if I could read the words myself.”)
- And the egghead, an Eastern dude who’s beaten and shot at until his cultured veneer cracks–James Stewart who channels both worldliness and naivete, cool reserve and righteous fury.
And next, the political-media narrative–out-of-touch professorial type against the swagger of the big Texan. Duh, guys, Barack Obama vs. Rick Perry. They certainly look their parts, all squinty Wayne-ish and stammering Stewart-ish.
Maureen Dowd draws the film into a scathing indictment of Know-Nothing-esque Rick Perry, a Republican contender for president and a man who boasts of his educational underachievement and hard-on-crime execution stats. If you despise the man and who he stands for, you’ll chortle at her one-two punches; if cowboy talk makes you spontaneously proclaim the Pledge of Allegiance, your eyes will blister with rage. In deference to my readers, who range from coastal elites to red-staters to real-life cowboys to those in other countries who are groaning at the thought of yet another half-assed political commentary from someone who pays more attention to red-carpet photo bombs than carpet bombing, I will not comment directly. I will instead shout “Huzzah!” for a journalist bringing in a epically awesome western classic to make a point and “Boo!” for fostering a misconception about what Ford actually was making a point about.
Which takes us back to the anti-western Fordian flippage. The filmmaker who, you could argue, started it all with 1939′s Stagecoach brings back the typical gun-toting heroic rancher Tom Doniphon (played by ur-gun-toter John Wayne), who is fully at home in a rough-riding town out West, complete with pretty young thing (Vera Miles) and nasty gunslinger (Marvin, looking bad-sexy as all get out in his…right. Sorry. Back to summary).
Then a stranger comes to town: the earnest but ineffectual Easterner Ransom Stoddard (Stewart), who turns the head of the pretty young thing away from the virile cowboy. Yeah, yeah, there’s a potentially lethal conflict between the lawless Liberty Valance and the lawful Stoddard, but the real conflict, buckos, is whether Hallie will choose the man who can protect her from thugs or the man who can teach her how to read.
(Hence the Obama-Perry storyline–will the US public choose the lawyerly prig or the bully? The man who is passionate for civilizing law or the one who knows a gun is the surest way to win? Stay tuned…)
But what many shoot past is the way Ford and his actors created a dynamic in which the cowboy and the lawyer complement each other–they may be rivals but without the stalwart rancher, Ransom Stoddard knows he would be ground under the spurred boot heel of Liberty Valance. And the stoic rancher Doniphon knows the shoot-from-the-hip days of the Wild West are numbered–which is why, when Stoddard and Valance finally face off, Stoddard shoots Valance and lets Stoddard be the hero and literally win the West, becoming in time a senator. Oh, and he gets the girl, too.
Ford takes the audience’s expectations and does that foldy-magic-trick thing people can do with dollar bills in which George Washington’s head turns into a mushroom. I picture 1962 audiences’ heads exploding but maybe by then there was a growing cynicism of how the West was winning the world. It’s too bad that now this film gets lumped into Dances with F**king Wolves category, which makes my head explode, but that’s a different post.
What is the West, Ford was asking. It’s what people tell us it is–it’s what’s written up in newspapers as fact when it’s all legend. But it’s also about the close, volatile connection between like- and unlike-minded people–a community of Others who have to get along to save civilization. And a rootin- tootin’ western with Lee Marvin slinking along like sex in spurs. (Dang. Sorry. But look at him. I mean, look at him!)
Some Silver-Screen Western Heroes have big pecs and holsters hanging alongside their brass balls.
The Silver-Screen Western Antihero
Some have breasts that don’t sag and thighs without cellulite, even if they try to wreak vengeance in a poncho.
Gratiuitous Raquel Welch photo
All ride into town and act all aloof and lo! They get the girl and kick the villain’s ass. And their wounds? Nothing but flesh wounds, that a lovely lass can help doctor.
Beginning: They appear out of the blue, without a past. Convenient.
Middle: They strive to save the town despite villainous villain and femme fatale in cowboy boots.
End: They posture in a showdown with a villain and dispatch said villain then either choose to stay with the community, hanging up their holsters with their brass balls, or they ride off into the wilderness, balls and holsters intact. They make it seem so easy. But imagine if life isn’t so cut and dry, so black and white. Instead of a town to save, you have 240+ pages to write, and nope–no lives are on the line. Just your self-resect.
At the start of writing a novel, you have it all planned out. Some of it anyway.
Beginning: You ride into your first draft of a novel, shooting guns like a rowdy cowboy for the sheer joy of it.
End: You know without a doubt you will ride into the bookstore where your novel is on the best-seller list, shooting guns like a rowdy cowboy for the sheer joy if it.
But the Middle. Yippi yi ki oy. Like a novel’s middle, there’re a multitude of ways to get from A to Z, and many of them rake you over coals–I mean, are adventurous. As in “dynamite fuse sputtering by your head as you try to saw through the bonds with a shard of glass” adventurous. There are dead ends. False leads. Red herrings. Bad moves. And then there are the stakes, which get upped up the wazoo with each revision. And then there is a showdown. Yikes.
Beginning is easy. It’s perseverance that’s a bitch. But if you want to be a Silver-Screen Western Hero even on a late draft, here’s what you do.
Beginning: Ride into each revision without a past. No baggage. Shoot up the town or not–just keep your eye on the villain (you, as in your worst self). You want to write a novel; the villain (you) wants to keep you from writing it.
Middle: Stay focused and be decisive. And wiley. With each step, the villain (you) will try to stop you.
End: If you’ve been keeping up with that dastardly villain, the showdown won’t scare the bejeezus out of you. There’s no turning back though, once the guns come out of their holsters, so be prepared for a self-reckoning. Then blast away–life’s too short to postpone the inevitable facing of self.
The End…until next time. And go wild at that book signing, bucko!