Sunday, April 22, 2007


The Western has been called America’s finest, most original contribution to the world. I would concur. The American West has fascinated such diverse poetic talents as G. K. Chesterton and Dylan Thomas.

Living under a demonic government of the Deists and for the capitalists, Americans had to go West if they wanted to get a whiff of free air that was not already owned by the robber barons. Father Luigi Ligutti describes in his book Rural Roads to Security how this Western escape valve was lost:

The entrance of women into the industrial field tended to reduce the wages of men, since men were no longer the sole support of a family; the idea of a family wage for the head of the family was slipping to that of a mere individual wage in competition with women and children. Still labor was not at once shackled by this condition. There was still a possibility of escape, and when escape is possible, liberty is not dead.

Harold Faulkner gives the alternative when he writes: As long as public land could be had at nominal cost, “wage slavery, in the sense that there was no escape, did not exist. If times were hard and wages low, the worker could always go West.” (Faulkner, Harold, American Economic History, 3rd Ed. New York: Harper, 1935.)

After 1850, transportation underwent marked improvements. Steam railroads increased 300 per cent between 1850 and 1860.

With steam transportation established, the factory system began that forward leap which continued, with but brief lulls during the great panics, through the remainder of the century.

This twofold development, growth of factories and improvement in transportation, was directly instrumental in changing from bad to worse the conditions of labor. Wages tended to become standardized at a minimum, since goods from one city were brought into competition with the same type of goods from another city. Price plus quality capture the market. By established custom the necessary curtailment was taken from wages. Transportation and growth of factories also made profitable the subdivision of labor, thereby creating vast numbers of detail jobs, simple enough to be classed with unskilled labor and each paid the correspondingly lower wage.

The specialized capitalist, alert to the possibilities of saving by division of production, concentrated industry in fewer and larger plants. Labor, long below the ability of housing itself in health and decency, huddled more densely in the industrial tenements. This urbanization of population paralleled the concentration of industry and was, in greater part, due directly to it.

Labor declined rapidly, losing not only ownership of tools, productive property, and control of conditions of labor, but also home ownership as well. Company tenements, company stores, company commodities were being provided, but in a very inadequate manner, and under circumstances that left only a shadow of liberty or recognition of rights on the side of the working people.

Another factor that greatly stimulated urbanization of population was the rapid disappearance, since 1880, of desirable western land obtainable on easy terms. During the first half of the nineteenth century public land of rare quality was limitless and given on terms that were meant to be an invitation and reward for settlement. Little or no capital was required to secure and work a claim. The disappearance of such public land closed a safety valve of escape from the city and dammed the floods of immigrants in the already close confines of industrial cities. [Emphasis added]

Urbanization, so rapid and so concentrated, created a host of social and economic problems. Of these the most tragic to human freedom was the increasing depth of helpless surrender to which an ever greater and greater portion of the nation's citizens was reduced, succumbing to the unscrupulous and liberalistically sanctioned avarice of the "robber barons." Labor had become depersonalized as regards the relations of employer and employee. Corporate ownership and control lodged in the hands of a relatively few. These few, interested primarily in greater profits, better business, and more production, neither saw nor cared to see the laborers, nor still less the slums in which they existed. Public opinion protested, and government took action again and again, but the philosophy of wealth continued unconquered and almost unquestioned except in subconscious thought, and the conditions of labor, even though improved, lagged behind that of the favorites of fortune as far as ever.

When one couldn’t escape to the West anymore, to live a life uncontaminated by capitalism, one could at least dream of a different world in the movie theaters of America. The code of chivalry might be dead in the land of the robber barons, but it still existed on the silver screen when Roy Rogers, Gary Cooper, and Wild Bill Elliott rode the range.

Walker Percy, in his novel The Moviegoer, describes the feeling many of us have felt when viewing one of the clean and pure Westerns of the pre-1960s:

Fort Dobbs is good. The Moonlite Drive-In is itself very fine. It does not seem too successful and has the look of the lonesome pine country behind the Coast. Gnats swim in the projection light and the screen shimmers in the sweet heavy air. But in the movie we are in the desert. There under the black sky rides Clint Walker alone. He is a solitary sort and a wanderer. Lonnie is very happy. Therese and Mathilde, who rode the tops of the seats, move to the bench under the projector and eat snowballs. Lonnie likes to sit on the hood and lean back against the windshield and look around at me when a part comes he knows we both like…

Clint Walker rides over the badlands, up a butte, and stops. He dismounts, squats, sucks a piece of mesquite and studies the terrain. A few decrepit buildings huddle down there in the canyon. We know nothing of him, where he comes from or where he goes.

A good night: Lonnie happy (he looks around at me with the liveliest sense of the secret between us; the secret is that Sharon is not and never will be onto the little touches we see in the movie and, in the seeing, know that the other sees—as when Clint Walker tells the saddle tramp in the softiest easiest old Virginian voice, “Mister, I don’t believe I’d do that if I was you”)…
The cinematic Western thrived in the 1930s and 1940s in the form of the B-Western. B-Westerns vary in quality. I favor the ones that feature a hero with a moral code written in his heart over the preachy sheriff ones, but the worst B-Western is better than the most critically acclaimed modern movie about a lesbo-policewoman or a sensitive young student who fights a one-man campaign to end hatred and bigotry in the South.

The essential thing in the B-Western and in the good A-Westerns is that the hero supports the code. And by ‘code’ I do not mean the motion picture code; I mean the code of chivalry. The weak, the poor, the mothers, the fair maidens, and the farmers are defended against the barbarians and the chestless, villainous, capitalist masterminds who live to plunder, rape, and murder.

John Ford’s Stagecoach (1939), starring John Wayne, was the first A-Western made. (By A-Western, of course, I mean that the movie was a main feature and not just a second feature or Saturday matinee.) The A-Westerns of the 1940s and 1950s that followed generally reinforced the code, but the A-Western heroes of those pictures were more rough-hewn and more flawed than the B-Western heroes and often had to grapple with personal demons as well as with bad guys.

Take the movie Naked Spur, starring Jimmie Stewart, for example. In that movie the male protagonist, played by Stewart, tracks and captures a wanted killer. Stewart’s character had been cheated out of his ranch by a faithless finance while he was away fighting the war. He is determined to get the money to buy another ranch even if it means buying a ranch with blood money. But by the end of the movie in the final showdown with the forces of evil, Steward relents and renounces the blood money, thus maintaining the code.

With very few exceptions, the A-Western hero of the 1940s and 1950s maintains the code. But in the 1960s the code has broken down. Instead of watching Randolph Scott standing tall and declaring, “There are some things a man can’t ride around,” we are treated to a new type of Western. In this Western there is no Christian knight, which is what the cowboy hero was, a “knight without armor in a savage land.” There are now only social commentary movies which demonize the white man and deify the Indian (Soldier Blue, Little Big Man, etc.) and existentialist clap-trap from Italy with anti-heroes such as Clint Eastwood and Lee Van Cleef.

There was, of course, one who took exception to the anti-hero Westerns of the 1960s, and that was John Wayne. He took the code into the 1960s and the 1970s with him. There is an interesting story that illustrates this point. When Don Siegel was directing the final showdown scene in The Shootist (1976), John Wayne’s last movie, the script called for Wayne’s character to shoot one of his antagonists in the back. John Wayne refused to do it. Siegel told him that Clint Eastwood had done it when he, Siegel, had directed Eastwood. John Wayne replied, “Well, I don’t do it.” The script was rewritten to accommodate John Wayne. A minor difference? No, ‘it’ makes all the difference in the world.

John Wayne, Gary Cooper, Randolph Scott, Roy Rogers, Joel McCrea, and countless other Western heroes represented a proud, long line of men who supported the code, the code of great knights, swashbucklers, and saints. That code is gone now. Not even our Christian leaders would recognize it, and if they did they would condemn it. But the code existed, and the American Western is one of our reminders that it did once exist.

I have many favorite Westerns. There is The Searchers, Big Jake, and She Wore a Yellow Ribbon, all starring John Wayne. And there is The Garden of Evil and The Hanging Tree, starring Gary Cooper. And the list goes on: Night of the Grizzly with Clint Walker; Fort Dobbs, also with Clint Walker; The Tall T with Randolph Scott; and South of St. Louis with Joel McCrea.

But the finest and purest of all the Westerns is Shane. In almost every other Western the hero gets to ride off into the sunset with the heroine as his reward for virtue and valor. And there is nothing wrong with that. But the character Shane rises to an even higher level. He rides off alone, having faced and killed the villains, to save a family whose joys he cannot share and a way of life for farmers whom he cannot join.

I used to tell my students that we all, as we are growing up, have a Shane in our mind’s eye. The pity is that most of us replace Shane with the image of Mr. Wall Street or Mr. Go-With-the-Flow. “Such heroes as Shane are only for storybooks; they are not for real life,” the ‘mature’ adult says. Ah, but they are for real life, at least the only real life that matters.

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