Steaming Torsos

J. Hoberman

  • Westerns: Making the Man in Fiction and Film by Lee Clark Mitchell
    Chicago, 352 pp, £23.95, November 1996, ISBN 0 226 53234 8

From 1910 to the end of the Fifties, Westerns accounted for a quarter of all Hollywood productions. As late as 1972, the high point of genre revisionism, they still represented 12 per cent of all American movies. But if the year that brought Richard Nixon’s triumphant re-election was the last in which the number of Western releases would reach double figures, the residual significance of the West as the bedrock of American identity was eloquently reiterated, just before the collapse of Soviet Communism, by the panic which attended a Japanese firm’s bid to administer the services at Yellowstone National Park.

Like the designated ‘national pastime’ of baseball, the Western is a sacred part of America’s post-Civil War national mythology – a shared language, a unifying set of symbols and metaphors, and a paradigm of (mainly male) behaviour. But where baseball is all form, the Western is heavy on content. Essentially, as Philip French once observed, it is ‘America rewriting and reinterpreting her own past, however honestly or dishonestly’. As is the literary history of Westerns: Henry Nash Smith’s classic Virgin Land is redolent of New Deal optimism, Robert Warshow’s much anthologised essay ‘The Westerner’ is a précis of Cold War concerns, Leslie Fiedler’s Return of the Vanishing American rescripts the West in countercultural terms and Richard Slotkin’s vast Gunfighter Nation is haunted by Vietnam.

Lee Clark Mitchell’s elegantly written Westerns: Making the Man in Fiction and Film includes among its introductory epigrams Henry Kissinger’s 1972 comparison of himself with the Lone Ranger but, as befits the uncertainties of America’s post-Communism role, his book has less to do with realpolitik than with the construction of gender. Mitchell, who chairs the Department of English at Princeton, traces the Western’s obsession with masculinity from James Fenimore Cooper through Owen Wister, Zane Grey and John Ford to Sergio Leone and Sam Peckinpah. His subject is the well-known tautology that a man’s gotta do what a man’s gotta do.

For Mitchell, the Western novel is essentially theatrical – a stage on which male identity is enacted, as well as a form of cinema avant la lettre. He rightly considers Cooper’s heroic Indian-fighter Natty Bumppo, protagonist of The Last of the Mohicans – the most celebrated and popular American novel for a century after its publication in 1826 – to be the model of a political leader. Natty is a man of the people who is immune to the passions of the mob; he is on familiar terms with the wilderness and yet exercises moral restraint, even as he destroys his enemies. Each of the Leatherstocking novels, as Mitchell points out, also ‘raises the large question who possesses the American continent itself and how that possession is to be legitimised’. That ownership, of course, is achieved by obliterating the indigenous inhabitants in the cause of historical inevitability. A white man who has transformed himself into an Indian, who is unencumbered by family and yet remains the last, best hope for the settlers on the frontier, Natty is – as D.H. Lawrence put it in his Studies in Classic American Literature – an ‘isolate, almost selfless, stoic, enduring man, who lives by death, by killing, but who is pure white’. (Taciturn and buckskin-clad, he is also the original American hipster; turgid though it is, The Last of the Mohicans represents the Birth of the Cool.)

Cooper’s use of the West as a stage set exerted a powerful influence on subsequent American painters; as Mitchell notes, it also anticipates Zane Grey’s high Utah plateaux and John Ford’s repeated use of Monument Valley – to which, looking ahead to the genre’s self-consciously florid sunset, one might add Sam Peckinpah’s ‘Mexico’ and Sergio Leone’s sensationally arid Leone-land. Although he glosses over the degree to which, a half-century before Hollywood, the weekly ‘dime novel’ and the Wild West Show pioneered by Buffalo Bill Cody had already produced a popular romance of the West, Mitchell does – in his most original chapter – bracket the painter Albert Bierstadt with the writer Bret Harte, two popular iconographers of the West, both of whom enjoyed a meteoric rise and suffered a subsequent fall in the decade following the Civil War. Neither is remotely canonical.

Even before the West is lost, fiction is impatiently preparing to supplant fact. No less purple than Harte’s prose, Bierstadt’s spectacular landscapes were, in Mitchell’s provocative phrase, the ‘optically lawless’ backdrop for Harte’s picturesque cast of prospectors, whores, gamblers and range hands. It remained for the novelist Owen Wister, along with other representatives of the eastern ruling class such as Theodore Roosevelt and the painter Frederick Remington, to place the Western hero in a suitably sublime setting. In the figure of the Virginian, Wister refined Cooper’s prototype of a natural and uniquely American gentleman – cool, laconic and pure enough to take the law into his own hands when circumstances warrant.

Mitchell calls The Virginian a special case in that, immediately adapted for the popular stage, it raised public expectations for a genre that did not yet exist. Wister may have pioneered the ritual shoot-out and popularised the Code of the West but the work that established the Western narrative was Zane Grey’s Riders of the Purple Sage, published a decade later, which transformed the chivalrous cowboy-gunfighter into the fastest draw in the West – a more pathological figure, clad in black. At the same time, his standard plot updated the captivity memoir which, rich with psychosexual content and dating back to the 16th century, may be the oldest American literary genre. It wasn’t Indians, however, who abducted the white woman but an unsavoury band of Mexicans or outlaws or Mormons or even German-financed Wobblies.

As Mitchell writes of Grey, ‘none of his technical alterations, nor their combination, would have struck readers so forcefully without a peculiar state of panic that happened to exist in 1912.’ Alert to anxieties about standards of female behaviour, Grey managed to ‘arouse yet assuage fears of a global conspiracy to abduct white females through an intricate plot of Western riders and purple sage’. In other words, Riders of the Purple Sage, like all subsequent Westerns, drew on a topical concern.

Mitchell’s is a provocative but theoretically uneven book, characterised by his own tendency to shoot from the hip. Is it true, as he maintains, that alone among genres the Western has recast mythical icons out of drab historical figures? (Were Wild Bill Hickok and General Custer any more lacklustre than Lucky Luciano or Bonnie and Clyde?) Is it the case that ‘Westerns are always written from the East on behalf of values signalling the West’s demise’ and that the Western’s ‘most popular writers and directors have never been westerners’? (Tell that to such sons of the pioneers as King Vidor and Sam Peckinpah.) Is it really the Western that is the paradigm of kitsch in Clement Greenberg’s famous 1939 essay? (I always assumed that the Trotskyite and Modernist Greenberg was attacking Stalin’s Socialist Realism.)

Mitchell asserts that ‘viewers and readers of the Western lacked (still lack) a conviction that western history mattered’, then, a chapter later, introduces (without explanation) a rather more sophisticated notion of make-believe by speaking of the genre’s investment in ‘historical authenticity’. These sweeping generalisations are underscored by a number of errors. Westerns attributes Martin Ritt’s Hud to Arthur Penn and the well-publicised love of ‘Home on the Range’ to Theodore Roosevelt rather than Franklin; it imagines that cameras possessed zoom lenses in 1939 and that the blacklisted screenwriter Dalton Trumbo’s defiance before Congress consisted in refusing to appear before the House UnAmerican Activities Committee rather than, as documented in a famous piece of newsreel footage, refusing to tell if he was then or had ever been a member of the Communist Party.

Most troublesome is Mitchell’s elastic notion of history. Speaking of the encroaching modern times represented in The Wild Bunch, he notes that the ‘alternative to this nightmare of Progressive bureaucracy (with its anticipation of the social engineering in Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society) is the self-sufficient, wholly integrated, rural culture of Peckinpah’s Mexican villagers’. Well said, but given that The Wild Bunch was written in 1967 and filmed in 1968, the movie’s contempt for authority (including the Army and the railroad plutocracy) doesn’t anticipate the Great Society: it grows out of the disaster it had by then become.

Once codified as a movie genre, the Western was most often confined historically to the 25-year-long mopping-up operation between the Confederate surrender at Appomattox and the defeat of the Sioux at Wounded Knee. Similarly, the movie Western enjoyed its Golden Age during the 25-year Pax Americana that followed World War Two. The celebration of national expansion intrinsic to the Western implicitly supported the Cold War ethos of limitless growth and personal freedom: the 1962 Cinerama spectacular How the West Was Won, with its climactic vision of suburban superhighways, may designate the high watermark of this optimistic worldview.

The Eisenhower era – an era in which the US appointed itself global sheriff and the professional gunslinger supplanted the cowboy as the archetypal Western hero – represented the West’s high noon. By the time Kennedy reached the White House shadows were lengthening. This was not simply a question of ageing stars and directors. Fifteen years after Robert Warshow had extolled the genre’s ‘drama of self-restraint’, Westerns were as bloody as movies about Chicago gangsters or the Second World War. Mitchell argues that the Western mayhem of the Sixties came, not in response to any perceived or actual increase in American social violence, but because prescriptions against on-screen violence were ‘suddenly dislodged’. But why was that?

The Italian director Sergio Leone made the Western more immediately relevant by raising the body count. Mitchell argues that Leone demythologised the tradition extending back to Cooper, in which the American wilderness is a source of moral regeneration. Contemplation of the landscape, he notes, would now be displaced by set pieces of bloody carnage. Such slaughter (which drew on the Japanese samurai film and prepared the world for Sam Peckinpah) was popularly understood as a new realism. At once more abstract and more violently naturalistic than Hollywood Westerns, Leone’s ‘Dollars’ trilogy reintroduced TV cowboy Clint Eastwood as the genre’s terminal hero. First, a cynical bounty hunter, then an outlaw-lawman, Eastwood was the ‘dirty’ icon who would preside over the end of the Western and the rise of the urban, anti-liberal Policier.

Leone’s Westerns, the New York Times critic Vincent Canby observed, were ‘twice removed from reality, being based on myths that were originally conceived in Hollywood in the Thirties’. Perhaps three times removed from reality would be more accurate – the movies were based on myths that were themselves based on myths. Nor was Leone alone. Don Siegel’s Coogan’s Bluff, a vehicle for the new Eastwood, and Andy Warhol’s Lonesome Cowboys were both self-consciously ‘modern’ Westerns premiering within a month of each other during the final weeks of the 1968 Presidential campaign: each in its way represented the genre itself as a form of Pop Art. By then, however, the Western had outgrown the screen.

In the national dream life, Indochina was an extension of the Western frontier. The analogy was felt from the very beginning. In 1962, the Saturday Evening Post characterised John Kennedy’s notion of strategic hamlets as ‘the old stockade idea our ancestors used against the Indians’, while one Pacific admiral hung a sign in his Honolulu headquarters reading ‘Injun Fightin’ 1759, Counterinsurgency 1962’. Helicopters (space-age cavalry) were named after Indian ethnic groups and their machine-gunners compared to the men who rode shotgun for the stagecoach; military operations were coded ‘Sam Houston’, ‘Daniel Boone’ and ‘Crazy Horse’.

By the late Sixties, parallels between Vietnam and the Indian wars were a commonplace. Like Boston’s Sons of Liberty, the hippies of Haight-Ashbury impersonated Native Americans – adopting long hair, headbands and love beads. Indians were re-imagined as heroic forebears whose traditional way of life was more organic, spiritual and communal than that of the white settler society which destroyed it. Taking up ‘tribal’ lifestyles, rationalising the use of marijuana or mescalin as Indian sacraments, promoting the connection between political and ecological concerns, the hippies more or less suggested that the evils of America’s past and present might be redressed by re-enacting history in the guise of Indians rather than cowboys. By making the US Cavalry the enemy in his 1990 Dances with Wolves, Kevin Costner produced a belated, softer version of the pro-Indian anti-Westerns of twenty years before. ‘Indians are absolutely what is best about America,’ he told the New York Times magazine, adding that he himself was part Cherokee.

From the standpoint of cinema studies, the most fashionable aspect of Mitchell’s book is his attention to the Western’s emphasis on masculine self-construction: ‘In no other genre is such an emphasis laid upon youthful male good looks.’ (On the other hand, no other genre has ever been more attentive to the issue of male ageing.) For Mitchell, the Western is a genre that permits the audience to savour the masculine spectacle to the point of voyeurism. He is surely right when he notes that no other Hollywood genre ‘has men bathe as often’. Full immersion in a wooden tub is generally presented ironically as part of the civilising process – still, there’s no denying the male torso here, even when concealed by the flannel underwear which frequently serves as the Westerner’s second skin. More to the point, the Western allows ample opportunity for the exhibition of fetishistic gear such as hats, boots, smokes and guns. Decked out in his leather, denim and metal ensemble, even the scruffiest cowboy was an American dandy.

Although the Western has bequeathed the Marlboro Man and bluejeans, its decline effectively redefined the masculine screen image. After Leone introduced Eastwood as the grizzled bounty hunter par excellence, there were no new Western heroes. When Dustin Hoffman made a Western he impersonated an Indian. Robert Redford played a charming outlaw and an anachronistic ‘electric cowboy’. Warren Beatty appeared as a failed pimp. The Seventies brought a whole generation of movie stars who have never donned stetsons or strapped on six-guns (Robert De Niro, Sylvester Stallone, Al Pacino, Harrison Ford, Richard Dreyfuss). Arnold Schwarzenegger, the leading male action hero of the past dozen years, could not possibly appear in a Western.

It has remained for Kevin Costner, who grew up during the heyday of TV Westerns, to attempt to revive the form. Indeed, the brief, post-Cold War Western renaissance may be bracketed by Costner’s massively successful Dances with Wolves and the 1994 fiasco of his even more self-regarding and costly Wyatt Earp. Where the Western once proposed an entire moral universe, it is now no more than a few chunks of narrative revolving around the solar majesty of the lead. Is it extinct? As Mitchell points out, ‘almost the moment the Western’ – or, at least, The Virginian – ‘emerged, critics hastened to pronounce the last rites, as if a melancholy nostalgia that would come to permeate the genre was also part of its reception.’ Given what Mitchell calls the ‘galvanising effect’ of Dances with Wolves and Clint Eastwood’s 1992 Unforgiven (which unexpectedly achieved the biggest August opening in Hollywood box-office history), the first half of the Nineties can be seen as having disinterred the Western and stiffly marched it on a few paces from the point where it had expired in the early Seventies. The only innovation, Mitchell notes, were the female gunslingers who populated the 1994 releases, Bad Girls, The Ballad of Little Jo, Even Cowgirls Get the Blues, Outlaws and The Quick and the Dead.

Unforgiven, which – as Mitchell points out – culminates in a masculine resurrection that makes sure we get what we’ve paid for, both looks and feels like a Western. What it lacks is any particular Western resonance. Up until the Sixties, the Western implied a belief in secular progress (and after that, American self-definition). The frontier, by its nature, was a place where civil rule had yet to be established and thus, from the spectator’s point of view, a legitimate arena for the spectacle of violent conflict. Even when the hero killed in revenge he was acting in the name of immanent law and order: the Western narrative was typically the rationalisation of aggression. The climactic murder might redress either a personal wrong or an injustice done to the community. Ideally, it was contrived to conflate the two in a personalised version of Manifest Destiny. Long before 007, the Western hero was licensed to kill – providing, of course, that his adversaries had been characterised as sufficiently atrocious to warrant extermination. The most powerful thing about Eastwood’s resurrected Western, however, is its downsized, dead-end nostalgia: a failed hog farmer, as well as a reformed drunk and ineffectual father, the Western hero returns to bounty-hunting because killing is ultimately all that he can do.