Decline of the Western

When Lawrence Kasdan’s Wyatt Earp opened at

theaters across the country earlier this summer, it had become nearly

commonplace again to see the faces of familiar actors slanting under

Stetsons, their torsos cinched in by satin vests and six-guns, sporting

an air of lazy and perfect discipline. During the past year or so,

but especially this spring and summer, it’s been impossible for

moviegoers to overlook all the Hollywood notables rehearsing their

re­appraisals of the drawl and the dehydrated squint, the menacing

glance and the fully-loaded draw. A partial list includes Kevin

Costner, Jodie Foster, Mel Gibson, Gene Hackman, Madeleine Stowe,

Val Kilmer, Kurt Russell and Dennis Quaid.

They appear in four major

studio releases: George Costakis’s Tombstone, Jonathon

Kaplan’s Bad Girls, Richard Donner’s Maverick and

Kasdan’s Wyatt Earp. Two more comedies, The Cowboy Way and City Slickers II, basket weave Western myths and

modem men, and a third, John Candy’s Wagons East is about

to be released. Add Walter Hill’s Wild Bill (in production),

and you have the makings of a real trend.

Problem is, so far they’re

rather uninspired, coming at you as they do all slender scripts

blazing. Blame it on an age in which much of our culture seems

defined by the secondhand, happy merely alluding to authenticity.

But the very point of the Western is its scorn for anything not

original, anything not bedrock America. One goes to a Western,

after all, to experience something real; for that brief spell

of watering horses and making camp and scouting territory.

In West of Everything (1991), Jane Tompkins records

her longing, watching Westerns, to belong to the towns that cowboys

ride into. The cool offices (telegraph, sheriffs, newspaper) that

line Main Street, and all the townsmen in wool (not denim or leather)

agog at the approaching rider. In town, a cowboy eases up, treats

himself to a two-bit bath and shave. In the heat he smokes a cigar

and keeps his head dry, his gun in easy reach. They are intoxicating

moments, maybe moreso because they don’t lead anywhere. One reason Wagon Master is so terrific is because of its breathing

spaces, the moments in it with little or no dialogue and no obvious

push of story development. It has long shots that just draw you

into that wavy heat, letting you drink in the dryness and glide

along the haywagon balance of the covered wagons.

Clint Eastwood squinted his way through a string of Sergio

Leone movies as "The Man With No Name."

It’s a way of life that John Ford and William Wyler and Howard

Hawks put into their films in the 1940s and 1950s. And characters

were part of the landscape. In Stagecoach (1939)

John Wayne’s Ringo Kid seems to jump right out of the desert scene.

He’s unreal, but the rack focus makes him an immediate, ripe specimen

in dusty work-pants. Ringo, Ford found a way to make clear, is

defunct, and it is to the director’s everlasting credit that he

made filmgoers so aware of the perfect goneness of the way of

life he was depicting. When Ringo rides off with Dallas (Claire

Trevor) at the end, they might just as well be leaving the world

as entering it to become newlyweds. That’s a pretty heavy mythological

burden; against it the new films homestead in a world all homage

and allusion.

Entertainment Weekly saw the men in Cowboy Way and City Slickers II inhabiting a "virtual reality frontier,"

on dude ranches and in Manhattan’s gutted streets, but the same

could be said for any of the recently released films. They wriggle

out from under their load either to spoof it, as that long sigh Maverick does, or to riff along ably in its shadow, as Bad Girls does, or by attempting- to match it, epic pound

for pound, as both Tombstone and Wyatt Earp do.

But – was there a cross-studio storyboard meeting? – all seem

to concede from the start that they lack the leverage and the

ballast and the plain wrought iron of a John Wayne in The Searchers; his Ethan Edwards cants his weight off on one leg and suddenly

you know a man’s thirst and regret a solid century ago. The two

recent Wyatt Earps offer pretty striking examples of what

can happen when you endeavor to fix what isn’t broken. In the

radically uneven Tombstone, Kurt Russell plays a big clean

stud who steps off the train in Tombstone with a hankering for

money. But this is no Fistful cf Dollars; his Earp doesn’t

want filthy lucre, only a healthy financial portfolio and middle-class

respectability. When he flirts with Dana Delany, their faces look

so polished you can’t help wondering if they both use Noxema.

Kevin Costner’s performance in the gleaming Wyatt Earp is an

improvement. He manages a weightier but also heavier Earp that

a lot of moviegoers, even Costner fans, will find too deliberate

and solemn, especially in the second hour. Still, sometimes he

lays down lines like he’s flattening out bedrolls and in a way

lends the film a nicely authentic savor. Of the many Earps who

precede these two, including Burt Lancaster (Gunfight at the

O.K. Corral, 1957), the best is arguably Henry Fonda’s in My Darling Clementine. One moment in the early going captures

why: he’s swiveling in the barbershop chair with a fresh haircut,

and it’s clear he hates all the oil and tonic, hates the civilizing

mouth and looks at the sky and blows Russell and Costner off the

back lot.

Can Kevin Costner’s Wyatt Earp hold a gun to the great Westerns

of the past?

At least some of what the new movies lack is the big

drum roll a Wayne or a Fonda or a Jason Robards brings to a picture;

yet there’s hardly even the secondary smoke of a Claudia Cardinal

or a Charles Bronson. There are stars thick as shag flies, but all

of them, with the possible exception of Gene Hackman, fail ,to attain

the aura that John Ford’s or Howard Hawks’s Westerns had for audiences,

and none of them contend seriously for a place among the late (or

"alternative," or "revisionist") Westerns that

began to appear at the end of the 1960s.

The studio-era Westerns

established the code of the hero. He was the taciturn loner who

shunned soft beds, homes and words, spurned the company of women

and all but the fringes of town life. The best of the later films

– including The Wild Bunch (1969), McCabe and Mrs. Miller (1971) and Little Big Man (1970) – showed these codes to be

at the root of some later failures in American life. In the controversial

blur of bodies and bullets that commences Sam Peckinpah’s The

Wild Bunch, the historian Richard Slotkin finds references

to Vietnam massacres. The story – a band of outlaws heading for

the Mexican border to escape the railroad’s hired gunmen – is

rife with issues/08/images of the end of the West and of open territory

and expansion. The bunch’s leader Pike (William Holden) mutters

to himself at one point, "We’ve got to start thinkin’ beyond

our guns. Those days are closin’ fast." It is a moment that

chimes with a dozen others in films of the period. In McCabe

and Mrs. Miller, thought by many to have killed off the Western

for good, Warren Beatty meets a shabby end in the muddy snow of

the Pacific Northwest; it’s 1901 and he’s been killed by

developers for business reasons.

Indeed, most of the Westerns

released between 1969 and 1977 (more generously,

from 1961 on, when both John Ford’s The Man Who Shot

Liberty Valance and Sergio Leone’s A Fistful of Dollars came out) – including Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid,

The Wild Bunch, McCabe and Mrs. Miller, Once Upon a Time in the

West, Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid, True Grit and John Wayne’s

last film, The Shootist – seem to make a concerted effort

to narrate both the end of the West and the Western. Jane Tompkins

believes that the cowboy’s established image (what she calls the

"anesthetization of the hero," his denial of needs for

family, companionship and love) was finally being called to account.

By the late 1960s, this image couldn’t square with social

realities, and 1975 was probably the last year that young

American males could go to cowboy movies every Saturday. By 1982, the only Western around, besides those in regular rotation

on the late show, was Sam Shepard’s True West, a play about

a showdown between two brothers, some stolen toasters and the

California desert. Its central characters are as disconnected

from each other as they are visibly disenfranchised from the Western

myths they have inherited and which they can never own. In that

year, John Ford, the Western’s great director, had been dead nearly

a decade (he died in 1973) and John Wayne, the genre’s

great icon, had been famously dead for five, his last film, The

Shootist, having included "memories" of the gunfighter

that consisted of footage culled from Wayne’s long career. Sam

Peckinpah would die two years after that, his best Western a decade

behind him.

If parody and pastiche

are the signs of a genre’s death (and look at the treatment the

deader-than-dead disaster pictures get in the Airplane films),

the writing was on the wall when Mel Brooks released Blazing

Saddles in 1974. On the other hand, it can be argued

that the Western never passed away, it just dispersed into the

culture which it had helped to form. And into world culture. In

Jean Renoir’s The Crime of M. Lange (1936), for example,

the hero writes stories about "Arizona Jim" ("Ah-riz-on-a

Jeem"), who undoes wrong and rides off in clouds of dust.

Inspired by his own stories, Lange eventually shoots the exploitative

owner of a crime magazine who has been publishing his writing.

Liberated at the end, he flees the country. The likeliest source

for the storybook hero is Arizona Ames by Zane Grey, the

Ohio dentist who helped to invent the very code and idiom in which

the Western exists.

The question of the appeal

of cowboy stories in a country that sold the Louisiana Territory

for four cents an acre has a simple answer: the stories take place

in a purely imaginative place – "Arizona" is the place

you go to be free. But you don’t have to cross the Atlantic to

see how the Western has seeped into the culture. Barbecue

sauce commercials feature comic showdowns from spaghetti Westerns.

We drive Mustangs and, unless we’re Albert Brooks, talk slow when

we’re angry. And in every major American city there is an unfortunate

tradition brought from Tombstone’s main street: the decisive gunfight.

My uncle Basil, forced into a wheelchair by the wasting effects

of a muscular disorder, lined his bookshelves with paperback novels

by Zane Grey and Louis L’Amour. Friends slightly older than me

have committed to memory fight sequences and plot complications

from an unbelievable number of old Westerns. I know a novelist

whose husband joked that his inner child was Clint Eastwood; she

briefly postponed the wedding. And so on. My favorite belt has

a stamped tin buckle and, running around the outside, faded ink

drawings of western archetypes: the wagon train, a rearing horse

and rider, an Indian Chief with full headdress. Missing is Cookie,

the half-mad mealmaker, the gussied up saloon girls, the hustlers

and the vested grifters who work for the railroad and wear their

affects flattened and their collars crisp. We have come to understand

that all of them in their own way are expressions of the freedom

we claim as our birthright.

Along the way the Western

got grafted onto non-Westerns, too, as Star Wars (1977), The French Connection (1971) and Dirty Harry (1971)

intimate. And then there’s Ronald Reagan’s loopy cowboy-style

defense initiative for the last frontier, his "star wars"

plan. (Dolly in closer: at the Republican convention in 1980,

Reagan’s "Morning in America" speech was preceded with

film clips from John Wayne movies).

But neither the stories

about the end of the West, nor its diffusion and disappearance

into the culture ever really killed off the Western. Historian

Slotkin counts three attempted revivals since the late 1970s,

the most recent of which is the likeliest impetus for the avalanche

we have on our hands now. It began early in the decade with Dances

With Wolves (1991), Unforgiven (1992), Lonesome Dove (1990)

and Last of the Mohicans (1992). These works attempted

to replace the bilious taste of the "alternative" films

of the 1960s with stories of a saving remnant. So in Kevin Costner’s Dances With Wolves, a soldier

fresh from a disillusioning experience in the Civil War requests

to be transferred to the farthest army outpost, where his independent

ego breaks against the Dakota Sioux’s wider and wilder feeling

for family and tribe. And in Clint Eastwood’s Unforgiven, a

killer who had always worked with the laconic precision

of a lathe-worker carving bedposts, turns against the spiral of

his career in death. Eastwood’s case is particularly compelling

because his career cuts through four decades. With Ford and Hawks

gone by the mid-1970s, and with Peckinpah and Leone in serious

decline, Eastwood was essentially the only icon left to carry

the torch (or the Smith­Wesson). Eastwood’s TV career crossed

over into film with Leone’s first "spaghetti" Western, A Fistful of Dollars (1961), and by 1973 he was working

his own sour variations on the theme of treacherous loners in High Plains Drifter, a Western so grins and weird that

his anti-hero comes across, probably deliberately, as Charles

Starkweather in a black duster.

Eastwood’s ascent was

not automatic. As fine as The Outlaw Josie Wales (1976)

is, audiences avoided it. By the early 1980s, Eastwood was beloved

most by frat row Greeks, the President of the United States and

Barbara Walters. And Pauline Kael was not alone in deriding the

actor for the rigor mortis in his line deliveries. (In one aside

collected in When the Lights Go Down she writes, "he

looks stricken – he hisses his lines angrily, his mouth pulled

thin by righteousness"). But he raised his stock in the sagebrush

genre with Pale Rider (1985), and last year the semiologist

Paul Smith published a long, imposingly written analysis of the

Eastwood Image entitled Clint Eastwood: A Cultural Production,

assuring his place as a Western film demigod.

It would make sense,

in this case, that the Eastwood line of Westerns, culminating

in the Oscar-winning Unforgiven, would be the standard

for new kinds of stories. But the recent films owe practically

nothing to Eastwood’s slower-paced, moody style. So where do they

come from?

Earnet Borgnine and William Holden in Sam

Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch.

The clearest forebear is Kasdan’s 1986 Western, Silverado, whose fresh laundry the new ones seem most attracted to. The

script was written as a tribute to Westerns and its ersatz feel

affirms that. But most anachronistic is the gentleness of the cowboys, most evident in Kevin Kline’s and Scott Glenn’s performances.

Their speech is tinged by none of their cinematic elders’ remoteness;

it belongs more to clipped lawns than desert campfires. They are

suspiciously at ease inside homes and prone to giving their nephews

a good squeeze when they visit. They’ve never been on the range.

Watch Ethan Edwards at dinner in The Searchers; he eats like

a convict, his eyes hawking around, his mouth cut into his face

with a knife, his words all serrated. A typical speech in Silverado occurs when the barmaid Stella (Linda Hunt) councils Paden (Kevin

Kline): "Some people think because they’re stronger or meaner

they can push you around. I’ve seen a lot of that. But it’s only

true if you let it be. The world is what you make of it."

By Western standards

that’s a soliloquy; in an earlier time Paden would have wheeled

his horse around and galloped off, or hushed her with a strong

word or a slap (Wayne’s characters shut up talkers – that is,

anyone who goes on for more than a sentence). Or her speech would

have been pared down to something like: "He’s mean, he’ll

hurt ya, Jake!" Stella’s talk is borrowed from drugstore

relationship manuals. In post-Civil War Silverado, men

in chaps wouldn’t know about the pliant whispers of the unconscious.

Cowboys are not, by definition, complex, neurotic and urban. Like

horses and buffalo and Arizona horizons; like duststorms and Utah

buttes, they inspire awe and a little pain. But there are no Hamlets,

except of course for the dying ‘Doc’ Holliday, who (in My Darling

Clementine) likes Hamlet’s speech on "the undiscovered

country," ever looking forward.

A pretty big proportion

of the angry reactions to these films – none of them terribly

bad – probably has to do with how far short they seem to fall.

The talent sometimes looks a little outdone by their period

costumes; everyone is Winona Ryder in The Age of Innocence. In Maverick, Jodie Foster’s hair is so sprayed

and done that her eyes and mouth shrink down into the shape of

drains, the effect finally something too porcelain and crisp for

a woman with a past. Kiss her, you half think, and chip a tooth.

Foster has arches too flat for comedy’s light step, it’s true,

but the real problem is that she’s no Mrs. Miller, the townbuilding,

opium-addicted manager of high class whores that Julie Christie

played twenty some years ago. Bad Girls isn’t such an embarrassment

either, but beside another female oater like Johnny Guitar it’s badly outclassed. In one scene, Drew Barrymore and Andie

MacDowell smoke and giggle on a shopkeeper’s porch, looking like

a pair of doped-up mall kids. And the plot begs the question:

did this project get kick-started when someone on the committee

asked, "What if Thelma and Louise drove over the cliff and

landed in the Southwest of the 1870s?"

George Costakis’s Tombstone fares slightly better in some respects, but in others, slightly

worse. It delivers one brilliant performance that will make any

moviegoer’s day: Val Kilmer’s portrayal of ‘Doc’ Holliday is so

hypnotic ("Ahm your huckleberry," is his weird tag line)

that you’ll wonder how many times he watched Tonmmy Lee Jones

in The Fugitive to perfect the supporting role routine.

But the rest of the long film sits in a light of revery as thick

and gluey as varnish.

Even so, there are exceptions.

Before the women in Bad Girls can be free, not only from

the law but from their pasts, they have to face down the story’s

bad guy, Kid Jarrett (James Russo). Cody (Stowe) had once been

his bad girl and it will take a gunfight to clear him from her

memory. It happens – she wins – and three of the women light out

on horses, passing over misted plains toward the hills and an

egg-yolk sun. The credits roll. It’s the 1890s and they’re going

to the Klondike in search of gold. Hardly the end to the peek-a-boo

male fantasy that many critics have described it to be. It’s really

a suffragette story that closes with a search for more than literal

gold. Jonathan Kaplan’s film is about getting clear of fate, about

shedding men and their laws and their yokes. In a way, it’s a

Western like any other – it’s about freedom.

There are moments in

any Western that lead confirms that. But most anachonistic

is the gentleness of the cowboys, most evident in Kevin Kline’s

and Scott Glenn’s performances. Their speech is tinged by none

of their cinematic elders’ remoteness; it belongs more to clipped

lawns than desert campfires. They are suspiciously at ease inside

homes and they give their nephews a good squeeze when they visit.

They’ve never been on the range. Watch Ethan Edwards at dinner

in The Searchers; he eats like a convict, his eyes hawking

around, his mouth cut into his face with a knife, his words all

serrated. A typical speech in Silverado occurs when the

barmaid Stella (Linda Hunt) councils Paden (Kevin Kline): "Some

people think because they’re stronger or meaner they can push

you around. I’ve seen a lot of that. But it’s only true if you

let it be. The world is what you make of it."

By Western standards

that’s a soliloquy; in an earlier time Paden would have wheeled

his horse around, or hushed her with a strong word or a slap (Wayne’s

characters shut up any talkers — that is, anyone who goes on

for more than a sentence). Or her speech would have been pared

down to something like: "He’s mean, he’ll hurt ya, Jake!"

Stella’s talk is borrowed from drugstore relationship manuals.

In post­Civil War Silverado, men in chaps wouldn’t know

about the pliant whispers of the unconscious. Cowboys aren’t,

by definition, complex, neurotic and urban. Like horses and buffalo

and Arizona horizons, like duststorms and Utah buttes, they inspire

awe and a little pain. But there are no Hamlets, except of course

for the dying ‘Doc’ Holliday who (in My Darling Clementine) likes Hamlet’s speech on "the undiscovered country,"

ever looking forward.

A pretty big proportion

of the angry reactions to these films – none of them terribly

bad – probably has to do with how far short they seem to fall.

The talent sometimes looks a little outdone by their period costumes;

everyone is Winona Ryder in The Age of Innocence. In Maverick, Jodie Foster’s hair is so sprayed and done that her eyes and mouth shrink down into the shape of drains, the effect finally

something too porcelain and crisp for a woman with a past. Kiss

her, you half think, and chip a tooth. Foster has too- flat arches

for comedy’s light step, it’s true, but the real problem is that

she’s no Mrs. Miller, the townbuilding, opium-addicted manager

of high class whores that Julie Christie played twenty some years

ago. Bad Girls isn’t such an embarrassment either, but

beside another female oater like Johnny Guitar it’s badly

outclassed. In one scene, Drew Barrymore and Andie MacDowell smoke

and giggle on a shopkeeper’s porch, looking like a pair of doped-up

mall kids. And the plot begs the question: did this project get

kick-started when someone on the committee asked, "What if

Thelma and Louise drove over the cliff and landed in the Southwest

of the 1870s?"

George Costakis’s Tombstone fares slightly

better but also slightly worse. It delivers one brilliant performance

that will make any moviegoers day: Val Kilmer’s portrayal of ‘Doc’

Holliday is so hypnotic ("ah’11 be your huckleberry,"

is his weird tag line) that you’ll wonder how many times he watched

Tommy Lee Jones in The Fugitive to perfect the supporting

role routine. But the rest of the long film sits in a light of revery

that is a thick, gluey varnish. [CONCLUSION OF ARTICLE MISSING]

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