The Eclectic Horseman

There are some anachronisms and revisionist innovations in the screenplay that betray a late twentieth-century sensibility. Without question "full of shit" is not an average expression of consternation your everyday 1880s cowboy might sputter on the range, nor is "asshole" the penultimate westerner's preferred epithet. Also, when Munny's black partner is assailed, in current politically correct fashion, never is the N-word uttered by his adversaries. (Fifteen years after the end of the Civil War, you can bet your weathered Stetson that the passions and prejudices of that tragic conflict registered on the placid terrain of the old West.)

Too much has been written lately regarding the death and resurrection of the western. Most recently there was a column in the Miami Herald by Bill Cosford outlining his views on the cause of its demise, and I'm sure the distinguished critic will forgive me if I indulge in some friendly expostulation and rebuttal. Cosford names as "the seeds of the Western's popularity and the agents of its collapse" some rather mind-boggling specimens. Point one is that "Horses no longer interest people. They are no longer transportation for anyone, and no longer even expensive pets for any but the affluent few." A curious observation, that. Does Cosford imply that in the heyday of the Hollywood western -- a period covering the end of the Thirties through the Fifties and on to the Sixties, with Ford's The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance and Cheyenne Autumn -- the main source of transportation was Mr. Ed? And is he suggesting that audiences were more enamored of Gene Autry's pony than with the Singing Cowboy? Pretty kinky, Professor Bill.

Point two: "The `wide open spaces' remain, but they are no challenge to anyone who doesn't seek them out. We fly over the badlands." Still obsessed with ways of getting around. It may come as news to the fine critic of the Herald, but long before middle-class America discovered Club Med, prop planes flew over the badlands, too. But what any of this has to do with alleged disinterest in the genre is for Elvis to decipher.

Point three: "Violence endures as a narrative staple in movies, and modern movie violence is much more explicit than anything vintage westerns employed. Those were the days of the bloodless gunshot and the bruise-free, rollicking fistfight. The reality of violent America overtook the myth of western showdowns." Cosford cleverly ignores the post-vintage westerns that appeared in the aftermath of the Sixties, such as the gruesomely realistic fables of Sam Peckinpah. (Is there a violent western to exceed The Wild Bunch's slo-mo carnage?) The British critic Robin Wood, in a definitive essay on Peckinpah, wrote that he was the successor to John Ford: "An heir Ford would not have wished to acknowledge, but an heir nonetheless." The realistic western was not a contributing factor, as such post-studio-era shoot-'em-ups as The Long Riders, Pale Rider, and now Unforgiven abundantly show.

Point four: "As for that great scenery, it is now within the reach of the average American, not to mention the average Japanese." A basic rehash of the first statement, but curious nonetheless. Is Cosford suggesting that Japanese capitalism is responsible for America's ennui regarding John Wayne? If so, it's a view worthy of Pat Buchanan.

Point five: Cosford writes that "period pieces are a tough sell." There he goes again. It's interesting to note that of the Academy Awards Best Films of the past decade, many of them (Amadeus, Dances With Wolves, Gandhi, The Last Emperor, and Out of Africa, to name five) could be labeled period pieces.

Point six: "The theme of the white man as civilizer and rightful appropriator of `untamed' lands is now in such disarray that a good part of the appeal of Dances With Wolves was laid to its portrayal of the Sioux as spiritual superiors to the settlers." Again Cosford ignores the appeal of such consciousness-raising westerns as Jeremiah Johnson, Little Big Man, A Man Called Horse, and Soldier Blue, which came in the aftermath of Vietnam in the early Seventies. And, of course, Ford's Cheyenne Autumn offered a less ethnocentric viewpoint than was previously seen in, say, The Searchers.

And finally: "Only the myth of the outlaw hero seems to have any resonance left for modern audiences, but even that idea has long since migrated onto modern, urban plots." For a more eloquent rebuttal to this proposition than this critic could ever manage, I recommend the reader pick up a copy of Robert Warshow's essay entitled "The Westerner," written in 1954 and utterly marvelous, which compares the saddle-and-spurs genre to the ganster movie -- "men with guns." Suffice to say that, since the debacle of Michael Cimino's Heaven's Gate, bottom-line producers appear to have placed a moratorium on the western. Audiences, as ever, have been underestimated. Give us a good western, and we'll pack the multiplex like Texas cattle.

And before the critical cowboy rides off into the sunset, I would admit more films than High Noon, The Searchers, and Shane into the pantheon of great examples of this misplaced genre. The list is too long to complete, certainly, but on my desert-island VCR I would not want to be without Stagecoach, The Ox-Bow Incident, She Wore a Yellow Ribbon, Red River, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, The Wild Bunch, Barbarossa, The Long Riders, and yes, Unforgiven.

Directed by Clint Eastwood; written by David Webb Peoples; with Clint Eastwood, Gene Hackman, Morgan Freeman, Richard Harris, and Jaimz Woolvett.


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