It is the early 1950s and I am sitting in a small-town theater with my father watching what has become a Western movie legend: the saga of High Noon starring Gary Cooper and Grace Kelly.
What will happen at high noon? I want to know.
Is the sheriff going to save his neck or do the right thing?
Some 50 years later, audiences sitting around their TV sets were asking the same questions about Bill Clinton.
Some cultural observers say the moral ambiguity of today’s politics makes people long for the good old days when a man’s word was his bond.
Past generations learned ethics and morality from Westerns.
The characters on the screen were not always perfect. Some had dark pasts. But they always tried to do what is right.
The Westerns playing in theaters from 1946 to 1970 carried a message of self-sacrifice with old-fashioned American values: trust, honesty, integrity, courage, fearlessness, heroism and daring.
Since 1903, with the silent film debut of the Great Train Robbery, Westerns have allowed audiences to see justice done.
And the spaghetti Westerns of the 1960s—so called because they were cranked out in Italy—paved the way for the modern action hero.
Not to mention Gunsmoke. On the air for more than 20 years, it became one of the longest-running TV series ever. You can still watch it twice a day on the Western Channel. (Ironically, the original Matt Dillon who became a lawman in Kansas is alleged to have migrated West from McDowell County.)
The big Western, with its horses, saloons, guns, and cattle drives, pretty much vanished from TV and theaters by the 1980s, however.
Somewhere in American pop culture, someone decided that Westerns were not cool anymore, so Hollywood stopped making them.
What a pity!
Westerns do not have much to do with the West as such anyhow.
It is not about the encounter between civilization and the frontier. It is about men’s fears of losing their mastery, their machismo, their manhood and hence their identity.
And just in case that anybody still has not figured it out: Westerns are not only in revolt against a female dominated culture, but they also stage a moment in the psycho-social development of the male that requires that he demonstrate his independence from and superiority to women, specifically to his mother.
Seen from this perspective, the Western is a gigantic coming-of-age plot in which the hero proves to himself and anyone who will pay attention that he is not Mama’s boy anymore; he is a man.
Taming and settlement of the American frontier were, for nearly a century, symbolic of our national courage and pioneer zeal.
But in contemporary literature and film, the American conscience palate has shifted, becoming soused and saturated with political correctness, antiviolence and gender ambivalence.
The westward expansion and its cultural and ecological implications—particularly the near extermination of Native-American cultures and the pillaging of the environment (slaughter of the American bison)—have become symptomatic of our collective national guilt.
Other genres, meanwhile, have absorbed some of the traditional Western’s themes. Star Wars replaced the cavalry, and the “final frontier” of outer space replaced the Old West.
The present attitude in Hollywood is no exception, despite the resurgent interest in Western movies in past decades. The inevitable questions are: Is the Western a dying breed? Or is the Western making a comeback? Who really is the next John Wayne?
Can anyone remember the grace and restraint of the last fabled caballero as he strode into town at sunset? The lean and willowy chap, the one with his shooting iron slung low and laced at the knee, who wore a sleek Stetson and sat at ease in the saddle, and who knew the bad guys from the good guys.
Seemingly, each time he infiltrated the barroom din of noisy drunks and rustlers, gamblers entrenched in the town’s customary rowdy and rollicking retreat (of course, through the smokey assembly’s celebrated swinging doors), the shapeliest of saloon songsters would mosey up close and by tradition croon, as the outsider stepped nonchalantly up to the bar, “Where you from, stranger?”
His typical laconic reply, “No place in particular, mam.”
This thirsty, dust-begrimed yet still esthetically and stylishly handsome cowboy could relate as if on cue the accepted archetypical tales about the Old West, about the days when men were men and women were either schoolmarms or dance-hall girls. He was handy with a six-gun and ladies alike. He could ride, shoot, and kiss with the best of them.
Then almost before we knew it, he was gone.
Who was that man?
Why, that was…so and so.
Gone are the days when Henry Fonda, James Stewart and Randolph Scott romanticized the West on the silver screen.
Good Western movies and books have been swept from the theatre projection rooms, drugstore and grocery racks like the buffalo from the Great Plains. The traditional audience—male, late middle-aged—is drying up. Only recently has the genre made a limited comeback with the Western Channel and other TV cable venues.
Revisionist historians have been chipping away at the great cowboy myth: that the West was a place of heroic action, a place where Anglo-Saxon men played out their destiny of conquest and domination.
But despite all that, the Western hero is still around, so to speak. The cowboy matinee idols of the once-iconic silver screen currently feature a swarm of imitators even today, albeit perhaps in other genres of filmdom.
These days, “he” might be “she” and no longer so sure about who are the good guys or the bad guys.
Sharon Stone might out-draw Gene Hackman, get on her horse and ride out of town with lover in tow, him bringing up the rear and settling for sidekick instead of testosterone-infused-warrior and main player.
Modern Westerns are heavy with ambiguity.
Once upon a time, it was a story set in a vague and timeless setting with plenty of scenery but little identity.
The characters and the plot seldom varied. It had to be about a stranger who rode into town, cleaned out the bad guys and made it safe for women and children.
Safe from the renegade Apaches. Safe from double-dealing, saloon-gambling, cut-throats of cinema.
Meanwhile, the strong, silent marshal—Gary Cooper—Steps into the empty street to face the menace at the far end of town. Tex Ritter’s lyrics grind in the background: “Don’t forsake me oh my darlin’…”
Our hero marshal has found himself. He does not need the tin star any longer. He is his own man. He met the test and won.
This Western scenario is an essential part of American mythology—the body of traditional tales, historical fables, and heroic fantasies through which we remember our past.
We are a violent society—in part because the frontier experience linked the idea of human dignity with gunplay.
“God may have made men,” the saying goes. “Samuel Colt made them equal.”
Even so, the Western genre had its own code of conduct.
Among the Ten Cowboy Commandments: He must help people in distress. He must be a good worker. He must respect women, parents, and his nation’s laws. He must be gentle with children, the elderly, and animals. He must always tell the truth.
And above all, the cowboy must never shoot first, hit a smaller man, or take an unfair advantage.
If we could honor these values in our classrooms, we would not have to worry about test scores or violence in schools, let alone hoodlum led mayhem and carnage in the streets.
We could make our youth stand so tall that they would cast an exceptionally long shadow in the imagination not only of America, but of the world.
Top o’ the morning!