Where Did All the Cowboys Go?

November 5, 2012 8:57 pm

Once, western films were the standard fare of Hollywood.

In fact, Hollywood was founded on the popularity of the ‘rootin’, tootin’ western one-reeler. Real cowboys were employed in the silent film era. They knew how to ride, how to shoot and rope, and a man had to do what a man had to do. Some of them became stars in their own right. Tom Mix had worked as a professional cowboy in Oklahoma. He went on to become the first screen cowboy superstar,  making  291 films. He was one of the pall-bearers at true life western legend Wyatt Earp’s funeral, who acted as an advisor on many of his films. Mix even got a young John Wayne a job as a prop mover at Fox Studios.

Building on their popularity, the film studios continued to churn them out throughout the 30s, 40s, and 50s. The genre was only rivalled by gangster films.

Tom Mix: original cowboy?

Many westerns became classics of modern cinema, particularly those by director John Ford, often starring John Wayne himself – Stagecoach, Fort Apache, Rio Grande, She Wore a Yellow Ribbon, The Searchers, and The Man that Shot Liberty Vallance. Other stars took up the role of the gun-toting hero – like Gary Cooper, Robert Mitchum, Randolph Scott – hell, even Jimmy Cagney gave it a go (in The Oklahoma Kid), but he never looked right in the saddle somehow.

Then television rode into town and the western set up camp on our small screens from the 50s onwards into the early 70s with shows like Wagon Train, Bonanza, Have Gun Will Travel, Wanted – Dead or Alive (which brought a young Steve McQueen to the notice of the film studios), Gun Law, Lawman, Maverick, Rawhide (where Clint Eastwood cut his teeth), Laredo, The Lone Ranger, The Range Rider, Cheyenne, Bronco Lane, Tenderfoot, Laramie, Boots and Saddles, The Big Valley, The Virginian.

The worlds of books and comics were also rich in portraying the ‘Wild West’ and its heroes: Jack Shaefer, Elmore Leonard and Louis L’Amour all penned classic western stories, and our own JT Edson produced reams of tales of tough, weather-beaten tinstars bringing justice to the wild cowtowns of Texas. Marvel comics produced Kid Colt, The Rawhide Kid and The Two-Gun Kid. You could hardly walk down a street or through a wood without a bunch of kids dodging behind trees with their Remington cap guns firing at each other or shouting ‘pow!’ They would fall dramatically to the ground clutching a ‘fatal wound’, then slap their own thighs as their imaginary horses carried them away. (Some cynics would say, these days, the guns are real and it’s usually a hotwired car carrying them away from justice).

‘Print the legend’

So what was it that provided such a mass appeal about the western genre (both in the world of film and TV) and why did that

appeal seem to fade so suddenly by the 1970s?

I recently attended a ‘Community Cinema’ event near my hometown. They were showing Sergio Leone’s now classic ‘spaghetti western’, For a Few Dollars More. Guest speaker was film director Alex Cox (Repo Man, Straight to Hell, Sid and Nancy). After the screening, Cox held a Q&A session and an old-timer like me could not resist the temptation to pose the question: ‘Why don’t they make westerns anymore?’

‘People’s tastes have changed,’ he said. ‘And actors haven’t got the skills required – they don’t ride, rope or shoot anymore. Times have moved on.’

Spaghetti Western – a dying genre?

I would have liked to have expanded on this with a couple of counterarguments because, for me, actors can always learn these skills, like De Niro learned to box for Raging Bull or mastered the saxophone for New York, New York, and that a good story is a good story, no matter what genre it uses to ‘put it out there’.

For instance, The Godfather isn’t just about gangsters or organised crime, as such. It’s about family relationships, trust, betrayal, revenge, triumph, love, business, corruption, aging, succession – all such themes contained within any good western.

Could it be because westerns are set in the past, like a period piece? But then so was The Godfather, and so are numerous costume dramas and swords and scandals films. Are the financial costs of making a western too high? Clearly not. Apart from basic costumes, horses, and the frontier towns, the western lends itself to ample open-air location shots, the sheer beauty of the west, the badlands, the deserts, the prairies…so prohibitive cost should be a non-starter.

No, for me, the real question of ‘what happened to the western film’ can be boiled down to ‘who owns the western’? Or, to quote the newspaper editor at the end of John Ford’s The Man that Shot Liberty Vallance: ‘When the legend becomes fact, print the legend…’

And it’s my belief that not ‘printing the legend’ has been at the root of the western film’s demise.

Running Sore

Tom Mix set the stage for the image of the western film hero. Clean cut, white hat, honest, upright and clean, putting wrongs right, policing the world – traditional ‘American values’. John Wayne carried that torch and became the embodiment of those values. He was constant in almost every part he played. Wayne hardly ever altered the blueprint. He was ‘brand America’ and he was packaged and sold to the world. He was controversially said to have been excused military service during WWII because his role playing a hero celluloid was deemed a far more effective weapon for the war effort. His hero fought on the morale front at home. Post World War II, when America came nose-to-nose with the Russians in the Cold War, his role became even more important as representative of the tough, no-nonsense American character.

Offscreen, there was no greater anti-communist in Hollywood, and he gathered similar characters around him. This was the era of Senator Joe McCarthy’s vindictive anti-communist witch hunts, when many an actor/writer/director who had the slightest whiff of ‘leftwing’ about them could be chased out of their careers.

What was important to the American political establishment and, by extension, to the moving picture establishment, was to maintain the facade of toughness in the face of threats. The image of ‘All-American rugged individualism’ had to take on all comers that posed a threat to the American way of life. The cowboy as hero, the gunfighter, the frontiersman who tamed the Wild West, could do the same on new frontiers. By ‘American way of life’, I mean principally their socio-economic system: capitalism. And by ‘taming the (new) Wild West’, I mean the newer, perceived threat of communism in particular and anything remotely leftwing in general.

By the late 1950s, there were the stirrings of a newly revitalised Civil Rights movement. This fully bloomed into the campaign led by Martin Luther King in the 1960s. Then came Vietnam, a war in South-East Asia that rapidly developed into a running sore that was to give birth to a huge anti-war campaign that almost tore America apart. Young people protested in their millions on university campuses and on the streets. They would no longer swallow the old way of life, the old propaganda, and thousands refused to register for the draft. They formed the audience for America’s ‘New Cinema’ that elbowed its way forward with films like Bonnie and Clyde, Easy Rider, and The Graduate. Films that questioned the values of their parents’ generation. It was an audience that was choking on Mom’s apple pie, and this fed its way through these films. Westerns, traditionally the genre that touched first base with traditional American values, did not escape the scrutiny of the new counter-culture.

True Grit: Wayne is a maverick of the western

As new films set in modern times questioned values of the day, it followed that new westerns would challenge the orthodoxy of the past, and specifically the fate of the Native Americans. The stories of the brutality, the betrayal and, finally, the genocide of the Native American tribes, were told in such films as Little Big Man and Soldier Blue – much to the disgust of the American right, certainly to the likes of John Wayne. Finally, aspects of the real American history were being portrayed on film; a mirror was being held up, and it was cracked.

The media moral panics about film violence etc. was a smokescreen for the outrage that Americans could be portrayed in so brutal a fashion. At a time when, almost daily on our TV screens, we saw the same brutality taking place for real in the napalmed villages of Vietnam.

By the mid 1970s, the game was up. The main Hollywood studios cast aside the western; only a few were made post 1977.  Most of them were sombre, melancholy portraits of the frontier being closed down, that started back in 1969 with the likes of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid and Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch.  Now the big studios were more enamoured with young girls possessed by demons, razor-toothed sharks, psycho killers and ‘cowboys in space –  where ray gun replaced six-gun, the final frontier.

As long as we could look at the stars and other worlds, it just might distract us from what really happened in the past and what’s happening in front of our noses. But old style John Waynes still cling on to the psyche of the American right. Ronald Reagan, a contemporary of Wayne’s, played the first ‘cowboy’ president complete with homespun ‘aw, shucks’ demeanour. And who can forget George Dubya Bush and his ten gallon hat on his Texan ranch, with his pronouncement of a bounty on Osama Bin Laden’s head: ‘Wanted – Dead or Alive’?’

What always mattered first and last in Hollywood was the big bucks. The ‘off-message’ western anti-hero was told to hand in his badge, saddle up and ride out of town. With the ghost of John Wayne still around, this town ain’t big enough for the both of them.

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