In a souped-up cinematic landscape of robots, superheroes and CGI, the western and its dusty cowboy rides on—despite mixed results. Django Unchained and True Grit drew urbane audiences and accolades, but the turd that was The Lone Ranger fell atop an ever taller pile of manure. A ride through the celluloid cowboy’s evolution might (almost) explain why Disney, in all its financial prowess, would gamble $225 million on a talking Tonto.
The cowboy figure found an immediate home in American cinema. Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show—a circus-like cavalcade featuring crack shot Annie Oakley and a parade of the planet’s finest horsemen (Native Americans, Mongols, Turks, Gauchos, Bedouins, et al)—was a favorite subject of early motion pictures. America’s first blockbuster, The Great Train Robbery (1903), was a vivid cowboy heist pic that—113 years after its creation—makes me wince at its grizzliest bits. Stuffed like too much sausage into a snug baby blue get-up, the Lone Ranger and his grunting sidekick, Tonto, were successors to a long line of serial pic cowboys that included wildly popular Red Ryder and singing cowboy Gene Autry. Geared towards kids more than adults, these squeaky clean “smooth-like-a-Ken-doll” cowboys were sermons in spurs, embodying virtue among the cacti. They never drank, smoked, swore or winked at women. As America entered WWII, the moral certainty of Ken Doll cowboys stoked our collective fire of righteousness and racism, and painted us a history myth of preordained victory.
The cowboy-iest cowboy films—such as Red
River, My Darling Clementine and She Wore a Yellow Ribbon—were created
in the years immediately before and after WWII. The films reflected the same nationalistic
righteousness as the serials, but they were made for adults—adults with the war
on their minds. So the heroes grew grander and more macho. Like Cowboy Kings, they
drank, gambled, fornicated, and shot up bad guys. They embodied bloodlust. The
West’s evolution into economic prosperity was the perfect allegory for America’s
expansion into the world economy. John Wayne in Red River wasn’t just driving his cattle to market; he was driving
the engine of American capitalism.
After WWII, male characters across every film genre began to change. It was the birth of the anti-hero, and cowboys—despite their hyper-masculinity—were not exempt. Like the returning servicemen themselves, they grew complex, jaded and vulnerable. They’d seen things. Bad things. They were never looking for trouble, but trouble always found them. Gary Cooper in High Noon, Glenn Ford in 3:10 to Yuma and Jimmy Stewart in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance were reluctant to kill, but dammit, sometimes a man needed killing.
Though frozen in time and rigidly tethered to a landscape, westerns changed. Goodbye, John Wayne—hello, James Dean, whose character in Giant (1956) morphs from a lowly cowboy roughneck into a misanthropic oil tycoon (foreshadowing the Hearst-like figure of There Will Be Blood). In eight short years, the myth of the self-made man transformed from John Wayne’s bold cattleman in Red River (1948) to Dean’s pathetic Jett Rink, babbling drunk to a big empty room—effectively bucking the myth off its high horse. These films are also referred to as revisionist westerns, but they didn’t revise the formula or the history (the Earps won the Gunfight at the O.K. Corral , like they did in My Darling Clementine , like they actually did in 1881)—cowboys simply evolved into more three-dimensional characters.
In 1953, a new kind of cowboy rode into town—thanks to the popularity of Shane: the Stranger. With no personal history (sometimes, not even a name), the Stranger makes the world safe for the little guy. He’s a cop without a badge, or, seemingly, a heart. After WWII, many veterans were suffering from what we would eventually recognize as PTSD. They felt estranged from their nuclear families and the entire American dream myth. The Stranger has no bad memories because he has no history—he’s just a hobo with a horse and a gun.
Throughout the 60s , the legitimacy of “legitimate” authority and a corrupt, predatory system became an increasingly familiar theme in film: The Manchurian Candidate, Dr. Strangelove, Z, M*A*S*H*, In the Heat of the Night, Serpico, Papillion, and Cool Hand Luke. Beamed straight into living rooms, footage of the Vietnam War would allow Americans access to carnage unseen on our home turf since the Civil War. And as the nation’s confidence of the 50s withered, the western shifted its focus from the good guys to the bad guys. In Vietnam-era westerns, we rooted not for the hero who saves the day, but for the cowboys with convictions as broken as our own. They were second generation to the Stranger, but many straight-up criminals who didn’t give a hoot about saving the day. Clint Eastwood’s Man with No Name in Leone’s A Fistful of Dollars takes money from the bad guys to kill other bad guys. A veritable Möbius strip of killing. These cowboys prayed to no God, honored and obeyed no woman, and toiled for no man. In films like Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, Once Upon a Time in the West, The Wild Bunch, The Long Riders and Young Guns, the message was simple: fuck the system.
Reflecting the brutality of the war, the violence and misogyny quotient shot through the roof and depicted a raging river of murder and rape. Sam Peckinpah’s Wild Bunch has been credited with visually introducing Americans to the bullet hole, and in the first fifteen minutes of Sergio Leone’s Once Upon a Time in the West, Henry Fonda (once a Cowboy King of Kings) shoots an entire family, and one surviving little boy, dead. And oy vey—what’s with all the rape, High Plains Drifter, Josey Wales, et al?! Poor Sandra Locke. If she was on a wagon train, rape was just over the hill.
One of the marked recent shifts in the western has been in its portrayal of the cowboy’s connection to family, and of the family unit. One episode of Bonanza will tell you: once upon a time, family was the institution for which the cowboy fought and the bedrock to which he returned. Myriad depictions of the Earp brothers reflect the western’s preoccupation with kin. Gary Cooper embarked on his epic battle in High Noon not to keep the townsfolk safe (they were all cowards), but for his wife. Unable to sustain a family like the one he fights for, Shane drifts on to points unknown. Estranged from their real families, bad guys followed surrogate families of criminal gangs. Everybody had a posse.
Unlike the Stranger, cowboys of the Vietnam era had backstories that included their families. You either got a little taste, like Jason Robards in Once Upon a Time in the West (“You know, Jill, you remind me of my mother. She was the biggest whore in Alameda and the finest woman that ever lived. Whoever my father was for an hour or for a month . . . he must have been a happy man.”) or you got the whole horrific enchilada, as in The Outlaw Josey Wales, when the titular character’s wife and son are sadistically murdered on screen.
It’s remarkable that the untethered Stranger sustained so many popular films, as backstory allows us to bond with a character, and he didn’t have one. But once the cowboys collective’ backstories began to emerge, the picture that developed was: family is a liability. It slows you down, makes you weak, and invites heartbreak. In the FX series Justified, families are comprised of criminal fuckups who will either shoot your ass or get you shot. Lead character U.S. Marshall Rayland Givens is terrible at sustaining familial relationships—he can’t even show up on time for his pregnant wife’s sonogram appointment. They’re separated, by the way.
For example, Jesse James was the subject of The Long Riders (1980) and The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (2007), but the representation family in both films could not be more different. The Long Riders stars four sets of siblings: James and Stacy Keach as the James brothers; David, Robert and Keith Carradine as the Youngers; Dennis and Randy Quaid as Ed and Clell Miller; and Christopher and Nicholas Guest as the Fords. Director Walter Hill saw that the brothers’ bonds manifested on screen. The relationships were sources of solace and invigorated the characters. The Keaches appeared in most scenes together.
In The Assassination… Frank James, played by Sam Shepard, is rarely on screen, and when he is, he’s isolated and anxious. Charlie Ford taunts his brother Robert, played by Casey Affleck, sadistically—you can understand why the kid’s such a weirdo. Their whole Ford family seems estranged, though cramped in their lonely farmhouse. Sycophantic Robert looks to Jesse as a surrogate father figure. All the characters look outside their families for acceptance. In the poetic opening sequence, the narrator says of James’ children, “They did not know their father’s name.”
In Django Unchained, King Schultz’s accent and dentist wagon provide a taste of his backstory. His romantic fairy tales suggest that he has known love, maybe even family, but he’s not looking back. So he’s a practical, successful killing machine. Like Josie Wales, Django is burdened by his well-drawn past and visions of his beloved wife Brunhilde beaten and raped. When King begins to feel obligations as Django does—obligations to principal—he acts from his heart, and dies for it.
Portrayals of women characters and their prominence in westerns are (slowly) improving. But while their presence usually indicates a tighter familial bond, they, too, struggle to lift the dead weight of their family units. In Meek's Cutoff, Michelle Williams must act against her husband and extended family to save them from death on the Oregon trail—and they are not helping. Mags Bennett on Season 2 of Justified is savvy enough to free her family from the poverty of rural Kentucky, but also ruthless enough to shatter her son’s hand with a hammer when he defies her. He deserved it.
Films like Meek’s Cutoff, The Lone Ranger and most notably Django Unchained signal a new age of for-real revisionist westerns—ones that bestow acts of bravery, dignity and heroism on characters who have never been western heroes (traditionally minor ones)—especially women and people of color. By setting a gladiator movie (which tracks a slave’s journey to emancipation via violence) in a western landscape, Tarantino makes of Django a new kind of cowboy—but with old roots. After he blows up the last of his enemies, and is ready to ride off with his beloved Brunhilde, Django’s horse—for no reason—does this little dance, like Trigger! As the corny background music swells, Django becomes a full-fledged Ken Doll cowboy, albeit dressed way cooler. Because Django’s origins were the lowliest, his rise is the stuff of classical mythology. American cowboys—i.e. white guys—have known hundreds of years of supremacy, and only a few dozen as failures, so their return to hero status would be a short, probably boring flight. And since dastardly white guys continue to hunt us little guys and gals for sport, it’s getting harder to root for them in any capacity.
Except as Losers, which may be the new black for white cowboys: busted men overwhelmed by failure and loss. Like AMC’s Longmire—an old school, taciturn, bad-ass Wyoming sheriff, driven to despair and drunk driving over the death of his wife. Or Tommy Lee Jones in No Country For Old Men, haunted by mankind’s inexplicable brutality. Or Tommy Lee Jones, again, in The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada (Cuckoo!). On season 4 of Justified, two troubled, PTSD-plagued veterans squared off in an episode-long ambush; both wore cowboy hats, but only one made it to season 5. They’re all a far cry from heroes, unless heroism entails living “long after the thrill of living is gone.” White cowboys aren’t dead, per se, but they might be, reluctantly, considering Zoloft. The fun ones, like Rayland Givens, are real shits.
Which leaves the western hugely understaffed in the hero department, so minor characters—who we can root for without ambivalence—are stepping up. Rapper Common plays Elam Ferguson in AMC’s Hell on Wheels—a freed slave in league with a former Confederate solider. But Ferguson’s no mere sidekick; he’s got the brawn and brains, his own story lines, and he gets his own nookie. Nookie’s very important. Tonto never got any nookie. And unlike the 1969 original, the Coen Brothers’ remake of True Grit followed the book and its intended hero—14 year-old Mattie Ross.
In 1974, as the black sheriff of a white town, Black Bart in Blazing Saddles could’ve only been played for laughs. Today, they might try to pull it off straight (or campy, a’la Wild Wild West), and it just might fly. But the emerging formula for success seems to begin in realism—a historically accurate premise, like Django, as opposed to an old stereotype smothered in CGI, like Tonto. Blazing Saddles showed us precisely how dumb Tonto was by superimposing his vocabulary onto a white guy named Mongo (short for mongoloid).
Disney saw color when they should have been looking for character. Or at least a script [Cue sound of Slim Pickens yee-hah-ing as he rodeo-rides a nuclear warhead to oblivion].
Alas, it’s an evolution, not a revolution. The genre’s bedrock is hyper-violence, racism and sexism. Portrayals of Native Americans—and Johnny Depp playing Native Americans—and Johnny Depp playing cowboys alongside Native Americans—is a whole other essay.
Jennifer L. Knox is the author of three books of poems, The Mystery of the Hidden Driveway, Drunk by Noon, and A Gringo Like Me—all available from Bloof Books—and Holliday, a chapbook of poems written in the voice of Doc Holliday. Her writing has appeared in The New Yorker, New York Times, and four times in the Best American Poetry series. She is at work on her first novel.