Thursday, October 25, 2007


When I was a little girl, I had on my bulletin board a double-page spread from a magazine depicting a herd of horses running. It was an advertisement for Mobil gas about “horsepower” and was painted by John Clymer, who was much teased by his fellow artists that such a thundering herd raised no dust. I met John later and learned that he, like me, grew up in the Pacific Northwest where one is more likely to experience mud than dust. We see according to our time and place.

Jim Dunham, whom I met at the recent CMR GF event, has a way of sorting out Western fans according to their generations. What’s the earliest of the cowboy heroes you remember? he asks, and that tells the story. He figures the oldest folks are thinking of Tom Mix in the silent movies. I think of Mix as well, but on the radio where he was a bit of a McGyver. I ordered a magnet ring after Mix, hiding in a hayloft, used his to cleverly heist a set of papers by their paperclip. A little circle of predatory bankers and lawyers were preparing to use them to turn a widow lady out of her home. Wish I had that magnet ring now, just in case, since my county property taxes came yesterday.

My most deeply felt cowboy heroes were on television: Gunsmoke, Rawhide, Cheyenne, Wagon Train. I had an intense yearning for a strong moral male figure who know what to do and had the ability to get it done. I’ve sought out such men all my life, which is why I get so hopeful when I meet someone who seems promising and then so vengeful when they turn out to be weak incompetents. (The seminary thought this was a very bad trait. I thought that was a self-serving opinion.)

The Autumn issue of “Montana, the Magazine of Western History” contains an article about the problem of how to regard “Deadwood,” the hugely successful “Western” that has an anti-hero for an organizing principle -- er, principal character. This article is by John Mack Faragher who uses a slightly different method for sorting. He suggests that the audience for the Fifties Westerns still remembered rural life, and felt nostalgia for it, but the audience for Deadwood is urban, accepting of capitalism, accustomed to debunking romantic notions, and fond of irony. Marshall Matt Dillon would strike them as earnest to the point of being thick.

David Milch, originator of the Deadwood series as well as the definitely urban NYPD Blue, claims to be trying to work out how it is that order finally emerges from the raw chaos of a frontier. Who steps forward, what are the strategies and what are the costs? He sees the frontier as Elizabethan in language and drama, though many of his characters, esp. the women, are clearly New York Types, like his Calamity Jane who is almost a stand-up comic, running commentary. I would suggest that he also frames these folks as immigrants -- still European in roots. Both the notions of what an American might be and what a Westerner might be are still developing in this paradigm.

Yet another way of classifying Westerns might be in terms of the social issues of the time. When I was listening to Tom Mix on the radio, WWII was raging. Maybe Indian war movies were a displacement of that. (Later “Soldier Blue” was deliberately a comment on Vietnam from a left-wing point of view.) In the Fifties we had a lot of television and movie plots in which cowboys and cavalrymen strove for justice to Indians and others -- arguing against violence like Gary Cooper in High Noon. It’s almost impossible to imagine Gary Cooper confronting Al Swearengen -- they don’t inhabit the same universe.

Wikipedia sorts Westerns by style and considers “Broken Trail” to be a “revisionist” Western like those beginning with “Shane” who went against the assumed standard. They identify such categories as “acid” Westerns, “spaghetti” Westerns, and Soviet Westerns. An interesting long list ends the article on “revisonist Westerns.”

Personally, I think that “Broken Trail” like “Open Range” is almost defined by Robert Duvall, which means I could throw “Tender Mercies” and “Lonesome Dove” in there. The opposite of Cormac McCarthy, much more in the spirit of “Dances with Wolves” or some of the other generational and “small realism” historical recent miniseries of reconciliation that try to feel out “how it really was.” Duvall’s characters have a couple of very strong characteristics, one of which is an impulse to protect the weak and small (women, children, maybe Indians and dogs) and the other of which is a desire to educate everyone around him on the things they need to know to survive in the West. In my experience, this truly is characteristic of many Westerners, esp. men. (I helped calve one night and was told to watch out for defensive mama cows, to be sure to write down the number of the ear tag, to always dab the umbilical stub with iodine and to put the iodine bottle right back where I found it at the base of the third post from the calving corral -- otherwise it would be hopelessly lost in the dark.)

The rest of the characters are just dialogue partners: slow learners and fast learners. We learn about tick fever, how to sew up a scalp wound (Duvall urges a “nice chain stitch” like he uses on his clothes.), and a few basic principles of public health. (Shoot deliberate disease carriers on sight, also their horses and pack animals, and then burn the whole mess. One of the nice touches was the ghost dancers in the flames celebrating the end of smallpox germs.) “Killed more Indians than ever were shot,” declares Duvall, accurately.

Another inspired moment comes when three young Indian men demand a two-horse toll for crossing their lands. Seems reasonable, considering that the remuda is supposed to contain hundreds, but Duvall convinces them to accept a small carved horse as one of the two. (Interesting that art seems to be creeping into these movies. Tommy Lee Jones in “Missing” was originally supposed to be even more of an artist than he turned out to be.) I doubt these guys were in the right place to be Crow, but it appeared that the actors were actually Crow. They said in their language, "What are such good-looking women doing with these loser guys?"

The biggest and most deliberate “revision” of this movie -- aside from replacing those danged cows with horses like Clymer's -- is turning the direction of regard from the Atlantic to the Pacific. Now we’re not dealing with immigrants from European cities, but rather “native-born” Westerners and captured Chinese. (There are no Africans.) A fascinating snatch of dialogue between Duvall and his nephew notes that the younger man’s father migrated from the Cumberland and that the mother was “too German” and Huguenot. A great deal is implied in those few words.

Much of the authenticity of the movie comes from the relationship between these two men. Thomas Haden Church is no Rowdy Yates or Chester, simply a foil and a lesser man. He can ride his horse, he reacts swiftly with competence, and he shares his uncle’s opinion of what is honorable. He’s been around. (The actor owns a big ranch in Texas and is married to a sexy wife. He has a rich, almost gravely voice, which contrasts beautifully with Duvall’s rather high, thin rambling.) Duvall tells him to do something, he does it. If Duvall isn’t there, he uses his own judgment and is effective.

The bad guys are not geeky weirdoes, the prostitutes are not very fancy, Greta Scacchi is utterly convincing, and Scott Cooper as the Easterner who can play the violin is a welcome relief. The Chinese actresses are the whole point of the exercise and well worth it, though it’s a little startling in the movie-about-making-the-movie when they speak perfectly fine English. The costumes and sets were thoughtfully and authentically done.

So now, at last, do we have a vision of the REAL West? I don’t think so. These folks have a much better script writer than real folks do. Would you want it otherwise? Westerns are an art form, not documentaries, though we like them to be persuasive and coherent. This movie must have been made just before the despair over Iraq or it would have had quite a different twist, its optimism impossible. We’re in another Deadwood time. Might not make it home. Might die young. Might be swallowed by the chaos.

The biggest irony is that we were taken into this mess by men I’m willing to bet grew up with ideas shaped by Westerns, about the same era as me. Cheney is even from Wyoming, Bush pretends to be from Texas. We may be back to sci-fi Westerns, dystopias.


JDM said...

How's "Soldier Blue" a Vietnam commentary?

prairie mary said...

If it's the movie I'm thinking of (sometimes I get titles wrong) it was a Jane Fonda production that picked up on the idea of Vietnam as "Indian Country" and compared the prairie massacres to the Vietnam War. There were some shot-for-shot reenactments of famous news films that people used to watch at suppertime. The little napalmed girl running towards the camera, the head rolling across the ground, the officer being shot in the head.

Prairie Mary

Jenny O said...

I am in yorkshire england, and feel as though you just took me there with broken trail, thanks for that...I have just foun blogs, mineis
I'm sixy eight, and remember westerns as 'what thre is' at the pictures in wemouth after the sister and I used to stand outside waiting for someone who would 'take us in'
I thought men 'were' soldiers or cowboys, and remember crying because horses were shot...
jenny oliver ..thanks for that trip !!