THE KING OF THE COWBOYS AND THE BLOODY WOMAN
I’ve often thought the impact of certain kinds of popular culture on my generation would prove a fruitful field of sociological study. We became known, perhaps deservedly, as The Silent Generation, owing to our conservatism, conformity and absence of social consciousness. And it’s not an unfair portrayal. By and large, we were indeed a dull and self-absorbed lot. Likewise our political, social and cultural context. The Eisenhower years, as they were called, were so bland John F. Kennedy successfully ran for president by offering himself as a vigorous change agent who would galvanize a moribund America.
But like all generalizations, this notion of a static 1950’s is flawed; it ignores the first stirrings of the civil rights and counterculture movements; the Red-baiting and blacklisting that went on, challenging our constitutionally guaranteed liberties; and—more to the point of this essay—the role of certain Western films and literature as teachers of ethics and morality.
Sound silly? Maybe. But consider. Allow me to put myself forward as an example. Yes, the popular culture of the time was mostly innocuous. But some of it wasn’t. Some writers and Hollywood directors were running against the tide. Some were taking the old Western morality play to new levels far more challenging than Roy and Gene had ever explored. And I was paying attention. I was still learning how to be the man I wanted to be by reading and watching Westerns—not the singing-cowboy Westerns but the progeny of films like Blood on the Moon which, I eventually discovered, had been adapted from a novel by Luke Short; and of the likes of Vestal’s Dodge City: Queen of Cowtowns with its Bloody Woman. I was learning about life. About the relativity and ambiguity of good and bad, right and wrong.
While much of America was watching Doris Day, Sandra Dee, Debbie Reynolds, Rock Hudson and Howard Keel, I was learning about overcoming race prejudice from the movie Broken Arrow, based on the great novel Blood Brother by Elliott Arnold, the true story of how white frontiersman and former Indian-fighter Tom Jeffords befriended the Apache war chief Cochise, helped arrange a peace treaty with him and married an Apache maiden. A related message about the corrosions of intolerance came from The Searchers and The Unforgiven, films taken from Alan LeMay’s Western novels.
I was learning the truth about courage from They Came to Cordura, another fine motion picture based on a book by Glendon Swarthout, in which a proven coward searching for the meaning of bravery ironically finds courage within himself even as it drains away under pressure in a group of so-called heroes recommended for the Congressional Medal of Honor; and from William Wyler’s epic The Big Country, a meditation on courage as an inner assurance that requires no outward show while also exploring the true nature of love and loyalty. James Stewart, whose gritty Westerns like The Naked Spur and The Man from Laramie cast him savagely against his amiable prewar type, showed me that a man may be masculine and yet openly show his feelings, may even weep onscreen. An authentic war hero, Stewart resumed his peacetime film career with a new willingness to explore unblinkingly the heights and depths of human emotion, something I was sure the twenty-five bombing missions he flew over Germany had brought out in him.
High Noon spoke of the vital role duty plays in a civilized society, and showed how courage can rise out of a sense of that duty but must also overcome fear—a fear that needs to be expressed in order to be met and defeated. Oakley Hall’s Pulitzer Prize-nominated Western novel Warlock, put on celluloid by director Edward Dmytryk, demonstrated how a desire for security—for law and order—can corrupt both the law-bringer and the town he has been hired to save from outlawry. Henry King’s The Bravados, from another Western novel by Frank O’Rourke, turned a spotlight on the dangers of personal vengeance. Even an unabashed horse opera like The Magnificent Seven could give a lesson in the redemptiveness of compassion; its cynical, disillusioned gunfighters eventually yield up their lives to save a village of Mexican peasants from plundering bandits.
I learned that virtue and evil are not the absolutes Roy and Gene fought against. Good can be bad and bad can be good. Both are in us to be. One can become the other. Life is hard and unjust and ugly, as the young buffalo hunter found when he saw The Bloody Woman. What matters is how one bears up under extreme conditions. Amos Edwards in LeMay’s The Searchers has allowed the unremitting warfare between white settlers and Comanche Indians to poison him with hate beyond recovery; his nephew Martin Pauley, growing up in the same harsh environment, never loses his basic humanity. Amos is like the buffalo hunter, scarred by the misdeeds of his later life, looking back in rueful recognition on The Bloody Woman; Martin is like the same man still young, who turns his back on The Bloody Woman, closes the door of the saloon, goes back to camp and keeps his soul by taking a better path. Neither is perfect because their world, which is our world too, won’t allow perfection. But the distance between them is the distance between grace and its absence. That’s what I learned from the Western. And that’s what I write about now.
NEXT: WESTERNS AS LITERATURE