As this hard-fought, high-stakes presidential campaign reaches its closing crescendo, one question insistently nags: What does today's scarcity of cowboy movies tell us about the nation that, 50 years ago, could not get enough of them?
The question is prompted by the hoof beats of the new movie "Appaloosa," which is welcome evidence that the Western genre is not facedown in the dusty streets of Laredo, wrapped in white linen and cold as the clay. But "Appaloosa," although semi-boffo at the box office, is being trounced by a movie about a Chihuahua, which is an honest-to-Randolph Scott outrage. (For whippersnappers too young to remember, Scott—strong jaw; a crooked smile but straight teeth; crow's-feet from squinting into sunsets—starred in many horse operas, back in pre-"Brokeback Mountain" days, when it was rumored that he was a gay cowboy.)
The Western as a literary genre was invented in 1902 by Owen Wister, a well-born Philadelphian and Harvard graduate whose friend and hero was the Manhattan-born and Harvard-educated cowboy—Teddy Roosevelt had ranched in Dakota territory—then in the White House. Wister's novel "The Virginian," about a Wyoming cattleman, was a best seller for six years and put into American parlance a sentence—"When you call me that, smile!"—that someone has said should be on the Great Seal of the United States.
Hollywood, born at about that time, saddled up and galloped off in pursuit of Wister's readers. Imitation being, as Fred Allen said, the sincerest form of television, in 1958, 11 of the 18 top-rated television shows were "Gunsmoke" (1), "Wagon Train"(2), "Have Gun Will Travel" (3), "The Rifleman" (4), "Maverick" (6), "Tales of Wells Fargo" (7), "The Life and Legend of Wyatt Earp" (10), "Zane Grey Theater" (13), "The Texan" (15), "Wanted: Dead or Alive" (16) and "Cheyenne" (18).
In the new movie, Virgil Cole, a rent-a-marshal, and his sidekick, Everett Hitch, are hired by the Appaloosa town fathers to bring to heel or send to Hell a lawless rancher named Randall Bragg. Although Cole reads Emerson, he rarely rises from reticence and then only to taciturnity:
Bragg: You a drinking man?
Cole: Not so much.
Bragg: Hard to like a man who doesn't drink a little.
Cole: But not impossible.
Bragg: Well, we'll see. You shot three of my men.
Cole: Matter of fact, I only shot two. Hitch shot the other one.
Bragg: Point is, I can't have my hands coming in here and you boys shooting them.
Cole: I can see how you'd feel that way.
Cole tells Hitch he would be a better gunslinger if he did not have feelings:
Hitch: Hell, Virgil, everybody got feelings.
Cole: Feelings get you killed.
But Cole develops feelings for a young widow whose mourning is well-leavened by lubriciousness. Among the reasons Cole fancies her is that "she chews her food nice." You get the drift.
It is, perhaps, impossible to make a cowboy movie that does not seem a bit camp, because without the clichés, it may be a movie about the West but is not a Western. And some movies that are Westerns in spirit—sort of honorary Westerns—are not about cowboys. With the closing of the frontier, the cowboy came to town and became a detective. But the solitary detectives in battered fedoras were descendants of James Fenimore Cooper's frontiersman, Leatherstocking. He was the cowboy in embryo, a Westerner—a strong, laconic, stoical loner—when the West was western New York.
Hollywood has been going downhill since "High Noon" (1952) and "Shane" (1953) were nominated for Best Picture but lost to "The Greatest Show on Earth" and "From Here to Eternity," respectively. Nowadays, Hollywood makes much of its money abroad, and foreigners, the poor benighted things, do not cotton to cowboys.
Americans, though, probably have a vestigial hankering for—here we come to America's monomania, presidential politics—a political cleanser. For a Gary Cooper in "High Noon," a sheriff who dispatches bad guys in job lots, then drops his tin star in the street and leaves town in a buggy with his fair-haired beauty, without looking back. Or for an Alan Ladd in "Shane," who, when bad guys provoke him, gives up his plan to give up gunfights, then rides away, indifferent to the cry "Shane, come back!"
But instead of looking for a savior wearing spurs, Americans should try to embody the virtues vivified in Westerns—self-reliance, acceptance of responsibility, insistence on accountability, distaste for verbosity and unwillingness to whine. Back in the 1930s, when Americans were in much more dire straits than they are now, they encountered such virtues downtown at the Rialto and Orpheum and Bijou theaters—at the movies, for which America's population of 127 million bought 78 million tickets a week.
So bang the drum slowly and play the fife lowly, pardner. Belly up to the bar, between the sodbuster married to the schoolmarm, and the tenderfoot just off the stagecoach from St. Louis. Ask the barkeep wearing sleeve garters to pour you a shot of amber rotgut so you can drink to "Appaloosa" and the survival, perhaps even the revival, of the Western.