The Cowboy Ritual: Progressive Demystification of the Western Genre

Yi-Zhou Liu

Writer’s comment: English 160 represented my first exposure to the study of a specific genre (the Western) and its own discrete set of traditions. Professor Scott Simmon took a New Historicist approach to the Western genre, introducing its origins and principal tropes, then demonstrating how successive texts in the discourse both reflect pre-existing conventions and simultaneously transform them in the process. I wanted to use this concept of discourse to trace the evolution of the protagonist as the Western became increasingly self-conscious—essentially, to discover how the notion of heroism changes as the underlying assumptions behind the texts change. It was a humbling experience, in that the scope of the topic proved much more expansive than I had anticipated, in many ways too much so for me adequately to treat within the constraints of time and ability.
—Yi-Zhou Liu

Instructor’s comment: In choosing to focus the large lecture course “Film as Narrative” (English 160) on the Western, I faced a not entirely unexpected collective groan (“cowboy movies!?”) from the first class. We took up the genre, however, as broadly as my competence and video availability allowed, and looked especially into contemporary-set “post-Westerns,” cross-genre experiments, and recent fiction and poetry—alongside “classic” Hollywood films and readings in cultural history. The challenge of the short essay was to locate a conversation among at least two of the films and one of the works of fiction—a task which Yi-Zhou Liu met masterfully in his analysis of evolutions in heroism and morality.
—Scott Simmon, English Department

In form, The Tall T is a fairly straightforward melodrama, utilizing familiar stock characters such as the ignoble swindler, the naïve woman, the “honorable” bandit leader, and—most importantly—the cowboy hero forced into the role of gunfighter and man of action by desperate circumstances. In these respects, The Tall T, though produced in 1957, is representative of the great mass of simplistic, histrionic films which constituted the majority of the Western genre output during the 1920s through the 1950s; the film is perhaps even an exemplar of the subgenre, as director Budd Boetticher most likely drew upon the most typical of the accumulated conventions of the B-Western for inspiration. Yet the final product does not transcend the subgenre so much as it becomes an archetype; The Tall T is decidedly grounded within the narrative territory of the mass-produced Western.
         This is perhaps most evident in the portrayal of the protagonist, Pat Brennan (Randolph Scott), who exhibits all the right characteristics of the Western hero. From the beginning, Brennan is visually equated with the towering, enduring, primordial boulders of Boetticher’s landscape by his sartorial style and trail-worn appearance. The waystation man almost immediately sets Brennan aside from the hoi polloi with the comment to the effect that solitude in the West is unnatural; in doing so, the man conflates one meaning of “natural” with another, for Brennan’s ease with and resemblance to the landscape—his “natural” qualities—both support and reinforce his solitude. By this comment, the waystation man displays his unfitness for the solitary life by complaining about his isolation—unnecessarily using words—and later, of course, by getting killed by the bandits; in contrast, Brennan embodies the concept of rugged individualism, which endows him with what critics have termed “supreme organic excellence,” which is to say a clear-cut physical and moral dominance. On the ethical plane, the level of this preëminence is such that it manifests itself as a tangible aura—Frank, the bandit leader, is drawn towards Brennan, even coming right out and saying, “I don’t know why I like you, Brennan,” in an unconscious recognition of virtue; the woman implicitly trusts Brennan from the moment he hitches a ride on her stagecoach. As far as physical supremacy is concerned, the gunfighting scenes in the movie are few, but once Brennan finally gets his hands on a gun, the battle is as good as over—Brennan’s marksmanship is clearly superior even to Chingo’s. In sum, once Brennan has been caught up in the dramatic situation of the film, he is unquestionably in control of his fate, even in captivity.
         And yet this unquestionable dominance is plausible only with an equally unquestioning credulity in the internal logic of the film; the viewer must exert considerable suspension of disbelief in order for The Tall T to work as it was intended. Such willing involvement is simply acceptance of a genre’s prevailing conventions; Edward Buscombe, in his introduction to The BFI Companion to the Western, notes that “the Western is not merely a milieu or a way of life, but another world, or at least another country” (16). However, the world of the Western is hardly homogeneous and separate; over the years the iconography of the Western has altered, leading on the one hand to a hybrid genre—the vampire-movie Western (Near Dark), the science-fiction Western (Outland), the musical-Western (Paint Your Wagon)—and on the other hand to an increasingly reflexive Western genre that questions its own traditions and investigates its own frameworks and patterns.
         In turn, the heightened self-consciousness of genre inherent in the deconstruction of conventions creates an increasingly formalized sort of metafilm and metafiction. Since most typical Westerns are driven by character—the protagonist as Action Man, deconstructing the genre’s traits inevitably weakens the cowboy-hero, for his power relies upon immersion in the focused world of the Western. The overall effect is similar to a camera zoom-out; as the focus of the author or auteur expands to include commentary on the underpinnings and assumptions of the Western, the gunfighter’s level of control diminishes further and further as the reasons for his existence are brought into question and the self-definition of the cowboy-hero is ritualized.
         In one approach to this ritual, James Edward Grant’s Angel and the Badman (1947) takes the melodramatic nature of the B-Western and extends the internal logic of the all-powerful protagonist to its logical conclusion, depicting Evans (John Wayne) almost as an avatar of some sort sent to set matters aright. The doctor who examines him calls Evans “the wild one” repeatedly, stating that “the wild ones never seem to get blood poisoning,” as if Evans had been granted charismata of sorts. His gun seems to be an integral part of him, in another exaggeration of traditional cowboy-hero characterization; he cannot sleep without it, and drawing it is the first action he takes upon waking up. The title itself may contain a double meaning: it may be interpreted as setting up an innocence/experience dichotomy between Evans and the girl who rescues him—or it may imply that Evans himself is an avenging angel of sorts, the two substantives then referring to the dual nature of his temperament. As well as a temporarily fallen angel, the film raises the familiar rite of the hero’s initial defeat before his final victory and renewal (shown in The Tall T as Brennan’s failure to ride the bull) to the level of a fall from heaven to earth, as is apparent in the scene in which Evans is taken in by the Quaker family and awakens. The surprising cinematic tenderness with which Evans is treated only highlights this supernal portrayal; in an antinomic way, Wayne manages to be vulnerable and sensitive yet also masculine and dominating at the same time, exerting two types of power at once.
         And yet, for all of his power, Evans is probably more controlled than controlling. Even as the film raises him to the level of preternatural force, in doing so it also firmly places him in a deterministic world: if, as the doctor says, he is a “wild one” destined to die by nobler means than blood poisoning, if he is an avenging angel, then how much control does he truly have? It would seem that Evans’ fate, despite the glory and prominence attached to it, has already been predetermined by higher forces; in the manner of epic heroes, he seems to have been created with one particular purpose in mind, towards which he is inextricably drawn. This characterization may be seen as an extrapolation and explanation of the “supreme organic excellence” of the cowboy-hero: if the protagonist has such unrivaled skills, for what purpose does he possess them?
         Angel and the Badman, then, takes the implicit assumption of the Western that the hero’s moral excellence must also grant him physical superiority, which likely stems from the medieval concept of trial by combat, and deploys it outright, with all of the concomitant fatalistic implications. This subversion of rugged individualism by determinism recurs in other films. For example, even though Red Rock West actually resembles the B-Western in plot structure to a great degree, the level of despair and hopelessness that pervades the first half of the film differentiates it from a typical Western melodrama. Even as the protagonist, Michael Williams (Nicolas Cage), is being defined with some of the salient characteristics of the melodramatic cowboy-hero, primarily the code of honor—he does not conceal his leg injury from the oil boss; he does not steal the money from the gas station; he owns up to hitting Suzanne’s “friend” with his car—he is notably lacking in others, particularly that of physical preëminence. Because of his wound—a classic noir element which sharply differs from the image of the typical Western protagonist—Michael is hampered in scenes in which physical prowess is required, such as his flight through the woods from Wayne. Yet even though Michael is certainly not in control of the situation for quite a while—the foremost example of his helplessness is the chronic return to town, which is played for absurdist laughs after the second or third iteration—he remains steadfastly moral throughout the tangle of events, only wronging those who have already demonstrated themselves to be unethical. It is perhaps this almost unwavering uprightness which leads Michael out of the webs of intrigue spun about him, eventually leading to his mastery of the situation. The message might be that he has proved himself by remaining true to his code of honor and thus is able to prevail over the baser desires of the other three main characters.
         While Angel and the Badman and Red Rock West weaken the cowboy-hero by limiting his influence over events, The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly (1966) depreciates the cowboy’s power by depriving the protagonist of any inherent ethical superiority, using a tone of pessimistic moral relativism. Early on in the film, director Sergio Leone redefines the adjectives in the title, robbing them of their traditional significance by depicting Clint Eastwood’s Blondie—the “good”—as an amoral gunfighter motivated only by self-interest. Another crucial act of revisionism is Tuco’s less-than-happy reunion with his priest brother; when Tuco tries to break his brother’s self-righteous silence by saying that the way of the bandit requires more courage than that of the priest, his brother confirms Tuco’s accusation by losing control and lashing out at Tuco, revealing himself to be sanctimonious and hypocritical. As for the conventional good/bad dichotomy, the scenes introducing Angel Eyes and Blondie contain striking parallels; both characters commit an act of villainy and then double-cross their conspirators to gain even more lucre. But by equating “the good” with “the bad” Leone does not invalidate the descriptions; instead of referring to moral rectitude, Leone recasts them to denote ability and style. The freeze-frame identification shots at the end of the film (“il buono,” “il cattivo,” and “il brutto”) redefine the meaning of the nicknames—Blondie ends up in a good situation, Angel Eyes in a bad one, and Tuco in a very ugly position. Leone seems to be saying that the characters have ended up this way solely because of their own skill (or lack thereof) and not because of any ethical standards. The end result is a cynical, Darwinist reinterpretation of rugged individualism.
         An equally significant deconstructivist aspect of The Good, the Bad, the Ugly is the way it ritualizes various aspects of the traditional Western. In Clint Eastwood: A Cultural Production, Paul Smith comments: “At the level of visual style, the film figures the repetitious lighting and relighting of Blondie’s cheroot [and] fetishizes his ritual gun cleaning” (11). Scenes such as these elevate The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly to the level of a metafilm which comments upon its own narrative as it is taking place; Tuco’s victorious run through the graveyard at the end of the movie—the graves blurring by the wide-angle camera perspective faster and faster and the most holy, beatific, righteous music imaginable playing in the background—manages to function both as a beautifully dramatic scene and a self-reflexive display of ritual triumph. Similarly, the three-way gunfight, in which both scenic pieces (the gunfight takes place on a flat, featureless clearing in the middle of the graveyard) and camera close-up shots (only the eyes and the guns matter) are stripped down to only the most essential elements, does everything but add the subtitle “THIS IS THE CLIMACTIC GUNFIGHT SCENE” at the bottom of the screen. Such postmodern ritualization serves to diminish the stature of the characters by the sheer ironic aggrandizement of the events. Self-consciously reducing the Western to a formula (an effect which is to the mass-production of the B-Western as de jure is to de facto) may entertain the viewer by the incredible amount of spectacle; however, on another level, the effect is one of alienation and creation of aesthetic distance, which provokes the viewer to consider precisely how the conventional Western iconography is being redeployed.
         Similarly, Cormac McCarthy’s novel All the Pretty Horses (1992) plays with the self-consciousness of the genre by creating a protagonist who knowingly defines himself as a cowboy-hero by journeying south into Mexico and therefore the Wild West of legend; the crossing back in time and into another world is delineated by the horses crossing the highway, blending the iconography of two centuries. The novel is decidedly seriocomic—at many a turn, we are reminded that John Grady Cole is all of sixteen years old, but even he is outdone by Blevins, who is no more than thirteen or fourteen. Even Rawlins, who spouts such hard-bitten, trail-tough turns of phrase as “If you dont like to be laughed at dont fall on your ass” (54) and “You dont know shit from applebutter” (58) at a rate of what seems like roughly once every few pages, has only eighteen years to his name. The theme of boys playing at being men is most brought out by the one-downmanship contest between Rawlins and Blevins as both characters overexaggeratedly try to exhibit the most machismo. Yet the novel is certainly not a one-dimensional parody; it works as a traditional Western, albeit a modified and camouflaged one, simply because the three boys, particularly John Grady, are able to succeed at their playacting and stand as credible cowboy-heroes, down to the obligatory climactic gunfight at the end of the novel. Thus, the book is a strange blend of conventional and satirical Western; John Grady, like B-Western stars of old, is an actor who becomes synonymous with the character he plays—but the difference is that Grady’s true self is the character and not the actor.
         All of the texts thus far examined have placed the cowboy-hero within the world of the Western, even if that world did get redefined a fair amount in the process. By contrast, Pam Houston’s short story “Cowboys Are My Weakness” (1992) takes the demystification of the Western protagonist a step further by considering the cowboy in the context of the present-day real world and using a detached observer. Houston directly contradicts the procedure of myth-making by exposing the self-definition of the Western hero as an inherent limitation. Each of the principal male characters in the story sets boundaries for himself, and as a result, each is revealed to be ludicrous when compared to the ideal of the cowboy-hero supreme in his domain: although Homer “looked like a cowboy, he was just a capitalist with a Texas accent who owned a horse” (109); David, the ranch owner, is “sensitive, thoughtful, and kind” (112), a poet, a vegetarian, and a tea drinker—as the narrator comments, “he wasn’t what you’d think a Montana ranch owner would be” (111); Monte, the “genuine” cowboy, is cast as the ideal actor for a Jeep Wrangler commercial, and his Western comrades at the Stockgrower’s Ball seem like anachronistic eccentrics, almost like the equivalent of a Renaissance Faire. As a result, the narrator debunks the concept of genre by denying its paradigmatic effect on her life; the crucial passage here is, “I thought about the way we invent ourselves through our stories, and in a similar way, how the stories we tell put walls around our lives. And I think that may be true about cowboys” (124). The Western genre has just been put in its place as a construction used for purposes of entertainment and narrative; Houston reveals the limitations of genre when compared to the complexity of the real world, out of which all genres have sprung.
         Thus, the cowboy-hero’s paramount certitude depends upon the foundation of the conventions of the Western; when those conventions are brought into question and examined in the light of the real world, the typical Western protagonist becomes as unreal as a fairy-tale character. And the point of the various deconstructivist interpretations of the Western seems to be just that, that the Western genre is as limited and ritualized as any other. In fine, the cowboy-hero becomes progressively weaker as genre self-consciousness increases. Within his own world, Pat Brennan is nigh-invincible; yet it is a rather small world that he inhabits, and he is little more than the proverbial big fish in a small pond.

Works Cited

Buscombe, Edward. The BFI Companion to the Western. New York: Atheneum, 1988.

Houston, Pam. Cowboys Are My Weakness. New York: Washington Square Press, 1992.

McCarthy, Cormac. All the Pretty Horses. New York: Random House, Inc., 1992.

Smith, Paul. Clint Eastwood: A Cultural Production. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1993.