(Antioch Review 64:1 Winter 2006, 6-23)
In late August 1972, my son Michael, then ten years old,
and I were in a junk store near Fort Sumner, New Mexico. The owner pointed to an
old pistol in a locked glass case. He said it had once belonged to Billy the
Kid, whose grave was nearby. I said that if Billy had owned half the guns people
around there said he owned he couldn't have climbed onto a horse. "Don't know
about that," the man said, "but I do know that Billy owned that gun."
Michael stared at the pistol. It was clear he believed it was Billy's and equally clear that he was seriously disappointed. "It doesn't have a front sight and it's rusty and it looks like a capgun," he said. The man told Michael that hardly anybody in those days owned the kind of fancy pistols you saw on television; Michael looked at the man as if he were deranged.
When we were back in the car and once again heading east
along US 60 toward Clovis he was silent a long time. Then he told me that if the
pistol in the glass case was the real thing he preferred what he saw on
I started to explain what was wrong with his attitude. I said that he couldn't ignore facts just because he liked fictions better. Then I stopped talking because we both knew I agreed with him: it wasn't for reality that Michael or I or anyone else watched Western films, or most other films either. It was the stories that hooked us; facts were incidental. Facts were outside, something else entirely.
Say "Billy the Kid" and everybody knows who you’re talking about, or believes they do. The most common line on him is that his real name was William Bonney, that he died at 21, a notch on his pistol grip for every man he’d killed.
But some people insist his name was really Henry Antrim, that he didn’t mutilate his pistol grip because like anyone else he could remember the body count, and it wasn’t 21 anyway and neither was he.
Who cares what they know or say? The notched gun is easy to visualize, 21 dead men coupled with 21 years of life has a nice symmetry, and William Bonney works better than Henry Antrim: good William, good Billy. Which is to say, with Billy the Kid, as with most heroes of folklore and legend, we opt for the better, not the more factual, story.
Billy figures as the central character in scores of films and novels. The films include The Outlaw, Howard Hughes’ 1943 homage to Jane Russell’s breasts (starring Jack Beutel as Billy, Thomas Mitchell as Pat Garrett, Walter Huston as Doc Holliday and Jane Russell’s breasts as themselves); Arthur Penn's 1958 The Left-Handed Gun (starring Paul Newman as a moody and introspective Actor's Studio Billy who, out of guilt and depression, tricks Garrett into killing him when he pretends to draw a pistol from a holster everyone in the scene but Garrett knows is empty), Sam Peckinpah's 1973 Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid (starring James Coburn and Kris Kristofferson as the cynical and doomed eponymous heroes, with a songtrack by Bob Dylan), and William Beaudine's 1966 Billy the Kid vs. Dracula (1966, with Chuck Courtney as Billy and John Carradine as the Vampire).
One of the best known books about Billy the Kid is by the man who shot him down, Pat F. Garrett's The authentic life of Billy the Kid, the noted desperado of the Southwest, whose deeds of daring and blood made him a terror in New Mexico, Arizona and Northern Mexico (1882). Two of the novels are N. Scott Momaday's The Ancient Child (1989) and Larry McMurtry's Anything for Billy (1988).
Then there is Michael Ondaatje's Collected Works of Billy the Kid (1974 ), a book that defies category. It is polyphonic and transgeneric: there are poems, ostensible newspaper stories, interior monologs by Billy, Sallie Chisum, Garrett, and by the author. And photographs, sort of. The top two-thirds of the first page is an empty frame. The text below it begins, “I send you a picture of Billy made with the Perry shutter as quick as it can be worked...." The text continues in specific detail about the sender’s photographic experiments and darkroom techniques. All in the service of an empty frame, which perhaps translates as: 'I’m sending you an image, but you have to figure out what it looks like.' Collected Works is a place word and image and you meet or merge. The near figure in the second photograph seems to be a bearded army officer in silhouette standing next to a litter of bones. Beyond him is someone who might be a soldier, also in silhouette. Between them, sitting on the ground, a man painting what looks like a grave marker: “7 CAV." The Seventh Cavalry was Custer's outfit, massacred at Little Big Horn. What does that have to do with Billy the Kid? Perhaps nothing, other than it too was the stuff of legend that trumped fact.
The book's final photo has no caption, nor is it alluded
to or identified anywhere in the text. The image—small, the size of a large
postage stamp—is in the lower right corner of the book's last recto page; the
verso after it is blank.. The photo is of a young boy, perhaps seven or eight,
wearing a cowboy suit, around his waist a holster with a toy pistol, on his head
a broad-brimmed hat. The boy is the young Michael Ondaatje years before he
emigrated to Canada from what was then Ceylon.
The identity of the boy in the photograph is perhaps of far less importance than what the boy wears. For much of the middle part of the 20th century, parents in various parts of the world bought their young male children costumes that were based on someone’s idea of the outfits worn by 19th century American cowboy gunmen. The children were sufficiently fascinated with the stories to want to act out their own versions of them, and their parents were sufficiently enamored of those roles and stories to be willing to pay for those cowboy suits, toy guns and broad-brimmed hats.
My parents among them. My cowboy suit differed from
Ondaatje’s in that mine came with two cap pistols and a black mask. My cousin
Marvin Ort and I, along with our pals Alan Hyber, Danny Rich and Teddy Tuchman,
all of us five or six years old, regularly dressed up to the extent our
individual cowboy suits permitted and enacted cowboy stories. We also enacted
pilots-fighting-the-Japs-in-the-Pacific stories, but most of the time we were
cowboys. We lived on Vernon Avenue in Brooklyn’s Bedford-Stuyvesant section, a
street then occupied almost entirely by Jewish and Italian working-class
families. We made up some of our stories, but mostly we adapted them from radio
programs. I don't remember where we got our war stories, but our primary western
source was the “The Lone Ranger" radio program that aired every Monday,
Wednesday and Friday evening out of Mutual Broadcasting System's WXYZ in
Detroit, and which aired locally on New York's WJZ. The smallest among us–not I,
happily–had to play Tonto, the Indian, who had only three possible lines— “yes,
kemo sabe," "do you have a plan, kemo sabe," "and “ugh," and got to help but
never to initiate.
Like James Bond and Billy the Kid, The Lone Ranger was and remains more famous than any of the actors who played him. He is so famous that, decades after the several radio and television series in which he was the eponymous hero stopped running, his name survives in global metaphor:
"Di’s little lone ranger flies like an heir with the greatest of ease." (Headline of an April 1985 People article on Prince William)
"Jackson and the pols: will Jackson be the Lone Ranger?" (Headline of a 1984 New Republic article on Jesse Jackson. The article included this line: "But black politicians' principal objection to Jackson is that he may assume the role of a political Lone Ranger, riding into San Francisco in August to single-handedly save the day."
"Oliver North; a lone ranger or just a good soldier?" (Time, January 5, 1987) included this sentence: "No one is yet certain whether North is a cause or an effect, a Lone Ranger who rode out of control or a good soldier who followed orders from above."
"The Lone Ranger". (Time, March 25, 1996, on presidential candidate Bob Dole)
"Lone Ranger" (Time, December 13, 1999, on presidential candidate John McCain)
"A lot of entrepreneurs are Lone Rangers." (Singapore Business Times, March 19, 2003)
"Lone Ranger in Iraq." (San Jose Mercury News, 8 April 2003)
Tony Blair... "definitely isn't happy playing Tonto to Bush's Lone Ranger." (Glascow Herald, May 18, 2004)
"In 1972, 47-year-old Rehnquist became an associate justice on a decidedly liberal Supreme Court. Among the first cases he heard, Roe versus Wade. He voted against legalized abortion. He voted against affirmative action. As the court's perennial soul dissenter, he developed a nickname, the Lone Ranger." Paula Zahn on CNN, June 18, 2005
Only a few real or fictional characters are so deeply embedded in popular culture that their names can be used with no explanation to characterize the behavior or condition of so many different people engaged in so many different activities in so many different places. In the imaginative life of modern America, the Lone Ranger is up there with Rambo, Hillary, Dirty Harry, and Marilyn.
The 2,956 episodes of the radio show ran from 1933 to 1955. There were two 15-episode film serials, both of them edited down to features. The television series began September 15, 1949, with an episode titled "Enter the Lone Ranger," and continued through June 6, 1957, 221 episodes later, with "Outlaws in Greasepaint, " in which the masked man and Tonto help arrest DeWitt & Lavinia Faversham, two members of a defunct Shakespearean repertory company who turned to robbing Wells Fargo Offices. A cartoon series – 30-minute programs with three episodes per show – began September 10, 1966 and ran through January 6, 1968. In 1981, Lone Ranger cartoons appeared as part of the "Tarzan/Lone Ranger/Zorro Adventure Hour," with two Lone Ranger episodes per show. With the huge demand for product resulting from 300-channel cable and inexpensive tv dishes, some of the old tv episodes have begun reappearing.
In nearly every episode, the Lone Ranger came upon ordinary people in distress, being abused, falling between two parts of a system in disarray, or confronted by bullies. All the Lone Ranger radio and tv programs were built around a small number of regular themes (e.g.: local law enforcement is ineffective or a deputy is corrupt; innocent folks are pursued by malefactors or are charged with crimes they didn't commit; innocent people have fortunes they don't know about that the bad guys try to steal it from them), which is one reason it was so easy for us kids to enact and adapt the stories to our yards and streets and alleys.
In order to operate without being noticed (that mask was a dead giveaway), the Lone Ranger would adopt disguises: there was the Lone Ranger, already disguised, disguising himself even more as Pancho the Mexican, an Eastern dude, a professor with a medicine wagon, a miner, a Swede, an old Soldier, Othello. (Yes, Othello. That was in episode #221, with the crooked Shakespearians.)
Tonto would say, "Do you have a plan, kemo sabe?" to which the Lone Ranger would invariably respond,"Yes, I do," and either he'd tell it to Tonto then and there or we'd hear it enacted over the next several minutes. Sometimes it was a way to trick the bad guy into revealing his misdeed. Sometimes it was merely physical–being in the right place to catch the crooks. Sometimes it was one of those fabulous disguises.
Week after week, the masked man never once said "No" when the Indian asked if he had a plan. "Do you have a plan" translates as, "Do you know what to do next?" When you’re five or six or seven you never know what to do next. You don’t even know what to do now. I don’t know what adults got out of those programs – adults comprised as much of the audience as kids did – but I know I loved those plans and disguises and the fact that the plans and disguises worked. It meant you could always hide if you wanted or had to, and that there were ways to deal with things you didn’t think you could deal with.
We listened to those stories on radio but we saw what we
heard. Ondaatje knew exactly what he was doing when he left that opening frame
of The Collected Works of Billy the Kid empty: all us kids were all
trained in filling empty visual frames. (We did have help in the visualizing:
comics and illustrated books, a board game, snowglobes, bubblegum cards, a first
aid kit, ViewMaster cards, clicker guns and cap guns and costumes. You can go on
eBay and see them all, all of them selling for lots of money.)
Restoring the centers
The series was set about 1875 or so, but the themes, like all successful historical fiction, were contemporary. The Lone Ranger came to birth at the nadir of the depression, a time when all the institutions seemed in the process of betraying ordinary folks, and he matured in an America full of bad guys.
In 1932, the year Detroit radio station WXYZ owner George W. Trendle was midwifing the Lone Ranger with writer Fran Stryker, America was coming off a decade of gangsterdom engendered by prohibition. My late friend George Beto – a Lutheran minister, prison director and criminal justice professor – was fond of saying that the most significant social error in his lifetime had been the 18th Amendment. Prohibition, he said, for the first time made it acceptable for noncriminal citizens to seek out and have regular congress with professional criminals. The result was a measure of criminality and public corruption theretofore unknown, and still with us.
1932 was the year of the Lindbergh kidnapping. It was the year of the "Bonus Army" in the capitol. FDR was elected and the next year the 21st amendment repealed Prohibition but didn’t get rid of the gangsters. They found other things to do with the techniques they had developed and connections they had made and politicians they had bought. Two of the big movies of those transitional two years were Little Caesar (1930) with Edward G. Robinson ("Mother of Mercy, is this the end of Rico?") and The Public Enemy (1931) with Jimmy Cagney (who with an unforgettable sneer grinds a grapefruit half into Mae Clarke's astonished face).
Prohibition, as Andrew Bergman notes in We're in the Money: Depression America and Its Films (1971), gave us the legendary murderous bootleggers (Al Capone, Dutch Schultz, Legs Diamond); the Depression gave us the legendary murderous bank robbers (Dillinger, Bonnie and Clyde, Pretty Boy Floyd, Creepy Alvin Karpis, and Machine Gun Kelly). The bootleggers drove big cars around town, shooting one another to pieces; the bank robbers drove big cars across state lines, escaping the jurisdiction of local police, thereby providing the rationale for what became our first armed national police force–the Federal Bureau of Investigation.
The center seemed not to hold. The system was in disarray and the agencies that were supposed to protect seemed more and more corrupt or impotent. It was a time for heroes. Enter the masked man with the never-ending supply of silver bullets.
He owed nothing to anybody and his only close friend was Tonto, a tribeless Indian in a white world, another outsider. The Lone Ranger had one living relative, his nephew Dan (who would be the father of the next century’s crime fighter also crafted by Trendle and Stryker: The Green Hornet, who, in his time, would have his own exotic companion, a faithful Japanese sidekick named Kato. The format was exactly the same, only the costumes and mode of transportation were altered.)
And he’s nearly nonviolent: he has those gorgeous guns and bullets but never kills anybody, he shoots bad guys in the hand or he shoots their guns out of their hands. He doesn’t hang around for thank you. He’s the archetypal hero who comes upon the scene when needed, solves the problem and then goes away.
The Lone Ranger was restricted to no place and was based nowhere. The chorus of Woody Guthrie’s "Pastures of Plenty" could have been written about him:"I come with the dust and I’m gone with the wind." He found and defeated evil in desert, mountain, ranchland, open plains, mining country. His territory was delineated by where evil could flourish and good was short-handed, not by any map, not by any topography.
In the world of the Lone Ranger (as in the world of
Green Hornet, Batman, Superman, Dick Tracy, Wonder Woman and all the others)
evil is never defeated for good; it’s just defeated for now, in this place on
this day. The battle continues episode after episode, year after year. The
Cavendish gang, the villains who ambushed the posse of six Texas Rangers and
killed them all but the one who was nursed back to health by Tonto and became
the Lone Ranger, were always breaking out of jail. You could lock evil back up,
but it always loose again. That was its nature, just as it was the hero's nature
to meet it one more time. The story wasn't of triumph, but of transient
"Where you get that 'we,' white man?"
There was a joke a few decades back: The Lone Ranger and Tonto are surrounded by hordes of hostile Indians. The Lone Ranger says, "Well, we’re really in trouble this time." Tonto says, "Where you get that 'we' white man?"
The joke marks the pivot time: the Lone Ranger and Tonto
were still around but they were starting to become embarrassing. In the 1930s
and 1940s and 1950s you could have mass media narratives in which a smart Indian
gave up all home life, all association with family, friends and tribe, to become
the devoted sidekick of a white man who got all the credit for righting the
world’s wrongs. But in 1969, real Indians occupied Alcatraz island in San
Francisco Bay to protest centuries of mistreatment and betrayal, and a few years
later there would be the siege of the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota.
White-Indian relations were no longer a joke. In these later years people would
ask what was wrong with that Indian. How come he talked funny: "Me go" and "Him
come" and "Ugh"? Indeed, how come most of those guys never had any girlfriends?
The comedian Lenny Bruce would quip, "Mandrake and Lothar, Daddy Warbucks and
the Asp, Green Hornet and Kato, Lone Ranger and Tonto–all those couples." Once
their sexuality became a matter for nightclub jokesters their days were
numbered. The only places left for them were high-camp and late-night cable tv.
The Lone Ranger was a hero for a time when you didn’t have to explain why you needed to do good other than that you wanted to, a time when you could have a relationship like the Lone Ranger’s and Tonto’s with hardly anyone wondering who was doing what for or to whom, a time when you could tell stories about the west with no nod to the real history and condition of the west, a time when you could wear eccentric clothes and not be thought campy or cartoonish.
Where the West was
Before the American west was explored European painters imagined it as a "New Golden Land," full of spectacular landscapes and wonderful animals. Some of America’s most important 19th and early 20th century artists focused on the West and the people who inhabited it: George Catlin, Frederick Remington, Charles Russell.
In print, dime Westerns were best sellers in the 19th century and now you’ll find their equivalent–Louis Lamour’s novels, for examples – in any large airport newsstand right next to the section of romance paperbacks. Cormac McCarthy began writing novels set in Tennessee but now lives in Laredo and writes novels set in Texas and Mexico: All the Pretty Horses, The Crossing, Blood Meridian. Larry McMurtry’s best-selling novel Lonesome Dove, was also an Emmy-winning TV miniseries. The image of the manly Westerner is so powerful that it continues to be used by Marlboro to peddle cancer, no longer permissible on billboards or television, but a frequent image still in magazines and bars.
One of the first narrative films and what is often cited as the first film with real editing was a Western: The Great Train Robbery, ten minutes long and made in Fort Lee, New Jersey, in 1903. More than 7000 Westerns followed. In the early 1950s nearly 25% of American film production was Westerns. There were hundreds of western serials back in the days when going to the movies on Saturday afternoons mean two features, up to fifteen cartoons, Movietone News, coming attractions (it would be years before anyone outside the film industry called them 'trailers') and episodes of one or more serials. And there were dozens of television series set in the imaginative 19th century American west. One of them–"Gunsmoke"–ran for two full decades (1955 – 1975). Clint Eastwood’s first important role was Rowdy Yates in "Rawhide," a series about a cattle drive that was always en route but never seemed to get anywhere, Sergio Leone saw those programs and hired Eastwood for the trilogy that rejuvenated the theatrical western and made Eastwood an international star: A Fistful of Dollars (Per un pugno di dolleri, 1964), For a Few Dollars More (Per qualchi dollari in piú, 1965) , and The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly (Il Buono, il brutto, il cattivo, 1966). "Gunsmoke," "Bonanza" and "Rawhide" still appear on cable.
The action of most films advertised or characterized as "westerns" was situated in the American southwest, but they were also set in Florida, Alaska, California, Washington, and the Adirondacks. Some westerns are about cowboys, but others are about farmers, sheep herders, or migrants or miner or pimps and whores. Some are about war and some about love. Some are about whites, some about blacks, some about Mexicans, some about Indians; some are about relations between any or all of them. Some are about space. Some are up-close, like classical drama; some are broad, like classical epic. In some the battles were enormous and in others the battles were intimate. The American west was a great canvas upon which myriads of stories got told. It was a very large real place, and it was and remains a much larger imaginative space.
The global West
Peter Fonda tells about being on location in Peru with Dennis Hopper in 1971, filming The Last Movie. A horse fell off a cliff, landed on a ledge and broke its back. It was screaming in pain, so one of the stunt men climbed down and shot it with the chrome-plated .44 revolver Peter carried with him everywhere in those days. The gun had originally belonged to the famous western actor Tom Mix and had been given to Peter by his father, Henry.
Within a few hours two helicopters of heavily armed police arrived and lined up the entire film crew. The officer in charge demanded the gun. They were in a remote town, a full day's drive from the nearest city, and there were no telephones, but somehow that police official had found out about the gun and had arrived with his troops to get it and to arrest its owner. Real pistols were illegal there for anyone but police and military, Peter said. Except for "Old Tom," all the guns used by the film crew were made of rubber.
At first Peter insisted there was no gun, but when it
was clear that they were all going to be taken away and the production shut
down, he got it out of his bag and gave it to the officer. Now only he and
Hopper were to be taken away. Peter told the policeman to be careful with the
gun, that it was valuable, it had belonged to Tom Mix.
The policeman froze, looked at the gun, then asked Hopper, "Is true, jefe? The gun of Tom Mix?" Hopper said it was indeed true, it was the gun of Tom Mix. The policeman, Peter said, walked along the two rows of his men, all of whom still had automatic weapons pointing at the film crew, holding the pistol as if it were religious object, saying again and again, "The gun of Tom Mix. The gun of Tom Mix. The gun of Tom Mix." Then he gave the gun back to Peter, herded his men into the helicopters, and they all flew away.
Tom Mix hadn't made a film since 1935 and had been dead
since 1940, 31 years before . Yet the iconic power of Tom Mix as western hero
and the real gun he had held in those fictive silent and sound films was
powerful enough to turn a criminal incident into a sacred moment.
A Grand time
The world of Tom Mix, the Lone Ranger, and all the other filmic Gunfighters was a time and place when the world was grand, when the pistols and gestures were beautiful (as Michael insisted when we left that Fort Sumner junkstore)and the issues unambiguous.
Hollywood producers justify graphic violence in recent films in the name of "realism," but in the case of the Gunfighter Western, earlier films were probably more realistic than most of what came later. The quick and simple gunfight in the 1923 Virginian was closer to reality than any gunfight in any film directed by Sergio Leone or Howard Hawks. The first men to play cowboys in Westerns made in California were cowboys who had driven herds of cattle to California. Silent era actors Tim McCoy and Tom Mix, who had been real western marshals, played western marshals in their films.
Few real-life cowboys or sheriffs or badmen had the time or skill or money to be the superb marksmen they so often were in the films. Putting a bullet where you want it to go is like putting a tennis or golf ball where you want it to go: accuracy requires diligent and regular practice. One may practice the day long with a tennis or golf ball for little cost, but revolver cartridges were and are expensive. Few men trying to get by in the 19th century American West would have shot up a month's pay putting holes in targets, but I remember only one film – Warlock (1959) – in which the hero discussed the great cost of the ammunition he consumed in his daily practice.
The splendid Buntline Special and Navy Colt pistols so common in film were rare in reality. Few men had use for them: gunfights beyond a few paces were avoided or negotiated with rifles or shotguns. Only an ill-prepared fool would put all his trust in a weapon as inaccurate as a pistol, and ill-prepared fools did not have great life expectancies in the West, real or fictive.
Backshots, common enough in reality, appeared in the films only when they were of special narrative moment, as in Henry King’s The Gunfighter (1950). In that film, an ambitious punk named Hunt Bromley shoots famed gunfighter Jimmy Ringo in the back. The sheriff is about to arrest Bromley but the dying Ringo insists he went for his gun first. The sheriff says everybody knows that isn’t true and Bromley says he doesn’t need any favors. Ringo tells Bromley he’s not doing him any favors, he’s sentencing him to a life in which he will never be free of ambitious homicidal punks like Bromley himself.
In a 1973 episode of the television series "Gunsmoke," a farmer pressed into a Dodge City posse inadvertently shoots in the back the killer being pursued. The entire town turns against him and the town children even slaughter his young daughter's cat. Marshall Matt Dillon, the protagonist of the series, finally ends the abominations, but he is uncomfortable about his interference, for not even he can abandon the rules of good sportsmanship for proper killing in the film's version of the great American West.
Only villains and noncombatants fudge the rules and only women are excused from them. Marshall Will Kane’s Quaker wife in High Noon (1952) shoots a villain in the back when his guns are unloaded, and a few minutes later she distracts another badman about to have a gun duel with her wounded husband, enabling Kane to kill him. Ordinarily, a gunfight won by improper means is a spoiled triumph. "I remember when I first killed a man," says the gunfighter marshal in Warlock (played by Henry Fonda). "It was clear and had to be done, though I went home afterwards and puked my insides out. I remember how clear it was. Afterwards, nothing was ever clear again, except one thing: that's to hold strictly to the rules, it's only the rules that matter, hold on to them like you were walking on eggs. So you know yourself you've played it as fair and as best you could."
Did any of this have anything to do with real life in
the real west? No more than the Lone Ranger’s silver bullets had to do with
anything that ever existed anytime or anywhere. In the world of the storied
heroes, the rules are clear, the consequences are absolute, and the guns do not
Writing in 1954, critic Robert Warshow famously said that the Western is "an art form for connoisseurs, where the spectator derives his pleasure from the appreciation of minor variations within the working out of a pre-established order." Warshow was writing about Gunfighter westerns in particular, those in which the action is resolved by a gun battle between two opponents. The gunfight was an early theme: like the chase and the cattle drive, it was easy to depict on screen and didn’t require much explanation for the audience to understand what was going on.
But it changed over time. In the second film version of The Virginian, made in 1923, the gunfight toward which the entire film has been heading is over in two or three seconds and is seen wide angle from more than a hundred yards away. The only way we know it happened is one of the two men in the scene falls down. The gunfight in Sergio Leone’s Once Upon a Time in the West (1969), is exquisitely choreographed and scored, and takes four minutes, an eternity in screen time. At some points a single eye fills the entire screen. The fight is between a mysterious wanderer played by Charles Bronson and an unmediated malefactor played by Henry Fonda (ten minutes into the film he murders a father and three children preparing for a wedding reception). At the end of this ballet, Bronson whips out his pistol, fans the hammer, and Fonda's character falls to the ground, a bullet in his heart.
In real life, that bullet had as much chance of hitting a crow flying overhead. Fanning – a swift slap on the hammer with the heel of one’s free hand to cock the pistol and advance the cylinder – came into films sometime in the 1920s when a director said to actor Tim McCoy that he needed something new and different in his gunfight scene. Either McCoy or the director came up with the idea of fanning the hammer. McCoy said he’d never heard of anyone in a real life gunfight fanning a pistol: fanning makes it nearly impossible to control the vertical position of the muzzle, which means the pistol is nearly impossible to aim. Nonetheless, fanning quickly became a film standard. Reality was not at issue.
All art is in some measure about other art. Like other artists, filmmakers are aware of the workers and work they follow. In 1961, the great Japanese director Akira Kurosawa, a fan of western films, made Yojimbo, which is about a samurai who comes to a small town where there are two warring gangs. He hires out to both of them and, by the time he leaves, nearly everyone in both gangs is dead. Three years later, the Italian director Sergio Leone plagiarized the plot for A Fistful of Dollars. In 1995 Walter Hill used Kurosawa’s plot, with full acknowledgement, for Last Man Standing with Bruce Willis.
Schlock filmmeister Roger Corman used the plot to make a
sword-fighting movie starring David Carradine, The Warrior and the Sorceress
(1984). It differed from the others in two primary regards: the location was
a mythical planet with two suns, and the leading lady plays the entire film
naked from the hips up. In his autobiography, Carradine says he called Corman to
say he liked the script but was worried about the similarity to Yojimbo.
Roger said, "Yes, it is rather like Yojimbo.
I said, "It’s not like Yojimbo. It IS Yojimbo."
Roger said, "Let me tell you a story. When Fist Full of Dollars opened in Tokyo, Kurosawa’s friends called him up and said, ‘You must see this picture.’ Kurosawa replied, ‘Yes, I understand it’s rather like Yojimbo.’ His friends corrected him, ‘No, it’s not like Yojimbo, it IS Yojimbo. You have to sue these people.’ ‘I can’t sue them,’ he responded. ‘Why not?’ ‘Because,’ Kurosawa confessed, ‘Yojimbo IS Dashiell Hammett’s Red Harvest.’" (Carradine, Boston and Tokyo: Journey, 1995, p. 539)
The repeated transformation of the basic story is
exactly what happens to tales in oral tradition when they move from place to
place: the core narrative remains fairly constant but the details are changed to
fit the new context.
Individual combat and master status
The American heroic western took shape in a new space and received its most powerful dissemination in a new medium, but the action is old. Fran Stryker and George W. Trendle invented the Lone Ranger, but not the imaginative world he inhabited. Nor did the authors of the 19th century dime novels and the producers of the late 20th century filmic bloodbaths. I quoted Robert Warshow saying the Western was "an art form for connoisseurs." Warshow thought that the order was one that had been defined in the Western film tradition itself. He didn't look far enough. The Gunfighter Western is a recent avatar of a much older narrative order.
The great epics – Odyssey, Iliad, Aeneid, Beowulf, and many others – deal with the same concerns: power, law, peace, order, death, chaos. Just as those older narratives, the Western film with the gunfight as central dramatic device is always predicated on a sense of unendurable disorder hovering just outside whatever boundaries are established or assumed: outside town, outside the ranch, beyond the range, forces which may from no internal provocation but quite on their frivolous and gratuitous own come in and screw up everything.
The action is always one of restoring equilibrium: the beast Grendel violates the peace of Hrothgar's castle in Beowulf, the suitors violate the security of Odysseus' home in Odyssey, Paris violates the rules of visitation in Iliad. The film Warlock begins with the senseless murder of an unarmed barber. The action which begins Clint Eastwood's 1976 western, The Outlaw Josey Wales, is the senseless slaughter of a farmer's wife and child by a gang of wandering thugs; no reason is ever offered for that violence.
Such is the enemy – the random and sudden violence that rudely shatters the boundaries of normal life – for those mythic and legendary heroes of the epics, and for those Gunfighter heroes of the film's recreation of the American West.
The mainspring of the Gunfighter Western is individual or single combat, which is grounded in the notion that physical performance can be equated with virtue, and that through a single well-done act a person may achieve all the status he might want or need. Killing the "Fastest Gun in the West" immediately makes the killer the new "Fastest Gun in the West." No need for intermediate steps, no slow ascendance through the ranks. The win immediately engenders a radical change in status, and the opportunity is there for anyone who encounters the present title holder on the street, at a bar or in the alley.
Real life isn't like that. With rare exceptions, the slow progress that leads to success is boring. Usually, it is meaningless except in retrospect, it needs the stretched-out-dimension of time past to have any apparent meaning at all, and it needs a decent social nexus and some luck to occur. That is the way most people have to do it, but it surely isn't the way most people would prefer, which is why folk and popular literature and films are filled by narratives documenting a faster kind and style of certification. (It’s also why state lotteries, lousy investments by any standard, have done so well: "Hey, you never know," say the lottery ads in New York.)
We hear in folktales of the magic wish heard and fulfilled, the dreadful beast properly slain, the king's beautiful daughter won and married. In the folktales all king's daughters are beautiful, and the marriages mean that the poor country boys get to move from farm to castle, from amorphous rural space to the center of power. In the Westerns, we see the quiet cowboy enduring the insults and outrages for just so long, then letting go with the fastest forearm reflexes in local memory; we see the badman outdrawn and blown away.
We can go back for examples at least four thousand years
– to the great Babylonian creation myth, the Enuma Elish, in which the
young god Marduk kills Tiamat, the great and malevolent mother, in one of the
goriest homicides in folk literature. Tiamat had created evil beings to destroy
her own children, so the gods hired Marduk as their marshal to go against her in
battle. He takes the contract, but demands authority to commence creation anew,
to rebuild the world his own way. The elder gods are desperate and drunk, so
they quickly agree to his terms. Marduk and Tiamat assemble spectacular armies,
but they meet in single combat to decide the fate of the world.
Marduk first immobilizes Tiamat with his net, then orders Imhullu, the wind, to blow in her mouth so forcefully her belly bloats; he shoots an arrow through the belly to the womb, then kills her with his sword. In a grim parody of parturition, he uses her split cadaver to form the universe we know. Even the masters of slice and dice teenage slasher movies would blanch filming this encounter.
After Tiamat is dead, nobody knows quite what to do with Marduk. He got rid of the beast, he restored order, but how does one live with a character so powerful? The problem of what to do with the successful hero after he's done his job appears regularly in myth and legend and Western films.
The Babylonians solved the problem by making Marduk abstract. They affixed to him all the powers of all the fifty gods in their pantheon, then had him assign his day-to-day powers to some local officials who would be his earthly representatives – the priests of Babylon. Marduk was kicked upstairs and out of town.
Heroic success invokes alienating stigma. When Beowulf
defeats Grendel, the poet tells us there is no man more worthy of kingship. That
isn't just because he destroyed the most pressing evil and is therefore
considered capable of managing the general good; it is also because they had no
idea what else to do with so capable a person when there was no combat in
progress. Either elevate him to a form of kingship or run him out of town –
those are the two alternatives. In similar fashion, the outside hero who comes
in to save the town in the Gunfighter films nearly always leaves at the end. It
happens in Warlock, My Darling Clementine (1946), Death of a
Gunfighter (1969), and scores of other westerns. It happens in every radio,
television and film episode of the Lone Ranger. Even when the savior is the
insider heroically risen to the occasion, he is sufficiently changed by the
experience so he no longer fits his old role once his job of curing the
community's infection is over. Owen Wister's Virginian begins as a ranchhand,
rises to foreman and then, after lynching his best friend and killing his enemy
Trampas in a gun duel, he gets the girl and, in the novel, becomes a wealthy
America’s last romance
Star Wars writer and director George Lucas told a
Rolling Stone reporter in 1977, "One of the significant things that
occurred to me is I saw the western die. We hardly knew what happened, one day
we turned around and there weren't any westerns anymore." Lucas wasn’t at all
right. Westerns continue to be made, though far fewer of them than in decades
past. Kevin Costner’s Dances With Wolves (1990) won an Academy Award for
Best Picture, as did Clint Eastwood’s Unforgiven (1992). Lonesome Dove
(1989) won an Emmy. Mel Gibson starred in a film version of TV’s Maverick
(1994) and Kevin Costner starred as Wyatt Earp (1994). Sharon Stone
played a gal gunfighter in Sam Raimi’s The Quick and the Dead (1995).
Jeff Bridges starred in Walter Hill’s Wild Bill the same year. Hill, who
directed The Long Riders (1980) directed Bruce Willis in Last Man
Standing (1995). The following year Jim Jarmusch directed what might be the
first hallucinatory Western: Dead Man, starring Johnny Depp as "William
Blake" and Gary Farmer as an Indian named "Nobody." In spring 2004, HBO followed
its immensely popular "Sopranos" with the western series "Deadwood," set
primarily in a mining town's whorehouse and hardware store. The filmic mud was
fabulous; how much it had to do with the real west was anyone's guess.
The real West was only incidental to the action going on in all those westerns anyway. It may have been, as I’ve suggested here, just a local backdrop against which a far more basic action could be played out, just as was the undifferentiated universe of the Enuma Elish for the final battle between Marduk and Tiamat and the black sky for the final battle between Luke Skywalker and Darth Vader.
And that is why young Michael looked with such loathing at the ostensible gun of Billy the Kid and the Peruvian policeman viewed with such reverence the gun of Tom Mix and why Michael Ondaatje and I and millions of other kids wore those cowboy suits when we were little kids. The scholars are still mining and parsing this material, but every one of us kids understood perfectly well what those symbols and stories were about all along, and we still do.
(© Bruce Jackson 2006. Do not quote without ascription.)