“I can name for you every western I’ve ever seen. It wouldn’t even be hard.” – 2018
“There’s something just better about westerns, I can’t explain it. A great western is a special thing.” – 2019
“… nobody wants to be the crotchety old man saying things were much better in the good old days. But then you sit down and actually watch a 1940s western and it melts your face clean off.” – 2020
There probably wasn’t an exact moment when I went from “getting into westerns” to just “being a big westerns guy,” but if I had to pick, it would probably be around the time I started watching the Friday western on TG4. TG4 is an Irish public broadcast TV station that mostly shows Irish language programming, but every Friday night, they show a western. I’m not sure why, but I’m glad. “An western”: Irish for “the western”, with the word western untranslated, the way you wouldn’t translate noir or giallo into English. The films they show range from established classics to obscure gems to stuff that really isn’t very good at all, but usually in an interesting way. I don’t always watch the western on Friday, but I’m always happy I did. There are some things in this world that are so purely joyful, so satisfying, that they make your heart feel like it will burst. They’re precious, and I try to hold onto them where I can. A great western is one of those. The particular pleasures great westerns offer make me fall in love with films all over again.
Westerns are a genre that sounds narrow – having to be set in the American West within the span of about fifty years, from about 1860 to 1910 – but actually sprawls vast swathes of style, tone and story. All you really need for a western is a place at the edge of civilisation. A place where the train line hasn’t yet come to town and the closest thing you have to law is brute force. A place that spreads out vast with possibility. A place that’s about to disappear. A place that’s already disappearing. It doesn’t even have to be the Old West: it can be the Australian outback, the Russian Revolution, or outer space. But because these stories have been told so often about the American West in so many different ways, it’s the place that has accumulated the most layers of meaning to polish, to pick away at, to peel back, to paint over. All of cinema is in conversation with all the films that came before it, but the conversations between westerns are intimate and immediate.
A big part of this is the mythos of the west, of course. The official US government-approved version of the American West for over a century was – and let’s be honest, still is – the white man righteously taking the land that is his birth right and killing any of the native savages that stand in his way. This disgusting, genocide-justifying rationale is still a vivid part of American politics and culture, so it’s easy to assume that westerns basically created it. And it’s not that that’s wrong, exactly, it’s that it’s only a sliver of the truth.
Quentin Tarantino, who someday might overcome his irrational hatred of John Ford enough to be a decent film critic, described Ford’s Fort Apache as espousing this white supremacist, Manifest Destiny tradition. “[T]hat meaning was clear even in 1948 when the movie was released,” he wrote, “American (white) audiences not only didn’t care, for the most part they agreed.” It’s a weird example, though, because Fort Apache is deeply sympathetic to Native Americans: Captain York (John Wayne) explains that the US government broke their treaty with the Apache long before the Apache broke it on their side: “Whiskey but no beef; trinkets instead of blankets; the women degraded; the children sickly; and the men turning into drunken animals. So Cochise did the only thing a decent man could do. He left. Took most of his people and crossed the Rio Bravo into Mexico… rather than stay here and see his nation wiped out.”
York is second in command to Lt. Col. Thursday (Henry Fonda), who does not share his sympathy for the Apache people. The final act sees Thursday lead a hopeless charge against the Apache for no reason at all other than because he wants the glory of battle. People often talk about Fonda only playing good guys until Once Upon a Time in the West, but in Fort Apache, he’s a monster: a toxic combination of arrogant, condescending, and incredibly racist. Another western would frame Thursday as a tragic hero, pushing on in the face of certain defeat, but Fort Apache knows better. The whole film has been at pains to establish that the only reason there is unrest in the Apache reservation is because the US government and army refuse to treat them with any respect, dignity or honour. York has flat out said as much, more than once. It’s fascinating, because the violence that Cochise and the Apache fighters inflict is presented as entirely justified.
To arrive at Tarantino’s interpretation, you have to ignore all of this and reduce the film to its final moments. York, now commanding the regiment, is asked by a journalist about a painting depicting Thursday’s final battle: “That was a magnificent work,” the reporter says, “There were these massed columns of Apaches in their warpaint and feather bonnets… and here was Thursday leading his men in that heroic charge!” York says the painting of correct in every respect, and gives a stirring speech about how the men who died were heroes who will never be forgotten as long as the regiment lives. It’s a jarring moment, precisely because it goes so against everything we’ve seen. But that is because we are, in that moment, seeing the myth of the American West spun in front of our eyes. It’s an idea Ford returns to again and again in his westerns: if his work helped create and reinforce those myths, it interrogated and deconstructed them as much or more.
Although Fort Apache is sympathetic to Native Americans, its Native characters remain peripheral. The core conflict is between white people with different attitudes towards the Apache, not the internal reality of the Apache people. My favourite western that shows the war from the Native Americans’ point of view was made in 1970: Little Big Man, directed by Arthur Penn. Dustin Hoffman plays Jack Crabb, who at one-hundred-and-twenty-one recites his life story to a historian. As a boy, his family are killed by the Pawnee, but the Cheyenne adopt him as their own. Jack is dubbed Little Big Man after he goes through a Cheyenne coming-of-age ritual.
He spends his life moving between Cheyenne society and white society, culminating with the Battle of Little Bighorn. It has the structure of Forrest Gump or The Irishman, following a character through a history he improbably witnessed. It’s a story about America in a broad, sweeping sense – snake oil salesmen and evangelical Christianity and Wild Bill Hickock – but very specifically and devastatingly a story about the genocide of the Native Americans. It doesn’t hold back on the horrors committed, the senseless slaughter of women and children, justified with racism and outrageous laws.
In a stroke of genius, the film translates the Cheyenne’s word for themselves as “human beings.” It’s a small touch that asserts the humanity that white society would deny them. The white men in the film – Little Big Man excepted – are monsters. They are sickening to behold, their humanity lost in a sea of racism and violence. It’s the Cheyenne who are human beings, who seem capable of human feeling. “There is an endless supply of white men,” Old Lodge Skins (Jack’s adopted grandfather, played by Chief Dan George) says, “But we’re running out of human beings.”
Giant is probably best remembered for being James Dean’s final film role – he had died by the time it was released. Dean is fantastic in it, of course, and there is a particular pathos to watching him grow old: Giant is a story worthy of the title, stretching across decades. A western so epic it gets past World War II and onto a passenger plane. It’s nearly three and a half hours long, and you feel that time in the best way: I genuinely felt like I lived a whole life watching it, seeing these characters grow and change for decades. Like the first two Godfather films or Gone with the Wind, it’s an epic about a way of life disappearing – as the emerging dominance of oil ensures ranches like this one die off.
The film starts with wealthy Texas rancher Bick (Rock Hudson) meeting Leslie (Elizabeth Taylor) on a trip to Maryland to buy a horse. They quickly marry and he takes her back to his ranch: the titular giant, Reata. (The film makes the point explicitly and repeatedly that the land was stolen. And how could it not be? All of the US is stolen land.) Leslie’s bleeding-heart liberalism and fierce independence immediately put her at odds with society in this part of Texas, and in particular, with Bick’s sister, who runs the household. Leslie rejects two accepted truths especially: that women are subservient to men and that Mexican-Americans are lesser to whites. She is horrified by the conditions the Mexican workers live in, and shocked by the lack of respect Bick – who she fell in love with so easily back in Maryland – has for them. She asks the family doctor to visit a sick Mexican child she met when Jett (James Dean) drives her around the county, and Bick patiently explains that their doctor doesn’t treat those people.
But we watch these characters live for decades, and the extraordinary thing about Bick is that he changes. It’s so gradual and organic that you don’t even realise it’s happening. It’s an incredible performance on Hudson’s part, eliciting feelings as complex and varied as the thorniest of real people do. I hated him so much and loved him just as vehemently. Bick and Leslie’s son Jordy (Dennis Hopper) takes after his mother: he has no interest in Bick’s mantras of tradition and legacy. He becomes a doctor so that he can help people – people like the poor Mexican workers his mother is trying to help. Worse still, he ends up marrying a Mexican woman.
Bick is frequently horrible about all of this. But this film that spans decades and decades in these characters’ lives chooses to end as he finishes a transformation that had trundled along quietly the entire time, never ostentatiously announcing itself. At a diner, the racist owner hassles Jordy’s wife and son – insisting they don’t serve their kind here. Bick’s family name puts a stop to that, but when the owner kicks a Mexican family out of the diner, Bick physically fights him. The owner beats Bick up pretty easily – he’s old as fuck – and Bick is embarrassed about it afterwards, all his talk about the family’s legacy not amounting to much in the end. Leslie tells him that when Bick got knocked down by the diner owner, he became her hero for the first time. It’s a beautiful moment. Too often, racism is talked about as a static quality which you can never overcome. When stories are told about racists learning the error of their ways, it’s usually in a dramatic, epiphany-driven way that isn’t especially realistic. But Bick changes the way real people do: through a lifetime of conversations and experiences, because of all the people in his life who love him enough to want him to be better.
If it’s true that westerns helped create the myth of the west – of the glorious white man claiming land that was rightfully his simply by virtue of his whiteness – then it’s also true that they are capable, perhaps more than any other genre, of exposing that myth for what it is.
I often think that American media hardly acknowledges the native peoples at all. Right-wingers scream about Mexicans coming over the Texas border as if indigenous Mexicans haven’t lived on both sides of that border as long as it has existed. It is a cliché for liberals and leftists to call slavery America’s “original sin”, a statement that rightly calls attention to the centrality of slavery to United States history but totally erases the genocide America was founded on. It’s taken as an obvious truth that part of what killed the western genre was increased audience discomfort with negative portrayals of Native Americans, but that doesn’t ring true to me. The western is dead, but the myth of the west goes on, an unarticulated assumption that hums under everything. Westerns dig their nails in, forcing the myth to be exposed to the light. Sometimes that was a warm glow. But in so many great westerns, it was a light that showed up all the ugliest parts. A light that caused the thing to crumble in your hands.