Monday, December 12, 2005


The Old West Ain't What It Used To Be

There was a time when a movie Western evoked images of John Wayne, battling savage Indians, and bravely forging America's God-given path to the Pacific? Well, you ain't gonna see that no more. On screen, the deconstruction and revision of the "Old West" mythology (and perhaps the mythology of this country, as well) began with Kevin Costner's 1990 Best Picture winner Dances With Wolves. That film turned the notion of Cowboys and Indians on its head. When the Cavalry comes storming in, towards the end of the film, you shudder, not cheer, at the needless carnage they will create and the lives they will displace. Costner's focus on Indians as "good guys" in the film set the tone for the screen Westerns that were to follow. Two years later, Clint Eastwood (himself a traditional Western -- albeit Spaghetti Western -- icon) directed and starred in Unforgiven. Here, another of the screen Western myths was shattered. Dying from gunshot wounds were suddenly not as clean and quick as they once were. Agonizingly slow deaths from shootouts were shown in painstaking detail, and the line between hero and outlaw got a bit fuzzier. Unforgiven also won the Oscar for Best Picture. Now, director Ang Lee has given us Brokeback Mountain and added perhaps the last piece to the deconstruction of Western screen mythology. In the past, there was nothing more manly than being a gunslinger. After all, taming the Wild West was a man's job -- a dangerous one, seething with testosterone. But the cowboys in Brokeback Mountain are homosexual. Can there be a more shattering notion to the cowboy myth? Having already taken the L.A. Film Critics Award for Film of the Year, will Brokeback Mountain complete the hat trick, begun with Dances With Wolves and walk off with an Oscar for Best Picture as well? More interestingly though is this question: Does the deconstruction and revisionist view of the West mirror the evolution of the country itself? In the late 1960s as anti-war protests were heating up, they were met on screen with the resolve of the Old West. John Wayne was not only one of The Green Berets (1968) he had True Grit (1969) as well. The sentiment of Westerns from the 40s and 50s still held sway by then. By golly, we were gonna win the Vietnam War the way John Wayne won the west -- with good old fashion American resolve! But today, as we fast the growing disapproval of another war, the movies themselves have told us, the Indians were good, the gunshots hurt, and some of the cowboys were gay! How can you win a war knowing that? How indeed.

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I won't argue with your thesis that the ideas of being homosexual and a manly cowboy are incompatible, except to say two words: Randolph Scott.

And I'm not sure about the notion that gay cowboys wouldn't be interested in a job that is 'seething with testosterone.' And I won't go near the question of the metaphor of job seething a hormone of any sort.

But I have to point out a problem with your premise:

The Western myth had been thoroughly deconstructed decades before Dances With Wolves by Sergio Leone and Sam Peckinpah and the scores of lesser films their work inspired. There have never been badder good guys than in Leone's films nor more graphic wounds than in The Wild Bunch. Films like Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid certainly presented some of the great Western anti-heros of all time and films like McCabe and Mrs. Miller and Buffalo Bill and the Indians from Robert Altman were designed to go counter to all genre expectations. Eastwood himself, with High Planes Drifter, The Outlaw Josey Wales and Pale Rider had already begun his work of countering the genre. By the time of Dances With Wolves, just about every myth of the Old West -- from Little Bighorn to the OK Corral -- had been retold in a revisionist way.

Also, not to be too much of a schoolmarm, but as far as I know, the Calvary plays no role in Costner's film, though the Cavalry does play an important role. And when they show up, I may have shuddered, but I didn't shutter – the theater didn't provide any shutters for me to shutter.
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