Monday, 8 October 2012

In praise of cowboys - why I love a western.

I've been on a cowboy jag.  I've always enjoyed a western.  When I was younger I loved the clarity of the line dividing goodies and baddies.  As I grew older I loved the image of the cowboy - long legged, lean, big-hatted, eyes squinting against the sunglare and practised in cool appraisal of other people and situations.  The dexterity and showmanship of the quick-draw man under pressure never fails to please. And we must not forget the moustaches!

Last night I watched "Tombstone".  Made in 1993 it's one of those films where you recognise everyone in the minor roles because they've now made it big.  "Tombstone" is one of my favourite westerns.  It's the story of Wyatt Earp and his brothers, Virgil and Morgan, retiring from the law and settling in the town of Tombstone.  There's a mining boom, so the town is full of promise.  The town is also under the shadow of the local gang, known as the Cowboys.  As soon as word spreads that the Earps are in town, the pressure is on to help enforce the law.

The story is apparently loosely based on fact and includes the shoot out at the OK Corral.

For all the talk of law and lawmen, it seems to me that these frontier towns were lawless places and that living there was a dangerous business.  What I realise now is that the genre is flawed - there are murderers on both sides of the moral line.  The good men start out reticent to draw their weapons and are keen to keep the peace.  Something then happens that tips the moral balance and all out war is declared.  Everyone starts shooting everyone else indiscriminately.  So what's the difference between the goodies and the baddies then?  The baddies are doing it out of self interest and the goodies are doing it for the community?  Maybe, but there's always a hard glint of revenge in the eyes of the marshall.  I suppose they'd say it's justified.

It's interesting to watch "Tombstone" again having watched the HBO series "Deadwood".  The moral lines are very blurry in that show.  I started out detesting Al Swearengen, proprietor of one of the bordellos and over the course of three seasons saw some good in him as he started to put the needs of the town ahead of his own.  "Deadwood" is apparently historically quite accurate.  The people look dirty enough to live in this kind of place and they have mouths to match.  There are cowboys everywhere.  Their hats are big and their moustaches are bigger.

Speaking of justified, I'm also watching season two of the television series "Justified".  Timothy Olyphant - who played Seth Bullock in Deadwood - stars as trigger happy US Marshall Raylan Givens.  It's set in current times and based on an Elmore Leonard story.  Raylan Givens has everything - long legs, big hat, steady cool appraisal skills, drinking problem.  He doesn't have a moustache, but he does have a horse shoe ring and Gary Cooper charm.  He's always in trouble for shooting people and it's always "justified".  His hat is also bigger than anyone else's.  It's a mixture of the western and the crime genre with modern problems like mountain top removal of coal threatening the environment and way of life, drug gangs etc.

The theme song is bluegrass rap!  What else do you need?

I'm off to find some Gary Cooper, John Wayne and Paul Newman films to watch.

What are you watching at the moment? Do you like cowboys?


  1. I'm a fan of Deadwood and Justified (even though the latter is kinda more of a 'southern' than a 'western'). I also enjoyed the new True Grit, the space western of Firefly/Serenity. Breaking Bad is often shot like a western, with the desert shots. The Proposition is an Aussie classic. The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford. I love me some spaghetti westerns, and the samurai classics many of them are copied from.
    Westerns can be dumb shoot-em-ups, but they can explore interesting ideas about outsiders and belonging, what it means to be civilised, the law versus what's right etc. etc.
    The main downside is that the typical Western is nearly as bad as the war movie in including women only as marginal stereotypes - the loyal wife, the plucky widow, the innocent daughter, the whore with a heart of gold and the whore without a heart of gold are pretty much it, and they rarely pass the Bechdel test.

    1. I completely agree with you about the role of women in westerns. Tombstone certainly does not pass the Bechdel test. (I'd never heard of this test until now - worth checking it out!)
      Glad to find a western sister!