I recently watched three different Westerns, and I have to say, I, like, get it now. Westerns are all about a man trying to escape the passage of time. He holds on to what really makes him a man–his guns, his woman, his horse, and his power. But all these? These are things of the past. He is a thing of the past. The western asks the man whether or not he’ll accept it.
I started this journey with High Noon (1952), which follows Marshall Will Kane (Gary Cooper) as he resists leaving his town of Hadleyville, despite being newly married. Kane gets word that Frank Miller, the outlaw he imprisoned, has been freed and intends to exact his revenge on Kane. When pressured by his new wife to leave town before Miller arrives on the noon train, Kane says, “They’re making me run. I’ve never run before.”
Our heroes in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969), however, have no issue with running. In fact, it’s kind of their thing. After making a reputation as a train robber, Butch Cassidy (Paul Newman) and his partner, the Sundance Kid (Robert Redford), flee from law enforcement. It’s escape-as-usual until they realize their pursuers are a band of past enemies have come together to serve them justice. So they flee. And they flee. And they flee. Eventually the chase drives them to Bolivia, but even there it doesn’t stop. All the while a patient beating of hooves colors the sound design, even in the quiet moments. The sound of paranoia.
Come to think of it, a lot of Westerns have to do with revenge in some capacity–Miller wants revenge on Kane, and all of Cassidy’s enemies wanted revenge on him. My third foray into the depths of the Wild West’s psyche was the Spaghetti Western Once Upon a Time in the West (1968), which follows a man known only as “Harmonica” as he stalks the villainous gunman Frank, intending to get revenge on him for the wrongs he committed in their shared past.
Once Upon a Time in the West, directed by Sergio Leone, has less of a race against time that the others do, but even there, pursuit is a juicy theme. Harmonica clearly pursues Frank, but Frank’s patron, the local railroad tycoon, also pursues the plot of land known as Sweetwater. He hires Frank to intimidate the owner into relinquishing his claim on it, but Frank kills him and his family instead, accidentally leaving the owner’s widow to assume the deed. With Harmonica’s help, the widow saves the land from the railroad tycoon and they authorize the construction of a town. At the end, with the death of his friend Cheyenne and the murder of Frank behind him, Harmonica leaves the town as it’s being built, even though he purchased the land himself. Harmonica is unique in this trio of Western heroes burdened by the future: he knew his time on earth had a purpose, and once he fulfilled that purpose, his story ended. He even left his very identity–the harmonica–behind.
Kane and Cassidy, meanwhile, aren’t so accepting of evolution. Before Kane married, he cleaned up Hadleyville, putting away criminals and making it a safer, better place to live. Even though that phase of his life is over now, and he’s presented with a clear escape route from his oncoming enemies, he delays. His job isn’t really his anymore, but he refuses to name a successor. The constant shots of the clock face, and the crucial fact that the movie plays out in real time, remind us that time and change are inextricably linked. Kane teeters on the edge, unwilling to admit he’s afraid to move on.
As Cassidy and the Kid attempt to hide from their pursuers in a nearby town, Cassidy calls on a friendly Sheriff. He attempts to convince him that he wants to join the army, but the Sheriff tells him, with no hesitation, that his time is over. If he’s being pursued this heavily, he might as well just give in; the world has no place for train robbers like him anymore. It’s a jarringly sobering moment amidst our high speed chase. The future is coming, and you better let it take you, or you’ll get left behind. Perhaps this is the reason why, just before he escapes to Bolivia, Cassidy shoves his fancy new bicycle into a puddle and declares good riddance on the future.
Amidst all this talk of changing times and cowboy heroes, I feel obligated to mention Midnight Cowboy. If the cowboy represents a man struggling to retain an idea of himself that the world has already left behind, Midnight Cowboy illustrates the full extent of this with Joe Buck’s cowboy getup transposed upon a New York City background. Here, the cowboy is removed from the Western, but still runs from the same demons other cowboys run from. It’s just clearer here than anywhere else that those demons are–and always have been–inside the man, rather than an external threat.
I’ve talked before on this blog about how men often write movies about men and think they are about humanity, and it’s come to my realization that the Western should be treated no different. To fear time and change will remove your power to be violent for the sake of glory (Butch Cassidy) or even for the sake of maintaining order (High Noon) is a masculine misery. I don’t mean to say that women don’t fear time and change, but rather that the deep focus given to the cowboy’s fear of losing his power, agency, or sense of masculinity as a result of the passage of time is not as much of a focus in the stories of women. It would be nice if it were. But it’s not.
Instead, the stories of women in Westerns are the stories of the woman. In reading up on these movies before writing this post, I read Roger Ebert’s review of Once Upon a Time in the West, in which he literally says “Claudia Cardinale was a good choice for the woman,” emphasis mine.
The woman is her own archetype in Westerns. You have the outlaw, the sheriff, the train robber, the gang leader, the railroad tycoon, and the woman.
You can trace this singular female presence throughout a multitude of media. She appears most frequently today in action films, as love interest and/or damsel. Sometimes, she’s the Smurfette, or the token female representation in the group.
This singular narrative often gives male writers the opportunity to assign their women characters one or more stereotypical characteristics, usually related to sex and/or reproduction. In Once Upon a Time in the West, it’s Claudia Cardinale, who’s at various times a wife, a widow, a prostitute, a love interest, and, is, yes, sexually assaulted. In Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, Katherine Ross has the fortunate position of being in a love triangle with both men and is introduced to us as she’s taking off her clothes. In High Noon there’s actually two women, Kane’s wife and his ex-lover, but the virgin-whore dichotomy ensures that we know who’s the “good” woman and who’s not. (Spoiler: the “good” woman is his wife, the “bad” woman is the woman he’s already had sex with. Yawn.)
If the Western asks the man whether or not he’ll accept the changing times, the Western asks the woman whether or not she’ll stick by her man. Kane’s wife and ex-lover have a conversation that illustrates this point perfectly, when they collide at the inn by the train station. His ex-lover chastises his wife for making the selfish decision to leave him behind; if she were still his girl, she would stand by him no matter what. His wife nearly lets the noon train take her away from Kane, but at the last minute she leaps out of the car and races to his aid, while the ex-lover remains safely aboard. And, though her husband is dead, the woman in Once Upon a Time in the West remains with her widower’s land and sees the town fully built, providing water and sustenance to the workers.
Interestingly, Katherine Ross’s character doesn’t stick by her men: she leaves Butch and the Kid behind in Bolivia, because she “won’t watch them die.” But the Western still gives her the question, and makes her answer it. In her last scene, she tells them she’ll go back to America, and they never see her again.
I wonder sometimes how much the woman represents the future itself. Butch and the Kid die, which is a fate they might have always been heading toward, but is certainly a fate they would have resisted had they had Katherine Ross around. The special thing about the land in Once Upon a Time in the West is that it produces water, and of course it’s the widow who pulls this from the well and serves it to the workers at the end of the movie. This kindness is followed by the train rolling in, a sign that the future of the town will be prosperous. After finishing the gunfight soaked in blood, Kane wordlessly boards a carriage with his wife and–at last–leaves the town by her side.
This isn’t a fully formed theory, and maybe not even a correct one, but it’s tempting to assign meaning to the objectified female characters present in old movies. At least then she would mean something. But the movies hold up regardless. Maybe someday someone will write a Western where a woman pushes back against change–when they do, I’ll have a lot to say about it.