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Literary Origins

Cavalry rider John Wayne comes to the aid of rancher Geraldine Page and her son when they're trapped in the middle of Apache raids on the territory in this intelligent, moody frontier drama.

The roots of the film western are found in many disparate sources, often of literary origins. Owen Wister's influential The Virginian, published in 1902, was the first modern western novel. Zane Grey's (1875-1939) 60+ novels inspired dozens of films, including his best-known western Riders of the Purple Sage (1918, 1925, 1931, 1941); also The Rainbow Trail (1918, 1925), George Seitz's The Vanishing American (1925) - the first film made in Monument Valley, Rangle River (1937), The Mysterious Rider (1933, 1938), Lone Star Ranger (1942), Nevada (1927, 1936, 1944), Western Union (1941), Gunfighters (1947), and Red Canyon (1949).

James Fenimore Cooper's novels such as his 1826 story The Last of the Mohicans (re-made as a feature film at least three times - Clarence Brown's 1920 version, a 1932 version starring Harry Carey, and George Seitz' 1936 version with Randolph Scott, and most recently as the popular film The Last of the Mohicans (1992) starring Daniel Day Lewis as the heroic white frontiersman scout named Hawkeye, raised as a Mohican.

Mythologies (tales of Davy Crockett, Daniel Boone, Jim Bowie, Gen. George A. Custer, Wild Bill Hickok, Buffalo Bill Cody, Calamity Jane, Wyatt Earp, Doc Holliday, Bat Masterson), and outlaws (such as the James Brothers, the original Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, and Billy the Kid). The most often-portrayed western heroes on screen have been: William Frederick Cody ("Buffalo Bill"), William Bonney ("Billy the Kid"), Jesse James, Wild Bill Hickok, Gen. George A. Custer, and Wyatt Earp.

Screen cowboy Gene Autry's "Cowboy Code" (or Cowboy Commandments) written in the late 1940s - was a collection of moralistic principles and values that cowboys reportedly live by, including such tenets as: the cowboy never shoots first or takes unfair advantage, always tells the truth, must help people in distress, and is a patriot.

In many ways, the cowboy of the Old West was the American version of the Japanese samurai warrior, or the Arthurian knight of medieval times. [No wonder that westerns were inspired by samurai and Arthurian legends, i.e., Kurosawa's Yojimbo (1961) served as the prototype for Clint Eastwood's A Fistful of Dollars (1964), and Kurosawa's The Seven Samurai (1954) was remade as John Sturges' The Magnificent Seven (1960). Le Mort D'Arthur by Sir Thomas Malory also inspired much of Shane (1953) - a film with a mythical western hero acting like a noble knight in shining leather in its tale of good vs. evil.]

Cowboys were all bound by legal codes of behavior, ethics, justice, courage, honor and chivalry. Folk music of the colonial period, Francis Parkman's The Oregon Trail (1849), Samuel Clemens' (Mark Twain) Roughing It (1872), Bret Harte's short stories, and dime novels about Western heroes all became the bedrock of the experience Westerns afford.

Louis L'Amour says in the first sentence of Hondo (1953) that the hero "rolled the cigarette in his lips, liking the taste of the tobacco," that he "squint[ed] his eyes against the sun glare. His buckskin shirt," L'Amour says, "seasoned by sun, rain, and sweat, smelled stale and old." L'Amour puts you inside the hero's shirt, makes you taste what he tastes, feel what he feels. Most of the sensations the hero has are not pleasurable: he is hot, tired, dirty, and thirsty much of the time; his muscles ache. His pain is part of our pleasure. It guarantees that the sensations are real. So does the fact that they come from nature: the sun's glare, not the glare of a light bulb; a buckskin shirt, not a synthetic wash-and-wear. For Westerns satisfy a hunger to be in touch with something absolutely real. It is good that the eye has to squint at the sun, since what the eye craves is the sun's reality.

I often imagine the site of the Western - the place it comes from and goes to, humanly speaking - to be like the apartment in a certain New Yorker cartoon. A woman is ironing a big pile of laundry - naked light bulb overhead, cats sitting around on the floor, crack in the wall - while through the door of an adjoining room you see her husband, sitting in the bathtub and calling to her, "Hon, I think it's time we took a ride into big sky country." The Western answers a need to get out of that apartment and into fresh air, sunlight, blue sky, and open space. Don't fence me in.

Not just any space will do. Big sky country is a psychological and spiritual place known by definite physical markers. It is the American West, and not just any part of that but the West of the desert, of mountains and prairies, the West of Arizona, Utah, Nevada, New Mexico, Texas, Colorado, Montana, Wyoming, the Dakotas, and some parts of California.

This West functions as a symbol of freedom, and of the opportunity for conquest. It seems to offer escape from the conditions of life in modern industrial society: from a mechanized existence, economic dead ends, social entanglements, unhappy personal relations, political injustice. The desire to change places also signals a powerful need for self-transformation. The desert light and the desert space, the creak of saddle leather and the sun beating down, the horses' energy and force - these things promise a translation of the self into something purer and more authentic, more intense, more real.

The hero of Owen Wister's The Virginian (1902), says in a moment of rare self-revelation: "Often when I have camped here, it has made me want to become the ground, become the water, become the trees, mix with the whole thing. Not know myself from it. Never unmix again." In Westerns the obsession with landscape is finally metaphysical. The craving for material reality, keen and insistent as it is, turns into a hunger even more insatiable. "My pa used to say," says a character from Louis L'Amour's Galloway (1970), "that when corruption is visited upon the cities of men, the mountains and the deserts await him. The cities are for money but the high-up hills are purely for the soul." The same is true of the Western. Thriving on physical sensation, wedded to violence, dominated by the need for domination, and imprisoned by its own heroic code, the Western appeals finally beyond all these to whatever it is the high-up hills betoken.

Throughout the twentieth century, popular Western novels by Zane Grey, Ernest Haycox, Max Brand, Luke Short, and Louis L'Amour have sold hundreds of millions of copies. In 1984 L'Amour alone had 145 million books in print. People from all levels of society read Westerns: presidents, truck drivers, librarians, soldiers, college students, businessmen, homeless people. They are read by women as well as men, rich and poor, young and old.

In one way or another Westerns - novels and films - have touched the lives of virtually everyone who lived during the first three-quarters of this century. The arch-images of the genre - the gunfight, the fistfight, the chase on horseback, the figure of the mounted horseman outlined against the sky, the saloon girl, the lonely landscape itself - are culturally pervasive and overpowering. They carry within them compacted worlds of meaning and value, codes of conduct, standards of judgment, and habits of perception that shape our sense of the world and govern our behavior without our having the slightest awareness of it.

Although the settings are exotic and the circumstances extreme, the situations call on the same qualities that get people out of bed to go to work, morning after morning. They require endurance more than anything else; not so much the ability to make an effort as the ability to sustain it. It isn't pain that these novels turn away from. It isn't self-discipline or a sense of responsibility. Least of all is it the will to persevere in the face of difficulty. What these novels offer that life does not offer is the opposite of a recreational spirit. It is seriousness. They posit effort and perseverance not only as necessary to salvation but as salvation itself. It is when your own life doesn't require of you the effort, concentration, and intensity of aim that L'Amour's heroes need to stay alive that you want to be out with them in a Wyoming blizzard with a murderer on your trail fifty miles from Hat Creek Station.

The desire to test one's nerve, physically, as a means of selffulfillment is illustrated in a somewhat prosaic but nevertheless telling way in a joke someone sent in to Reader's Digest. The anecdote helps to explain why L'Amour's audience might be looking not for an escape from work but for quite the reverse: Last summer my wife and I met a couple at a restaurant. After an enjoyable lunch, the women decided to go shopping, and I invited the man to go sailing. Later, while we were out on the water, a storm blew up. The tide had gone out, and we were downwind trying to work our way back through a narrow channel. At one point the boat grounded and we had to climb overboard and shove with all our might to get it back in deeper water. As my new friend stood there, ankle deep in muck, the wind blowing his hair wildly, rain streaming down his face, he grinned at me, and with unmistakable sincerity said, "Sure beats shopping!"

The men in this joke, like the heroes in L'Amour's novels, are braving the elements. Drenched to the skin, pushing a boat off a sandbar, they are having the time of their lives. They enjoy themselves so much not because they are out on a pleasure trip but because they are meeting a challenge, a challenge whose value is defined by contrast with the activity the women are engaged in - shopping. Shopping, in this context, not only implies nonmale activity, it embodies everything that readers of Westerns are trying to get away from: triviality, secondariness, meaningless activity. That the qualities devalued here are associated with women is essential to the way Westerns operate as far as gender is concerned. Requiring no effort of the will, no test of strength or nerve, shopping is seen here as petty and inconsequential; whatever paltry resources it calls on, however it is performed, shopping makes no difference. It isn't serious.

Ordinary work - in fact, ordinary life - is too much like shopping. It never embodies what the hero's struggle to get out of the blizzard embodies: the fully saturated moment. But this is not because life in the twentieth century involves people in all those transactions the Western hero traditionally rejects-the acquisition of material goods, the desire for social status, the search for luxuries. What Westerns criticize in daily life is not the presence of things, technology, laws, or institutions per se, but the sense that life under these conditions isn't going anywhere. If Westerns seem to long for the out-of-doors, for a simplified social existence, for blizzards and shoot-outs and fabulous exploits, it isn't because their readers want to give up TV and computers and fast foods and go back to life on the frontier. It's that life on the frontier is a way of imagining the self in a boundary situation - a place that will put you to some kind of ultimate test. What distinguishes the life of the L'Amour hero from that of his readers isn't that he can build a fire in the snow, kill ten bandits with six bullets, or get on his horse and ride out of town whenever he wants to; it is that he never fritters away his time. Whatever he does, he gives it everything he's got because he's always in a situation where everything he's got is the necessary minimum.

Jane Tompkins. West of Everything: The Inner Life of Westerns (Oxford Paperbacks) Oxford University Press, New York. Copyright 1992.


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