2019 Film Essays

The Western Enters the 70s – Part 1: Sam Peckinpah’s Lonely Cowboy

When the final remnants of the studio system began to collapse in the late 60s, it wasn’t just a method of production that was passing; the mythology it upheld went with it. No genre is more emblematic of this transition than the Western. What the Spaghetti Western had begun, a new generation of U.S. filmmakers continued with gusto — none more so than Sam Peckinpah, whose 1969 masterpiece The Wild Bunch lit the fuse on a generational conflict. The year 1969 was the crucible in which this cultural conflagration was forged, with revisionist works like Tell Them Willie Boy Is Here and Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid on one side, and traditionalist fare like True Grit and Paint Your Wagon on the other. The genre was being torn in opposing directions, with each wing seeking to claim its iconography as their own.

Of course, this wasn’t happening in a vacuum; Hollywood was playing out in microcosm a broader sense of unrest. By the beginning of the 70s, the post-war abundance which had sustained old Hollywood beyond its wartime apotheosis was crumbling. The search for a new frontier to tame, the manifest destiny which the Western symbolised, was beginning to recede as the war entered the heart of the imperial metropole. This loss of frontier engendered a deep sense of cynicism and distrust: disillusionment with the war in Vietnam, the Kent State slaying and revelations of government “counterinsurgency” against the anti-war and civil rights movements put U.S. society on an oppositional footing. Violence had sundered old assumptions, and the Western was a backdrop for the attempt to explicate this division.

As the chief instigator of this insurgency, Peckinpah continued to challenge the shibboleths of the Old West throughout the decade. But Peckinpah’s approach varied wildly, exhibiting a wistful touch alongside the cynicism and brutality. In The Ballad of Cable Hogue (1970), Peckinpah dissects Western mythology from a markedly more elegiac stance (indeed, the transition from the Grand Guignol of The Wild Bunch to the gentle lyricism of The Ballad of Cable Hogue is one of the most dramatic tonal shifts in cinematic history). Yet Peckinpah’s analysis of the West in The Ballad of Cable Hogue Hogue is no less trenchant, and its contemporary relevance even more pointed. Hogue (Jason Robards) is another of Peckinpah’s men out of time; he is a knifeman in a gunfighter’s world, ill-equipped for the West’s mercenary new formulation.

When Hogue is abandoned in the desert by Taggart (L.Q. Jones) and Bowen (Strother Martin), he refuses to pull the trigger on his fellow hobos to save himself. Hogue is unable to adjust to the primacy of the gun, which blows apart a lizard he is about to skin. Like the camel which defeats the horse in the opening race of Ride the High Country (1962), Peckinpah upends the stability of Western archetypes; the symbolism of the gun is subverted. After stumbling upon water in the desert, Hogue enters into an alliance of outcasts with disreputable Reverend Sloan (David Warner) and ambitious prostitute Hildy (Stella Stevens). This trinity presents a counterculture to the staid denizens of Dead Dog, whose pieties exist cheek by jowl with a rapacious expansionist logic. Hogue, Sloan and Hildy are figures without a place in the newly formalised West; though they conform to broad Western tropes, they refuse to exist within this designation and seek to live according to their own codes.

The idea of independence is fundamental to Cable Hogue. The trinity of outcasts finds a haven in “Cable Springs”; they have dropped out of a civilisation which has no use for them beyond the commodity they are able to sell. Hogue concedes that “in town, I’d be nothing.” They survive on “desert stew,” and inform the townsfolk who are disgusted by such a repast that “you’ve got to work hard and make do.” In a more conventional Western, Hogue would be a peripheral character, an oddball whose exploits are treated with comic condescension. Peckinpah recognises that Hogue’s heroism stems from his ability to survive with his sense of self intact, mastering a landscape that is rapidly being “civilised” and sold by the square foot.

Hogue turns his back on the possibility of a new life in San Francisco with Hildy to exact revenge on Taggart and Bowen, for which he must embrace the logic of the gun. But his plan is eclipsed by the arrival of a “horseless carriage.” The car is a portent of their obsolescence, its passengers laugh at the grudges being enacted as Hogue comments with wonder that the car “went right on by.” Hogue is crushed, figuratively and literally, under the wheels of new values and priorities. All that is left is the mythologizing of the past, which will be whitewashed with the widest of brushes. Peckinpah places Hogue and his cohorts against the bureaucracy of the settled West; it renders Hogue’s gunplay absurd, and signals that this is not how things will be settled going forward. Potency in the West will henceforth be vested in ownership: it is a theme Peckinpah would return to in his final exploration of the West.

After The Ballad of Cable Hogue, Peckinpah made two modern-day Westerns which share more thematic connective tissue than is immediately apparent. Both Straw Dogs (1971) and Junior Bonner (1972) present characters out of step with their milieu. Like Hogue, they must reach an understanding with their true nature. In Straw Dogs, David Sumner (Dustin Hoffman) is a peaceable man who must come to terms with a violent world; he is driven to embrace the violence around him and take up arms in response. Equally, Junior (Steve McQueen) is a cowboy at heart who refuses to acknowledge the death of the Western ideal by playing out a pantomime of frontier manliness in the form of rodeo riding, the only role left for him. Junior Bonner is one of Peckinpah’s gentler offerings, and as such it is often overlooked, but it examines the place of the cowboy, surrounding Bonner with symbols of his anachronism.

Bonner is assailed by the merciless course of progress, but clings resolutely to the vestiges of the cowboy life. While Sumner is a geographical outcast, Bonner is a temporal outcast. Bonner sees in the huge black bull he is scheduled to ride the possibility of a glorious, redemptive death. Like the cowboys of old, he yearns for his actions to cement his place in legend, to outlive the opprobrium of the 70s. He sees his broken-down rodeo riding father, Ace (Robert Preston), and knows he cannot live to be that man. He must carve glory and immortality out of the barren, peripatetic existence his instincts have led him to; he must occupy the space between life and death, with one foot in and one foot out of oblivion.

Junior’s brother, Curly (Joe Don Baker), has parlayed his cowboy heritage into a lucrative property business, and proudly tells Junior he is “working on my first million.” Curly has sold off Ace’s ranch to a silver mine, and has his mother, Elvira (Ida Lupino), selling curios in an “Olde West Antiques” shop. Curly sells a sanitized version of the West, taking advantage of Arizona’s “land boom” by reducing Old West signifiers to a marketing ploy. The landscape has been tamed, the frontier settled; the process set in motion in The Ballad of Cable Hogue is complete. Curly’s family regard Junior as an oddity at their suburban dinner table, with Curly describing the rodeo as “a part of history.” When Junior refuses to take a job with Curly, his brother dismisses him as “some kind of motel cowboy,” forever “working on eight seconds,” never able to stay on the bull that long. Junior’s contempt for what Curly has done to the lineage he is trying to preserve is palpable, and he punches Curly through the window of his home.

In a world where control has been wrested from the cowboy and turned into spectacle, the bull represents to Junior and his ilk the last thing left to tame, something a man still has the capacity to exert control over. In the eight seconds on the bull, the cowboy reaffirms his power. But the victory is Pyrrhic, as on the other side of that eight seconds they return to a world where the old certainties have eroded. Ace looks to Australia as his salvation; it is the next frontier, like San Francisco in The Ballad of Cable Hogue, but is merely the latest in a long line of pipe dreams to sustain him in his dotage. Ace asks Junior: “If the world’s all about winners, what’s for the losers?,” to which Junior responds: “Somebody’s gotta hold the horses.” For Junior, there is a nobility in this posture, in the quiet persistence of the historically defeated.

The spirit of the Old West returns briefly during a mass brawl at the Palace Bar, where the rodeo riders gather post-show among comforting artefacts of past glories. The barman comments gleefully that it’s “just like old times” as the bodies fly around him. The brawl is another form of performance, a nostalgic leisure pursuit for the vanquished. Yet it cannot be allowed to stray beyond the confines of the bar. The band is told to play “The Star-Spangled Banner,” and the fighting eventually ceases. Peckinpah positions the iconography of America as a pacifying force, the only thing capable of soothing the savage beast. What is clear in Junior Bonner is that the freewheeling, grubstaking days are over; big business is in the ascendant, and the little man must find his place in the corporate framework. The abiding conflict between America’s civilising forces and those determined to go down their own road reaches its fullest expression in Peckinpah’s final and definitive vision of the Old West.

The myth of Billy the Kid is one which changes with the times; the early 70s version Peckinpah and writer Rudy Wurlitzer brought to Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid (1973) is certainly a departure from the one Arthur Penn and Gore Vidal fashioned in The Left Handed Gun (1958). Paul Newman’s Kid is a neurotic narcissist, more in keeping with 50s teen angst than 70s social disaffection. Kris Kristofferson’s Kid speaks to the choices faces by the 60s generation coming into the 70s. Pat Garrett is as much a meditation on the death of 60s idealism as the passing of the Old West. Peckinpah presents viewers with the dichotomy of the outlaw and the electorate, between embracing and railing against the system. New Mexico’s landed classes have hired former outlaw Pat Garrett (James Coburn) as their sheriff. Garrett informs the Kid that “the electorate wants you gone,” and gives the Kid five days to get out of town. The Kid and Garrett have made their choice, and must live with the consequences.

Pat Garrett charts the perils of purity and conformity; neither the lawman or the outlaw escape the ramifications of their actions. Garrett chooses to leave behind the outlaw life and align himself with the forces of capital, represented by cattle baron Chisum (Barry Sullivan, who had been the subject of a reverential biopic starring John Wayne three years earlier). Garrett is welcomed into the elites who are moulding the frontier; Garrett is informed by Governor Wallace (Jason Robards) that “this territory is vast and primitive,” that they must endeavour to protect “investments and political interests.” The august ideals of upholding the law are stripped to the bare essential of property protection. Garrett is a poacher turned gamekeeper, working on behalf of entrenched power and privilege. Like Curly Bonner, Garrett rationalises his decision by reasoning that the times have changed, the outlaw life is no longer tenable and he must make an accommodation with the prevailing spirit of the age.

The Kid laments the fact that Garrett has “signed himself over to Chisum and every other landowner that tried to put a fence around this country.” But Kristofferson’s Kid is no Robin Hood; like Bonner, he is half in love with death, relishing the prospect of the legacy he will leave. The Kid is present at the birth of mass culture, and he intrinsically grasps the value of celebrity. The Kid’s actions are pitched with a view to the myth that attends it; he embraces the losing game that is the outlaw’s lot in the knowledge that his death will elevate him to a legendary stature. Multiple characters comment that “I will be remembered” and “I hope they spell my name right in the papers” as they are confronted with their mortality; the culture is inundated with an awareness of the individual’s standing in the balance of public favour.

The Kid represents the errant spirit that must be expunged in the name of progress. Garrett’s deputy, Poe (John Beck), comments that “the country’s got to make a choice. The time’s over for drifters and outlaws.” Poe’s is the voice of the silent majority that yearns for law and order, the “little man with a job to do” who is willing to forfeit freedom in the interest of stability. Garrett has made his choice, but there is a price to pay. By killing the Kid, Garrett kills a facet of himself. In the film’s stunning final sequence, Garrett watches himself in the mirror as he shoots the Kid. In the aftermath, Garrett stares at his fractured reflection, as if searching for something that has suddenly disappeared. He rides into a transfigured landscape, in which his status is elevated but his reputation is destroyed, pelted with stones by an angry child.

Pat Garrett endows the Western with a heretofore unexplored spirituality. Peckinpah dramatises the convulsions of the American psyche like few others. Its lament for a foreclosed frontier is heightened by a sublime soundtrack from Bob Dylan (who also plays the role of Alias to enigmatic perfection). In an exquisitely meta moment, Peckinpah himself plays a coffin maker who urges Garrett to “get it over with” as he prevaricates outside the Kid’s house. As Garrett progresses toward the Kid’s house, Peckinpah’s coffin maker reminds him that “you can’t trust anybody, not even yourself” and denounces him as a “chicken-shit, badge-wearing son of a bitch!” Peckinpah’s insertion of himself into this pivotal scene serves a number of purposes: he is building the coffins that will lay to rest the myths of the Old West, and articulating the rage of everyone who feels betrayed by those who have abandoned their ideals in the pursuit of power. With his concern for the outsider, and his reorienting of the West’s perception in the American mind, Peckinpah helped to birth the Acid Western.

D.M. Palmer (@MrDMPalmer) is a writer based in Sheffield, UK. He has contributed to sites like HeyUGuys, The Shiznit, Sabotage Times, Roobla, Column F, The State of the Arts and Film Inquiry. He has a propensity to wax lyrical about Film Noir on the slightest provocation, which makes him a hit at parties. The detritus of his creative outpourings can be found at waxbarricades.wordpress.com.

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