The Western Enters the 70s – Part 3: Expansion Pains

Western Movie Essay - High Plains Drifter

Between 1964 and 1968, there were 27 instances of major civil unrest in America’s cities, culminating in the ’68 Democratic National Convention taking place in Chicago. When anti-war and youth organisations converged on the city to stage a mass protest, they were met with police and National Guardsmen who had been given free rein by mayor Richard Daley. The ensuing violence was the denouement of a chaotic chapter in American history: during which the “Summer of Love” had come and gone, Lyndon Johnson had chosen not to seek re-election after his Great Society program became mired in the practicalities of the ongoing war in Vietnam, and Johnson’s heir apparent, Robert F. Kennedy, had been assassinated during the California primaries. By 68, the path was clear for a countervailing force. All it needed was a vessel. It seemed as though that vessel might be Ronald Reagan, whose standing as governor of California had been bolstered by his strident pronouncements on law and order.

But it was Richard Nixon who seized immortality from the jaws of political oblivion. Nixon reinvented himself as the only man capable of saving “the forgotten Americans — the non-shouters; the non-demonstrators’ from mob rule. Nixon declared that “Far from becoming a great society, ours is becoming a lawless society,” and pronounced that “It is not too strong a statement to declare that this is the way civilizations begin to die.” In such a climate, it is not difficult to understand why the Western returned to cultural prominence. At its heart, the genre is concerned with the settlement and pacification of wild territory, with carving order out of chaos. The cowboy is an emissary of civilisation, enduring all the hardships the elements can throw at him to create a space in which civilised values can flourish unhindered. The symbolism of the cowboy is so potent that it continues to be invoked for political gain.

In this context, the Western becomes a study of the conflict between authority, the forces which underpin our social structures, and those who exist beyond the boundaries set by that authority. Senator George McGovern commented that “It would be ironic, indeed, if we devoted so heavy a proportion of our resources to the pacification of Vietnam that we are unable to pacify Los Angeles, Chicago and Harlem.” McGovern draws a parallel between the uprising of the Viet Minh and the explosion of urban unrest, seeing their grievances as disruptions to history’s ineluctable arc which must be quelled. So it is with the Western; external and internal threats are conflated; the outlaw is Indian-ized by their rejection of the West’s moral code. These disruptive elements must be expunged in the name of expansion. The integrity of the territory will not permit any deviation from the established standards.

These Western dividing lines are encapsulated in Ralph Nelson’s Soldier Blue (1970). On the one side, there is Cresta Lee (Candice Bergen), who is returning home after “two years capture with them red bucks,” living with the Cheyenne of Spotted Wolf (Jorge Rivero). On the other,. there is Honus Gent (Peter Strauss), a U.S. private who is part of the cavalry patrol tasked with escorting Lee’s stagecoach home. When the stagecoach is attacked by Cheyenne, Cresta and Honus are the only survivors, and they must set off in search of sanctuary. From the outset, Soldier Blue plays with the comforting tropes of the traditional Western; the stagecoach is immediately established as a chariot of civilised stability, crossing the hostile wilderness to the rousing strains of Roy Budd’s Jerome Moross-esque score. As the stagecoach sets off, the camera pans away to show a snake slithering into the sun-bleached skull of a buffalo.

Western Movie Essay - Soldier Blue

These Western conventions are established in order to subvert them; the film’s introductory text has already informed viewers that the climax will “show specifically and graphically the horrors of battle,” what happens when “blood lust overcomes reason.” Nelson and writer John Gay seek to reframe the audience’s point of view; to begin from the vantage of the powerful, then diverge in service of a thoroughgoing questioning of the assumptions which underpin this perspective. When Nelson returns to this point of view at the film’s conclusion, one’s perception of it has been fundamentally altered. We see not heroism but atrocity. The context lends a shocking new dimension to what may have previously been characterised as order being restored.

Cresta is the destabilising figure in Honus’ life; this is signalled by the moccasins she wears under the floor-length dress she has been given for the return to her fiancé. She cannot entirely abandon the life she is leaving behind, carrying symbols of it back into her old life. Cresta is an intermediary between the cultures, bringing a revisionist impulse to Honus’s entrenched certainties and privileged complacency. When Honus assures Cresta that the defeated Cheyenne will “be given land and a place to live in peace,” she tells him this is “bullshit.” When Honus confronts Cresta on her allegiances, she responds that “This isn’t my country. This is Indian Country,” to which a shocked Honus asserts, “You’re a traitor, Ms. Lee.” Cresta has been Indian-ized; she has taken on the values of the “enemy.”

It is not difficult to detect in these exchanges echoes of the discourse which was raging at the dawn of the 70s. The question of one’s loyalties became paramount as authority was questioned and official narratives were challenged. Honus intrinsically accepts the legitimacy of his mission. In the aftermath of the stagecoach ambush which kills 21 of his brethren, he commemorates the fallen by reciting from Tennyson’s “Charge of the Light Brigade”: “Theirs not to reason why, Theirs but to do and die.” It is only Cresta’s talk of “the little boys and girls stuck on long knives” which begins to unpick the fabric of Honus’s worldview. Cresta is a woman whose time in the wilderness has liberated her spirit; it has provided her with a rare insight into how the territory is really being settled; she proceeds from a position of empirical disillusionment, practices a callused pragmatism.

Honus goes through his own revelation; he leaves the established trail for the first time, and finds himself being habituated to the wilderness. Honus comes to see his own role in upholding the balance of order in the Western, and develops a more nuanced understanding of history, war and death. This insight is crystallised in his encounter with Isaac Q. Cumber (Donald Pleasence), a trader who has no compunction about selling guns to the Cheyenne. Cumber has come to his own negotiation with the wilderness; he understands that trade transcends morality and pursues his rational self-interest, embodying the Objectivist tendency which was accruing cultural currency in the 70s. Honus commits his first act of civil disobedience by burning Cumber’s trading wagon, thus cementing his position on the fringes.

Soldier Blue is most famous for its gruesome denouement (its tagline is “The Most Brutal Film in History!”). The attack on the Cheyenne village at Sand Creek is designed to evoke memories of the My Lai Massacre, placing it on a continuum of expansionist aggression. Just as Cumber stands for the selfish capitalist in the Western, Colonel Iverson (John Anderson) represents the eternal forces of reaction and repression — Iverson is a figure who would be equally at home in the Gulf of Tonkin as the streets of Fallujah. Iverson castigates “the dark abominations of those godless barbarians,” and instructs his soldiers to “raze the village, burn this pestilence.” Having murdered 500 men, women and children, Iverson declares: “You men have succeeded in making another part of America a decent place for people to live.” Soldier Blue is about America confronting the spectre which haunts the historical and cinematic West. The audience shares Honus’ gaze as his cherished illusions crumble and the mechanics of control are laid bare. His alienation is ours as he is cast into the wilderness of his objection.

The evolution of Clint Eastwood’s onscreen persona during this period is illustrative in grasping the means by which the outsider becomes acclimated to the demands of the establishment. By the early 70s, Eastwood’s enigmatic Man with No Name had become the bulwark against disorder that is Harry Callahan. Eastwood transformed himself into a fixture of the established order, an avenger who became increasingly belligerent in the ensuing “Dirty Harry” sequels. The two Westerns which follow up the defining draconian statement of Dirty Harry (1971) are an attempt to evolve Eastwood’s Western persona in the face of his shift in the public consciousness, prompted by the burgeoning conservatism of his post-Dollars Trilogy work. The outsider is welcomed into the fold and takes on a protective role; the noncommittal outlaw finds himself an adjunct to the mechanics of control.

Western Movie Essay - Joe Kidd

Joe Kidd (1972) is a conservative Western parable on the perils of extremism: Eastwood’s titular character is a former bounty hunter who is faced with threats to the status quo from left and right. The development of Eastwood’s character over the course of Joe Kidd points towards the larger shift in the Eastwood persona. Viewers are introduced to Kidd in a jail cell, sleeping off a night of disorderly conduct. Kidd is taken to the courthouse by Sheriff Mitchell (Gregory Walcott) to receive his fine from the judge (John Carter). It is only when Mexican bandits led by Luis Chama (John Saxon) attack the courthouse that Kidd’s public spirit is pricked. An institution is under assault, and Kidd decides to defend the judge from Chama’s accusation that “You’re pirates, you will steal it all.” Kidd escorts the judge to safety as a gunfight ensues across the town of Sinola, thus Kidd allies himself with the power the judge represents. The film’s potential critique of the judge as an accessory to the concentration of ownership is curtailed in the face of Chama’s disruption. The hero’s allegiances have been signalled, and viewers are encouraged to disregard Chama’s objections on the issue of land reform.

Kidd has equal disdain for the revolutionary and the businessman; they are both intent on discarding long-held traditions in the pursuit of reshaping the social order to their benefit. In the film’s conservative schema, rapacious land baron Frank Harlan (Robert Duvall) is no less dangerous than the messianic Chama. Joe Kidd’s critique is pertinent to the conservative mindset of the time, when society was perceived to be fracturing into mutually antagonistic tribes. It is left to the conservative hero to hold the centre in place and keep the tide of excess at bay. The conservative Western avenger can occasionally be cruel, but this is in service of upholding the integrity of their values; force can be exerted, but it must be proportional to the threat. Joe Kidd has all the textbook Eastwood gunplay, but it is used to promulgate the film’s message: the system works, and one must seek redress through the legitimate channels.

Kidd sees manifestations of extreme belief all around him: Chama comrade Helen Sanchez (Stella Garcia) tells Kidd: “There are some people who will give their life for what they believe.” Harlan is adamant that he is “not gonna permit some sheepherder to get away with cutting fences and stirring up the Mexican population with talk about land reform,” that “if the sheriff can’t stop him, I will.” Even the padre (Pepe Hern) speaks of St. James, who was “beheaded rather than deny his faith.” Martyrdom is in the air, and Kidd finds himself ostensibly working for Harlan in the pursuit of Chama. Yet his role is that of a moderating force, maintaining the balance between the opposing extremes until he can implement his plan. Kidd convinces Chama to turn himself in and plead his case. The radical spirit must be blunted; the signal must be sent that the existing system is the only viable arbiter of justice. Kidd cannot countenance any sacrifice for an ideal larger than law and order.

High Plains Drifter (1973) has an altogether murkier moral texture, taking the archetype of the stranger who rides into town and lending it an almost supernatural dimension. Eastwood’s first Western as director cribs from the greats he has worked with, blending the atmospherics of Sergio Leone with the seamless style of John Sturges (it is an unaffected approach that would become the abiding aesthetic of his directorial work), but there is a quality to it which speaks to the anxieties of the time. Writer Ernest Tidyman had previously penned the screenplay for The French Connection (1971), and High Plains Drifter’s Stranger has many of the same qualities as Gene Hackman’s “Popeye” Doyle. For both men, the law becomes a vehicle for pursuing personal vendettas. They embody a peculiarly 70s uneasiness around the exercise of power. The dividing lines are no longer clear, allowing for relativism to flourish.

Western Movie Essay - High Plains Drifter

The Stranger signals his arrival in the town of Lago with two acts: the killing of three professional gunfighters hired by the town’s mining company, and the brutal rape of Callie Travers (Marianna Hill). The town has been put on notice, the Stranger has signalled his potency, and it is now the town’s responsibility to respond. In isolation, the handling of the rape is as questionable to modern eyes as many other films from the period — Straw Dogs, A Clockwork Orange — but it is used by Tidyman to highlight the moral bankruptcy of the town’s authorities. When Callie objects to the town’s leaders, she is urged to “be a little patient” and informed that “there’s too much at stake to throw away on hysterics.” Rather than prosecute the Stranger, the townsfolk decide to give him “a free hand in this town,” in exchange for his help in fighting outlaws Stacey Bridges (Geoffrey Lewis) and the Carlin Brothers (Dan Vadis and Anthony James), who are about to be released from prison for murdering the town’s previous marshal, and want to “burn this town to the ground.”

Just as Harry Callahan is a manifestation of anxieties about rampant urban crime, the Stranger is a symbol of the perils that attend institutional breakdown. When law and order collapses into compacts and conspiracy, as it has in Lago, power falls into the hands of figures like the Stranger, who will “set himself up like a king” in order to pursue his revanchist agenda. The Stranger unifies the townsfolk around a cult of strength, in which Western authority is vested in the capacity to inflict physical harm. The town’s wealthy elite — whose interests had heretofore been “identical” to the interests of the town at large — understand that their economic supremacy has been usurped by brute force. The town is complicit in its own breakdown; it has succumbed to an abased form of justice, and the Stranger is a corrective, cleansing the town in order for it to be rebuilt upon more sound moral foundations. The Stranger is an avenging spirit, the town’s worst tendencies made flesh, venturing into their dark alliances. He knows that “it’s what people know about themselves inside that makes them afraid.”

Another noted Hollywood conservative, John Milius, wrote the screenplay for The Life and Times of Judge Roy Bean (1972). The film is as much Milius’ as it is director John Huston’s (Milius and Huston were close collaborators on the project, amending the script throughout the shoot, which may account for the film’s fractured, unfocused quality). The Life and Times of Judge Roy Bean is most notable for the discrepancy between its lead character’s actions and their presentation; this is further complicated by the casting of Paul Newman as the outlaw turned self-appointed hanging judge. Milius and Huston leverage Newman’s charisma to present a paean to the potency of the “wild men,” and a lament for their passing. There is a yearning for the simplicity of the magnetic strong man, who dispenses with the niceties of the law to pursue untrammelled justice (Milius takes pains to differentiate between law and justice). For all its formal playfulness and counterculture gloss, The Life and Times of Judge Roy Bean is a deeply reactionary Western.

After being attacked in a brothel and surviving an attempted hanging, Bean returns to the brothel and goes on a killing spree (Bean justifies his actions by telling Rev. LaSalle (Anthony Perkins) that “they were bad men, and the whores weren’t ladies”). Bean turns the brothel into a courthouse for those living west of the River Pecos (the film’s introductory text tells viewers that the Pecos River “marked the boundaries of civilization” and “only bad men and rattlesnakes” lived west of the river, then undercuts this by telling the audience “Maybe that wasn’t the way it was. It’s the way it should have been.”) Thus  the seed of Bean’s authoritarianism is planted. Bean appoints a gang of outlaws as his marshals; the town grows, with Bean as its unquestioned potentate, dispensing summary justice with divine sanction, a vessel for almighty retribution, telling his followers that “God judges on this earth, through me.” Bean’s promise to deliver “law, order, progress, civilisation, peace” has degenerated into a brutal cult of personality whose followers are told to “trust in my judgement of the book.

Bean is contrasted with effete lawyer Frank Gass (Roddy McDowall), who informs Bean he is the legal owner of the land on which the town is built. Bean tears the page pertaining to Gass’ claim from the Texas law book which is his guiding text, then humiliates Gass into compliance. In the end, it is Gass’ “carpet bag full of papers” which prevails over Bean’s rope and gun. Milius situates this victory in a more historical than personal realm. Bean’s most loyal acolyte, Tector Crites (Ned Beatty), avers that “everything went to hell” when women got the vote (the town’s women are blamed for electing Gass as mayor). Crites connects female suffrage to prohibition, and the undermining of the adventuring spirit personified by Teddy Roosevelt. It is proffered that the West was feminised out of existence. To Milius, Bean becomes a relic of a more authentic age, the upholder of a masculine code, the last wild man on a Western frontier which is rapidly being homogenised by the arrival of the railroads. Like the beer-drinking bear Bean takes as a pet, his ferocity has been circumscribed by his milieu.

It is no coincidence that The Life and Times of Judge Roy Bean was released weeks after Richard Nixon’s landslide re-election. What at first may have seemed like a celebration of the martinet spirit which Nixon’s law and order rhetoric had renewed is leant a grim irony by subsequent events. Nixon was at the height of his power, and — on the precipice of his self-inflicted demise — was undone by a fatal flaw. The comparison between Bean and Nixon becomes all the more apposite as the film progresses. Bean becomes the architect of his own demise — by the end, “the times and the country just swallowed him up”; he is unable to contend with the “generation of vipers” which emerges out of the West Texas oil boom and the petroleum paradigm. His dream of “a courthouse made of granite four stories high,” from which he can look down on his fiefdom evaporates before his eyes. But unlike Nixon, Bean’s legacy is elevated by posterity; his Western myth is preserved in the aspic of romanticism, the artefacts overseen by Crites in the Roy Bean Museum. Like many who have entered into a discourse with the West, Milius chooses to unify past and present as he believes it should be.

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.