Classic westerns

The AFI showed contempt for clean pictures with red blood

Issue: "Putting Kyoto on ice," Aug. 8, 1998

When the American Film Institute earlier this summer released its list of the all-time top 100 American movies, talk shows heated up with debate about which films made it and which did not. (I'd certainly substitute Tender Mercies for Tootsie.) Lots of folks also spoke and wrote about how movies influenced their lives. Here are my confessions of a misspent youth: At age 15 I read H.G. Wells's History of the World and became an atheist. At age 20 and a student at Yale, I never even glanced at Jonathan Edwards manuscripts housed in the university's rare book library, but leaned against the outside wall of that library, reading Karl Marx, for five days while on a hunger strike to support striking workers. In 1975, at age 25 and writing a doctoral dissertation about American film and politics from the mid-1940s to the mid-1960s, I watched several hundred Westerns, aka cowboy movies. By the time God made me a Christian in 1976, I was already seeing the gross errors of Wells and Marx, and the partial errors of Westerns-but those Westerns did speak to me about the need to take a stand against evil individuals or even an evil empire. They had that effect on others as well: It's no accident that Westerns had their golden age (from 1946 to 1965) during the Cold War years when the United States stood up against what at that point appeared to be an onrushing Soviet freight train. Nor is it a surprise that American Film Institute choosers gave short shrift to Westerns. Almost one-third of the AFI selections were in the 1946-1965 period, but only three Westerns of that era made the list: High Noon, Shane, and The Searchers. I'd drop some of the AFI's recent postmodernist selections (Fargo, for example) to add the following golden age seven: Fort Apache (1948), She Wore a Yellow Ribbon (1949), Bend of the River (1952), The Far Country (1955), The Hanging Tree (1959), The Magnificent Seven (1960), and Ride the High Country (1962). Why? To start with, these were all moral movies, emphasizing self-control, honesty, perseverance, and other aspects of godly character. Films that are merely morality plays are boring, and their producers should take to heart Sam Goldwyn's famous line, "If you want to send a message, use Western Union." But biblically sensational Westerns were clean pictures with red blood, couching value education within pounding action. I don't want to oversell. Westerns, with rare exceptions, did not present gospel messages. But they did emphasize the possibility of change from evil to good, regardless of social environment: "A man can cross over any time," hero Randolph Scott notes in Comanche Station (1960). Even a minor film like Whispering Smith (1949) tells of a railroad worker frustrated over slow promotion who begins wrecking trains; finally apprehended, he blames his environment for his own moral failures, saying, "You've got to have the breaks." The hero tells him, simply but firmly, "You had them all." Man is without excuse. The good Westerns also assumed that a young man had a lot to learn from older wisdom, and that the process of learning was long and difficult. The classic Western hero exhibited self-control: He drank in moderation if at all, maintained a poker face at the gambling table when weak characters lost in rage and pulled out pistols, and did not take advantage of willing interns. It's no wonder that the Hollywood left killed Westerns during the 1960s by trying to make them politically correct. Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969), the most entertaining of a bad lot, had Paul Newman and Robert Redford robbing trains because corporations are dishonest and middle-class professions such as schoolteaching are tedious. Theft was portrayed as the honest (and non-boring) way to travel. It's also no surprise that AFI voters dissed the genre; as author Larry McMurtry has noted, "One seldom, nowadays, hears anyone described as 'a person of character.' The concept goes with an ideal of maturity, discipline, and integration that strongly implies repression: people of character, after all, cannot do just anything, and an ability to do just about anything with just about anyone-in the name, perhaps, of Human Potential-is certainly one of the most moderne abilities." But although Westerns died after the mid-1960s (with rare exceptions such as Clint Eastwood's The Outlaw Josie Wales in 1975 and Mr. McMurtry's Lonesome Dove), some of their attributes lived on, with New Age twists, in Star Wars movies. And many of the classics are still available on TV and in video rental stores, memorials to a time when presidents and voters knew (to quote from Gun Fury) that those who give in to tyrants "end up losing everything."

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Marvin Olasky
Marvin Olasky

Marvin is editor in chief of WORLD News Group and the author of more than 20 books, including The Tragedy of American Compassion. Follow Marvin on Twitter @MarvinOlasky.

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