Tuesday, October 29, 2019

Quote of the Day (Terry Teachout, on the ‘Near-Mythic Hold’ of the Great Westerns)

“[T]he characters in every great western are forced to make moral choices that are always clear but rarely easy, especially since they live in a world in which sheriffs and jails are few and far between. In a world without laws or lawmen, we must all choose between the moral integrity of the old-fashioned hero and the moral cannibalism of the self-willed villain. Such stark choices are the essence of the classic western, which is why the genre and its three brightest stars, Gary Cooper, Randolph Scott, and John Wayne, continue to retain their near-mythic hold on the imaginations of American moviegoers.”—American critic, playwright and biographer Terry Teachout, “Westerns” (part of “What We Love About America” feature), National Review, Sept. 9, 2019

The image accompanying this post is a still from one of my favorite westerns, Sam Peckinpah’s elegiac Ride the High Country, starring two genre veterans, Randolph Scott and Joel McCrea (left to right, in the accompanying photo). It depicts the clash of wills between two aging gunfighter partners tasked with transporting gold: McCrea’s strait-laced Steve and Scott’s more morally elastic Gil. Eventually, an outside force too loathsome even for Scott to accept brings the two together again for good, in one last shoot-out against evil.

Appearing in 1962—the same year that the United States faced off against the Soviet Union in the Cuban Missile Crisis--Ride the High Country was one of the last films unashamedly advocating for Teachout’s “moral integrity of the old-fashioned hero” in America. By the end of the decade, watching the nation bog down overseas in the Vietnam War, Peckinpah was ready to release a far more ambivalent reconsideration of the waning days of the American West: The Wild Bunch.
The leader of the “bunch,” William Holden’s Pike, and his second in command, Ernest Borgnine’s Dutch, practice a code of their own: intense loyalty to their band of outlaws. Though opposed to a monopolistic railroad boss, they are, in the end, bank robbers who will resort to violence to get what they want. At this point, the moral choices are indeed “rarely easy,” but the choices and the lines distinguishing right from wrong have become far from clear. 

The Wild Bunch may be as beautifully filmed as Ride the High Country, but it is set in a more violent, far uglier world.

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