Friday, October 06, 2017

What Westerns Are All About (1975)

by Walter Karp 

[A bit of a classic from Back In The Day]

Where is the best place to hide a leaf? asked G. K. Chesterton’s fictional detective, and he answered: in a forest, of course. Where is the best place to hide the popular misunderstanding? In popular things, of course. 

That thought struck me recently while watching an Italian version of an American Western movie. The film’s western details were accurate and vivid, yet an essential ingredient was missing. It was the Western town itself, that rude, dusty, self-governing community with its familiar cast of citizens: the barroom ruffians, the gambling-casino owner, the hapless good folk, the dance-hall madam, each of them related in complex ways to all the others.

Without that vigorous political community, the Italian Western fell apart. The actor’s motives seemed contrived, their actions mere antics, their characterizations oddly weightless or merely grotesque. Yet the omission is understandable enough. We Americans have never been aware, either, that the familiar life of our Westerns, the indispensable ground of their action, and the force that animates their characters, derive from the political life of the Western town, a small, autonomous republic situated somewhere “in the territories.”

Popular things do make good hiding places, for what is hidden in the American Western is nothing less than the shared American understanding of politics, an understanding so deeply embedded in the Western that we are scarcely aware of its presence. More surprising still, that political understanding is complex, clear-eyed, and in many ways profound. Viewed as political drama, the simple-minded Western is not so simple after all.

One of the great engines of the Western plot, for example, is the quest for “law and order,” but it is a republican law and order, totally different from the dubious doctrine sounded by a recent unlamented administration (Note: this was written in 1975, and the author means Nixon.) According to the latter, the source of lawlessness is the licentiousness of the people, who must be curbed by the government through lawless means if necessary. Not so in the Western view, although Western lawlessness itself is conventional enough.

The signs of it are always the same. Rude, bullying ruffians stalk the streets as though they owned them, shoot up the town for the fun of it, and make unseemly advances to gentlewomen. The sheriff does nothing; he is a drunkard or a coward or politically paralyzed. The mayor of the town turns a blind eye.

We soon find the cause of all this. The town is in the clutches of a lawless regime. Sometimes it is a cabal headed by the mustachioed owner of the gambling casino. More often, the town boss is the local cattle baron who long ago seized control of the town just as the great landed magnates of medieval Italy seized control of Italy’s free communes. To the cattle baron of the Western, as to a medieval Visconti, a free community bordering one’s demesne is intolerable and must be brought to heel.

The swaggering ruffians are the cattle baron’s hired hands; that is why they swagger. The sheriff is the cattle baron’s appointee; that is why he is conveniently a sot. The mayor is in his pocket; that is why he is corrupt. In the Western the true source of lawlessness and disorder is not the people’s licentiousness. It is the direct result of lawless rule, and it stems from usurpation. This is a profound political insight, deeper by far, for example, than modern-day sociological cant about crime and bad housing.

However, like everything else that is profound in the Western, it appears merely as a device of the plot, as a truth so widely shared by the audience it is taken simply as the way things are. It says much for the American republic and its capacity to generate a truly republican culture that one of its most popular art forms employs a complex political doctrine to set an adventure story in motion.

The doctrine might be called American populism, but there is nothing sentimental about it. Western movies never assume that rulers are inherently evil or the people inherently good. The good folk, the church-going folk of the Western’s polis, are emphatically not repositories of virtue. They attend citizens’ meetings at the church and wring their hands in dismay, but they cannot rid themselves of the incubus of the usurper. They cannot bring themselves to act in concert against the local tyrant. 

Yet they cannot accept servility either, for they are free men. So they are merely unhappy. It is public unhappiness they suffer; unhappiness born of the unhappy state of public affairs. The point is an important one. In the Western, man is, in truth, a “political animal” in the Aristotelian sense. His life is a public life, whether he likes it or not. There is nothing arbitrary about the impotence of the good folk of the town. Their happiness embodies a profound and rather bleak political truth. Machiavelli, in his Discourse on Livy, insisted that a truly corrupted republic cannot save itself by its own exertions. There is simply not enough civic virtue left in such a republic to restore the reign of civic virtue. As usual in the Western, this truth is embedded in the plot. It prepares a hero’s role for the hero of the action.

The corollary that Machiavelli drew from his bleak rule is that corrupted republics must be saved by outsiders. The Western reaches the same conclusion. An outsider comes to town. He is so much the ruffian himself, so obviously intimate with the dance-hall madam, that he repels the good people of the town-moral righteousness is their weakness as well as their strength. Gradually, however, it dawns on someone that this brave, resourceful stranger might be the town’s salvation. Sometimes it is the drunken sheriff, his dishonor grown insupportable, who deputizes the outsider. Sometimes it is a few of the good folk who swallow their pride and beg the stranger for help.

The outsider agrees to clean up the town, but he does so reluctantly, for he is not a man of civic virtue. He has courage in abundance but no public spirit whatever. The reason he consents to help them is an exclusively private one. The town’s rulers long ago killed his father, or stole his ranch, or framed his brother. He will topple them from power, shoot them down like dogs, to avenge that private wrong. If it helps the townsfolk, well and good. His personal motives and their public motives simply happen to coincide.

The Western hero is rarely a Sir Galahad in chaps; he is instead what might be called a Madisonian hero. According to James Madison, the only free government likely to endure is one so contrived that the private interests of the man will coincide with the interests of his office. Congressmen and the president will check each other’s usurpations not necessarily out of devotion to the common weal but because each, if only out of pride and vanity, will defend the prerogatives of his branch of government. 

In this way private motives will serve the common good. The Madisonian skepticism, the refusal to rely, or even believe in, men of high public virtue, is perhaps the strongest of all America’s shared political beliefs. We demand--at least in the movies--that the doer of great public deeds have a private motive. The Western hero meets our political requirement, reaffirming our deep-seated political skepticism. He wrecks ruthless private vengeance, and the town, as a result, is set free.

Since Westerns have happy endings achieved by a quick spasm of violence, they are often said to be shallow and overoptimistic. Such criticism is remarkably self-contradictory. It objects to the happy ending, presumably on the grounds that corrupt regimes cannot be so easily overthrown. Then it turns around and objects to the violence, presumably because regimes so hard to overthrow can only be overthrown peacefully. The Western is at once more profound and more consistent. 

The happy ending is no flight of fancy. Historically, usurpers do get overthrown; it is not easy as it looks to hold illicit power. In the Western the town is liberated because the townspeople find an implacable enemy of the usurper, but they are not lucky in the fairy-tale sense. Inevitably, evil rulers make implacable enemies; tyranny does produce tyrannicides. 

On the other hand, the Western is far from being optimistic. It emphatically denies what its critics so blandly assume-that a corrupt regime can be overthrown peacefully. If the Western movie’s political understanding errs, it errs in its extreme pessimism. In its tacit assumption that only through violence and insurrection can free men rid themselves of entrenched corruption.

The Western genre, it is worth noting, was born after World War I in the aftermath of bitter defeat, the final defeat of what were once known as “Western ideas”: the People’s Party and its program, the Western progressive movement, the entire radical republican tradition. Threaded through hundreds of modern Westerns are bitter traces of the old populist attitudes: hatred of banks and railroads, of greedy cattle barons and foreclosing landlords, and of all the smaller fry who served their interests.

In the Western the old republican spirit lives on in a kind of suspended animation. Its political understanding is passive, embalmed as mere plot. It is republicanism turned into ritual, for the classical Western is as rigid and ceremonial as a Japanese Noh play. Nonetheless the Western does more than endure. 

What keeps it alive is what is embedded within it, what Americans still want to see affirmed: namely, their own political understanding, an understanding born of the experience of republican liberty and of the people corrupted. They want to see a community under the reign of corrupt rulers, to trace the consequences of their corruption, to watch them in the end toppled from power. That is a free man’s pleasure. They want to see the bright stage of an American polis where each life touches all lives, where each person’s actions affect the common fate, where everyone is a citizen and everybody matters. That is a free man’s ideal.


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