Sowing Clover: Don’t Make Me Watch a Western…by Tonya Stiles

We’ve had a longstanding—let’s call it a “discussion”—in our house over the fact that I won’t watch Westerns. My dear husband, who I am sure holds the same position as most of our readers, loves Westerns. He loves John Wayne. He loves Clint Eastwood. He loves TV miniseries Westerns.  He owns a collection of Western movies that dwarfs all our assembled comedies, dramas, and documentaries. In another life, he would have been a horseman. In this life, he’s happy to watch another man play one on TV.

To be perfectly honest, I don’t even like the look of them. Displaying the diversity of colors between dung brown and sage green, the Westerns suck out the light from among the wider array of comparatively exuberant, bright DVD’s. If it wouldn’t represent a grave threat to the health of my marriage, I wouldn’t mind dumping them all into a bag and storing them in the basement. Still, Jim is convinced that I, like the West, can be won by the right cowboy—if only I would sit down and watch.

And I’m pretty sure he’s wrong about that.

I can think of four or five reasons why I dislike the genre so much—notwithstanding the simple, “I just hate them.” But it certainly isn’t that I dislike actual ranchers or farmers. To the contrary, I’ve enjoyed friendships with many people who live or work on the land. I chose to move to a rural corner of the prairie where I’m virtually surrounded by cowboys, and I’ve had no reason to regret it.

But Westerns are never about those people, who are deeply interwoven among their communities and generally in kinship and cooperation with their neighbors and their land. You see, I would gladly watch a movie with them as protagonists, facing down drought or financial hardships, the decline into further marginalization at the hands of industry and agribusiness. But Westerns are never about that.  No, Westerns are always about THAT GUY.

You know exactly who I mean. Mr. Masculinity. Tall, silent, standing apart. Butch as all get out. Probably the biggest reason why I can’t watch Westerns is that I’ve spent a bit of time reading up on film theory, and every time THAT GUY saunters on screen, in my mind, he might as well be wearing a “Hello, my name is FASCIST” sticker on his leather lapel.

I should make clear what I mean by Fascist. I know we’ve all heard the word bandied about by pissed-off teenagers and tea party-types, usually as a vague substitute for “evil” or “enemy.” I like the definition provided by Benito Mussolini in his 1932 entry to the Italian Encyclopedia on the topic of Fascism. Fascism, as described by Mussolini embraces the “State” as the ultimate personality; it rejects individualism in favor of collectivism; it looks upon imperialism and conquest as marks of health. Furthermore, the fascist state fears intellectualism. It draws clear distinctions between the pure and impure. And, for its motivations, Fascism looks to “holiness and heroism.”

It’s that “holiness and heroism” which Westerns have provided—both to Americans and to other imperialist powers over the past 150 years. As Mussolini wrote, “For Fascism, the growth of empire, that is to say the expansion of the nation, is an essential manifestation of vitality.” The Western hero is always a white man, living in the days of American conquest. He is the “holy” figure of Westward Expansion. It’s no wonder Stalin, Brezhnev, Hitler and Mussolini all shared a passion for American Westerns. He is the hero of a conquering nation—the only contemporary “myth.” And a nation, especially a new nation, must have its myths in order to demand the fealty of its citizens.

But I really didn’t draw the connections until I read this fantastic article by Susan Sontag on fascist aesthetics: http://www.nybooks.com/articles/archives/1975/feb/06/fascinating-fascism/?page=1. Though the article is essentially a book review of Leni Riefenstahl’s “The Last of the Nuba” and Jack Pia’s “SS Regalia,” the larger discussion is of the intricacies of fascist aesthetics. With a mind to Westerns, certain phrases pop out: Discussing Riefenstahl’s love of the Nubians, Sontag writes, “What is distinctive about the fascist version of the old idea of the Noble Savage is its contempt for all that is reflective, critical, and pluralistic.” Is it just me, or does this sound like the “good Indian,” the quintessential sidekick for American cowboys? As for THAT GUY, in a fascist society, the personification of the State is inextricably aligned with notions of masculinity. Masculinity, in turn, is defined by an ability to withstand pain and to restrain one’s emotions and desires. As Susan Sontag wrote,Fascist aesthetics is based on the containment of vital forces; movements are confined, held tight, held in.” Woman, “The erotic,” is “always present as a temptation, with the most admirable response being a heroic repression of the sexual impulse.”

Now that sounds pretty close to the heroes of the Soviet Union. As dissident Andrei Sinyavsky described him, the “Socialist Realist positive hero…firmly knows what is right and what is wrong; he says plainly ‘yes’ or ‘no’ and does not confuse black with white…Faced with the most complex of tasks, he easily finds the solution—by taking the shortest and most direct route to the Purpose.” Basically, the fascist ideal is a man’s man, for whom a woman is an unnecessary burden, unemotional and restrained—a fierce, tight wire of masculinity and potential violence. Why does that sound familiar?

Oh yeah.

That’s why.

Look, I could go on and on about this stuff. Basically, Westerns have been propaganda from the start. Wister’s The Virginian was a defense of the superior white man subduing the Western frontier, just like Louis L’Amour novels had a lot more to do with the Cold War than they did with cattle. Soviets created “Easterns,” using native Siberians or nearby Islamic Turks as stand-ins for Native Americans, as propaganda for their various conquests—to make Russians feel like “real men.” One of the most popular of these Easterns, White Sun (1969,) was shown to Soviet Cosmonauts before they went into space. Yuri Gagarin apparently said that the film made him “feel like a real Russian hero.” And that, precisely, is what Westerns are good for. They make men feel like conquerors and heroes. Or, rather, they make WHITE men feel like heroes. As Wister himself stated, “To survive in the clean cattle country requires a spirit of adventure, courage, and self-sufficiency; you will not find many Poles or Huns or Russian Jews in that district.” In fact, you won’t find many Poles or Huns or Jews anywhere in a Western. Apparently, the Jews are just too “intellectual” to save people.

I know, I know. I may be a little harsh. Westerns aren’t, by nature, evil. (Or maybe they sort of are, a little bit, but I’ll say for now that they aren’t.) And obviously not everyone who enjoys them is a fascist. But, given a choice of what to watch on a Friday night, I think I’ll throw in with the Poles and the Huns and the Jews on this one, and say Westerns just aren’t for me.

So tonight, Sweetie Pie, let’s just watch another comedy, okay?

If you’re curious about the topic, (or you’re having the same “discussion” in your house,) you may want to check out some of these sources:

 

Lucy Ash. “Wild, Wild East.” New Statesman. http://www.newstatesman.com/film/2007/11/white-sun-soviet-russian/

 

David A. Goldfarb “The Soviet Novel and the Western.” Center for Critical Analysis of Contemporary Culture, Rutgers University. Popular Culture: An Interdisciplinary Conference for Graduate Scholarship. http://www.echonyc.com/~goldfarb/sovwest.htm

 

Kevin Kreiner. The Age of the Supermen: Fascism, Democracy and the Perception of the Heroic in the Mass Media, 1914-1945. Diss. U. of New York-Binghamton, 2003.

 

Benito Mussolini “What is Fascism.” Modern History Sourcebook. 1997. Fordham University.  http://www.fordham.edu/halsall/mod/mussolini-fascism.html

 

Susan Sontag. “Fascinating Fascism.” The New York Review of Books. http://www.nybooks.com/articles/9280

To read the PDF version of this article, click here.

Don’t forget the Zephyr Ads! All links are hot!


 

13 comments for “Sowing Clover: Don’t Make Me Watch a Western…by Tonya Stiles

  1. Scott Thompson
    April 1, 2012 at 10:26 am

    Tonya, I can’t disagree with the substance of anything you’ve said, but I still love watching the damn things.

    Maybe they express the ancient human yearning for open wild, land even as they champion a cultural paradigm that has destroyed it.

  2. Rand Lompe
    April 1, 2012 at 5:36 pm

    I’m surprised your husband has never tried to get you to watch “Lonely Are The Brave”, based on the novel “Brave Cowboy” by Edward Abbey. It is my favorite western, filmed in black and white (ameliorating your “diversity of colors” problem), with a contemporary setting (roughly 1962, the year of its release) in Albuquerque NM, where Abbey matriculated at the U. of New Mexico. The screenplay was the fourth under his own name by Dalton Trumbo since his blacklisting during the McCarthy era (definitely not a fascist). The first was also a Douglas vehicle, “Spartacus”, when Douglas insisted Trumbo be credited. Douglas is, of course, Jewish (birth name Issur Danielovitch-), so your “Jews are just too “intellectual” statement about Westerns is at least subliminally dealt a blow. And Douglas’ character, Jack Burns, while in jail with his friend, Paul Bondi, reminisces about their philosophical discussions in college, while being puzzled by why Bondi accepts being imprisoned for helping people who need help (illegal immigrants seeking work in the US). That hardly satisfies your definition of Westerns having “contempt for all that is reflective, critical, and pluralistic”. So take a look and, while you’re at it, check out Paul Newman’s “Hud”, based on the novel, “Horseman Pass By” by Larry McMurtry (my 2nd favorite Western). These movies defy the stereotypical Western, which is really what you dislike, in effect being the exception that proves the rule.

  3. Lanette Smith
    April 4, 2012 at 3:39 pm

    LONESOME DOVE, LONESOME DOVE, LONESOME DOVE

  4. Bruce Berryhill
    April 4, 2012 at 10:56 pm

    I’ve only been reading the Zephyr for 6 years but I think I like having the feminine perspective represented here.

  5. Becky
    April 5, 2012 at 9:35 pm

    Yeah! Another thing that ticks me off about Westerns is the whole “damsel in distress” motif. THAT GUY not only has to resist the woman’s wiles but then he has to rescue her as well. Sure, some of the Western women get to play a role of strength, endurance, and even intelligence – but invariably they have to be rescued at some point.

  6. April 12, 2012 at 9:14 am

    My take on Westerns is a little different, in that I first watched them growing up half a world away. Sitting in a dark movie theater (The only way to properly watch a Western, not on some wimpy TV screen), I was facsinated by the scenery, the wide expanses of the West, and to be honest, I admired the values held by those early Westerners. There always was a clear distinction between right and wrong, a line which was always blurred in so many instances in the society in which I grew up. The storyline was not always about fighting the Indians. There were many films about cruel cattle barrons or crooked polititians an cahoots with wealthy industrialists trying to wrestle land or property from small farmers or poor folks. Of course, having lived in this country for 30 years now, I can see the finer points in so many of these movies, and I cringe at the hypocrisy in many instances, but I can’t help acknowledge that, in so many ways, it was these films that helped shape my views on American society and its ideals. When I arrived to Utah in 1982, I did see the difference between reality and those ideals, but I also saw those same values celebrated and lived by many people I met.

  7. Beau
    April 16, 2012 at 11:18 am

    There’s actually a considerable amount of leftist thought in westerns, particularly in some of Peckinpah’s work, like Junior Bonner and its anti-development theme.
    High Noon (1952), staring Gary Cooper, is an existential drama about a man standing alone in the McCarthy era. The film’s production and release intersected with the second Red Scare and the Korean War and was produced as a response to Hollywood blacklisting and McCarthyism. The writer and producer was Carl Foreman, a former Communist and revolutionary socialist that was called before the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) while he was writing the film. Foreman stated the film was intended as anallegory of the contemporary failure of intellectuals to combat the rise of McCarthyism, as well as how people in Hollywood had remained silent while their peers were blacklisted.
    One of Leone’s goals in The Good, The Bad and The Ugly was to establish an anti-war theme.
    There was a sub-genre of spaghetti films that dealt with revolutionary themes known as Zapata Westerns. Director Damiamno Damiani, commenting on his film A Bullet for the General (El chuncho, quien sabe?) (1967), stated it was not a western, but in fact a political film dealing with the Mexican revolution and American imperialism.
    The Outlaw Josey Wales is an allegory of post-Vietnam reconciliation, and as someone else noted, Lonely Are The Brave is an Edward Abbey/Trumbo classic exploring Abbey’s anarchistic themes.
    Dig deeper…you’re missing a lot.

  8. April 16, 2012 at 4:52 pm

    Try “Zachariah”, the self-declared ‘electric western’… it was one of Don Johnson’s first film roles (a long-haired hippie pretty boy stuck in a western) and features Country Joe & The Fish as a band of outlaws called The Crackers who set up music on main street while the other half of the gang robs the bank during the concert. It’s a truly bizarre movie and you might not even think it’s a western after you see it. Anyhoo, it’s worth a nod.

  9. April 24, 2012 at 3:52 pm

    I think you’re taking them way too seriously. And where do you draw the line? Is Jeremiah Johnson a western or an historical look at mountain men? Is The Misfits a western or a contemporary take on the wild mustang issue? And let us not forget Blazing Saddles!

  10. Dave Yarbrough
    April 26, 2012 at 11:17 pm

    I’m lying on my side looking at the wall. Your article was “amazing”. I love it. But Josey Wales as a communist? Come on. It is my understanding that Joseph Stalin was afraid of guns because he was afraid someone would use one on him. For good reason.

    I digress.

    Westerns are little stories about heros who fight against “the man”. I have looked long and hard. There are no communists in “Open Range”. There’s jerky, cigars and chocolate. LORD if that is not all American what is? Okay, I grant you they didn’t buy an apple pie. They would have though, had it been available. I’m not trying to change your mind. There are genre’s I can’t handle. This is yours. I’m sorry though because, in a Western the girl always ends up wearing the hat. The fellow just smiles. Usually, she looks damn glad and happy in that hat. ///Brother Dave

  11. May 11, 2012 at 11:31 am

    Tonya,

    Great article….it is nice having an additional perspective here and being able to develop a sense of what you believe, as we have done with Jim for all these years.

    So here’s my question….What do you think about westerns that are also comedies? Blazing Saddles; City Slickers-the first one; The Three Amigos (of course there might be other good reasons NOT to watch it)-do you find that those are comedies diminished by the western element or westerns raised up by the comedy element?

  12. May 22, 2012 at 1:02 pm

    Tonya, I love Jim to death, and I am so sorry I have never met you. He hides you away from us Louisvillians. But, though I love your prose, I think you think too much. I love westerns, guys love westerns, smart guys love westerns, and dumb guys love westerns. We wish we could ride like that, fight like that, shot like that and love like that. I didn’t know Louie L’amour books were about russians, I thought they were westerns. How foolish of me. So cut the guy some slack. When he is not out trying to save the west, or trying to raise money from poor fools like me, he needs a distraction. Watch a western…

  13. jim stiles
    May 22, 2012 at 2:11 pm

    Amen, Brother Smith. Where’s mah saddle?

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