How the North Was Won

The western rides its comeback into Canada

Photograph by Clayton Patterson

Years after its proclaimed demise, the western has once again risen from the ashes. In the United States, authors Cormac McCarthy and Larry McMurtry, having reinvented the form, are showered with Pulitzers and Oscars. In Canada, Guy Vanderhaeghe is honoured by the Governor General and cbc listeners, who voted The Last Crossing the must-read novel of 2004. At the cinema, No Country for Old Men and There Will Be Blood are only the most ambitious of recent western-inspired movies. On television, both American and Canadian networks are running important western series.

In Six Guns and Society, Will Wright argues that the Hollywood western has long taken on mythic qualities, its evolution echoing America’s changing attitudes toward a capitalist society that is ever more corporate. But the topic is more basic than this, and common to all popular arts: the uneasy relationship of the individual to society in general, a theme as relevant today as it was in the earliest days of Hollywood.

Created in reaction to sentimental, moralizing bestsellers, a nostalgic Wild West quickly captured the male market, and soon millions of dime adventure novels flooded the continent. By the end of the nineteenth century, the western had become the American way of storytelling. Despite critical disdain, the flood has still not fully abated. Ronald Reagan’s favourite author, Louis L’Amour, has sold over 300 million copies of his westerns to date.

But movies were the genre’s perfect medium, and for the next half century American males spent their Saturday afternoons in theatres, lost to stories of cowboys and Indians. Later, these yarns were reinvented for television, and until the 1970s many of the highest-rated shows were western serials.

For almost a century, North Americans were marinated in westerns. None of us could escape. Nostalgic for their unapologetic celebration of a code of values and conduct whose passing we regretted, we overlooked their misogyny, violence, and racism.

A lone gunman, taking time to be silhouetted against the western sky, rides out of the hills and is reluctantly caught up in the lives of grateful homesteaders. The most famous western novel, Zane Grey’s Riders of the Purple Sage (1912), starts this way, as do a thousand lesser novels and almost every silent western. The man is strong, society is weak, and in the end the hero will be provoked to destroy, in a satisfying burst of violence, those forces that seek to harm the defenceless.

But by the 1940s, society’s attitudes had changed, and the new westerns reflected this. The homestead had become a settled community, and the reticent hero had morphed into a damaged gunman seeking revenge. John Ford’s Stagecoach (1939) and Anthony Mann’s The Naked Spur (1953) both fit this pattern. By the time the fictional community had become as settled as Hadleyville in Fred Zinnemann’s High Noon (1952), its citizens had rejected both violence and the hero’s values, often siding with the villain for the sake of momentary peace.

With the Vietnam War, this essentially American form of entertainment became a global parable, as the world grew concerned about the glorification of violence and our leaders’ ambiguous morality and obsession with their own virtues. Echoing Akira Kurosawa’s The Seven Samurai (1954), Sergio Leone’s A Fistful of Dollars (1964) celebrated a new hero, the professional hired by a society too craven to face the evil that threatens to destroy it. The tone was now completely cynical. These experts had a monopoly not only on bravery but on manners as well. Politeness, which had always been a surer barometer of decency in a western than skill with a pistol or even the colour of one’s hat, was now firmly on the side of a band of outsiders. As the sheriff says in Cormac McCarthy’s 2005 novel No Country for Old Men, “Any time you quit hearin Sir and Mam the end is pretty much in sight.”

It only took a small step to make the villain the charismatic protagonist, and last fall’s releases 3:10 to Yuma and The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford have carried on this theme — much better to be a heroic criminal than a rotten cop or humourless banker. As Russell Crowe’s character in 3:10 to Yuma says, “Even bad men love their mamas.”

In No Country for Old Men, McCarthy takes this theme to its logical conclusion. Set in a modern desert of strip malls and sad motels, the novel chronicles the end of social values. With nothing but greed as a measure, only the “honour” of the killer, Anton Chigurh, has any currency. Evil is now as triumphant as once was the goodness of the heroic gunman. Gone are the idealistic boys, the rich metaphors that insisted on a lost innocence, and the poetic descriptions of landscapes and horses in McCarthy’s The Border Trilogy. Instead, he now gives us a relentless and cruel causality. Nostalgia is reserved for the ineffectual and melancholy Sheriff Bell.

The Coen brothers turned this taut screenplay-in-waiting into a glorious film, both faithful to the original and uniquely frightening. As Roger Deakins’s camera scans the Texas landscape, the film replaces McCarthy’s lost metaphors with an almost effortless evocation of the history and mythology of the movies. The drug dealers’ vehicles in the valley purposely recall scenes of the aftermath of Indian massacres; the violent confrontation between the hunted Moss and Chigurh summons up the shootout between Sheriff Kane and the Miller gang in High Noon, or a hundred similar movie battles fought between wagon wheels and whinnying horses.

While No Country for Old Men and Paul Thomas Anderson’s There Will Be Blood are not strictly westerns, the scope and romanticism of both films owe much to the genre. In a way, both are odes to the antagonists of the classic western, the avaricious railroad boss, the arrogant ranch owner, and the killers hired to carry out their will. Both films sweep over the barren landscape, seeking metaphors of masculinity that permit the actors to blaze into dramatic life in their frantic search.

No wonder modern stars still love the genre and push reluctant studios to bankroll their dreams. Westerns are made for the camera. Where novels hope to persuade, these films hurry to reveal. Pure narrative rushes past at twenty-four frames a second, more interested in emotions than thought, creating a nostalgic world that needs no context or exposition but possessing a physical beauty that elevates even the tawdriest dilemma. The anguished face of Gary Cooper, the strength of John Wayne, and the stubborn idealism of Henry Fonda are as much iconic images as Monument Valley, a horseman riding through the landscape, or an outstretched arm holding a pistol. The greatest westerns have always possessed the capacity to reveal true tragedy in their taciturn heroes’ inability to change with the times, an artistic reach almost unheard of in popular entertainment.

The western film is back in fashion, and for once Canada has a contender. In March, cbc aired John N. Smith’s filmed version of Guy Vanderhaeghe’s The Englishman’s Boy.

A young Canadian drifter, Harry Vincent, is attracted to early Hollywood, where he is persuaded by studio boss Ira Chance to turn the story of an old-time cowboy, Shorty McAdoo, into a saga that will tell the “true story” of how the West was won — even if his particular West happens to be in Canada. The writer’s quest and subsequent betrayal of McAdoo mirror the cowboy’s tragic youth as the Englishman’s boy.

Working from a screenplay by Vanderhaeghe, the two-part TV movie concentrates on McAdoo’s journey into adulthood. Unfortunately, we are rarely given the cowboy’s point of view. Instead, the tale is told by other voices, as Harry’s dishonest artist vies with the honestly megalomaniac studio head for the right to exploit the truth.

The film starts when the protector of young McAdoo dies and the cowboy joins a gang of trappers, led by violent Tom Hardwick, to hunt down the Indians who have stolen their horses and pelts. As the murderous band moves through the landscape, beautifully captured by cinematographer Pierre Letarte, the central story sometimes takes on the weight it demands. But there are also too many fireside moments when the cowboys, or the filmmakers, sit around attempting to justify acts of self-preservation.

Smith is a fine director of actors, and his 1992 The Boys of St. Vincent remains the high watermark of cbc drama, but it is doubtful his heart is up for the bloody mayhem that this story requires. The exhilaration and blood lust of the hunt, which should have swept us up in its excitement, is drained of momentum by the constant interference of ironic commentary. The Cypress Hills massacre is handled truthfully but without passion for either the Indians or the trappers, while the scenes of the final, homicidal rape are equally remote, as if the film is careful to side with the documentarian Harry rather than the exploitative Chance. The series is always vivid but rarely dramatic.

Westerns have always both pandered to and chided their audience’s fondness for violent catharsis. The greatest of them have understood this in becoming sly morality plays. More than any other genre, the western is an exploration of human nature in terms of its strengths, physical as well as moral; and the great western directors, such as Ford, Mann, and Howard Hawks, insist on exploring the physicality of human experience. The Englishman’s Boy tells us that the horrors in the Cypress Hills permanently damaged McAdoo, but to believe this we need to be forced to be involved. The film should have risked that its viewers would be thrilled by the violence of the racist chase and aroused by the naked, helpless girl, just as was Shorty McAdoo.

It is not enough merely to oppose Hollywood’s mendacity. Whatever Ira Chance’s dishonest version of the events may have been, this film of Shorty’s adventure is a trek toward a heart that is weak and ignoble. It is hard to care about the cowboy’s self-pity, or Harry’s lazy betrayal and equally vapid defence of the man. Hedged around by excuses and regrets, this is still a saga of cowardice.

For over a century and a half, the American western had made glorious the abstract idea of manifest destiny. The Indians are rioting, the open range is being fenced in, and the railroad is destroying a way of life, yet nobody truly doubts that progress and American goodness, led by an outsider willing to sacrifice everything to protect the weak and innocent, will eventually prevail. Harry Vincent may feel jealous of this influential myth but in the end makes no effort to create a competing mythology. Vanderhaeghe the novelist opted for the complexities and nuances of literature over the rabble-rousing power of a mythmaker like Ira Chance. The director should have listened to his writer’s doubts. Whereas Larry McMurtry’s books recall Howard Hawks’s genial westerns and McCarthy’s pessimism makes him a brother to Sam Peckinpah, Vanderhaeghe’s brand of complex, ironic realism has no cinematic heritage.

While Australian filmmakers and novelists like to recast their country’s early history as a struggle between the disenfranchised and colonial oppressors, making heroes of scalawags, troublemakers and criminals, we Canadians tend to see our colonial history as a tale of sensible authority. Our films of the early West are usually personal and introverted, leaving the drama of emerging societies to the record keepers and documentary makers. Content with the official version, perhaps we feel we have no need of rival mythologies, much less violent catharsis.

Alistair Brown