High mountains towering over a lonely stagecoach; music and laughter drifting from a swinging-door saloon; the wind rustling a tumbleweed across a dusty main street.
These scenes too seldom grace the big screen or the television set. At least they do now. They are the scenes of the Western film. Here I sing the praises of the Western. It is a genre that, though not extinct, unjustly lives on life-support.
There is much to cherish about the Western film. On one level, Westerns can be wildly entertaining. The thrill of bandits chasing a stagecoach; the longing in a sweetheart’s eyes as she watches her love ride off to war; the suspense in those moments before a gunfight. Gunfight at the OK Corral has its thrilling and suspenseful moments. Shane could be on that list, too.
Westerns can even have a slice of humor. If you haven’t had the pleasure of watching John Wayne and Maureen O’Hara in McClintock!, you will belly laugh more than a few times. The West is a place where people often act foolishly, inciting not just anger or pity, but genuine laughter.
The Western does much more than entertain; it is deceptively thoughtful. The deceptive nature stems from their seeming simplicity. They do not suffer from the hubris that shoves deep meaning into the audience’s face. Instead, the themes rest not in speeches, but most specifically in the story. The story of the Western is pleasantly suited to great ideas because most Westerns are a return to nature. Civilization is fragile at best. Men must consider truth and justice in a way that other films cannot approach.
Consider Sam Peckinpah’s Ride the High Country. There a great debate occurs on the existence of absolute truth. Some words are spoken for sure. Yet the conversations are about a specific situation of possible theft and possible obedience, not a disjointed political monologue. Another gem of his is The Wild Bunch, which contains an interesting familiarity with the state of nature of the philosopher Rousseau (it is reported that Peckinpah, though a movie director, knew almost all of Aristotle’s Poetics by heart).
Westerns deal with the issue of duty. No better example exists than High Noon. In it, a man puts duty to the law and the city over family while a woman puts duty to spouse over that of religious belief. This movie speaks to the Church as well, where an outnumbered, outgunned sheriff finds a church turned pacifist (or is it merely a congregation of cowards?), unwilling to aid him against oncoming evil.
Western films can be nuanced in their themes, too. As far as complexity, one will be hard pressed to find a movie of greater moral complexity than America’s last great Western, Unforgiven. This movie explores the depths of human depravity, the role of men and women, and the possibility of the human heart to change, among many others. It is, in fact, one of the best articulations of the shallow nature of moral reform in absence of regeneration by Christ ever filmed. Apart from Christ, man can restrain his evil; he cannot cure it.
When speaking about Westerns, no better director has ever made a Western whose name was not John Ford. He won academy awards for How Green was My Valley and The Grapes of Wrath. However, when describing himself, he said, “I make Westerns.” Stagecoach is not only a step ahead as far as cinematography. It reconstructs society between two doors of a moving carriage. Virtue, hope, and justice all are cut loose of their custom and returned to the best of governments, a meritocracy. The Man Who Shot Liberty Valence, which is my personal favorite, bears close resemblance to Aristotle’s discussion of the city. A beast and a god, both unfit for the city, must eventually give way to Jimmy Stewart’s character, the lawyer and civic educator.
The mention of civic educator points out a role that the Western played so well in times past. The Western shows us the best and worst of America. We see the rugged individualism unite to love of family and city. We see equality become inequality in the best way: by the free discrimination between the best and the rest. We also see racism, oppression of other peoples, and the underlying depravity of men who live according to only self-love.
Thus, there is much to commend Westerns as a film genre. Such themes, as has already been shown, give Christians a lens that is both entertaining and thoughtful in which to communicate truths of the Gospel. If more Believers would artistically approach this genre, we could get the grace side of Unforgiven’s law, the noble view Christian community instead of High Noon’ s church body.
Here I sing the praises of the Western. I hope such praise will aid to the love of Westerns past and the making of Westerns future.