West World; or, BP versus Spencer Tracy

by cowboylands

The world around us is getting Westy, a crazy combo of tantalizing Gold Rush-type possibilities with a shadow side of hubris-based epic fails. Got BP, anyone?

In films and literature of the Wild West, there are small number of basic plot structures–whether you’d call them stereotypical or archetypal depends on how you swing. One structure, based on pulp writer Frank Gruber’s seven essential western plots, is the “empire story,” or what happens when you do a mashup of small cowboy/ranchers with–no, NOT zombies, sheesh–with greedy-guts ranchers or railroad magnates or bankers (or the poster child of the month for greed and incompetence). The conflict is of the David versus Goliath variety, with the everyman winning.

Enter my deepest desire, when the world gets all Westy on me, to retire from the daunting and depressing accounts of empire-building, biosphere-stomping corporate malfeasance to see good versus evil at a safe remove on the silver screen, with excellent western gear, and stories that turn out all right in the end.

Usually when I need a western movie fix, I turn to Netflix, my local video store, or trusty YouTube. But the cavalry is coming just in time: Some big-screen western action is coming to NYC this summer.

This week and next, May 21-27,  the Film Forum is providing jaded New Yorkers with John Sturges’s Bad Day at Black Rock, a dark, politically savvy western from 1955 that lifts the rock on scuttling bugs of racism in a small town. Yes, it’s a real western with guns and cowboy hats and languid, laconic men draping themselves in front of CinemaScope vistas. It has Spencer Tracy, the dogged pursuer of justice. It has Ernest Borgnine, Lee Marvin, and Robert Ryan as sneaky, nasty specimens. It has a slow but inevitable trail to truth, justice, and the American way. You know, the American Way that honors all people, regardless of economic situation, ethnicity, or gender? Yeah, that one. It’s a story of what happens to a society lost in complicity and conformity. It would be totally depressing, but, well, the everyman does win. But thanks to this stellar example of a nuanced approach to the western film genre, the victory comes with a bite: Unless you have taken a stand, you are complicit.

Dang. Maybe I better go back to some simple black-and-white Roy Rogers…

Bad Day at Black Rock, directed by John Sturges, 1955

Liz Wirth: What do you care? What do you care about Black Rock?
John J. Macreedy: I don’t care anything about Black Rock. Only it just seems to me that there aren’t many towns like this in America.     But… one town like it is enough. And because I think something kind of bad happened here, Miss Wirth, something I can’t quite seem to find a handle to.
Liz Wirth: You don’t know what you’re talking about.
John J. Macreedy: Well, I know this much. The rule of law has left here, and the guerrillas have taken over.

N.B. I actually could not find a single reference from Frank Gruber’s mouth or pen about the seven essential Western plots, but everyone says they exist. Do they really? I dunno–I got distracted by a really excellent author site for David Whitehead with delicious pics of western covers, a very fine overview on the genre, some history, and real-life western pseudonyms for a British author of westerns. Check it out. Another Wild Western Web find! And I still don’t know if Frank Gruber really, truly wrote the following list:

  1. The Union Pacific Story
  2. The Ranch Story
  3. The Empire Story
  4. The Revenge Story
  5. The Cavalry and Indian Story
  6. The Outlaw Story
  7. The Marshal Story
Advertisements

2 Comments to “West World; or, BP versus Spencer Tracy”

  1. Isn’t “Bad Day at Black Rock” just a remake of “Revenge of the Sith”?

  2. Get thee behind me, Satan. There are no twins in BDatBR!

    But wait, there is a dark side, a dark side within all of us that can overtake us if we so will it. Wow. OK, cdcrez, you’ve convinced me (not).

%d bloggers like this: