Posts tagged ‘Cowboy Mythos’

May 22, 2010

The Girls of Westerns, part 1; or, The Quick and the Dead

by cowboylands

I’m on a quest to find kick-butt cowgirl heroines, and although I appreciate the girl-next-door look of the singing cowgirls and I love-love-love the whip of Linda Stirling in Zorro’s Black Whip, I find that while there are many cowgirls that are hawtness personified, there are none with the on-screen charisma of a Clint Eastwood.

Is my search quixotic? Is the woman of western film doomed to stay the schoolmarm, the tart with heart, and otherwise merely a muse for the man’s civilization/wilderness conflict?

I never wanted to see The Quick and the Dead, the Sharon Stone vehicle from 1995, assuming that it was as terrible as the reviews said, but I decided to give over 107 minutes to watching it because

1.) Lists of western films with women as protagonists invariably include it.

2.) Sharon Stone looks hot.

2.) She’s a gunslinger, which is pretty macho.

3.) It had lots of western porn, as in shots of leather chaps, dusty boots, and silvery spurs that go ching. Always a plus.

I had my own checklist:

  • Does the woman protagonist follow or subvert the elements of a western movie hero or anti-hero? Or is she one more traditional example of a woman who wants her man to hang up his guns?
  • Does she look awesome in western duds, whether using gunslinger or rancher props?
  • Does she have the charisma that makes a viewer identify, at least just for the space of the movie, with her and her actions? As in, do your fingers twitch when she shoots those Colts?

In the Quick and the Dead, Stone as “The Lady” has the chiseled, golden look of a western star, like Clint’s steel-jawed Man with No Name. She has the same sort of murky past and the jet-pack propulsion of the desire to wreak vengeance. Her eyes can blaze with fire or seem as cool as ice. Her speech is laconic, her stride sure. She is of the mold of the classic gunslinger type, from her hat to her oh-so-gorgeous boots. Her guns spin nicely, and her narrowed eyes can drop wayward townspeople back on their heels. But she’s XX, not XY. She has to put up with men pawing her (her cool response is both funny and effective), and her visceral disgust when a lecherous man takes advantage of a young girl comes from some sort of story truth–The Lady might have had to overcome her own abuse at the hands of a lecher. She also cries, and confesses to be scared to a trusted confidant. Maybe a little too girly? Or a welcome change from heroes with improbable balls of iron? This jury is still out on that question.

Bent on vengeance, The Lady returns to the town where she had once lived. (Vengeance plot point #1) No one recognizes her. (Point #2) She has a special ability, being an ace gunslinger. (Point #3) She finds the town awash with hardcases, all ready to shoot each other for cash, a contest proposed by the object of her hatred, the killer of her father, John Herod. She joins the contest, looking for ways to kill her nemesis without being killed herself. Along the way she befriends a frenemy of Herod’s, cleans up nicely for a dinner with Herod, kills a few people who deserve their death, and becomes the savior of the town. (Plot point #4) Refreshingly, in the American version of the film she doesn’t have sex with anyone. Supposedly, they shot a sex scene but found it extraneous. I’d say that’s a tip of the hat to most westerns, which are about fetishization, not consummation.

Clint knock-off or homage?

Sharon Stone, who also co-produced the film, is joined by a fit Russell Crowe, who is a distracting, bizarre shade of brown, a scrawny Leonardo DiCaprio, and Gene Hackman, who could be villainous in his sleep and be excellent at it. While DiCaprio is a little unlikely as The Kid, every other actor fits his or her type, from blossoming towngirl to dirty convict. Everyone seems to have rolled in mud except the women and Gene Hackman. So the movie again takes the side of the spaghetti western style, with every detail lustrous in the camera’s lens, from rust crusting a clock’s minute hand to shiny gold front teeth.

Stone can walk the walk and often talk the talk, but what she has to say is one of the least compelling stories I’ve seen in a western. Westerns do well when the story is simple, the characters’ development adding resonance, the scriptwriter adding self-reference or subtleties, the director’s style giving the look. In this case, The Quick and the Dead’s story welters in a protracted gunfight. Yes, westerns are all about the freaking gunplay, but when it’s all spurting blood and spinnng bullets, one starts to yawn.

Her mysterious past is slowly revealed through flashbacks, leaving the quote-unquote shocker until the last minutes of the last reel. Unfortunately, one important aspect of the character that is held until the end, the reason she is scared to pull the trigger against the nasty Herod, is the reason you would give a shit about her. Without that information, she seems fickle, hot and cold, inconsistent. Yeah, yeah–I can hear it now–like a woman. Sigh.

A director’s style can pull a stupid movie off the dunghill of history. The Quick and the Dead would probably have stayed on its dunghill, except that The Lady is one of the rare women protagonists who is more chaste and vengeful, like the Victorian-style knightly cowboys, than a cringing girl or a hussy with low-slung chaps. The movie’s an homage to spaghetti westerns, from its close-ups of squinting eyes to the grubby gunnies that line up to shoot each other just for a chance to make money. But the direction is all  film-school enthusiasm, and little skill. Quick zooms on a canted POV do not a Leone film make. The Good, the Bad and the Ugly was created as parody; The Quick and Dead killed the humor, and the genius, dead.

Altogether, I’ll include it on my list, with some caveats. It takes itself way too seriously, from its ham-fisted shots to the title weighted with biblical reference. The story has a cruelty that neither is redeemed nor has deeper meaning. But Sharon Stone can pull a gun with the big boys. My fingers twitched, all right.  Oh, they twitched.

Ellen: [female gunslinger walks up behind a preoccupied bartender] How about a room?
Horace: Whores next door.
Ellen: [carefully sets her cigar down] Say that again.
Horace: I said whores next door.
Ellen: [kicks the stool out from under him, catches his liquor bottle as he falls, & pours herself a drink] Now, do you have a room available?
Horace: Uh, room and bath, yes, ma’am, coming up!

The Quick and the Dead (1995), directed by Sam Raimi

May 16, 2010

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
May 13, 2010

The Truth of Memory; or, Cisco Kid + Telecaster = Heaven

by cowboylands

Remember the whiz-bang shoot-’em-ups of Saturday afternoons of yesteryear?

I don’t (having been weaned on monster movies and Tarzan flicks, which I watched with my sister during those rare moments when we weren’t pulling each other’s hair). But somehow the  flickering, galloping images from oaters are in me. (Perhaps they are inculcated by a potent combo of formula and Tang and suburban development living?

I came to westerns late, but fell hard. Now I watch reel after reel of anything with a holster and cartridge belt. But even I can get a little bored by early westerns. Talky, with long spaces of silence, fakey sets, and deadly dull plots. And the heroes!

You ever notice how cowboy heroes have gotten younger, trimmer, and maybe a little meaner? Back the heyday, westerns had pot-bellied middle-aged heroes who could have used some Elvis swagger. Not that there’s anything wrong with that–I have a fondness for middle-aged men. So I’m happy when I find something that reminds me not of the kinda boring episodes but my memory of those episodes: fast and furious, kinda dirty sexy. I get my Cowboy Moment shiver every time I see it.

Buckaroos and Buckarettes, a Wild Western Web find, from (I think) En Petit Comite:


May 11, 2010

Cowgirls Gone Wild; or, I Can Has Cheezcake?

by cowboylands

Western porn.

Linda Stirling as the Black Whip in Zorro’s Black Whip, 1944, from

For me western porn is film stills and posters and book covers of hunks and hunkettes loaded down with western gear like holsters and chaps and cowboy boots and spurs and Colts and maybe a hard-edged stare or two.

And, oh yeah, I was doing some serious research to find some cowgirl heroes, the gunslinger or lawgiver kind.

And lo, I found both on Wild Western Web site Wanted Cowgirls. It has everything for the western fetish–strong women, especially. It’s got movies and pics, from straight-up singing cowgirls like Dorothy Page to recent fails like Penelope Cruz (my opinion, folks, put your guns back in your holsters).

It’s got movies and TV shows and pulse-pounding cowgirl pulps. It’s got arcade cards with winsome starlets and album cover hotties.

OK, maybe Cowgirl Catfight Outtakes gave me a stomachache, but it’s all in good, clean (kinda) fun, with a dose of healthy red-blooded lust and respect for these six-shooter-wearing goddesses.

My fave cowgirl? Barbara Stanwyck of Forty Guns and The Furies, a warrior woman who takes no prisoners…including any man she loves.

In Forty Guns you first see her riding a black horse at the head of a column of hard-bitten gun-toting cowboys. Awesomeness. I can’t do better on making a love capsule for Forty Guns than this, at Lightning Bug’s Lair.

Jessica Drummond: I’m not interested in *you*, Mr. Bonnell. It’s your trademark.
[gestures at his gun, purring]
Jessica Drummond: May I feel it?
Griff Bonnell: Uh-uh.
Jessica Drummond: Just curious.
Griff Bonnell: It might go off in your face.
Jessica Drummond: I’ll take a chance.

Forty Guns, directed by Samuel Fuller, 1957

May 9, 2010

Betrayal! Rage! Vengeance! Lust! Kiss!; or, Life as a Movie Poster

by cowboylands

Nothing can beat a lurid western film poster.

What is it about a holster looped around hips, the frozen snarl of a villain, the gimlet eye of the hero with the thousand-yard stare, the heaving bosoms of the love interest? And all in vermilion, cadmium yellow, and cerulean blue, traced in black, shot with white. Yum.

Even relatively complex films lose their ambiguities in the posters, like this one from The Searchers.

Over a fiery sky, John Wayne’s character’s motivations is repeated in script, simultaneously

a.) reducing his character to a one-dimensional need and

b.)emphasizing the all-consuming, potentially lethal nature of his mission.

A treasure trove of posters, found on 50 Westerns from the 50s, include a display of a grim Randolph Scott highlighted in stark high-noon glare. Stagecoach to Fury shows a runaway stagecoach backlit by fiery bloodred sunrise (punctuated by an awesome two-exclamation-point punch!!)

Westerns distill real life’s myriad  of conflicting/complementing/enhancing emotions to calls and responses, simple and potent.

Betrayal! Rage! Vengeance! Lust! Kiss!

Life, be that simple!

Homework assignment: Create your own movie poster. Make sure to add a love interest showing off his or her gams, and a pithy tag line.

From The Searchers, by John Ford, 1956

[Reverend Clayton delivers a prayer at the Edwards’ funeral for Aaron, Martha, and Ben]
Ethan: Put an amen to it!
Reverend Clayton: I ain’t finished yet.
Ethan: There’s no more time for praying! AMEN!

April 12, 2010

Lonely Are the Brave; or, Hearting/Hating That Brave Cowboy Thing

by cowboylands

Another movie for the Iranian president to see, or any other person who yearns to be a movie-type cowboy instead of a real one.

Lonely Are the Brave, filmed in 1962 with Kirk Douglas as the drifter rejecting the modern West, and the great Gena Rowlands and Walter Matthau as his costars.

It was based on The Brave Cowboy, by Edward Abbey, written over twelve years before Desert Solitaire. In its pages his unsentimentality about the West and humanity’s cherished dreams crashes into pretty-sunset-cowboy-romance pictures with forty tons of steel and the shriek of air brakes, literally two short pages before the last line.

The Brave Cowboy, by Edward Abbey, cover illustration by Roy Gifford, Pocket Books, 1957. from the collection of E. Smith

The book begins like most other mid-fifties western novels, with a cowboy drifter in the mountains, at peace with himself and his surroundings. “He was sitting his heels in the cold light of dawn, drawing pale flames through a handful of twigs and dry crushed grass,” Abbey writes, letting the drifter then enjoy a smoke under a juniper, scour his pan with sand, and then cajole and outsmart his horse, Whiskey, “the bitch”–a pastoral of the human as one with the wilderness. But the book ends with this elemental being struck from the face of the earth, as “…the traffic roared and whistled and thundered by, steel, rubber, and flesh, dim faces behind glass, beating hearts, cold hands–the fury of men and women immured in engines.” Damn that Abbey. If it weren’t such a good book, I would’ve sank into depression the size of Hells Canyon, Idaho.

Blowing through the text is a deep ambivalence about humans’ place in the wilderness and the movie kept that uneasy love/hate relationship with the mythic cowboy.

Although Jack Burns (Douglas) boldly proclaims his manifesto…

A westerner likes open country. That means he’s got to hate fences. And the more fences there are, the more he hates them…. Have you ever noticed how many fences there’re getting to be? And the signs they got on them: no hunting, no hiking, no admission, no trespassing, private property, closed area, start moving, go away, get lost, drop dead! Do you know what I mean?

…he’s fully aware (okay, okay, the scriptwriter is aware) that that drifty thing comes with a steep price:

Know what a loner is? He’s a born cripple. He’s a cripple because the only person he can live with is himself. It’s his life, the way he wants to live. It’s all for him. A guy like that, he’d kill a woman like you. Because he couldn’t love you, not the way you are loved.

(Note that “you” was Gena Rowlands–honestly, I would hang up my spurs for her. That Burns guy was nuts.)

So there’s a movie for the Human Beings Versus the West and the West Wins Category.

BTW, it’s not a movie from the fifties though; if you want one of those, check out *Wild Western Web newflash50 Westerns from the Fifties, which promises to reveal plenty of undervalued gems.

April 9, 2010

Finally, Obama's a Freaking Cowboy Already

by cowboylands

I read Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s recent words with a dizzying feeling of deja vu. Wait–wha?–we’re cowboys again?

“American materialist politicians, whenever they are beaten by logic, immediately resort to their weapons like cowboys,” Ahmadinejad said in a speech before a crowd of several thousand in northwestern Iran.

Interesting that our statesmanlike leader–intellectual to the point of at-times dismaying distance and wafflement–is being called a lowdown, dirty cowboy. Who knew that Ahmadinejad had such a grasp on Western frontier history? His use of the term “cowboy” is historically accurate. Before the days of John Wayne, cowboys were the ruffian types. They were the thugs that Wyatt Earp despised, none other than–hold on to your ten-gallon hat–the Democrats, a populist group at odds with the Republican bankers and railroad magnates.

We’re talking the kind of nineteenth-century American history that heavily mustachioed novelists and Americana experts adore. Iranian schooling must be incredibly cosmopolitan.

But that’s not all, folks.

Ahmadinejad then throws in an awesome shoutout to spaghetti westerns, referencing the trash talk the Spanish-speaking villains growled at Clint’s Man with No Name (you know, when the lips move but the dubbed-in voice doesn’t quite match up).

“Mr. Obama, you are a newcomer [to politics]. Wait until your sweat dries and get some experience…. [American officials] bigger than you, more bullying than you, couldn’t do a damn thing, let alone you.”

I am in awe. Ahmadinehjad must know for a fact that Americans of a certain age, suckled on the celluloid milk of Hollywood westerns, would look to strap on guns and, like Kurt Russell in Tombstone, tell him to “skin that smoke wagon” and then bitchslap the eff out of him.  (Check out minute 2 on of this fine piece of Americana.)


The problem is with the Iranian president’s ploy is twofold.

A.) Most rational politicians with foreign policy experience know that bitchslapping leads to missile crises.

B.) Most rational Americans understand that Hollywood takes the truth out of history to make exciting stories with lots of shooting and happy endings.

I hope we have a president who fits this profile.

And an aside on the historical Wyatt Earp:

Sure the skanky cardshark in the bar had it coming to him,  but Earp was looking to a.) take his place as a dealer, b.) ingratiate himself with the local Republican moneybags in town, and c.) make a living and a name for himself. What history shows is that Earp isn’t so different from most Americans–just wanting to get ahead, earn a nest egg, have a wife and kid and house, etc, etc. In the days before Social Security and Medicare, you were on your own; I can’t blame the guy for being ambitious and looking out for himself. But let’s not make him into a figure worthy of hero worship, shall we? Mr. Ahmadinejad, kudos to your knoweldge of Western history, but may I suggest some movies for further research into the American love/hate relationship with the macho cowboy image? The Searchers, is what I recommend.

Any others?

December 6, 2009

The West's Westness, Part 2

by cowboylands

Westness is in the eye of the beholder.

I was on the hunt for the most western of western images and I discovered westness in

cactus-shaped cookie jars, by God.

In vast space encircled by mountains. (People find this openness either really scary or really refreshing. I recommend bringing a gallon of water per day either way.)

Westness is even at tourist towns with High Noon Hamburgers and narrow-gauge railroad rides up gorges.

At silent ruins.

Even, unfortunately, in genocide, in battles won and wars lost.

Battle of Little Big Horn by Kicking Bear (Mato Wanartaka) c. 1898 Lakota (born c. 1846, unknown; died May 28, 1904, near Manderson, South Dakota) The Southwest Museum

I swept through images of cowboys riding into sunsets and Colorado powwows, faded pics of glassy-eyed miners and grinning Golden Girl of the Pecos snapshots, shots of desolate small-town streets and squint-eyed sheepherders. I pondered and fretted. Do I choose sequin-spangled rodeo/cowboy west or grimly determined Navajo or rancher? Do I look for uranium, or Hollywood royalty, or mansions with mountain lions in their backyards? Vast plains or blighted landscapes? A live buffalo or a hill of whitened skulls?

Where is the West?

2 b continued….

September 17, 2009

Writing the West; or, the West's Westness, Part 1

by cowboylands

A recent trip to the LA’s Autry National Center of the American West, aka the Cowboy Museum, yielded huge Westness moments. I don’t remember much of it–being so transported in ecstasy I wasn’t on the earthly plane–but I know I took a lot of pictures.

What is Westness? It’s the romantic thing that anything West of the Mississippi has, to greater or lesser degree.

For example, the grubby clothing shown worn by 1980s-era ranch hands on the basement level has Westness. The gift shop of the Autry museum, does not, as most of its wares come from another hemisphere. I have none, although I yearn to have it (without having to ride a horse). My relatives from LA, who do many things but neither work on ranches nor wear grubby clothing, have that certain something. Are you born with it? No, otherwise Teddy Roosevelt would’ve stayed the toothy Dude and John Wayne would’ve starred in football movies.

Westness is born, or it can be developed, by you or others, as you will see.

Nice saddle, right. Must be a great cowboy. WRONG!!! This was created for Altman’s 1976 film, Buffalo Bill and the Indians; or, Sitting Bull’s History Lesson. While not a fantastic movie, it does skewer faux Westness well, at the expense of Buffalo Bill, who was probably not such a bad guy.

Speaking of Buffalo Bill (no, I have no pics of authentic western wear from the great man–like his legend, nobody knows what’s real anymore), one of the originators of white man riseth / red man descendeth–a common western theme–has a script in the museum, addresses as “written for Buffalo Bill.” Jack Crawford, the “Poet Scout,” wrote plays glorifying his deeds and Buffalo Bill’s. His work can be found here. He had been a soldier in the Civil War, but his fame came from making things up. In so doing, he started a whole slew of dreaming/scheming get-rich-quick types, still found out West.

Next: The Real Deal

August 29, 2009

Buckaroo's Back; or, Cowboy Facts 16 and 15

by cowboylands

You ever go through life thinking you should’ve written that novel/filmed that movie/accepted that job/kissed that girl or guy/said yes when someone asked you to strip in front of a camera/handed that demo CD to that music exec/said hello to Paul Newman/told your best friend you love him or her/changed careers/hugged your kid/WRITTEN THAT NOVEL?

Well, don’t go through life whining about it. Just do it.

So I wrote a novel. Hence the absence. It has a western theme, so I wasn’t totally AWOL.

Anyway, lucky me, I’ll be writing another draft, but I’m glad that my life questions can center around things like shoulda said hi to Paul Newman.

In honor of a completed draft and one more step along the great dusty trails of life, here is one of my favorite covers, which, not coincidentally, reminds me of a cowboy fact-one more out of the grand total of 51:

Cowboys move.

Call it fiddle-footed restlessness or the search for whatever is over the horizon.

Call it late for dinner.

Call it Cowboy Fact 16: Cowboys can’t stay put.

This moody cover is in the style of H. L. Hoffman, an illustrator who worked for Popular Library in the forties. I don’t know much about him, alas. The cover illustration is reproduced as a line drawing on the title page, common for the time.

Eugene Cunningham, the author, wrote in a laconic drawl, but his dedication speaks to the sentimental fool in every cowpoke:

To Mary Carolyn

Who didn’t get to ride in the Rodeo

Parade that time–this book is

affectionately dedicated, as a

poor substitue for that

ride she missed, by

its and her



Cowboy Fact 15: Cowboys miss what they have left behind.