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On Lawmen, Outlaws and Gunfighters


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  • On Lawmen, Outlaws and Gunfighters

    I've always been a fan of Westerns. From the old b/w films of the 40's when Bob Steele and Jimmy Mack Brown rode the wild west to Clint Eastwood's present day depiction of lawmen and gunfighters. The article below is an interpretation of how the Western films portrayed America's values to the world. Read it at your leisure, and enjoy.


    How the Gunfighter Killed Bourgeois America

    If there is a single genre of literature and film that defines the 20th century, it is the Western. As the popularity of the Western began to decline in the 1960’s, far more Western films had already been made than films of any other genre. Countless television Westerns had dominated the airwaves for decades, and the iconic gunfighter had become one of the most recognized characters ever in American popular culture.

    In time, the gunfighter would come to be used as a symbol of America itself. Even in the early days of the 20th century, when the Western was just beginning to take shape as a literary genre, politicians, intellectuals, and political hacks of every stripe, knowing the grip that the romance of the frontier held on the American psyche, identified themselves, and whatever political agenda they happened to be pushing, with the gunfighter and the Old West. The morally unambiguous gunfighter, and his natural habitat, the Wild West, would come to represent a world where life was supposedly more pure, simple, and virtuous. Theodore Roosevelt pioneered the use of the frontier as a rhetorical device in ideology and politics, and by the time the Cold War was in full swing, Westerns and their heroic gunfighters were widely accepted as an analogy for America’s place in the international community. There were good guys and bad guys and nothing in between, and this simplified version of reality would prove to be quite attractive...'


    '...The Westerns of Peckinpah, Leone, and Eastwood, on the other hand, would feature gunfighters who held no such feelings of good will. Leone’s stock character, The Man with No Name, played by Eastwood in three films, is a thoroughly self-interested loner who only for very brief moments expresses much interest in anything other than private profit. Peckinpah’s protagonists can be actively menacing. His film Major Dundee (1965), for example, is a cavalry film where the cavalry is led by a nearly mad Union commander, Amos Dundee, who commonly abuses his own men, invades Mexico against orders, picks a fight with the occupying French forces, and partakes in not one, but two bloodbaths as the film draws to a close. In Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid (1973), Pat, newly appointed sheriff, betrays his old friend Billy and guns him down as a service to the New Mexico territorial government. In both cases, the cavalryman and the sheriff, traditionally heroic characters in Westerns are suddenly murderous villains sowing discord wherever they go.

    Sergio Leone’s Westerns rarely feature any government agents as prominent characters at all. In general, such agents in Leone’s Westerns are either irrelevant or corrupt as in Once Upon a Time in the West (1968) and The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly (1966). Union soldiers in The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly are particularly monstrous, and the boys in blue prove to be the most snarling, violent, and corrupt people on the frontier. The one Union soldier with a conscience can only manage to face the absurdity of it all by maintaining a perpetual state of drunkenness. This is all part of the film’s profoundly critical view of the State in wartime. Taking place against the backdrop of the New Mexico theatre of the American Civil War, Leone paints the war as a pointless sideshow to the much more interesting and reasonable business of finding buried gold on the frontier. The greed of the protagonists appears quite sane and even charming against the senseless carnage of the war that surrounds them. "Blondie" (Clint Eastwood) even offers a puff on his cigar to a dying confederate soldier in a poignant scene displaying the mercy of the outlaw contrasted against the brutality of war...'

    '...A decade later, Clint Eastwood’s own The Outlaw Josey Wales (1976), drawing upon the many films about Jesse James, would feature the exploits of an unreconstructed Confederate guerilla who heads West to escape the disgraceful United States cavalry. In the end, he guns down a detachment of the United States Army with the help of a little old lady and her settler family from Kansas. In Unforgiven (1992), the sheriff, Little Bill, beats a man within an inch of his life for carrying firearms into town.

    While some classic Westerns would feature crooked lawmen, such portrayals were never a commentary on power itself. In a classic Western, the problem of a bad lawman is usually solved by the intervention of a good lawman, while in the late Westerns power itself is what makes the bad man bad...'


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