What A Western Isn’t

by zunguzungu

What was it about High Noon that made directors want to refute it? Rio Bravo, for example, was an explicit response to what Howard Hawks saw as High Noon‘s lack of respect for the professionalism of the “town-taming” sheriff: it irritated him that Gary Cooper spends the whole movie begging for someone to help him fight the bad guy, so in Rio Bravo he made sure that John Wayne specifically refuse to allow anyone but real professionals help him. Hawks is all about professionalism in a general sense, of course, but there’s also something specific about the stakes in this movie: he prefers the police as professional (a la the professional military) versus the police as embodying the community and peopled by its representatives (a la the classic militia model). Hamilton over Jefferson in a cage match, perhaps?

The recent remake of 3:10 to Yuma is less ideological, perhaps, but most because it’s less coherent and more stupid; it too is in dialog with High Noon, but my guess is that the director doesn’t really understand why. I could only listen to a small bit of the director’s commentary before turning it off and listening to a public radio pledge drive instead; there just wasn’t much there, beyond a lot of platitudes about how the Western is America’s mythology. Particularly notable by its absence was a distinct lack of any address to the question of why; cowboys just equal greek gods in chaps, to hear them tell it. I was reminded of the vacuity of Alec Baldwin: “Baseball! You know Timmy, that’s America’s pastime.”

I hold out some hope that the original Delmore Daves adaptation of 3:10 to Yuma — which I haven’t yet seen — will turn out to be more thoughtful, since you can still see the outlines of that film’s response to High Noon through the hash that Mangold made of it. In addition to the titular allusion — both movies revolve around an arriving train — after all, it is significant that the rancher carries out his charge (to put the bad guy on the prison train at 3:10) not for money or for personal gain, but because his masculinity requires him to do so. His wife (a role in which Gretchen Mol is wasted) and his sons do not respect him anymore, and the only way he can reassert his patriarchy is by dying in the service of order, by putting the bad guy on the train even when the forces of order themselves have proved to be corrupt and unprincipled.

In other words, the attack on High Noon is here less a defense of professionalism than a reaction to the ways that High Noon blasts apart one of the most cherished myths of the Western “town-tamer” genre: the firm belief that the line separating the masculine law-giver and the feminized subject population is clear. By the genre’s logic, after all, Gary Cooper has been emasculated by his reliance on his wife (his inability to keep her out of it), which in turn erodes away at the foundation on which her femininity is constructed. By not staying in her separate sphere, in fact, her involvement in the manliness of violence leaves her with no characterization left: her entire character has been constructed on the basis of the thing she will not do (kill), which she then does.

None of this is really unique to High Noon, of course; pitting the romance plot against the narrative problem of profession, forcing the narrator to choose between his wife and his job, is pretty standard fare in the genre. But it seems to me that Hawks’ defense of professionalism and the Mangold/Daves defense of patriarchy can settle on a common enemy because while most Westerns start with the contradiction between romance/crime-fighter and end with an implausible borrowed-kettle style resolution, the narrative of High Noon resolves itself only by blasting apart the original terms of the dichotomy. The end of High Noon is neither comedy nor tragedy, neither funeral nor wedding, but a twisted and inverted assertion of the impossibility of either. The West, it reminds us, is bullshit.

Weirdly, that’s exactly what makes it such a good Western, the fact that it’s an anti-Western. Or, on the other hand, maybe that isn’t so weird; as Tag Gallagher once noted (in “Shoot-Out at the Genre Corral: Problems in the ‘Evolution’ of the Western”), the idea of High Noon as a deconstruction of the classic Western requires a very selective memory of how previous Westerns worked, since you can find most of High Noon’s subversive and political overtones, albeit in a muted form, in a film like Stagecoach, and even earlier. From the beginning, he points out, the Western has been a genre defined by its own contradictions, for the paradox that the thing we are is a definition composed out of “our” habit of turning into something else. And while High Noon might have been made at a time when it was possible to be very explicit about these contradictions, for a variety of reasons I won’t go into (because he does), we should modulate our readings of the earlier Westerns to take into account the fact that they speak the same idiom, just much more quietly, and sometimes in code. A film like Liberty Valance can be more blunt about how legends are printed because it was filmed in a blunter period, but to imagine that some of the earliest Westerns weren’t consumed by this problem as well is to misunderstand them, and to flatter our own sense of superiority over the past.

All of which makes me wonder if maybe the responses to High Noon aren’t the real turning point in the genre; after all, a reactionary attempt to reconstruct a Western that never was is something very different than the John Ford-era Western, which was specifically interested in the very impossibility of resolving the contradictions between, say, senator and rancher. John Ford might have known a great deal about how legends of the West were constructed (having almost done it himself, essentially), but his only serious attempts to deal with the West in a realist vein were the interesting failures of his final period, the “black cowboy” drama of Sergeant Rutledge or the anti-Dances with Wolves nostalgia-tragedy of Cheyenne Autumn.

I’ve gone off and turned this into a John Ford post again. But here’s the bottom line: while people have liked to talk about what a Western is, I’m starting to suspect the better question is the opposite, the question of what isn’t a Western. And maybe what most Westerns aren’t is this: the “classic” Western.