Thursday, June 27, 2013

"Why Westerns Can't Make It Anymore"

We know too much.

Thank you and good night.

And now the long version. 

A reader recently asked me about westerns, referencing a TV series called Longmire, which I have never seen, but I looked it up, and though it is geographically situated in the West – specifically, Wyoming – the setting is contemporary, and thus in my books, it does not officially qualify as a western. 

I’m a real stickler in this regard, going back to the Gene Autry movies of the 1930’s.  To me, it is not a western if they are talking on the telephone. 

Real westerns are inhabited by cowboys, Indians, outlaws, lawmen, wagon trains, stage coaches, ranchers, claim jumpers, the wide open spaces, cattle and occasionally sheep – read my book, Saddle Up!, it’s all in there.  No, wait.  The book never got published; it’s sitting under my desk.  Where you are welcome to sit under my desk and read it.  (Bring your own flashlight.)

Western movies were enormously popular in the first half of the twentieth century, an era so close to the actual “yesteryear”, still alive legends like Wyatt Earp served on th productions as consultants.  Though I do not know for what. 

The movies were entirely fictional.

“His hat’s too big”

Is about all they could contribute.

From its earliest days, the “Old West” was misrepresented via the romanticizing auspices of James Fennimore Cooper, Horace Greeley “Go West, Young Man”-type newspaper flacks, mythologizing dime novelists like Ned Buntline, and “larger-than-lifing” artist/illustrators like Russell and Remington. 

The “Old West” was never represented as it realistically was.  If it had been, I’m not sure anyone would have gone there. 

The “Pioneer Experience” was numerous light years from idyllic.  Danger, deprivation, Indians feeling encroached upon and not at all reticent about demonstrating their displeasure, weather extremes, loneliness, murderers, The Wind…

Westward ho-oh?

“I think I’ll pass.”

The West was no picnic.  And the old westerns portrayed it that way.

For the first two-thirds of the picture.

At which point, things inevitably – and excitingly – turned the corner. 

A two-speech synopsis:

THE MISLED SHERIFF:  “Sorry we nearly hung you, Stranger.  Our information suggested you were a terrible person.”

THE EXAUNERATED GOOD GUY:  A terrible person gave you that information.  And I believe I know who that was.

At this point – screenwriters label it “The Third Act” – the decent folk band together to take on the Bad Guys, there’s a “guns ablazin’” shootout, the leader of the Bad Guys escapes, the Good Guy jumps atop his trusty steed (“TONY”, “TOPPER”, “TRIGGER”, “DIABLO”), chases down him, there’s a climactic confrontation, the triumphant Good Guy is then thanked most demonstrably by a woman he has apparently no interest in, and in the end, he rides off – alone or in the company of a broadly-humorous sidekick – into the glorious sunset.

That’s what happened in every single one of those movies.  Though invariably repetitive, I – and the moviegoers of that era – would not have had it any other way.

And then things changed.

In the early 1980’s, I created a western sitcom called Best of the West.  The series was based on the comedic contrast between the fabricated “Old West” and the West an Eastern “Tenderfoot” was actually met with upon his arrival.  

In Best of the West, the juxtaposition of fact and fiction was played primarily for laughs.  In the real “Old West”, where the powerful intimidated the weak

SMALL HOMESTEADER:  When they ran off my cattle and pointed guns at my head, I decided to move somewhere else.

and the country’s earliest inhabitants were treated abominably by the subsequent arrivers                                                                                       
CHEROKEE TRIBESPERSON:  What are we doing in Oklahoma?

The situation was demonstrably crappier.

When the audience came to realize the way things actually were,

They stopped going to westerns. 

Though some continued enjoying the old ones,

Aware of their historical inaccuracy,

But still nourished by what they provided.

The spirit of adventure.  Heroism.  A community bonding collectively against evil.  And an encouraging demonstration that the universe is just.

We did not get the bad stuff.

But I, frankly, miss what we got.

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