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Spring 2012

The Hero's Dreadful Fate

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Javier Marías

However much certain optimists may talk about the survival or possible resurrection of the Western, I fear—much to my regret—that, as a genre, it is pretty well dead and buried, a relic of a more credulous, more innocent, more emotional age, an age less crushed or suffocated by the ghastly plague of political correctness. Nonetheless, whenever a new Western comes out, I dutifully go and see it, albeit with little expectation that it will be any good. In the last decade, I can recall three pointless remakes, vastly inferior to the movies on which they were modelled and which weren’t exactly masterpieces themselves: 3:10 to Yuma by James Mangold, The Alamo by John Lee Hancock, and True Grit by the Coen brothers, all of them uninspired and unconvincing, and far less inspired than the distinctly uneven originals made, respectively, by Delmer Davies, John Wayne, and Henry Hathaway. I recall, too, Andrew Dominik’s interesting but dull The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, Ed Harris’s bland, soulless Appaloosa, David von Ancken’s unbearable Seraphim Falls, and the Australian John Hillcoat’s The Proposition, of which my memory has retained not a single image. The only recent Westerns that have managed to arouse my enthusiasm have been those made for TV: Walter Hill’s Broken Trail, and Deadwood, whose third and final season no one has even bothered to bring out on DVD in Spain, which gives you some idea of how unsuccessful the magnificent first two series must have been. In my view, Kevin Costner’s Open Range, which came out slightly earlier, was the last decent Western to be made for the big screen, even though it has long been fashionable to denigrate anything this admirable actor and director does.

What has happened to bring about the sad demise of a genre that produced many masterpieces in the past, as well as other fine or worthy movies? Nowadays, the few who take up the genre do so either on a whim or out of affectation or in a pompous or archaeological spirit, and the movies they make lack naturalness, freshness, and that very necessary touch of ingenuousness. In other words, they don’t believe in the story they’re telling and showing us, they don’t dare to; the epic strikes them as old-fashioned, ridiculous, even embarrassing, and, absurdly enough, they seem uncomfortable with the potential complexity of their characters and their stories. I say “absurdly” because the Western has given us some of the most complex characters and stories in the history of cinema. John Ford is just as “deep” as Orson Welles—who greatly admired Ford—or Ingmar Bergman, and certainly as deep as those two overrated charlatans, von Trier and González Iñarritu.

Perhaps it’s because the Western, as a genre, has traditionally embodied attitudes and behavior—which it always took seriously, without ever falling into caricature—that now seem shocking to the hypocritical mass of entrenched goody-goodies, who desperately want to dissociate themselves from a whole range of passions that have been common to humanity throughout the ages. For example, in the Western nobody looks askance at hatred, ambition, the desire for revenge, the determined pursuit of an enemy, the wish to hurt or kill that enemy, the search for redress and sometimes justice for a wrong committed. Take the character played by James Stewart in the Anthony Mann movies Winchester 73 and The Man from Laramie (purely as examples and because neither film is particularly violent or heartless): he is capable of giving up everything and dedicating himself body and soul to hunting down those who killed his father (in the first film) and his younger brother (in the latter). In the first movie, Lin McAdam’s sole occupation is the relentless pursuit—across half of the West—of an individual named Dutch Henry Brown, who shot his father in the back and who turns out, in the end, to be McAdam’s own brother. The second character, Will Lockhart, stays on in the remote, unfriendly town of Coronado precisely because he has been insulted, lassoed, and dragged through the dust, and because he suspects that someone from the town was responsible for selling the repeating rifles with which the Apaches ambushed and killed his younger brother, a soldier in the cavalry. That is all that matters to McAdam and Lockhart; what remains of their life—if there is anything—is put on hold by the one goal they care about. Characters in Westerns never have a future, indeed, they fear that, once their mission has been accomplished, they will be confronted by that uncomfortable notion, the future—a notion without which most people nowadays cannot live and to which we are all indebted and enslaved. Perhaps that is why Westerns tend to avoid or conceal that phase, ending when the protagonist has done what he feels he had to do, thus sparing us that horrible moment when he raises his head, looks around him and, as if emerging from a dream, asks himself: “Now what? I didn’t die in the attempt, so what shall I do with the rest of my life?”

One of the best films ever made, John Ford’s The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, doesn’t show us that future life either, but it forces us to imagine it. It is a Western that marks a milestone in the history of the genre, for various reasons, and not just those I have mentioned already, and which I will discuss later. It contains a brief treatise on politics, a Shakespearean dissertation on freedom of expression and freedom of choice, and a clear ethical dilemma. The character, Ransom Stoddard, again played by James Stewart, is a lawyer from the East, who is shocked and horrified by the brutality of the bandit Liberty Valance, by the impunity in which he lives (for he is protected by the big ranchers who occasionally hire him), and by the fear he inspires in the population of Shinbone, another one-horse town in which Stewart chooses to settle, again because that is where he was attacked and beaten, this time with a whip handle. He, however, intends to use the law to bring Valance to justice and to prison, an ambition that meets with general ridicule and fear. (Those who already know the story, please bear with me.) The John Wayne character, Tom Doniphon (whose tale is one of the saddest I have ever heard), warns him from the start that he should get a gun and learn how to use it, because there is no law in Shinbone and no justice worthy of the name. Stewart resists, but, in the end, against all probability and against all the odds, he kills Liberty Valance in an apparently unequal duel: the boastful, much-feared, expert gunman falls to the ground before a man in a kitchen apron who has never shot anyone in his life. Later, when Stewart refuses to accept a political nomination—the beginning of a long career that will eventually take him all the way to the Senate—because his fame is based on a violent crime that goes against all his principles, John Wayne explains what really happened. He had been hiding down an alleyway, and he, not Stewart, had killed Valance with his rifle, which he fired at the exact moment that Stewart unleashed his one wildly inaccurate shot. Stewart expresses his amazement and asks why he did it, why he saved his life, thus condemning himself to losing the woman he loves, Hallie, who had realized that same night, when she saw Stewart close to death, that he was the man she loved. Wayne replies soberly (no other actor could express so much with a simple glance, in this and other movies): “Cold-blooded murder? I can live with that.” What better summation of the profundity and complexity so often found in Westerns: they understand that not all men are the same, that some are capable of living with certain actions, their own or someone else’s (the Stewart character, of course, is not); that some care nothing about the future, even if it exists, as is the case with Tom Doniphon, who wanted Hallie’s happiness above all else, even if that meant destroying his own chance of happiness; and to achieve that, he murdered a man in cold blood, thus allowing the survival of the man Hallie would then marry. (Hallie, it should be said, in Vera Miles’s memorable portrayal, is one of John Ford’s most touching creations, and that’s saying a lot.)

The movie begins and ends many years after these events, with Wayne’s funeral, to which a much older Stoddard, now Senator Stoddard, and his wife, Hallie, travel from Washing-ton. The journalists in Shinbone, who want to know why such an important politician has traveled all the way to this godforsaken place in the West, merely to attend a funeral, ask initially: “Who’s dead?” They don’t even know. And when they are told the name, Tom Doniphon, they have no idea who he is. The alert viewer is forced to imagine Doniphon’s long years of solitude and obscurity on his little ranch on the outskirts of town, alone apart from his faithful black servant, Pompey, and watching the decades pass with no hope and no change—his fate fixed forever—doubtless trapped in the memory of that far-off night when he committed a cold-blooded murder (of a vile individual, it’s true: “A murder. Nothing more,” as the musketeer Athos once said), and one that worked entirely to his disadvantage. It is one of the few Westerns in which we are obliged to imagine the hero’s dreadful future—once he has done the deed, once he has made his choice.

Our society does not accept that all men and all women are different. It does not accept that while some are horrified by what they are obliged or choose to do, others are not, and are prepared to bear whatever responsibility or sentence falls to them. It believes, rather, that everyone should think the same or at least abstain from doing what the majority deems reprehensible. It does not accept that some crimes are not as criminal as others, depending on who commits them and against whom, depending, too, on why. Society knows all about hatred, envy, and revenge, but prefers to clothe itself in virtue and pretend ignorance, and for that reason, it hates not only those who do not pretend and thus remind society of the truth about its past, but also those who harbor an undying hatred or choose to take justice into their own hands. And in the latter case, there’s no denying that society is right. “This isn’t the Wild West,” people say. Fortunately so. But perhaps we live in an age so pusillanimous that it cannot even tolerate serious stories from another age, when men were less respectful of the law and less obedient and less fair, but also more complex, more contradictory, and more profound.

(Translated by Margaret Jull Costa)

Javier Marías, who lives in Madrid, is the author of Your Face Tomorrow, A Heart So White, All Souls, and many other works of fiction and nonfiction. His translator, Margaret Jull Costa, won the 2011 Oxford Weidenfeld Translation Prize for The Elephant's Journey by José Saramago.

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