The U. P. Trail. Of course, violence has always been a crucial element of the western formula. For Cooper, it usually resulted from the clash between Indian and white and represented the conflict between the larger forces of nature and civilization. In The Virginian, the hero is forced into violent acts in order to uphold the community's unwritten law and to defend his own code of honor. But Grey's heroes tend to engage in still larger orgies of violence as avengers of the innocent and destroyers of evil. Their acts of violence are carried out with a kind of transcendent religious passion that might be seen as a sort of manic blood lust were it not in such a good and holy cause. There is perhaps no better image of this special presentation of violence than the climactic scene of W. S. Hart's Hell's Hinges in which the religious symbolism always just beneath the surface in Grey's violent climaxes is made quite explicit as we watch Hart's avenging angel with sixguns literally purge the devil's lair by fire.
This intensification of violence is accompanied by a more mythical and symbolic treatment of the landscape in Grey and Hart. There is not, in the history of western literature, a purpler prose than that of Zane Grey. Much of his notoriously overwritten quality comes from lengthy paeans to the beauty, mystery, and moral force of the western landscape. Important as the western landscape was to Wister, his treatment of it is sober and restrained when put beside an analogous passage in Grey:
She looked, and saw the island, and the water folding it with ripples and with smooth spaces. The sun was throwing upon the pine boughs a light of deepening red gold, and the shadow of the fishing rock lay over a little bay of quiet water and sandy shore. In this forerunning glow of the sunset, the pasture spread like emerald; for the dry touch of summer had not yet come near it. He pointed upward to the high mountains which they had approached, and showed her where the stream led into their first unfoldings . . .They felt each other tremble, and for a moment she stood hiding her head upon his breast. Then she looked round at the trees, and the shores, and the flowing stream, and he heard her whispering how beautiful it was. (Wister)61
He felt a sheer force, a downward drawing of an immense abyss beneath him. As he looked afar he saw a black basin of timbered country, the darkest and wildest he had ever gazed upon, a hundred miles of blue distance across to an unflung mountain range, hazy purple against the sky. It seemed to be a stupendous gulf surrounded on three sides by bold, undulating lines of peaks and on his side by a wall so high that he felt lifted aloft on the rim of the sky.... For leagues and leagues a colossal red and yellow wall, a rampart, a mountain-faced cliff, seemed to zigzag westward. Grand and bold were the promontories reaching out over the void. They ran toward the westerning sun. Sweeping and impressive were the long lines slanting away from them, sloping darkly spotted down to merge into the blank timber. Jean had never seen such a wild and rugged manifestation of nature's depths and upheavals. (Grey )62
Hart's western landscapes are by no means visual equivalents to Grey's, which are to some extent unique. Perhaps the closest thing in film to a passage like the above is found in some of John Ford's dazzling long shots of Monument Valley. At least three of the central qualities of Grey's landscapes are found in Hartthe feeling of vastness, emptiness, and wildness. These qualities, in Wister, are distinctly subordinate to those aspects of landscape that have a human dimension and impress. To put it another way, Wister's western landscapes are often similar in character to the paintings of Remington and Russell that also focus on human activity against a spectacular background. In Grey, however, the landscape is more reminiscent of earlier painters like Albert Bierstadt or Thomas Moran in whose work the human image is swallowed up by the transcendent spectacle of mountainous vistas.
For Grey, and to a lesser extent for Hart, the western landscape becomes symbolic of the transcendent religious and moral forces of wilderness rather than, as in Wister's case, an environment for a certain kind of human culture. This vision of the landscape, combined with the image of purgative violence and the religious-erotic treatment of hero and heroine, added a new dimension to the western formula in the work of Grey, Hart, and many of their contemporaries. Culturally, the popularity of this new version of the formula suggests that the West had come to have a new meaning for many Americans. First of all, by this time the West had become more important as a moral symbol than as a social or historical reality. Of course, the American view of the West had been strongly colored by allegory from the very beginning, but with the closing of the frontier and the passage of time the distance between writers, the public, and the events of the old West increased. Many of the qualities we have discerned in the work of Grey and Hart were exemplary of that ability to color history with romance and to clothe fantasy with verisimilitude that are of the essence of the successful formulaic creators skills.
The kind of cultural affirmations and resolutions that Grey and Hart set forth in their version of the western formula also probably played an important part both in their individual popularity and in the way in which the success of their work helped to establish the western as one of the primary twentieth-century American literary and cinematic formulas. In my view, it was their particular combination of western heroism and the wilderness, with certain traditional social patterns and values, that was the crucial element in their cultural significance. In the works of Grey and Hart, heroic deeds and character grow out of the western landscape of wild and unsettled nature and lead to fulfillment and happiness on the part of those protagonists who are strong and true enough to meet the challenge of lawless openness by purging the evil forces that also flourish in this environment. It seems important that these heroic deeds are usually individual rather than social acts that do not carry with them the broader political and social implications so important to the actions of the Virginian. In fact, the violent purgation that so often climaxes a novel by Grey or a film by Hart sometimes goes so far as to wipe out everybody but the hero and heroine. Finally, the ultimate result of this confrontation with wild nature and violent men is an affirmation of such traditional American values as monogamous love, the settled family, the basic separation of masculine and feminine roles, and the centrality of religion to life.
Thus, in a period where these traditional American values were under attack, Grey and other contemporary novelists and filmmakers transformed the western formula into a vehicle for reaffirming a traditional view of American life. Within this framework of reassertion they created stories that dealt with some of the basic conflicts in social roles and values that had begun to afflict twentieth-century Americans. Two important sources of tension were the uncertainties that had grown up around the relationship between the sexes and the meaning of nature and the natural. These tensions clearly reached a peak in the disillusion following World War I and the emergence in the 1920s of what was referred to as the "new morality" under the influence of such social and intellectual currents as Darwinian naturalism, Freudianism, feminism, and socialism. The period in which Grey and Hart reached the peak of their success and influence as popular creators was the same period in which Hemingway, Fitzgerald, T. S. Eliot, and Sinclair Lewis were major cultural spokesmen and, in this perspective, we can see some of the reasons why Grey and so many of his contemporaries turned to the fantasy of the western in order to express some of their major concerns. Like Hemingway, Grey wrote his fictions as a means of exploring and coping with the threat of a meaningless universe, but he sought to imagine an image of heroism and a vision of relation between the sexes that would bring some kind of meaning out of a world of violence and chaos. Where Hemingway confronted the tragic condition of man in a godless world, Grey, by developing his elaborate fantasy of a heroic West, passed beyond tragedy into melodrama. By absorbing many of the elements of earlier naturalistic writers like Jack London and Frank Norrisfrom whom he probably garnered some of the semimystical rhapsodizing about wild nature that lards his novels-and reintegrating this with a more traditional set of American values, Grey made of the West a magical enclave where the strains and uncertainties of a modern urban-industrial culture could be temporarily forgotten and where the truth of wild nature turned out to be not the meaningless Darwinian jungle but an uplifting and elevating moral force.
Along with their reassertion of the moral meaningfulness of nature, these highly popular western writers and filmmakers of the 1910s and 1920s developed the West as a place where traditional ideals of male and female roles and of moralistic romance were part of the pattern of heroic virtue. In contrast to contemporary American society where women were increasingly challengng their traditional roles, the West of Grey and Hart was, above all, a land where men were men and women were women. In novel after novel, Grey created strong, proud, and daring women and then made them realize their true role in life as the adoring lovers of still stronger, more virtuous, more heroic men:
Those shining stars made her yield. She whispered to them that they had claimed her-the West claimed her-Stewart claimed her forever, whether he lived or died. She gave up to her love. And it was as if he was there in person, dark-faced, fire-eyed, violent in his action, crushing her to his breast in that farewell moment, kissing her with one burning kiss of passion with wild, cold, terrible lips of renunciation. " I am your wife. I" she whispered to him. In that moment, throbbing, exalted, quivering in her first sweet, tumultuous surrender to love, she would have given her all, her life, to be in his arms again, to meet his lips, to put forever out of his power any thought of wild sacrifice. 63
In the western creations of Grey, Hart, and their contemporaries the elements of the formula are deployed to develop the image of the West as a symbolic landscape where the elevating inspiration of the vastness and openness of nature together with the challenge of violent situations and lawless men can lead to a rebirth of heroic individual morality and the development of an ideal relationship between men and women. Though the hero invariably succeeds in purging the evil and lawless forces and in establishing an ideal domestic relationship with the heroine, there seems to be an increasing sense that this happy resolution cannot be spread to society as a whole. In The Virginian, after his violent deeds, the hero became "an important man, with a strong grip on many various enterprises, and able to give his wife all and more than she asked or desired. "64 It is difficult to imagine a Grey or Hart hero as successful entrepreneur or to imagine the transition between the mythic landscape of their stories and the modern world, a transition of which Wister is careful to remind us. Grey's heroes and heroines existed in a timeless, suspended world where their romance and heroism could be complete and pure. As Henry Nash Smith observed of the dime novel, the cost paid for this purity was that this vision of the West could not become involved in a meaningful dialectic with the urban industrial society of modern America. Thus, in Grey's hand, and in that of the many pulp western novelists and makers of B films who followed his lead, the West became an object of escapist fantasy for adults seeking temporary release from the routine monotony and unheroic ambiguities of twentieth-century American life. There is some indication that Grey himself sensed the essential fantasy of his vision in the fact that so many of his stories eventuate in the formation of an ideal society of two people in some isolated enclave in the mountains. For me, the ultimate symbol of Grey's version of the West is the secret mountain valley into which Lassiter and Jane Withersteen flee at the end of Riders of the Purple Sage, sealing off forever all possibility of entrance or exit by a massive rock slide that wipes out the evil pursuers. From such a garden of Eden there can be no fall or anything else.
The Classic Western: John Ford and Others
The popularity of Grey's highly idealized and moralistic version of the western formula began to decline with the onset of the Depression. Though new Grey books were published annually until 1961, more than twenty years past his death in 1939, his amazing mass popularity of the 1920s had decidedly faded. After his record run of a decade, Grey does not appear among the top bestsellers after 1925. Similarly there is a hiatus in the western film between the silents of the 1920s-W. S. Hart, Tom Mix, and epics like The Covered Wagon, and The Iron Horse-and the new westerns of the 1940s and 1950s by directors and stars like John Ford, Howard Hawks, Anthony Mann, Fred Zinneman, William Wyler, Gary Cooper, John Wayne, Henry Fonda, and James Stewart. While there were still many westerns produced in the 1930s, they were largely for the Saturday matinee and pulp crowd. In the 1930s, westerns of this sort still strongly depended on the version of the formula articulated by Zane Grey, with the exception of a few unique writers and directors such as the novelist Ernest Haycox and the director King Vidor, who had begun to evolve a new treatment of the western formula.
This new version came to fruition at the beginning of the 1940s with John Ford's Stagecoach (1939), based on a story by Ernest Haycox. Its success placed a lasting mark on the western film. Still, without detracting in the least from the unique artistry of Stagecoach, it is worth noting that a number of contemporary westerns show some of the same transformations in the formula, among them George Marshall's Destry Rides Again (1939), Henry King's Jesse James (1940), Fritz Lang's The Return of Frank James (1940), and William Wyler's The Westerner (1940).
The differences between this new version of the western formula and the pattern found in Grey and his contemporaries becomes quite clear when we look at Stagecoach. As might be expected, there is considerable continuity between Stagecoach and the typical Zane Grey western. Like Grey, Ford emphasizes the theme of regeneration through the challenge of the wilderness, using the spectacular forms of the western landscape to give a symbolic background to the drama. Monument Valley in northern Arizona, where, beginning with Stagecoach, Ford shot so many of his films, is a landscape as spectacular as Grey's Tonto Basin, also in Arizona. A number of Ford's basic character types also echo Grey's-the gunfighter hero driven by an obsession to avenge a past wrong (Grey's Lassiter and Ford's Ringo Kid) and the seemingly corrupt heroine who turns out to be morally pure (Grey's Ellen Jorth and Ford's Dallas). Nevertheless, despite these indications of Grey's influence on a continuous formulaic tradition, Stagecoach presents a very different vision of the West from Riders of the Purple Sage. Compared to the highly colored ambience and melodramatic situations of Grey and his contemporaries, Stagecoach has restraint and subtlety that reflects a richer and more complex handling of setting, plot, character, and theme. Though Ford's landscape is certainly a symbolic one, it is not redolent of evangelical mysticism and moralistic allegory in the same way as Grey's sweeping mountains and canyons. Instead, Ford uses the landscape of Monument Valley to express subtly the ambiguous relationship of danger, the threat of death, and regeneration. Instead of filling our souls with religious awe or pure romantic passion as Grey's panoramas supposedly affect his sympathetic characters, the great isolated monoliths of Monument Valley in Stagecoach seem richly enigmatic. They are neither hostile nor benevolent, nor are they pretty in the sense of Grey's gorgeous, many-colored landscapes. Ford's panoramic long shots of the stagecoach threading its way among these massive rock formations suggest a sublimity and mystery beside which Grey's purple prose seems a pseudo-mystical posturing.
The same qualities of greater subtlety and richness extend to character and action. While Ford and other western directors of this period work largely with casts of stereotyped characters not unlike those in a novel by Grey or a film by W. S. Hart, these stereotypes are typically qualified and enlivened by touches of comedy and irony. In Stagecoach the virginally pure romantic ingenue is, in fact, a prostitute. The hero makes his de rigueur appearance from the middle of the wilderness, bent on revenge, but instead of being a mysterious figure in black, he is a nice young cowboy just escaped from prison and a bit shy and awkward about breaking into society on the same day, as he puts it. Larger patterns of action also have comic or ironic resonances and complexities. Like Hell's Hinges, much of the action of Stagecoach grows out of a conflict between the churchgoers and the sinners, a conflict symbolized in the town of Hell's Hinges by the church and the saloon and in Stagecoach by the daylight town of Tonto and the night town of Lordsburg. But where Hart melodramatizes this conflict by placing all our sympathies on the side of the church people, Ford presents the Ladies' Law and Order League as a bastion of rigid, repressive puritanism, shows Tonto's most respectable citizen as a hypocritical embezzler, and gives our fullest sympathies to a prostitute, a drunken doctor, an escaped convict, a whiskey drummer, and a dubious gambler. This unlikely group triumphs over the challenge of the enigmatic and hostile wilderness, but even regeneration has its ironic qualifications. The drunken doctor sobers up and successfully officiates at the birth of a baby in the middle of the desert, heroically faces the attacking Apaches, and, finally, helps the hero in his climactic confrontation with the villains. Yet at the end of the film it is clear that he is going to go on drinking. The hero and his prostitutesweetheart go off together "into the sunset," though actually the departure is in the middle of the night, and they leave as fugitives to go across the border into Mexico. There is no integration into society like Hart and Grey's regenerated outlaws.
The artistic density of the westerns of the 1940s and 1950s is most strikingly evident in the work of John Ford, but a number of other directors worked very successfully with a similar version of the formula in the same period. Future generations are likely to look on this as the classic era of the western film. Several factors contributed to the special quality of major westerns during this time. First of all, for both creators and large segments of the audience, the western had become a conscious artistic genre as well as a popular story formula. In addition, there had developed a large corps of directors, writers, actors, and technicians with considerable experience in the creation of westerns. But it was, above all, what the West had come to mean to the American public and the consequent interest that the public displayed in a revitalized version of the western formula that made it possible for all this talent and creative energy to be centered around the production of western films.
The decline of the 1920s' version of the western formula into pulp novels and B western films reflected the impact of the boom and bust of the late 1920s and the depression of the 1930s.
The fate of Prohibition is somewhat analogous to that of the moralistic vision of the West. Begun as a great experiment in social morality, Prohibition became, in the booming prosperity of the later 1920s, a black comedy, no longer taken very seriously even by many of its former proponents. Like Prohibition, the westerns of Grey and Hart embodied a vision of regeneration and purgation leading to the reestablishment of the basic norms of nineteenthcentury small-town society: religious piety, monogamy, feminine chastity, temperance, and the family circle. But, in an America whose moralistic assumptions had been deeply threatened by rapid urbanization, and then shattered by the chaos of Depression, the association of western heroism with this set of moral norms seemed increasingly old-fashioned and even faintly comical. One suspects that Zane Grey retained a good deal of his popularity throughout the 1930s because his gift for exciting narrative transcended to some degree his moralistic attitudes. In the case of a writer like Harold Bell Wright, or even a filmmaker like W. S. Hart, action and character were more inextricably linked with moral vision, and the decline in popularity was precipitous. Even today, while there is still a steady sale of Grey's novels, which can be fun to read in spite of their moral sentiments, the name of Harold Bell Wright has practically disappeared from the scene, and the films of W. S. Hart are largely viewed by sophisticated students of the cinema as a curious and interesting phase in the history of the film.
Another sign of this general decline of traditional moral assumptions in the late 1920s and 1930s was the rapid rise to great popularity of another film formula, the gangster melodrama. As I noted in an earlier chapter, this was the period when films like Underworld (1927), Little Caesar (1930), and Public Enemy (1931), with performers like Edward G. Robinson and James Cagney, eclipsed traditional western stories and heroes in mass popularity. The extent to which these films challenged traditional morality is evident from the agitation of groups like the Legion of Decency. Eventually, these groups brought enough pressure to bear on Hollywood so that some elements were censored in the new gangster films. Despite these vigorous countermeasures on the part of its moral watchdogs, the American public increasingly showed its delight in the gangster film and such related formulas as the hard-boiled detective story.
Such circumstances suggest that in the 1930s American moviegoers were deeply troubled by the gap between their inherited moral universe and their experience of social and cultural change. On the one hand, they indicated their unwillingness to give up their traditional moral values by tolerating and even supporting the moralistic censorship of self-appointed guardians of the faith, yet, on the other, they indicated their sense of the inadequacy of the traditional moral vision by turning away from novels and films that simply affirmed it in favor of works that explored its inadequacies. For the middle-class reader, Sinclair Lewis and John Steinbeck replaced Harold Bell Wright and Zane Grey on best-seller lists, while for the still broader cultural spectrum of filmgoers, Robinson and Cagney's snarling gangsters became more popular protagonists than the morally regenerate outlaws of W. S. Hart.
In the face of this change in public attitude and interest, the western either had to undergo substantial changes or to decline altogether to the level of juvenile adventure, or, possibly, faced by competition with more contemporary forms of adventure in an urban setting, to disappear altogether. Actually, the genre entered upon a new phase of creative activity that may well be its greatest period. A new vision of the meaning of the West inspired a formula more responsive to the conflicts of value and feeling that characterized the period from 1940 to 1960. Instead of simply affirming the traditional morality and dramatically resolving conflicts within it, this new image of the West encouraged a richer exploration of the tensions between old moral assumptions and new uncertainties of experience. It also expressed a sense of loss associated with the passage of a simpler and less ambiguous era while acknowledging its inevitability. Thus, in contrast to the sense of moral triumph and regeneration through violence that characterized the western of the 1910s and 1920s, the new "classic" western was typically more muted, elegaic, and even sometimes tragic in its pattern of action.
The essential feature of this new vision of the West was the notion of the "old West" as a heroic period in the past distinctly different from the rest of American society and history. The symbolic drama of the old West's passing generated new and more complex kinds of stories. To some extent, this vision of the West had always been implicit in the western. We find it in Natty Bumppo's occasional laments for the passing of the old wilderness life, or in Wister's preface to The Virginian, when he remarks that the cowboy "will never come again. He rides in his historic yesterday."" But there are two major differences between these earlier notions of the West as bygone era and the "old West" of the 1940s and 1950s. First, this earlier phase of the West was usually associated with the wilderness and the Indians. It was, in effect, a version of pastoral. The new meaning of the "old West" was, on the contrary, a vision of a particular kind of social order, a complex elaboration of the conception of a unique western society that developed in the later dime novel and in local-color writers like Bret Harte, and later, in a very different way, was conceptualized in Frederick Jackson Turner's theory of the influence of the frontier on American life. These earlier views of western society did not usually treat it as something that was irrevocably past. Even Turner was at great pains to show how the frontier had molded contemporary American society. By the 1940s, however, the "old West" was clearly seen as past, its significance lying in its discontinuity with the rest of American life. Walter Prescott Webb, a great historian of the West, eloquently expressed this view of the "old West" in his analysis of the cattle kingdom:
The cattle kingdom was a world within itself, with a culture all its own, which, though of brief duration, was complete and self-satisfying. The cattle kingdom worked out its own means and methods of utilization; it formulated its own law, called the code of the West, and did it largely upon extra-legal grounds. The existence of the cattle kingdom for a generation is the best single bit of evidence that here in the West were the basis and promise of a new civilization unlike anything previously known to the Anglo-European-American experience.... Eventually it ceased to be a kingdom and became a province. The Industrial Revolution furnished the means by which the beginnings of this original and distinctive civilization have been destroyed or reduced to vestigial remains. Since the destruction of the plains Indians and the buffalo civilization, the cattle kingdom is the most logical thing that has happened in the Great Plains, where, in spite of science and invention, the spirit of the Great American Desert still is manifest. 66
And, as Webb saw it, the central feature of the cattle kingdom was its emphasis on individual courage:
Where population is sparse, where the supports of conventions and of laws are withdrawn and men are thrown upon their own resources, courage becomes a fundamental and essential attribute in the individual. The Western man of the old days had little choice but to be courageous. The germ of courage had to be in him; but this germ being given, the life he led developed it to a high degree. 67
The second important difference between earlier conceptions of the "old West" and the underlying cultural myth of the classic westerns of the 1940s and 1950s was the extent to which the passing of the "old West" and the evolving pioneer society became the basic focus of western films. In The Virginian and in the westerns of Hart and Grey, the hero is typically integrated into the new pioneer society that is gradually evolving out of a more chaotic and lawless earlier era. The hero's culminating act of violence is a final purging of the lawless men who prevent the new society from coming into existence. It represents the culmination of the period of foundation, which seems to be the underlying mythical pattern of this version of the western formula. In the classic western, however, the story shifts from the myth of foundation to a concern with social transition-the passing from the old West into modern society. The hero becomes not so much the founder of a new order as a somewhat archaic survival, driven by motives and values that are never quite in harmony with the new social order. His climactic violence, though legitimated by its service to the community, does not integrate him into society. Instead, it separates him still further, either because a community so pacified has no need of his unique talents, or because the new society cannot aid him or do him honor. Thus, the relation of the hero to the community tends to move in a reverse direction from that of the pre-1940s western. There the hero typically made the transition from outlawry to domestication. In the classic western, the hero increasingly moves toward isolation, separation, and alienation.
This aspect of the classic western is particularly evident in a film like John Ford's My Darling Clementine (1946) where there is really no necessity for the hero to depart at the end. Yet Ford obviously felt that it was artistically and emotionally right for Wyatt Earp to say farewell to his new love Clementine and to leave the town he has purged of evil, dropping only a vague hint of his ultimate return. Similarly, the hero and heroine of Stagecoach cannot remain in the town but must take the purity of their love and their heroic courage off to some mythical ranch across the border. Again, the events of the story do not require this ending. It would certainly not have been difficult for Ford to arrange for his hero to be exonerated for killing the villains, but, again, it just seems wrong for these two representatives of the old West to stay in the orderly and pacified town, with the Indians driven back to the reservation, the unrestrained men of violence killed, and the army and the law firmly in control. In his films of the 1940s, Ford did not deal with the theme of the passing of the old West as explicitly as he did later, but part of the richness of his work comes from the way in which exciting adventure and good-humored social comedy-the dominant tones of Stagecoach and My Darling Clementine-are inextricably mixed with a subtle feeling of melancholy for a more heroic life that is passing.
Melancholy about the passing of the old West and ambiguity about the new society that has replaced it became a more explicit thematic concern in Ford westerns of the 1950s and 1960s such as The Searchers (1956), The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962), and Cheyenne Autumn (1964). In Liberty Valance, for example, the old western hero, Tom Doniphon, is morally and emotionally destroyed when he purges the community of the last anarchic outlaw and enables the new-style western leader, a young lawyer from the East, to become the community's representative man. Though the result is progress and happiness, there is, nonetheless, a deep sense that something valuable has been lost. There is also an ironic twist in the fact that the young lawyers political success is based on his false reputation as the heroic killer of the outlaw Liberty Valance, a deed actually performed by Doniphon. Thus the new society is founded on a legend of heroism, created by a man who cannot himself find what he needs in it. Cheyenne Autumn, based on Mari Sandoz's moving account of the attempts of a band of Cheyenne Indians to leave their arid southern reservation and return to their northern homeland, is an even more elegaic if less coherent account of the passing of the old West. With its heroic band of Indians set against the rapacity, greed, and bureaucratic inhumanity of the Indian Bureau and the government, Cheyenne Autumn adumbrated a new version of the formula in which the complex dramatic tensions of the classic western gave way to the quest for a new mythology in which the Indian becomes again an idealized figure. But this is one of the developments that followed after the breakdown of the classic synthesis.
The dramatic tensions created by the central theme of the passing of the old West provided the background for a particularly interesting type of hero. Unlike the natural gentleman of Owen Wister, or the romantic heroes of Zane Grey and W. S. Hart, the western hero of the classic period is largely developed through his complex and ambiguous relationship with society. Whatever romantic involvements he may have, the classic western hero's role as a man-in-the-middle between groups that represent the old and the new West is far more important than his relations with the opposite sex. Indeed, in many classic westerns there is relatively little romantic interest of the sort that was so important to Wister and Grey. Instead, the plot concerns situations in which the hero finds himself both involved with, and alienated from, society. In this type of story, the gunfighter often takes the place of the cowboy as hero, because the gunfighter's position with respect to the law is, by convention, ambiguous. According to the mythical code of the old West, the gunfighter is not a criminal, though he may have killed many men. By the standards of the new West, he is illegally taking the law into his own hands. Split between old and new concepts of law and morality, the town finds itself torn between its disapproval of what the gunfighter stands for and its need for his services. The gunfighter's own motives are also likely to be ambivalent. He may be tired of his violent way of life and hopeful of settling down to a peaceful old age, but is usually unable to do so because of his reputation and the need to prove himself anew against younger gunmen, or because of the town's inability to purge itself of evil through the regular processes of the law.
The man-in-the-middle's problem usually is that he cannot resolve his inner conflict by committing himself to one of the two courses of action or ways of life that divide him. Classic westerns often end in the hero's death or in violence, reluctantly entered upon, that does not fully resolve the conflict. Wister's Virginian chose to live out the code of the West as a matter of honor and duty, even though his sweetheart threatened to leave him. But his problem was solved when she saw him in danger and realized that her love was greater than her genteel antipathy to violence. The hero thus gained both a victory over his enemy and a respectable place in society. In contrast, the sheriff in High Noon is forced to fight alone by the town's failure to support him, but is left so bitter by his victory that he can only turn his back on society in disgust. In Shane, the hero has to take up again the role of gunfighter in order to save the farmers from being driven off their land. But once he has destroyed the old order by killing the tyrannical rancher and his hired gunfighter, he has no place in the new community and must ride into lonely exile. In a more comic vein, Howard Hawks's heroic sheriff in Rio Bravo destroys the tyrannical rancher and gets the girl, but the film's predominant image is that of the small heroic group isolated from the rest of society in its fortress jail.
Whether it tended toward the tragic and elegaic as in Ford, the comic as in Hawks, or the mythic as in Anthony Mann, the classic western became a vehicle for exploring such value conflicts as that between traditional ways of life and progress, individualism and organization, violence and legal process, conformity and individual freedom, and heroism and the average man. The western's traditional resolution in legitimated violence and the mythical detachment of the story from the present time implicit in the idea of the old West offered a plausible and compelling way of giving these conflicts symbolic expression. Not surprisingly, a number of westerns of the classic period such as High Noon and The Ox-Bow Incident were explicitly conceived as allegories with strong implications for the contemporary scene. Critics, also, began to interpret westerns in terms of contemporary situations and to point out analogies between the western film and such important political events of the period as the Korean conflict and McCarthy's crusade against communism. Whatever one may think about the validity of such interpretations, the tendency to make them indicates the degree to which at least some of the more sophisticated members of the public responded explicitly to the classic western's expression of American value conflicts. The classic version of the western formula also flourished in the new medium of television as what was commonly referred to as the new "adult" western. "Bonanza" was far less pure as a western than "Gunsmoke," since its variety of central characters made it possible for the show to borrow plots from such diverse popular traditions as the detective story and the social melodrama. Still, the main line of both series was that of the classic western: the representation of a heroic figure (or in the case of "Bonanza" a group of heroes) as mediators between the aggressive individualists of the old West and the new values of the settled town.
It is certainly claiming too much to suggest that all Americans who enjoyed westerns during the classic period read the tension between American traditions of individualistic democracy and the emerging international corporate society into the conflict between the old West and the new settled society symbolized by growing towns, and orderly legal process, and the coming of the railroad and telegraph. Yet the special qualities of the classic western heroes as played by Gary Cooper, John Wayne, James Stewart, Henry Fonda, Joel McCrea, Randolph Scott, and their imitators lay in their reluctance to commit themselves to any particular social group, their ambivalence about who was right and wrong, and their strong desire to retain their own personal integrity and the purity of their individual code. As Robert Warshow so eloquently described this classic stance:
What does the Westerner fight for? We know he is on the side of justice and order, and of course it can be said he fights for these things. But such broad aims never correspond exactly to his real motives; they only offer him his opportunity. The Westerner himself, when an explanation is asked of him (usually by a woman), is likely to say that he does what he "has to do." If justice and order did not continually demand his protection, he would be without a calling. Indeed, we come upon him often in just that situation, as the reign of law settles over the West and he is forced to see that his day is over; those are the pictures which end with his death or with his departure for some more remote frontier. What he defends, at bottom, is the purity of his own image ... he fights not for advantage and not for the right, but to state what he is, and he must live in a world which permits that statement. 68
The appeal of such a heroic figure is probably greatest in a time when neither tradition nor some concept of a future goal adequately defines what is virtuous for a man. In such a period, the extraordinary hero is one who, torn by the conflicting demands of different social roles and value systems, yet manages to assert his identity in action. In this respect, the classic western hero bears a strong resemblance to the hard-boiled heroes of Hemingway, Hammett, and Chandler, a heroic type who was embodied in the film performances of Humphrey Bogart at the same time that the classic western reached its peak. In fact, the classic western hero's basic pattern of initial reluctance and ambivalence finally resolved by violence was practically identical to that developed by the Bogart persona in such films as The Big Sleep, To Have and Have Not, and Casablanca. In these films, the conflict between a traditional world and a new social order is represented by urban corruption or by the coming of war. As in the western, the hero has rejected or left behind the traditional world, but he is not prepared to commit himself to the new order, for he senses that it will destroy his individual identity. In the end, he finds a mode of action, usually through violence, that reaffirms his individual code. Or, to put it in terms that were popularized by the sociologist David Riseman in the same period we are concerned with, this type of hero insists upon asserting his inner-directed self in an increasingly other-directed world.
This reflection gives us some additional insight into the way in which the meaning of the hero's violence in the classic western differs from that of the westerns of Zane Grey and W. S. Hart. In that earlier version of the western formula, the hero's violence was the means by which the evil and anarchic forces were finally purged and the hero integrated with society. But in the classic western, as in the hard-boiled detective story, the hero's violence is primarily an expression of his capacity for individual moral judgment and action, a capacity that separates him from society as much as it makes him a part of it. While in Casablanca Bogart's commitment to the Free French cause seems a rather romanticized expression of wartime Hollywood patriotism, the more detached and mythical setting of the classic western made the hero's violence more ambiguous and individualistic.
In general, then, the classic version of the western formula developed by projecting contemporary tensions and conflicts of values into a mythical past where they could be balanced against one another and resolved in an increasingly ambiguous moment of violent action. These conflicts were essentially expressions of the tension between those traditional values that had been so strongly affirmed in the Wister-Grey-Hart version of the western formula and the new attitudes and values of a modern urban industrial society. The basic premise of the classic western was a recognition of the inevitable passing of the old order of things, reflected in the myth of the "old West," together with an attempt to affirm that the new society would somehow be based on the older values. But, just as after World War II, Americans increasingly recognized the gap between their traditional values and goals and the new circumstances of their lives, the classic western increasingly reflected a discontinuity between the old West and the new society that had replaced it. One striking expression of this widening gap was a documentary entitled The Real West and narrated with great power and pathos by an aging and sick Gary Cooper. This documentary, claiming in the way of many of our best mythical treatments of the West to give us, at long last, the true story, was permeated with the sense of an exciting and heroic era, a time of great challenge and adventure, surviving only in the curious old photographs and decaying ghost towns that furnished the film's predominant visual imagery. 69 The artistic power and wide public popularity of the classic version of the western formula came from its ability to hold the vision of the old West and the emergent outlines of modern America in a dramatic tension mediated by the striking figure of the hero. But this balance could be maintained only so long as creators and audiences found satisfaction in the elegaic treatment of the old West and in the reluctant, ambiguous hero who remained torn between commitments. In the more polarized social and political atmosphere of the 1960s, the classic version of the western formula came to seem increasingly old-fashioned, and it soon became evident that the western again required some redefinition and revitalization of its formula.