This Tweet from writer Alexandru Constantin crossed my feed a little over a month ago, and like all good truth bombs, it's been stewing in the back of my mind ever since:
I'll have a great deal more to say on this subject in the coming weeks, because it touches on more than I can really drop into one single blog post without rambling.
Suffice to say, plenty of folks in my Twitter timeline have been talking about Westerns this past month or so.
I suspect there's a good reason for that.
With much of the country living under lockdown orders, restricted to "essential" travel only, and having to abide a government-mandated list of new social protocols when out in public, it's not hard to see the appeal of stories about rugged loners living by their own rules. Nor is it difficult to see the appeal of books and movies that dwell on the majestic beauty of wide open spaces.
Above all, Westerns are stories about personal freedom. After so many weeks being told where we can and can't go, how close we can and can't get to people, and what businesses we are and aren't allowed to patronize anymore, who can blame viewers for looking to John Wayne, Clint Eastwood, and Yul Brenner for a little cathartic release? Sure, the sound of a booming sixgun and the sight of a dying cattle baron or two might not get us out of lockdown any quicker.
But damn, will it feel good.
That said, here are a few suggestions as to where to start looking at the quintessential American Fantasy.
I first read this novel by Jack Schaefer back in middle school, and have probably watched the classic 1953 film version over a dozen times. It's one of my father's all time favorite movies, and every time we watch it together, he repeats Shane's taunt to the villainous Wilson (Jack Palance) out loud during the climax: "I've heard that you're a low-down Yankee liar!"
The story of a wandering gunfighter who temporarily finds peace after hiring on for a season with the Starrett family, Shane is pretty close to being the most archetypal of all Westerns. Both the film and the novel are awfully close to perfect in terms of execution. Themes of manhood, life on the frontier, family, and coming-of-age all come together in this tale. Book or movie? Take your pick. I heavily recommend both.
If you only ever see—or read—one Western, make it this one. You'll be richer for the experience.
The Man who Shot Liberty Valance
I watched this movie a few weeks back at Alexandru Constantin's recommendation, and it immediately become one of my top Western films. Directed by genre titan John Ford and starring John Wayne, Jimmy Stewart, and Lee Marvin, The Man who Shot Liberty Valance is about a young tenderfoot lawyer named Ransom Stoddard (Stewart), and his arrival in the town of Shinbone. After being brutally victimized by the titular Valance (Marvin), Stoddard attempts to get the locals to organize a legal response through the marshal. But local tough hand Tom Doniphon (Wayne) scoffs. He knows the only law out west comes from the barrel of a gun. And as far as he's concerned, it's in Stoddard's best interest to learn how to use one before Valance comes back.
The rest of the film is a well-told drama about clashing world views: Stoddard and his steadfast belief in law and order, and Doniphan and his conviction that bullies like Valance only understand one thing.
While most Westerns play with themes of civilization versus lawlessness to some degree, The Man who Shot Liberty Valance arguably handled the idea better than any of them. In fact, it just might be the genre's final word on the subject.
After Shane, I consider this film an absolute must-see.
Elmore Leonard is mostly known for his crime fiction, but he got his start writing pulp Western novels. Hombre is routinely mentioned among fans as one of his best. Published in 1961, it's the story of John Russell, raised among the Apache, but traveling among the white men. When the stagecoach passengers he's riding with realize that Russell's odd ways and mannerisms come from his "savage" Apache upbringing, they refuse to ride with him. They demand he ride up in the boot, next to the driver.
Their fortunes turn quickly, however, when the stage is overtaken by outlaws. Stranded in the desert with no horses, one canteen, and only two guns, the passengers—none of whom regarded him as good enough to share a space with white folks before—are forced to follow him if they want to survive.
More than just a tale of desert survival, Hombre is a story about pride, honor, and doing the right thing, as well as being a tightly-paced chase story. John Russell denies the bandits their money early on, which gives them cause to pursue the stagecoach survivors to the bitter end.
Honestly, Leonard's slim little book is probably one of the best jumping-on points if you want to sample the genre's written works. Faster-moving than Shane and containing none of that book's family drama or coming of age themes, fans of thrillers and mysteries will find a relatively easy transition here.
The 1976 film version starring John Wayne was the last movie the Duke released before passing away. It also reunited Wayne with his costar from The Man who Shot Liberty Valance, Jimmy Stewart. Based on the novel by Glendon Swarthout, The Shootist tells the story of an aging gunfighter dying of terminal prostate cancer.
This simple set-up, however, allows for an incredibly rich and powerful tale.
Set in January of 1901, just after Queen Victoria has died, The Shootist is a story about a modernizing West that no longer has a place for men like gunfighter J. B. Books (Wayne). Automobiles, electricity, and streetcars have come to Carson City, Nevada, alongside the carriages and horses.
And it's to Carson City that Books has come to die. With his diagnosis finalized by his old friend Dr. Hostetler (Stewart), and his days numbered, Books takes up at a local rooming house run by the widowed Mrs Rogers (Lauren Bacall). There, he sets about getting his final affairs in order. He also decides he doesn't want to go out in a stranger's bed, wracked with pain.
If the right people knew he was in town—and on his last legs—maybe the great shootist would have the opportunity to go out on his own terms: standing on his feet, with his gun in his hand, facing down the bad men one last time.
The Shootist is also the story of Books' relationship with the people of Carson City, especially Mrs Rogers and her son Gillom (Ron Howard). More than anything, it's the story of the siren song violence has over the young and the untested. The book goes into this theme in far more detail than the film does, and with much more satisfying results.
I'll have more to say on the subject in a future post, when I compare The Shootist to Eastwood's Unforgiven. For now, let's just say that if you want a less revisionist take on the same themes, The Shootist is the story you're looking for.
The film and the book also contain some sharp observations on the nature of violence and gunfighting, including one of my favorite lines ever given to a Western character when discussing his trade: "It isn't being fast. It is whether or not you're willing. The difference is, when it comes down to it, most men are not willing. I found that out early. They will blink an eye or take a breath before they pull the trigger. I won't."
My personal favorites of all Westerns are the Fargo books written by Ben Haas under the pseudonym John Benteen. The reason being that they're just so damned fun. Haas conceived soldier-of-fortune Neal Fargo after watching Lee Marvin's performance in The Professionals, and reading Fargo's physical description makes it obvious: Campaign cover concealing prematurely white hair, cropped short. Weathered face. Long Jaw. Craggy nose. Solid chin.
Fargo is as much a man's man character as you can get in fiction. He's only interested in fighting, women, and money, and when he has too much of one, he gets restless for the others. Best described as "Conan with a shotgun," the books take place across a 10-15 year spread in the early 20th century, following Fargo as he takes contracts in places as near as Texas, and as far away as the Philippines.
There were 22 Fargo books, of which Haas wrote 17. The one I read most recently was Phantom Gunman, in which Fargo is contracted by a mysterious oil baron to find—and kill—Billy the Kid. Of course, everyone knows Billy the Kid has been dead for over 30 years. Fargo thinks it's a put-on. But the $15,000 payday isn't a put-on. Neither is the deadly-serious gunman who just happens to show up in Lincoln county on the same trail as Fargo. Could there be some truth to the rumor after all?
Like any good pulp series, you can read the Fargo books in any order. While I haven't read the entire series, I've read several, and I haven't encountered a bad one yet. It is worth noting that Haas didn't write Sierra Silver, Gringo Guns, or Dynamite Fever. Many fans who have read the entire run say the writing quality on these three volumes is noticeably different.
So, why Westerns? Or more accurately, why Westerns now?
Like Alexandru says, they are the quintessential American fantasy. There's always been something powerful about the tough loner with a personal code, about a man who ranges the wide open spaces when and where he pleases. That's always been a part of the American fantasy, and I think that's a part of the fantasy we need more than ever right now.
But more than anything else, Westerns are fun. With all that talk of deep themes and stuff up there, what sort of gets lost is how much fun you can have—and how much comfort you can get—from a simple story with real good guys and real bad guys drawn in larger than life terms. A good, old fashioned shoot-em-up, coupled with a little romance and melodrama. Where the bad guys wear the black hats, and the good guys where the white hats.
Maybe that's part of it, too.
The Western gives us heroes, and it gives them to us unapologetically. The genre doesn't have to hide them in layers of irony, self awareness, or self deprecation.
Some might say that's unsophisticated or one-dimensional writing.
I say horse shit. While the daily news cycle is a never ending trash fire, you can keep your chronically depressed, fatally flawed "heroes." I sure as hell don't want to read about someone working through their personal issues right now.
Give me a larger-than life Tom Doniphon, a Shane, or a Neal Fargo. Give me a rat-bastard of a villain, a tense standoff, and a cacophony of roaring guns. Give me something to escape to, damn it. Give me some action, some adventure, and some heroes.
If that's too tall an order for other genres, then pardner, maybe it's time to saddle up and head back to the Mythic West.
I'm an award-winning science fiction and fantasy writer based out of North Carolina. This is where I scream into the digital void. I like cookies.