Life, Movies

The End of the West, The End of the Western

03.07.11 | Comment?

This past weekend I watched a really good movie called Ride The High Country. An old lawman and gunfighter takes a job protecting a shipment of gold. As he arrives in town he meets an old friend, and asks him if he wants a job helping out. So they, and the friend’s young partner, head off to the remote mining camp to pick up the gold.

Two old cowboy actors, Joel McCrea and Randolph Scott, star as the two old cowboys, and the movie is really about getting old. Are you the same man you used to be if you can’t do the things you once did? It’s an old-fashioned Western, with just enough melodrama and just enough gunplay, but it got me thinking about another Western – Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.

That movie debuted just seven years after Ride, and despite the huge differences in style and perspective, they do have some similarities. Both have a sort of sad, elegiac tone. In Ride it’s because these two old men have reached the end of their line. In Butch Cassidy it’s because the new West has no place for outlaws. They will be driven out, hunted to extinction.

I had to wonder, watching these two movies only a month or six weeks apart, if a little of the lament in Butch Cassidy wasn’t for the kind of people who watch the old Westerns. Society was changing, and fast, and even sophisticated cowboy flicks such as Shane semed simple-minded in the world of M*A*S*H.

It’s not too surprising, I guess. Into the middle decades of the 20th century there were lots of people in this country who lived in ways not too different from the cowboys they watched on the screen, and not too different from others throughout the world. But just since 1970 or so, many of the old certanties of life have changed. (Many for the better, let’s not forget.) Out with the old, in with the new.

Now I don’t believe that America ever really loses its innocence – each generation, and each person, loses that on their own – but I do wish we were still a country that could go see a movie about heroes on horseback wearing white hats, and the black-hatted baddies who were bound to lose in the end.

Well, there’s still Rango. That’s something.

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