Ya know, there’s just something to be said for the Old West. Outside World War II, it’s probably the single most romanticized era of America’s culture. And why not?
On the one hand, it was an age of discovery and determination, where the world was wide open and just waiting for a man to go out into the wild places and carve out a corner for himself. That’s the sort of thing that led to America’s creation: exploration, adventure, freedom, fortune. The era of the wild west has its roots right in those first ships and explorers who dared to see what was on the other side of the ocean. Colonists came in droves, seeking freedom above all else, settling and expanding at the same time. They never stopped until they filled every corner of the land, sometimes making their homes in the least hospitable lands imaginable, taking desolation and turning it into a paradise to give their children. Those explorations, that pioneering spirit, did much to shape my nation.
On the other hand, it’s also a time and place where we can look back and see both the best and worst faces of our nation. Even while some settlers sought only freedom and peace, others wanted gold and other riches. Some were compassionate and tolerant, while others were fearful and bloodthirsty. It is truly a case where the good and the wicked were mixed in equal parts on every side. We want to learn from what we all did right and everything that went wrong. In looking back, we are trying to look forward. In seeing the truth of our wrongs, we want to correct them. We want what is good, right, and true to win out in the end, even if it takes a century or two.
As such, there are a number of possibilities for “favorite Western.”
Silverado made a good argument for itself, but I found it somehow a combination of too formulaic and forced, with each protagonist having their own specific nemesis to take on, and things just happen to work out that way. Young Guns, with its depiction of Billy the Kid and his Regulators fighting valiantly against the Santa Fe Ring, was both exciting and had some food for thought, but didn’t quite hit the right balance, for my tastes, in its narrative. Tombstone was probably the single strongest contender, by far, with a tale of justice and honor, and I really liked it, but knowing that it’s based on something true, but grossly exaggerated, kind of turns me off just a little.
Just a quick mention: I just haven’t seen much of John Wayne’s films, and I haven’t seen any of Clint Eastwood’s westerns. Heresy, I know, but it’s just luck of the draw. I wasn’t exposed to them as a kid, and never remembered to go looking for them as an adult. So, if you were expecting one of their films, my apologies.
My favorite western is:
3:10 to Yuma.
Based on the same short story, by Elmore Leonard, which inspired the 1957 film. Haven’t seen that version, but no way it can be better than this one.
The plot features a band of men who escort the criminal Ben Wade (Crowe) to the town of Contention, where he is to be put on the 3:10 train to Yuma prison, to be hanged. One of his guards is Dan Evans (Bale), a rancher who’s hit hard times, but is being hit harder by a greedy landowner who wants Dan’s land to sell to the railroad. There are several others, but, enter the “formulaic” aspect, they get picked off one by one during the course of their journey.
I don’t generally like stories where everyone dies except the hero. However, that formula gets turned on its head in the end.
In fact, a lot of things get turned on their head in this movie, and that’s what I love most about it.
Crowe and Bale are very strong actors, with a strong supporting cast, and the story their characters go through asks a number of questions. One character, seeming to mostly be an upstanding man, turns out to have the blood of women and children on his hands. Is he justified in that? Another is so idealistic that it costs him his life. Was he right or should he have compromised those ideals?
Others are just people who make the mistake of giving in to their fears. That particular group taught me how, when violent death is very likely, the only thing left that matters is whether your last act will be one you would be ashamed or proud of, because that’s what you leave for your family.
Dan’s own son, William, hasn’t learned a number of life lessons yet, looking down on his father’s imperfections and admiring Wade’s lethal strength.
But most of all, the story is one of these two men, Dan and Wade, and how they influence each other. Through them, in particular, we see that no one is purely good… or purely evil.
Dan may be the protagonist, but with he’s just trying to survive, to protect his family. Everything he does is for his family. When his life is in serious danger and he has the option of just walking away with a big wad of cash to make his problems go away, well, he is tempted. He isn’t so pure that he’d just turn it down. But instead, he takes the ultimate risk to get his family everything they need.
Wade, on the other hand, is selfish from the beginning. While Dan does everything for his family, Wade does everything for himself. He and Dan and the others have more than one occasion where they are unlikely allies of convenience, needing each other to survive a moment of crisis, but Wade is constantly trying to escape and would be quite happy to find his captors dead at the end of it. That said, he does try to do things the easy way, such as bribing Dan to let him go. He even tells William that he could never lead his gang if he wasn’t rotten to the core.
But then Wade has a moment, just one moment, where he shows that, perhaps, there is just a little bit of good even in him.
So it’s a story about people and the choices they make. Which, personally, I very much enjoy.
This goes into why I would personally say this may be the quintessential western.
You have a man’s struggle to carve out a tiny corner of the world for himself, or, more specifically, for his family. He is trying to take something desolate and turn it into something worthwhile for his children to inherit. That fighting spirit takes him on a journey that displays the best and worst faces of humanity, touching on all the good and evil we do to each other. When he has a choice to make, he chooses what is right, even in the face of death, because, within him, good has triumphed over evil. In his selflessness, he is finally able to pass on everything he has gained, and everything he has learned, to his son.
Even in the villain, a single spark of good finally wins out over his own evil. What greater victory for good can there be, than for a rotten man to do one decent thing in his life?
On a final note, these are realistic, believable choices made by people we can believe in. A number of westerns, while I enjoy them, do strike me as a bit overbearing in their depictions of honor, with characters that are difficult to relate to. Wyatt Earp, in Tombstone, is just a little too good. All the heroes in Silverado are either far too stoic or absurdly exuberant. Billy the Kid may have been crazy, but in Young Guns, he’s flat-out insane, and merely pointed in the direction of justice. So there’s either too much or too little to these honorable characters, but not much depth either way.
3:10 to Yuma features some stoicism, and some liveliness, and some honor, and some service to one’s own interests. These all combine to make a character which is, at heart, and in a crisis, good. The sort of good we can aspire to and achieve.