Once upon a time real men were tough, fair, stalwart and patient. They minded their own business, and they expected you to do the same. They always treated women with respect. Even if they had shady moments in their past, they weren’t proud of them. And in the end they always did the right thing. They had a code. And they lived it. Most importantly, they held to that code, even in the face of all the trouble life could throw at them. Bandits, rustlers, crooked bankers and railroad men, hostile Indians or just the relentless passage of time. Nothing shakes the code. It makes a man a man. And that’s not something I should have to tell you. But now it kind of is. Once upon a time, any eight year old kid would have understood that. They would have seen Bronco Billy, Tom Mix, Hoot Gibson, Johnny Mack Brown or John Wayne at their local movie theater, and they would have known that it was so. But John Wayne has been dead for almost 35 years, and it gets harder every year for students to understand exactly what that code means.
Even when the movie industry started to turn away from black and white morality after the Second World War, we didn’t lose the point of reference. Jimmy Stewart and Anthony Mann (among others) may have been making Westerns featuring psychologically complicated heroes (who sometimes forgot the code), but Western television shows flooded the airwaves. Josh Randall and Paladin were bounty hunters, but doing the right thing was still more important than the money. If they found out that the wanted man was falsely accused, they never hesitated in making sure that justice was served. It’s what a man does. The moral compass was a given.
The centrality of the code lasted for roughly fifty years in movies – before the turmoil of the Sixties blew it away. Films like The Wild Bunch and Little Big Man turned “the code” into a pact among thieves, or, worse, among fools. Clint Eastwood’s many westerns (starting with the Sergio Leone films of the Sixties) suggested that violence and toughness were the key elements of Western stories, stripping away any moral sense. When that happened the Western itself withered on the vine.
The film I use in class to discuss this entire subject is John Ford’s valedictory for the Western, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance. It’s a work that’s sometimes difficult for students because it expects the viewer to be comfortable with an idiom with which they’re now generally unfamiliar. If you don’t know the arc of John Wayne’s career, it’s harder to understand how effectively he embodies (quite literally) an entire tradition. The same is true of Jimmy Stewart, against whom Wayne is placed in a complicated philosophical opposition, and of performers throughout the film from Lee Van Cleef and Woody Strode to Edmond O’Brien and Andy Devine. The latter clearly illustrates the problem, since invariably someone recognizes Devine as the voice of Friar Tuck in Disney’s Robin Hood, not as a character actor who played a bumbling sidekick in countless Westerns throughout his career – which is, of course, the point. Even more importantly, if you don’t know the tropes of the Western it’s harder to see exactly how the accepted standards of the form are being undermined, questioned and stripped away throughout the narrative.
Still, it’s the beauty of this film that the various dichotomies which are developed throughout the story (between East and West, civilization and wilderness, formal social structures and casual social structures, and on and on…) can be made clear fairly easily, especially as they relate to the central issue of what is gained and what is lost as we surrender established verities for the “benefits” of progress. That question continues to resonate with undergraduates, and Ford’s argument is constructed in a way which makes his final conclusions utterly devastating, even when the finer points of his rhetoric are blunted by the unfamiliarity of the form.
In the end, though, I think that’s a brilliant argument for the continued significance of the Western (at least in the hands of a skilled filmmaker). Even without a thorough familiarity with the setting, the actors or the nuances, the story of two men with competing ideas living through changing times still registers. We may not quite understand the code of the West anymore, and the loss of that certitude may or may not be an unfortunate thing (Ford certainly has strong feelings on the matter). What’s still clear, however, is that there’s a choice to be made. The drama of one man making the choice which upholds his code, regardless of the consequences for himself, lets the film continue to pack a wallop even after the last real Westerner has ridden off into the sunset.