Two movies today--The Gunfighter and High Noon.
Johnny Ringo was born in 1850 and died in 1882. He was involved in the Mason County War and was a part of the Cochise County Cowboys, a group of outlaws that we will see again this month, and he was in the gunfight at the O.K. Corral. (Or he wasn't; highchapparal.com suggests that Ringo was actually in California at the time, though he would return to Tombstone soon thereafter. clantongang.com disagrees, putting Ringo in Tombstone at the time of the famous gunfight.) And, Ringo himself was inspiration for numerous Western film characters. Already, in 1939's Stagecoach and it's 1966 remake, we saw "The Ringo Kid" who said his "right name" was Henry. The real life Ringo was, of course, possibly involved in the murder of Morgan Earp and was definitely involved in a dispute with Doc Holliday, and in the 1986 TV remake of Stagecoach, the Doc was changed to be Doc Holliday, suggesting that, if we had not already assumed it, Ringo was Ringo. Here in The Gunfighter, Gregory Peck (who was the villain yesterday) plays Jimmy Ringo, a character more deliberately based on the real deal.
(Ringo only gets a single mention in the Tombstone story in the Time-Life Old West book on Gunfighters. He is described as "a Texas desperado who, as part of Sheriff Behan's posse, helped drive Wyatt Earp out of Arizona [and who] was rumored to be the black sheep of a genteel Southern family" (p. 35).)
Western films do this sort of thing often, take pieces of the real "Wild West" and incorporate it into the story. I've already suggested that Westerns operate on the level of mythmaking. The best way to make myths--especially less than a century on, is to incorporate history. Mix the fact with the fiction and both are raised up above what they would otherwise be.
I will get back to that in a moment. There's something about this film that intrigues me. Sure the Western had existed since, well, pretty much as long as film had. They were popular in the silent era, then studios stopped making them when talkies came around. Instead, small studios made them. Prior to Stagecoach, John Wayne had starred in "B" Westerns, and prior to Stagecoach (and a few other Westerns in '39), that was about all there was. After Stagecoach, Westerns rose in popularity, peaking in the 50s with Westerns outnumbering other genres. The thing that intrigues me about this one is it seems like some of the westerns that we've gotten since the genre kind of died out. A little revisionist, a little... tired, it's lead character an aging gunfighter who has seen better (?) days. (Ringo's dying speech to his killer, Bromley, is echoed, in a feeling or a tone, if not in actual words, in Westerns as recent as 2007's The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford. There are consequences to being a "bad man," consequences to being a gunfighter.) It's like a too-early deconstruction of the genre, offering up a "bad man" who is trying to put his past behind him. Maybe it was a response to the genre waning when sound came around and then building back up, like the genre had seen better days and, while it was doing better, was feeling old. Or maybe this particular Western exists when it does because of the War. Just as I argued throughout January that 1980s action movies were a response to Vietnam, there was a response to World War II. Women had taken on new work roles and men had gone off to kill foreigners on the other side of the world. Plenty of them came back "shellshocked." This meant they couldn't go about their normal lives in normal ways. They couldn't be men. I suspect that the Western got popular when it did because of the war, and continued to gain in popularity afterward because America was trying to understand its men, its soldiers. Oddly enough, understanding them through fiction might have been the best way most people would understand it.
Similarly, fiction (like the Western) invokes reality to explore a time in America's history in which there was violence and outlaws and men like Ringo. The Clantons, the Earp brothers, the Youngers, the Jameses, Billy the Kid--these (and other) characters will recur in Western film after Western film.
Gary Cooper's Marshal in High Noon is also an old man who has seen better days (even though he only just got married). He is about to be replaced as Marshal but some bad men show up in town.
But, back to myth/history. Wright (1975) explains:
...myth--together with ritual, art, kinship, and politics--can be seen as a necessary symbolic strategy to reintegrate the experience that language makes detached and problematic. Through their stories and characters, and their unconscious, structural significance, myths organize and model experience. Familiar situations and conflicts are presented and resolved. Human experience is always social and cultural, and the models of experience offered by a myth therefore contain in their deepest meanings the classifications, interpretations, an inconsistencies that a particular society imposes on the individual's understanding of the world. (p. 12)
This is already getting a little dense, so let us break it down. The symbols of our stories (and our rituals and our art, and even our politics) express things deeper than the text of the stories themselves. The story is familiar because we repeat it but also because there is truth underlying it. What we believe about the world is infused within the story but also our choice to repeat certain stories more than others serves to reify those beliefs. We come back to the gunfighter Ringo, for example, because, well, on the one hand, maybe we want to believe that there are bad men out there, men who are willing to kill, for good or bad, and, on the other hand, we also want those men to be quite familiarly human. That Ringo in The Gunfighter is putting (or trying to put) his violent past behind him suggests that the men who came back from World War II can put that violence behind them. For example. The story--the myth--provides solace even as it confirms the theodicy fundamental to... well, imagine America as a singular individual, it believes in good and evil, and it needs those things to be real. It needs there to be bad men like Ringo (or, more often, bad men like Lewt in Duel in the Sun or Geronimo (or Crazy Horse in the remake) in Stagecoach (though we don't really see either one)... The Ringo of The Gunfighter reminds us that good men and bad men are not so different. There is just temptation between the two. A good man can turn bad and a bad man can turn good. This America also needs there to be good men like Marshal Will Kane here--he's so good that he can't just jail Miller and his gang or head right out and kill them; instead there is a debate, an open debate with the townspeople, about what to do. This movie becomes a justification for killing--evidence that a good man who must do something bad is still a good man. Wright categorizes High Noon as a transition themed Western (the transition being from the classical to the professional Western. He tells us, "this transition theme is almost a direct inversion of the classical plot. The hero is inside society at the start and outside society at the end" (p. 74). The town--i.e. law and order--cannot solve the ills of the world. Being its lawman, Kane cannot either. He has to step outside to save society.
I actually didn't expect this to so readily map onto the post-World War II America like it does, but it does. American GIs had to leave their regular, civilized lives to go kill. Kane, too has to kill. And, surely it is no coincidence that he is named Kane, invoking the first murderer. Will Kane. The film is all about him having the will to kill, to do what must be done. There is very little action because, well, that is not the point. This is not an adventurous film but a localized one. The debate over the necessity of violence has to be local. It has to mean something, have consequences that we can see, characters that might be victims if the good man's violence doesn't get on.
But, back to Wright; he continues:
The ordering concepts by which an individual acts will be reflected in the myths of his society, and it is through the formal structure of the myths that these concepts are symbolized and understood by the people who know and enjoy the myth. Thus, the study of myth can enable us to achieve a greater understanding both of the mind's resources for conceiving and acting in the world and of the organizing principles and conflicting assumptions with which a specific society attempts to order and cope with its experience. (p. 12).
I would alter Wright's description in one important way--I don't think that people necessarily understand every myth; more likely, many simply, for lack of a better word, feel it. We don't watch a Western, for example, and think about American history (necessarily) and think about the underlying structural oppositions or the demons the myth might be exorcising, the imagined ideals it might be invoking. We just enjoy it and know, subconsciously, that there is truth to it.
(A sidenote: I'm writing a paper about the sixties radical group Weatherman to finish out one of my last grad classes, and it occurs to me that sixties radicals would have grown up on Westerns. It is no wonder that they both believe in good and evil and believe that force and violence can get things done, even for the good.)
Better than the mere existence of good men and bad men, many a Western (and certainly Westerns from the 1950s) tell us that good can triumph over evil, and also our nation exists because of the struggle of these men, because the Wild West took us to extremes in echo of the Civil War that nearly killed us then brought us right back into something... good--the industrial revolution.