Imagine, if you will, that the Western is a living thing. It was young once and it had fun [Stagecoach]. It didn't worry about some of its racist or sexist undertones [The Searchers], or how readily it reified and reinforced patriarchal and imperialist/colonialist notions about how the world worked. It sometimes sang
(and I'm sorry I didn't start this month with an earlier, musical Western)
and it sometimes glorfied violence. It had its adolescent period, figuring out what it was about, dealing in post-war storylines [3:10 to Yuma] to deal with a (different) post-war world. When President Kennedy was killed not long after Liberty Valance was, the tone of the Western changed a bit. Like it needed to exorcise its own violent tendencies [The Wild Bunch]. But, it was also coming to understand more of the world outside itself. Violence was all well and good, and it did get things done [How the West Was Won]. But, violence was also destroying the world, had already destroyed the way of life of many of the natives the Western used to portray so simplistically. It became thoughtful for a bit [A man Called Horse].
Maybe this was the equivalent of its 20s and 30s, trying to be a grown up [McCabe & Mrs. Miller] but still just wanting to play [Blazing Saddles], and Leone's deconstruction was part and parcel of that, rethinking all the ridiculous ideas that arose in adolescence. It settled in, let other action films take over the exciting stuff, not that The Outlaw Josey Wales is unexciting.
It wanted to be young again. Like anyone getting older, it acts younger than it really is [Young Guns] and hopes that acting dictates reality. But, all it gets is evidence that it has gotten old [Unforgiven], creaky bones, sore muscles. It reminisces about old stories and rewrites its own history to move past old playful imaginings [Tombstone], but it also tells new stories [The Quick and the Dead], remixes old ideas to pass the time [Open Range].
The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford is like the melancholy that sets in when the Western realizes that it might die. It's like a different beast altogether, transcending the genre in ways that redefine retroactively what the Western was really about all the time. The James-Younger Gang grew out of Confederate bushwhackers during the Civil War. When this film came out, America was once again bogged down in war. But, there isn't just that. That war--the American Civil War--had never really ended. Recent debate about the Confederate battle flag and its public display ought to demonstrate how true that is, even before you get into the larger issue of racial division in this country. Just today, in the Washington Post, James W. Loewen (author of Lies My Teacher Told Me... great book) writes, "The Confederates won with the pen (and the noose) what they could not win on the battlefield: the cause of white supremacy and the dominant understanding of what the war was all about." The "misinformation" about what the war was about comes from, for example, Confederate memorials. Loewen offers the state of Kentucky as a for instance: some 90,000 Kentuckians fought for the Union, 35,000 for the Confederacy, but there are 72 Confederate monuments there, and only 2 Union.
Jesse James fought for the south, and continued the fight beyond the confines of the War. Early in the film, Wood Hite (Jeremy Renner) starts singing "I'm a Good Old Rebel" and the others in the gang, including Jesse (Brad Pitt) join in. These are some lyrics:
Oh, I'm a good old rebel
Now that's just what I am
And for this yankee nation
I do not give a damn
I'm glad I fought agin her
I only wish we won
I ain't asked any pardon for anything I've done
This is a good decade after the War.
It's easy, I bet, for the South to romanticize its side in the war. This country was birthed in rebellion and we continue to love rebels and scoundrels. Even our Western heroes, in retrospect, are men nearly as bad as the outlaws after which they hunt. Pat Garrett was a criminal, Wyatt Earp a fascist bent on violence... and we're okay with that, too. In his review of The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, Roger Ebert describes the open spaces of Canada where it was filmed as a "land so empty, it creates a vacuum demanding men to become legends." I would argue that the West did this just fine regardless of the literal open space. The Western continues the idea, and we Americans take it as God's honest truth. We imagine an empty, wild space that we all were heroes for conquering. It's proof that America is the greatest nation on the planet, and hard evidence that America was kind of the point to history; this is where it was all headed. And, we love not only our Whiggish history but our Great Man history. Great Men are not always good. But, inevitably, we tell our history in terms of what man was in charge, what man was spreading the culture that would eventually give birth to us around the globe. In the West, the Wild West, every man was a Great Man, at least for a little while (and the idea continues to this day with the whole "15 minutes of fame" thing). Still, some men stand out from the rest of the pack, lawmen like the Earps, outlaws like Billy the Kid or Jesse James. They stand out because they don't run like other men run. They don't shoot like other men shoot. They have their own way of doing things. They--even lawmen like Wyatt Earp--are rebels.
Rebels grow old. As does the Western. As does the United States. It whiles away its days--the rebel, the Western, the United States--reminiscing about olden days, days when it had more fight in it, days when it had more hope, days when it knew who and what it was. When the black folk the South used to have as property become people and are allowed to have a voice that matters right alongside any other man's, it's like an invasion. When, spy films and gangster films tackle many of the same themes as the Western, when late-Cold War action films hold the attention of the audience that used to watch the Western, it's like an invasion, a battle, a fight for an identity that has been challenged. When the Left and the Right argue and fight over what the United States is, and some see fundamental truths about its identity transformed, some for the better, some for the worse, it is again a conflict, a seemingly primal fight for the definition of the rebel, the Western (and the Western myth) and America. In The Assassination of the Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, we see former outlaws turning on each other because they cannot be who they were anymore. (Jesse plans new robberies but does not carry them out.) Is it any different, America today?
No nation is permanently anything. No more than the Western is. No more than any man might be. But change is a scary thing. When the nation steers drastically in any new direction, it results in an uproar, a fight. When a Western is too far from what we might expect... or nowadays, seems just too old fashioned and tired, it doesn't do so well at the box office. When a man presents himself anew, those around him may reject him as well. Those close to him may not recognize him.
A man grows old, the Western grows old, the nation grows old. He wants to matter. It wants to be a positive addition to a longwinded genre. It wants to rule the world by sheer force of will. But old bones creak, old muscles cramp, and the larger world keeps moving into newer and stranger places. Life among grand changes is difficult, for those on either side.
I wish I had more time with this film. More time to write about it. As a film, it offers stunning visuals (Roger Deakins was nominated for an Academy Award for cinematography), evocative music (by Nick Cave and Warren Ellis), and some great performances (Casey Affleck was nominated for a Golden Globe and an Academy Award for his role as Robert Ford). The film works as a philosophical treatise on growing old (as evidenced above), as a memorial for the Western (and the Western myth), and as a straight drama, a story about hero worship, about celebrity, about obsession, about paranoia, about life itself, but especially a life outside the strictest confines of civil society even as it presents most of its scenes within the illusion of those confines. Pitt's Jesse James has the untamed unpredictability of his Jeffrey Goines in Twelve Monkeys, the unhinged menace of his Early Grayce in Kalifornia, and the thoughtfulness of his Mr. O'Brien in The Tree of Life. He is at once a force of nature on the brink of a violent outburst and a sullen man on the verge of retirement. A dichotomy befitting the Western. A dichotomy befitting America.