A Few Codes of the Western Protagonist

The “true” codes of the Western hero, as borne out in an excavation of the subtleties in major films of the canon, are really more perverse than moral, more calculating than artless.

What force drives the Western genre?

One plausible, if conceptual answer might be the Western hero’s struggle to negotiate a strained relationship between his own innate codes and society’s manufactured conventions. The friction between the two increases the likelihood of a climactic showdown or duel, which pits oppositional powers or influences against each other with ideologies and livelihoods (not to mention lives) on the line. Under the reasoning of this answer, the bulk of the Western genre’s stories would be driven by the need to resolve the strained relationship between an individual’s codes and society’s conventions.

A valid answer, perhaps, but a more scrupulous investigation of the relationship’s constituent parts would reveal more of the genre’s nuance. For example: the above answer juxtaposes individual codes and societal conventions, but what exactly are the Western hero’s codes? And how do they play themselves out in key exemplars of the genre?

These are intriguing questions. Generally, the hero’s codes are thought to be of an honorable sort, organized around the principles of personal justice and intrinsic morality—in actuality, it’s not that simple. The “true” codes of the Western hero, as borne out in an excavation of the subtleties in major films of the canon, are really more perverse than moral, more calculating than artless.

Clint Eastwood as the Man With No Name in Sergio Leone's Dollars Trilogy

Code #1: Your most dangerous weapon is not necessarily your gun, but your knack for theatricality.

While the Western hero almost always has considerable skill with a gun, what is most impressive about the upper echelon of these protagonists is their flair for the dramatic. To simply perform at an adequate level is unacceptable; the Western hero must confront his dangerous reality as if a stage-magician, making technical skill palatable by means of some awe-inspiring pretense. John Wayne, the genre's cornerstone actor that any Western hero aspires to be, consistently demonstrates this particular code in his film portrayals. Whether he is adding an exclamation mark to the operatic opening sequence of Rio Bravo (1959, dir. Howard Hawks) via a spinning rifle smack to Joe Burdette’s face, or if he is issuing Matthew the terrifying warning, “expect to see me,” in Red River (1948, dir. Hawks), his mastery of physical or verbal violence manifests in conjunction with something close to melodrama.

John Ford certainly seems preoccupied with theater in My Darling Clementine (1946). Furthermore, his protagonist, Wyatt Earp, is memorable primarily because he plays against the Western hero type – both in the sense that he does not exude rugged manliness, but also in the sense that he conspicuously eschews theatrical violence. His showdown with Doc Holliday unfolds away from the prying eyes of the Tombstone residents, and how exactly he deals with Indian Joe’s antics is shown off-screen. Still, even when Earp ends the existential Hamlet soliloquy with immediate action, his actions stand in contrast to the Western’s natural and foundational theatricality—Fonda’s Earp is the anti-hero who gives shape to the general contours of this code.

Another Ford film, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valence (1962), is tragically devoid of a true Western hero—this code is incomplete in each potential hero the film offers us. Ransom’s showdown with Valence forces Tom into the dark area stage right, his critical moment of impressive violence against his nemesis forever threadbare because he is not permitted to mesh a theatrical performance with the action. Ransom himself, though blessed with oratorical skill and evidently an ability to shift personas depending on his profession, lacks technical skill with a gun. And Valence himself, though capable of (in fact, infatuated with) tremendous exhibitions of flair and technique, cannot combine the two into a dramatic finale, instead shooting lazily at Ransom as he cackles and is eventually surprised by Tom’s intervention.

It is notable that Peabody’s death at Liberty’s hands occurs shortly after we see the newspaperman hold up his bottle of liquor as if Yorick’s skull. More than anything, what is threatening to Valence about this man are his dramatic sensibilities in conjunction with his technical prowess, which finds powerful expression in the damning headline: “Liberty Valence Defeeted [sic].”

Even Gary Cooper’s Virginian, who, in a discussion about Shakespeare with Molly, chastises Romeo for being unable to “resist playing the actor,” upon the moment of his showdown with Trampas chooses to feign ignorance of his nemesis’ position, only to turn and shoot him down after allowing Trampas the glimmer of a chance. Seemingly, the theatrical is inextricably bound to the most impressive moments of Western heroism.

It would follow, then, that the purest version of this code is found in Clint Eastwood’s portrayal of the Man with No Name from A Fistful of Dollars (1964, dir. Sergio Leone). Hell-bent on revenge and then given a stick of dynamite by Piripero, the Stranger ultimately uses it indirectly, choosing to emerge from the smoke of the dynamite’s blast rather than throw it at Ramon and his cronies. He has been forced (read: beaten) offstage for a spell, but the Stranger’s entrance occurs after having had time to hone his craft and choose his costume carefully. The steel plate under his poncho shields him from Ramon’s shots and also serves as the ultimate form of deception, the ultimate pretense: immortality.

Ramon’s name is revered throughout the town, and he feels this popularity shall persist when he passes on, though his death is a concept he refuses to acknowledge as possible, seen quite clearly in his reckless sprint to the graveyard to shoot the two dead bodies. Talented to some extent in the art of roleplaying, his posing as an American cavalry-soldier being an example, Ramon nonetheless encounters a nameless figure more adept than he at morphing into character and fooling an audience.

The Stranger understands that, as Doug Williams explains in his article "Pilgrims in the Promised Land: A Genealogy of the Western", in the West a man’s “passive potency” finds realization in “survival when confronted with the fatal moment” (a way of defining immortality)—however, to set oneself apart from mere men requires the willingness to forego indicators of mortality (105). In this sense, the Stranger’s inhuman namelessness is an advantage, and his apparent imperviousness to bullets results from a decision to refuse the biological response to danger. And in then revealing his ruse, the Stranger effectively exhibits his mastery of the Western world’s latency for activating man’s “passive potency” while he also ridicules Ramon’s naiveté.

Ramon dies twice, the first being when the Stranger reveals his steel plate; in this moment, Ramon is forced to reckon with the knowledge that there was a moment when he had bestowed upon his nemesis the attribute of immortality. The Stranger’s gun ultimately relieves Ramon of life, but by then Mr. Rojos had already been forced to acknowledge his own mortality. In the end, Ramon has been thoroughly outplayed by an actor who understands Code #1.

Henry Fonda as Wyatt Earp in My Darling Clementine (1946)

Code #2: Be a true dandy, not a false dandy.

In his article on the genealogy of the Western, Williams draws a crucial difference between the Western’s “true dandy” and the “false dandy”:

“[The false dandy] desires to be a force of nature, something inhuman, unstoppable: a self-made gentleman/gunman. In contrast, the true dandy (in the Western, at least) seems to pay attention to matters of dress and action as an extension of his ‘calling’; an audience is less desired than suffered. The true dandy is the gentleman/gunman, a medium through which divine forces express themselves” (106).

So, a key distinction between the true and the false dandy is a lack of self-consciousness in matters of dress and action. Liberty Valence is a false dandy because of his need to look stylish (silver-embellished quirt and filigreed vest) as he inflicts pain. Trampas, from The Virginian (1929, Victor Fleming), is also a false dandy, his cultivated mustache and all black outfit coordinated with a garish handkerchief betraying his self-conscious grandeur.

Perhaps the “truest” dandy, Henry Fonda’s Wyatt Earp exhibits, time and again, why it is not absurd to consider him a “medium through which divine forces express themselves.” His gun skill is unmatched, but what makes him so clearly a true dandy are the minor moments of physical artistry—the chair/column balancing trick comes to mind, but so too does the moment at the OK Corral, whereupon hearing from his brother of Doc’s death Earp, back to us, throws his legs up over the fence one-by-one like an Olympic gymnast on the pommel horse.

John Wayne in Rio Bravo swivels his hips commandingly down the town street during his night guarding, and Matthew from Red River eventually earns his placement on the cattle brand (and thus in the Western hero pantheon), but not before we observe his incredible gunmanship and the subtle and seemingly involuntary predilection for touching his nose with his forefinger at times of heightened tension.

A modern example of the difference between true and false dandies can be gleaned from the remake of 3:10 to Yuma (2007, James Mangold). Ben Wade’s second-in-command, Charlie Prince, is a prototypical false dandy, sporting a bone-white leather jacket with Royal Army Pay Corps buttons as well as burnt orange pants, and takes every opportunity to show off complex quick draw/spinning techniques—his blasphemous selfishness stands in marked contrast to Wade’s ultimate decision to get on the train and allow Dan Evans one moment of glory in a life of misery. Prince pines always for Wade’s audience, but the true dandy feels “almost physical revulsion at the crude selfishness of false dandies,” and following Evans’ murder at Prince’s hands we see Wade draw his gun (adorned with a cross) and shoot down the false dandy (105).

The gang leader’s quick draw apotheosis action is followed by his choice to get on the train despite being free, all for the sake of Evans’ son’s newfound respect for his father. However, at the same time he yearns for his freedom, Wade accepts the incarceration if only to honor brave Dan Evans’ memory, because for the true dandy, “an audience is less desired than suffered” (106).

High Noon (1952)

Code #3: Your most important relationship is with your community, and to betray your community is to incur its wrath.

Generally speaking, telltale signs of an abusive relationship include: (1) humiliation, degradation, discounting, negating, judging, and criticizing; (2) domination, control, and shame; (3) accusing and blaming, trivial and unreasonable demands, and denying one's own shortcomings; (4) emotional distancing and isolation; and finally (5) codependence and enmeshment. The Western protagonist who betrays the relationship with his/her community stands to suffer any or all of these telltale signs.

This “betrayal” comes in a number of forms. One form is marriage to an outsider (in location or disposition). Another form is outright abandonment, either in terms of physical space or temperament. Another still is the support of measures that will surely rupture the insularity of the Western protagonist/community relationship. The first form is seen most clearly in High Noon (1952, dir. Fred Zinneman), which begins with Will Kane’s marriage to a pacifist Quaker, an act of betrayal in the community’s eyes. Despite the distance the town seeks to develop between their impending issues and him, Kane remains faithful, choosing to return to a community that does not fully accept his choice to devote his life to another.

For the rest of the film, we see Kane humiliated, degraded, shamed, and blamed by various townsfolk, isolated but still perceived as an embarrassing extension of the community. His emotional livelihood is threatened, but in the end he avoids the fate of the disillusioned former marshal, who despite his litany of complaints (“people gotta talk themselves into law and order, deep down they just don’t care”) refuses to leave the community. Even the film’s director can be seen as being in an abusive relationship with Howard Hawks and the collective Western filmmaking community—creating Rio Bravo as a response would require a simultaneous enmeshment with and negating of High Noon, and in shaming Fred Zinneman for his Western, Hawks denies his own work’s shortcomings.

The second form can be observed in The Plainsman (1936, Cecil B. DeMille), where the American Military community punishes Wild Bill Hickok for what they take to be betrayal of their sacred bonds/laws. Hickok seems to abandon his community in his decision to kill the three cavalry gunmen sent after him by Lattimer—now a fugitive of law, Hickok suffers degradation of reputation, isolation in the woods of the Dakota Territory, and the unreasonable demand to turn himself back over to spousal community that has proven itself corrupt.

And yet, even up until his death, Hickok remains faithful to his abusive community, riding off to warn the cavalry of the gun-wielding Indians. The third form is expressed in Johnny Guitar (1954, Nicholas Ray), where strong-willed saloonkeeper Vienna maintains a volatile relationship with her community due to her support of the railroad being laid nearby, an action that will surely allow an influx of Easterners into the tight-knit Arizona community. Led by Emma Small, the townspeople, displeased with Vienna’s support for the railroad and potential new patrons of her establishment, humiliate her and soon blame her for the bank robbery, exerting dominance over the saloonkeeper by threatening to rid her of life via lynching.

Knowledge of this code can even cause a protagonist to forgo reason in favor of returning to the abuse. This is seen most clearly in Lockheart’s actions in The Man from Laramie (1955, Anthony Mann). Somewhat unexpectedly, after vanquishing his foes, earning a solid reputation in the town, and gaining the attention of Barbara, Lockheart does not stay in town, instead telling Barbara that when she passes through Laramie to get back East, she should ask for where to find him. What reason does he have to return to Laramie, a cavalry fort responsible for sending his kin to death? Perhaps it is the knowledge of code #3 that compels him to return to where the film explicitly tells us he is “from,” the man being forever wary of what abuses follow from spurning the figure to which he is truly husbanded: his community.






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