The Westerner (1940): The spontaneously inventive narrator and the shaping of the American story
I’m happy to have seen this the other day. It’s got some pretty deep storytelling going on.
Nominally it’s a western. Not often mentioned among the more well known ones, or even the great films of the era, but for me it comes with such rich notation that I think elevates it to something you must see at one point.
Set aside that it’s a western and consider this as context.
America is creaking and has been doing so for some time now, creaking under the weight of the story of what kind of place it’s going to be. The notion on one side of the political equation is that things were better in a more wholesome, simpler past, a past not always specified but tacitly understood — and often evoked — with images of rugged individualism and an open prairie.
We’re meant there to recognize a more straightforward relation of people to work, to land and to each other. Far from the meddlesome intricacies of the big city. Or so it goes.
Now turn to this. It came out at a time when America was creaking even more than it is today. The country was still mired in the Depression, although some novel and bold experiments had been tried. War and fascism were already booming over Europe. By June that year France had already been overrun by the Nazis. So there was much dithering and soul-searching about what to do, come to Europe’s aid or look away.
The story here is about cattle ranchers versus homesteaders for control over a remote corner of Texas prairie.
The farmers try to fence their fields to keep herds away from their crops. The cowboys bust through anyway, arguing the fields cut into their grazing land. This leads eventually to a prairie war between the two groups, and Wyler gives us some pretty harrowing images of fires raging over the fields that must have registered as deeply about the horrors of the war in Europe, with displaced families having to flee their land and burnt homes. It’s pretty astounding to see.
It’s interesting that in a western where roaming freely is often lionized as exemplar of life the cowboys are the bad guys. But even more interesting is getting to note the two characters at the center.
Presiding over the cattle men is Judge Roy Bean, a conniving saloon-keeper who pretends to be a judge around town. With a smattering of legalese and Bible at hand, he pretends to administer the law, but an arbitrary law that we know he makes up on the spot to please whatever narrow self-interest has come up, while being enough of a demagogue for everyone else to follow along.
The other guy is a drifter who is brought in before him on charges of stealing a horse but after much bartering and conniving he manages to escape. Eventually he makes his way to the farmers where, of course, he finds love, and leads the effort against Bean and the cattle-men.
The interesting stuff is that we have for a hero someone who is not simply some moral, upstanding guy in a white hat. He spontaneously improvises on the spot, barters and invents, much like Bean, but in his case it’s to save his life. An interesting point in the story is that he quite possibly frames and shoots an innocent guy as the ‘real’ horse-thief. It’s never resolved in the film if he actually was the thief or if it’s something Cooper makes up on the spot.
So nothing is ‘pure’ here. The cowboys ravage the land and menace the people in pursuit of ‘freedom’ to do as they please. Their leader, a grizzled veteran of the old West, lies and steals, invoking a ‘law’ he makes up. The protagonist is a capricious narrator himself, reluctantly doing good after the community has been burnt.
Wyler really knows what he’s doing here, delving deep into our assumptions about storytelling, using the western as theater to point out how illusory these assumptions are. This is up and above any John Wayne fare of the time.
(Ironically, both sides here, freewheeling cowboys and pious community, are part of the story conservatives of today invoke when they think of a more innocent past.)
The resolution is not some clear-cut shootout between gunslingers but again ties to image and fiction.
Bean has been obsessing about an English actress, his saloon plastered with images of her, which is what — that obsession with fictional image — Cooper uses to escape the first time, inventing a story of having known her.
At the end, news come that, miraculously, Lilly Langtry, the actress, will be appearing for a show nearby. Bean learns of this and buys up all the tickets so that he will be alone in the theater to see her. As the curtain goes up, another fiction. We never know if Langtry was ever really there, or it’s a dying man’s vision that we see.