|Mary Lea Bandy and Kevin Stoehr,
Ride, Boldly Ride: The Evolution of the American Western
University of California Press, 2012
(Review copy supplied by University of California Press)
Not surprisingly, themes of landscape, Manifest Destiny, and the western character loom large in Ride, Boldly Ride: The Evolution of the American Western, but the book has an ur-theme that is not apparent to the reader until he reaches the very last sentence: “[T]he Western’s clearest expression of journey, adventure, and expansionism has been the journey, adventure, and expansion of the genre itself.” In its 280 pages of text, authors Mary Lea Bandy and Kevin Stoehr manage to provide interesting, substantive discussions of a surprisingly large number of films. If they occasionally seem distracted by tangential issues, exercise questionable judgment on what films to highlight, rely too much on the opinions of other scholars, assert without explanation, seek lessons in films, and overlook a film’s most emotionally powerful moments, the cumulative effect of reading the book is an enriched comprehension of the Western’s variety and evolutionary continuity, a sense of the unity that comprehends the genre’s diversity.
The book’s structure is a bit disjointed, in that there is not a clear trajectory linking chapter to chapter, topic to topic. A chapter on women in the Western dwells almost totally on The Wind (USA 1928). A chapter on the comic Western not merely chooses to focus on Ruggles of Red Gap (USA 1935) but within this discussion digresses at length on the career of Leo McCarey. One chapter compares two Westerns Howard Hawks made with John Wayne (Red River [USA 1948] and El Dorado [USA 1966]), with Wayne’s persona as a main focus, while another examines two Westerns John Ford made with John Wayne (The Searchers [USA 1956] and The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance [USA 1962]), with their aesthetic excellence as the reason for pairing them.
The authors often invoke established scholars and critics such as Bazin, Kitses, and Wollen, among several others, to make a point. Their readiness to do so suggests a lack of confidence in their own critical discernment, but it benefits the reader. The quotations are usually interesting and remindful. They flesh out the authors’ often-tentative interpretations. And occasionally the authors take on the critics they cite, sometimes by adducing a second critic in rebuttal. In these brief squabbles, they win some and lose some. In one victory, the authors first quote a view (of George Fenin and William Everson) that Northwest Passage (USA 1940) is racist because in it the Indians are described as vicious and savage and then counter with a quotation from Susan Glover that points out, accurately, that while the Indians’ savagery is merely reported in dialogue, we actually witness acts of horrendous savagery committed by the whites (113). They lose, in my view, when they counter Jim Kitses’ argument that the intended critique of violence in Unforgiven (USA 1992) fails because the film has made us want to see Will Munny slaughter a lot of people. The authors blame the audience (and Kitses): “If we find any genuine heroism in Munny’s violent killing . . . it is probably we who should become the object of criticism, not Eastwood or his film” (268). But Kitses had not argued that we find heroism in Munny’s rampage, only that we want to see it.
The authors exhibit a puzzling tendency to find life lessons in Westerns: “[The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, The Seachers, Red River] instruct us in the nature of legal authority” (202); Boetticher’s film “reminds us that humans are by nature autonomous” (217); “Many of the midcentury Westerns teach us such a lesson. . .” (226); Unforgiven “provides another profound lesson about mythmaking and the falsehoods. . .” (265). They make unsupported claims. Here and there they assert that the revisionist and postmodern Westerns reveal the truth about the West, debunking its mythology. But nowhere – or rarely – do they provide evidence for this claim outside the films themselves. How then can they tell when a film is presenting an accurate depiction?
The authors often seem to miss the most emotional or telling moments in a film. The famous final shot in The Searchers reveals Ethan’s “inability to settle down” (193). It’s much worse than that for Ethan. He stands there, ignored, as first Debbie then Martin are warmly met by the family and ushered inside. It is at that point, left alone outside, unwelcomed and unwanted, that he turns around and walks off. The door is closed from inside, the family having already forgotten him. When discussing the final scene of The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, the authors seem to think the most powerful emotion felt by Hallie and Ransom is a lament for the lost West of their young adulthood. For me – and I don’t see how one can miss it – the truly jolting epiphany is Ransom’s realization that his wife of several decades has loved Tom at least as much as she’d loved him. The authors assert that Will Munny of Unforgiven “returns to his old ways purely for the sake of the offered reward” (262), but the sequence of shots of Munny watching the Schofield Kid ride off in pursuit of said reward suggests a longing less for money than for freedom from a farmer’s boring, unglamorous toil. The promise of a reward seems more like an excuse than a goal. The authors criticize Red River for relying on dialogue to tell us what we can gather from the action. This is a legitimate criticism, but in a book that sees one of the major functions of the Western to celebrate, justify, or question Manifest Destiny, they ignore a passage of dialogue in Red River that may be the most historically honest – and unapologetic – statement on the topic ever voiced in a Western. After Tom Dunson has staked claim to a vast stretch of South Texas grazing land, he is accosted by gunmen working for a Mexican landlord, Don Diego. Their leader tells Dunson that the land belongs to Don Diego. Here is Dunson’s response and the exchange that follows it:
“Tell him all the land north of that river is mine. Tell him to stay off of it.”
“Oh, but the land is his.”
“Where did he get it?”
“Oh, many years ago, by grant and patent, inscribed by the king of all of Spain.”
“You mean he took it away from whomever was here before. Indians, maybe.”
“Well, I’m taking it away from him.”
The gunman draws. Dunson is faster and kills him. That’s that.
It’s easier to criticize this book than to praise it, because its flaws are specific while its strengths are cumulative. This is an energizing, useful book. It provokes the reader to talk back to it – and to re-see some Westerns. And it succeeds, finally, in conveying a sense of a causal continuity in the genre’s development over the past century-plus, a recognition that most Westerns are aware of the Westerns that have preceded them.