For over a century now, motion pictures have been the parables of the masses. From Hollywood to Bollywood, Paris to Perth, audiences have flocked to theaters to see the values they cherish (or despise) reflected in the stories and characters on the silver screen. And if movies are the world's morality plays, then the Western is America's essential parable. It's proven a durable vehicle, both for its longevity and range of expression.
From Hollywood's earliest days, Westerns have always been a trusted winner. Most of them–either the cowboys and Indians sub-genre or the all-gunslinger variety–take a simple good-versus-bad approach. But very quickly, directors began to flex the Western's muscle, realizing that despite dusty, dirty, and often brutal settings, the Western could be used to explore some very nuanced ideas.
Considered by many to be the finest Western ever made, John Ford's 1956 masterpiece, The Searchers, presents a story that's hardly simplistic. John Wayne plays Ethan Edwards, a battle-tough Civil War veteran who fought for the Confederacy. Shortly after returning to his Texas home, Comanche Indians raid the Edwards ranch and abduct Ethan's niece, Debbie, played by Natalie Wood. Thus begins the epic to which the film's title refers. Ethan relentlessly searches for his niece, but as years elapse, he discovers that his niece has "gone native," she has become Comanche.
Ethan won't give up. He resolves to find Debbie anyway, not to rescue her but to kill her.
When the climactic battle occurs, however, Ethan doesn't kill Debbie. Instead, he carries her off and returns her to her family. Despite the bitter years of searching and the grim change of heart he has along the way, the flinty Ethan Edwards can not bring himself to kill his own niece. Sure, I know: Hollywood would never release a movie in which one of its greatest stars guns down a niece played by a young beauty. And yet, as testimony to Wayne's magnificent acting and screen persona, you almost think he might!
Ethan Edwards has two epiphanies of conscience. The first is when he thinks that he'd rather see his niece dead than transformed into a Comanche squaw. That's the power of prejudice and hatred abetted by violence–the Comanche, after all, killed Ethan's brother and all his family, kidnapped young Debbie, and burned down the Edwards homestead. The second epiphany occurs when the moment to make his twisted resolve reality confronts him in the flesh: he seizes Debbie by the arm and nothing is stopping him from ending her life.
He can't kill his own blood. It's a beautifully powerful moment. That, as John Donne reminds us in his Meditation XVII, we are really all our own blood is an epiphany for a different kind of man. But Ethan's is a fine start.
In 1990, another masterpiece would practically flip The Searchers on its head, Kevin Costner's Dances with Wolves. Directed, produced by, and starring Costner, this wildly sprawling epic abounds with important lessons, from psychology to American history to ecology.
Where The Searchers alludes to the Civil War experience of Ethan Edwards, Dances with Wolves drops us in the middle of a battle. Severely wounded and facing amputation of his leg, Union Army Lieutenant John Dunbar, played by Costner, decides to ride a horse in front of the Confederate lines. It's a deliberate suicide attempt. But instead of getting him killed, his feverish ride distracts the enemy and the Union forces rout them. Dunbar survives, his leg is saved, and he's commended.
It's one of many lessons: here he was trying to get himself killed rather than have his leg cut off and for his act of utter desperation he's reckoned a hero. War is hell; it's also absurd.
For his "bravery," Lieutenant Dunbar gets to pick his next assignment. He chooses to go West where he comes in contact with the Lakota Sioux Indians. Over the course of many meetings and actions (some of them truly heroic), Dunbar comes to be trusted and accepted by the tribe. Moreover, he begins to see the beauty and wisdom of their way of life. And, to further cement his bond to the tribe, he falls in love with a squaw, Stands With a Fist (memorably portrayed by Mary McDonnell), a white woman who was kidnapped by Pawnee Indians as a girl but later adopted by the Lakota.
It helps that Dunbar has encountered the Lakota and not the bellicose Comanche. Still, imagine Ethan Edwards deciding that the Indians have a better approach to life and he's going to settle down with a squaw and take only what he needs from the land.
There's one young Lakota who takes a long time to warm up to John Dunbar. Fiercely proud Wind in His Hair, a role perfectly cast in Rodney A. Grant, is extremely vocal in tribal councils about his dislike of the new "white face." While he may be young and impetuous, he already has a grasp of just how hollow the white man's treaties are. In a poetically rendered insight, Wind in His Hair receives a lesson from his leader, Chief Ten Bears (Floyd Red Crow Westerman.) After Wind in His Hair makes yet another plea for an aggressive stance against the incoming white men, the aged chief pulls out a glittering conquistador's helmet, a classic Spanish morion. His proof in hand, Ten Bears explains that the white man has been here for a long time and is not going away.
After hunts and feasts, arguments and fights, acts of generosity and displays of true kinsmanship, Wind in His Hair and Dunbar become friends–nay, brothers.
For me, the most moving lesson–immediately poignant and yet uplifting on inspection–comes at the end of the film when Dunbar, now known by his Lakota Sioux name Dances with Wolves, decides he and Stands with a Fist must make their way on their own for the tribe's safety. In what appears to be that old anger he harbored for Dunbar, Wind in His Hair spurs his horse and rides off. Then, unexpectedly, he re-appears high atop a ravine. Raising his spear to the sky, he yells with uncommon passion: "Dances With Wolves! Dances With Wolves! I am Wind in His Hair! Do you see that I am your friend? Can you see that you will always be my friend?"
My eyes well as I write that line. That a young man who had initially so disliked and mistrusted the alien invader could now proclaim that rhetorical question in a fury of love . . . well, there's a lesson there too.
If Dances with Wolves reverses the old cowboys–and–Indians formula, Clint Eastwood's Unforgiven, from 1992, closes the book on the simplistic notion of good versus evil. Like Kevin Costner, Clint Eastwood directed, produced, and played the lead role in this milestone of a movie. In an interview around the time of the film's release, Eastwood described his latest effort as a story of how violence begets violence. (I can still hear Clint's distinctively breathy, barely audible enunciation of that phrase.)
But Eastwood's description doesn't do the plot justice, it's far more subtle. Delilah Fitzgerald, a prostitute in the town of Big Whiskey, Wyoming, gets her face disfigured by two cowboy patrons. When the sheriff, "Little" Bill Daggett, played by Gene Hackman, lets the men off with a slap on the wrist, the other prostitutes pool their money into a $1,000 reward for anyone who kills the guilty parties. It's not only the bounty that entices William Munny (Clint Eastwood) and Ned Logan (Morgan Freeman). In classic telephone game fashion, by the time they hear of what had happened to the prostitute, she's been mutilated beyond recognition. In their attempt to get the reward, Ned is captured by Little Bill and dies during interrogation. When Munny finds out that his old pal Ned has been killed, he goes back into town to wreak murderous revenge.
And here is the tragic beauty of Unforgiven, its profound insight and its total break from the simplistic good guy-versus-bad guy blueprint of earlier Westerns: after an initial wrong–the disfigurement of Delilah Fitzgerald–everyone believes that they're doing the right thing.
Why does Little Bill go easy on the cowboys? The early sub-plot of English Bob, a pathological killer colorfully rendered by Richard Harris, explains Little Bill's motivations. Little Bill is a sheriff in a savage world where most men's IQ's are barely bigger than their shoe-size and all these knuckle-draggers carry pistols and drink whiskey. He's trying to enforce an ambitious ordinance: no guns allowed in Big Whiskey. When pistol-packing English Bob arrives, Little Bill uses the opportunity to show his deputies and anyone else who might hear tell (we already know how quickly word of mouth travels) just how serious he is about his no-guns policy: he kicks the living crap out of old English Bob.
If only we had about 100,000 sheriffs like Little Bill.
Are his methods brutal? You bet. But he's trying to keep the peace the best way he knows how. As further scenes in the movie demonstrate, he's actually not a bad guy at all. Are the prostitutes wrong for circumventing the law? Maybe, but they know damned well that they have little recourse being not only women but women of ill repute. You can hardly blame Munny and Logan for responding to so generous a bounty. And as time goes on, they actually feel morally justified. Is Munny wrong for killing Little Bill? Well, as Eastwood stands over the wounded sheriff, Hackman says, "I don't deserve to die this way" to which Eastwood replies, "Deserve's got nothin' to do with it."
In a sense they're both right. Little Bill really doesn't deserve to die like that. He didn't mean to kill Ned Logan but he did, and he stood Logan's dead body up in an open coffin so others could see what justice looked like. Munny just knew that his friend–who was trying to avenge a woman needlessly cut up by drunken fools–was dead.
It's only in comedies where characters knowingly revel in doing bad, such as Dr. Evil in the Austin Powers films or his spiritual predecessor, the organization KAOS in the TV show Get Smart. In the real world, everyone–from suicide bombers to peace-keeping forces, from dictators to diplomats–thinks that they're justified in their actions. It's sobering to realize that Hitler never rubbed his hands together, laughed aloud, and said that he was going to perpetrate evils the likes of which no one had ever imagined. Quite the contrary, Hitler and his closest henchmen truly believed that what they were doing was right.
Unforgiven is the greatest Western ever made and, as such, one of the greatest parables ever told. It's an adult dose; fairy tales would have us believe that the world is black and white, Unforgiven reminds us that it's actually a hundred shades of gray.