Breaking the Western Mythos

New York Times

From the ACLU: “Two nights ago, an armed civilian militia organization describing itself as the ‘United Constitutional Patriots’ arrested nearly 300 people seeking safety here, including young children, in New Mexico. Other videos appear to show even more recent arrests…”

That’s where I’m going. Right there.

This is the myth, the heroic white cowboy legend, that Trump’s generation sold itself, an America that never was, small, limited, SIMPLE, where problems are solved with a gun and rope and all a good woman needs is a rough man to defend her from the savages outside of town.

When those who call themselves conservatives today talk of conserving “our” history, well, that’s the history they mean and they would erase anyone who does not fit their myth from it — or relegate the rest of us to the help or comic relief.

Stonekettle

If you look below the surface of the Western mythos you will find rare gems of television and Hollywood gold, like the 1950’s television series Maverick. I stumbled across this series a few years ago when James Garner died. I need to backtrack a little bit here.

I grew up watching detective stories at my dad’s feet. He had a weakness for cop dramas. If Hawaii 5-0 or Dragnet or any one of a dozen other shows I could name was on, he was watching it. I didn’t care much for most of the cop shows he watched, but the detective shows like the Rockford Files always intrigued me. Rockford, being an ex-felon, ex-cop, never carried a gun. In the world constructed around the character of James Rockford, it was a liability he didn’t want to have to answer for. If he needed a gun he seemed capable of taking one from whoever was threatening him.

It came as a surprise to me, learning more about him after his death, that the lack of a gun was a limitation that he demanded be written into the stories that he took part in. He felt that the gun was a crutch, it allowed the writers and the actors an easy way out of any situation. Just shoot your way out and you were the hero. Those weren’t the kinds of stories that James Garner wanted to be known for. This was true of Maverick as well as being true of Rockford Files. Guns were only carried by bad guys and lawmen, and the Mavericks had to learn how to turn a losing hand into a winning one by using their minds and the gullibility of the people around them. Rockford couldn’t carry a gun or he would go back to jail, so once again the stories had to be a little more clever in order for them to be interesting to the viewing audience.

Sure there were fistfights and concussions galore in both series, but this was the sixties and seventies. You had to have something to keep the audience watching back then. Dialog was simply not enough to keep them entertained. But the heroes of the series didn’t win because they were the fastest with a gun. They came out on top because they were smarter than their opponents were.

The more standard Westerns never kept my attention as a child. The closest I came to watching standard fare back then was watching The Big Valley or High Chaparral. I can watch Clint Eastwood in virtually any film his production company made and enjoy myself, but shows like Bonanza never held my attention. They were all too predictable.

Comparing what I call a Western with what the average Western looks like, is like saying that Lost in Space and Star Trek are equal because they are both science fiction television shows. I know, this insistence on distinction with a difference makes me an outlier, not the subject of the Stonekettle Facebook post I quoted at the beginning.

I get it.

…And yet there were five seasons of Maverick. There were six seasons of Rockford. A second Maverick series. A Maverick movie. Someone is watching Rockford right now somewhere out in TV land. There has to be a significant number of people like me out there. Like us out there. The question is, are there enough of us? Enough to change the myth? I still hope so.

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