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Movie Westerns and Real Life

As we sit here very much wanting the gallant Ukranians to win in some fashion, and yet somehow doing so in a way which will not mean nuclear war, and the end of the human race and most of the animal species, I think about how the great Westerns made mostly in the early 1950’s dealt with existential issues.

Right vs wrong, though often nuanced. Wanting to survive yet not running away. People with various motives which may at key moments subsume the common purpose. Moral redemption. Courage from those from whom you might not expect it; shifting loyalty from someone who you thought would take a moral stand. And in the best ones, someone finding a way to save as many people as possible while not giving up.

I don’t like Westerns nearly as much as film noirs, but there is certainly something compelling about the very best Westerns. Various shades of human character, issues more complex that those of the old-fashioned Westerns where you could tell the good guys from the bad guys by the color of their hat.

Two men walking toward each other on a dusty street, knowing that at most one will live–unless, like Henry Fonda’s marshal for hire in “Warlock,” he throws down his guns to Richard Widmark’s newly minted lawman, rather than kill him, because he knows it is the right thing. Or like Jimmy Stewart somehow standing up to fight the evil gunfighter Liberty Valance, and being saved from certain death by John Wayne’s heroic rancher, who gives up the woman he loves because he knows that Stewart’s decent lawyer is the future of the West, not Lee Marvin’s sociopathic Valance.

We all know “High Noon,” seen by most critics as a metaphor for the McCarthy and HUAC hearings, when so many people would not stand up to them for fear that their careers would also be ruined. We know “3:10 From Yuma,” where the protagonist proves to his wife and boy that he is not a coward. We know “Shane,” who has given up his gunfighting days, but stands up to fight for a family and town. And Gregory Peck’s “The Gunfighter,” whose reputation as the fastest gun follows him everywhere he goes, and he has to fight every young gun who is trying to make a reputation, or who thinks he has a family quarrel to settle with him.

You cannot escape your past in many of the classic Westerns. Kill somebody, even in self-defense, and somebody in his family will believe it differently, and will not be satisfied until they duel it out. Henry Fonda’s Clay Blaisedale n the aforementioned “Warlock” finds a very nice woman, but she ultimately tells him, as he prepares to leave that town and find other ones to serve as marshal in, that she could not bear to worry every day about him, the “backshooters” who will always be there trying to kill him. In another story, Grace Kelly’s Quaker woman in “High Noon” hates violence, but ultimately has to make a choice when her new husband is fighting for his life.

I am thinking of these, because last night I watched a movie which I had only seen once very recently on a movie channel, and then bought. “Garden of Evil,” directed by Henry Hathaway, the script written by perhaps the most underrated screenwriter of all time, Frank Fenton, who wrote the script of “Out of the Past.” Music by the virtually unparalleled Bernard Herrmann, doing a rare Western score. Starring Gary Cooper, Susan Hayward, Richard Widmark, and Cameron Mitchell. Wonderful cinematography.

The basic story is that three gold-hunters , who are all strangers, but are going on a boat to search for gold, are forced to get off the damaged boat, and stay for a few week in a small Mexican town. In comes Susan Hayward to the bar where they are marking time, and tells them that her husband was badly injured in an accident in a mine shaft, and that she needs someone to help extricate and help him. She offers a lot of money, $2,000 each. They all decide to go, along with a gentlemanly Mexican man.

They find that the ride to her abode is almost impossible, going through the edge of a sheer cliff. They ask if there is an easier way back, and she says that she has never heard of one. When they get there, they find signs of Apaches having been there, and this appears to be their Festival of the White Moon, where the goal may be to kill as many White people as possible.

The husband has a broken leg, is angry and embittered, and thinks that his wife doesn’t care about him, she just wants someone to help get the gold out of the mine. What she is really like is not obvious, though from her facial expressions, one thinks that she is hurt by the accusations. All the men like Hayward for one reason or another, though she is not obviously encouraging it. The threat from the Apaches grows, and they realize that they have to get out of there. But the husband cannot walk after Cooper has set his broken leg.

Hayward says that if they all leave, and she stays, she will move around a lot so that the Apaches will think they are all still there. Widmark , who seems to be playing the same kind of gambler type looking for gold as he did in the fine Western “Yellow Sky,” sees her when everyone else is occupied, and says that he doesn’t believe her, she knows that the men will not let her stay by herself to be killed, and that she is manipulating them just as her husband has accused her of doing.

But she appears to mean it. The deal she wants is that they agree to take her husband, even if they have to carry him. Apparently he thinks he can ride, however. At the last moment Cooper hits her on the jaw to knock her out and take her with them. Skip down if you don’t want to see how it comes out.

In the next scene, they are out there, seeing the Apaches gathering on the hills. One of them says that they will all die. Hayward’s husband tells Mitchell, who is unhappy that he is slowing them down, that if he finds him a horse, he will take it and ride off. When Hayward finds that he has left, she is upset and saddened, but Cooper tells her that as she wanted to give him a chance, by demanding that they take him along, so he, realizing that he is slowing down any possible escape, wanted to give her a chance. This seems to make her feel somewhat better.

Some argument breaks out, and just as the hotheaded Mitchell is about to shoot someone, he is killed by an Apache arrow. As they wonder why the Apaches don’t kill all of them, Cooper suggests that maybe their goal is to kill them one by one. Later, they find Hayward’s husband nailed to a post. The Mexican has been killed by arrows in a memorable scene, as he shouts defiance at the Apaches.

The only way for the remaining three to try to survive, is to go back to that sheer cliff which gives them some cover. Cooper, who has told Widmark that he had previously been a sheriff, is able to kill a few Apaches ready to shoot them. Finally, Widmark suggests that the only course is for one of the two men to stay, and try to provide cover for the other two as they try to escape. Cooper does not want to, but Widmark talks him into it They will draw a card from Widmark’s deck, after they shuffle and cut a few times. High card “wins,” and stays.

They each draw a card, and they show them. Widmark says he wins, he will stay. Hayward realizes that he is not the “nothing” she told him he was, back at the house. She sincerely hugs and kisses him. She and Cooper ride off, until he says that he thinks that they have gotten away. They can still hear the sounds of Widmark’s rifle shooting at the Apaches. Cooper had jokingly said earlier that he couldn’t hit the broad side of a barn, but he apparently is surpassing that.

Cooper and Hayward are talking. He says that Widmark cheated him some way, made it come out that he would have the high card and have to stay. He says that he has to go back and tell him that, and that he was a better person than he had thought he was. Hayward says that she understands. He rides back along that frightening path (poor horses!), and he finds Widmark having been shot by an arrow. They talk. Cooper had earlier said that one always stays behind, someone who help the others get through. Widmark says that there is always someone who dies, this time it is him.

Widmark dies. Cooper prepares to ride off. As the blazing orange streaks of the setting sun are shown, Cooper is heard saying in voiceover, that if the earth were made of gold, people would be risking their lives to find dirt. It looks like the end of the movie, but the last shot, almost indistinct, shows a horse riding up to where another horse is there, waiting. Then we see the two horses, hard to make out, riding off in tandem together. From this, one can hopefully surmise that Hayward waited for Cooper to come back, and they will live a life together.

I almost always like happy endings in dramas, even noirs. Sometimes the poignant ending stays with one longer, but I still almost always root for the upbeat ending, even in the midst of sad events. So I liked this ending. And I liked the movie, not an absolute classic, but very atmospheric, very well acted, and a with a literate and sometimes poetic script which is the hallmark of Frank Fenton.

The movie took me away from the awful daily news, and the fears for the future of humanity. The story we are watching is not scripted, and there may never be a clearcut ending, which in this case, is almost certainly preferable. The same issues do arise; good and evil, honor and treachery, doing the “right” thing all the way, or pulling back to try to achieve the greater salvation.

If all the characters at a Western showdown are killed, there is still someone to tell the story, or to rebuild the town. In the real world, this is not a given. The longer view, something that many characters in these movies do not, or cannot afford to, have, is of ultimate importance, no matter how one might come out on the matter of choices and risks.


24 Responses

  1. Nicely written essay, William.

    I have put “Garden of Evil” on my list of movies to watch soon. I enjoy classic Westerns and the lovely Susan Hayward is one of my favorite actresses. I don’t think she ever received the the acclaim she deserved.

    Lately, it has been difficult for me to concentrate on any movies or books. Friends say they are having the same problem. The world is definitely too much with us, in ways I doubt Wordsworth could never imagine. Spending time in nature helps us experience the beauty our world still affords but watching a good Western also would be nice. I like happy endings.

    • That should say “in ways I doubt Wordsworth could ever imagine” or maybe “in ways Wordsworth could never imagine”. Either way, it’s unimaginable, the world as it is now.

      WP needs an edit function.

  2. Thank you, Lethe. You will enjoy it, it is dramatic and compelling. Richard Widmark is such a good actor. I am beginning to appreciate Susan Hayward more. And Gary Cooper does well, here, too.

    • Susan Hayward movies you might like (or not):

      “Deadline at Dawn” (1946)
      “They Won’t Believe Me” (1947)
      “House of Strangers” (1949)

      • I have seen and like her in all of those movies, particularly “Deadline at Dawn,” where she is quite appealing as a woman who has learned to affect a jaded persona, but who is actually very nice.

  3. A brief sports interlude because it’s tourney time: Very exciting men’s college basketball games yesterday. Say goodbye to Arizona and Gonzaga. So sad to see them go home but not really. Congrats to IBW’s Arkansas! And wasn’t it a surprise that Duke won? LOL. Good luck to William’s UCLA tonight!

    • I appreciate the encouragement! But we did not make the plays down the stretch, which I guess any team losing in the tournament can say. And we would have beaten that remarkable St. Peter’s team, too, and made the Final Four.

      • At this point, I am rooting against certain teams (Houston, Duke and UNC) rather than for any team, although it would be very exciting to see this year’s Cinderella (St. Peter’s) win it all.

  4. Fifty-seven in a row, and they said that no one would break DiMaggio’s record!!

    Well, getting a base hit in 56 consecutive games is a lot harder than solving wordles. But still, I will note that I just got a 57th straight wordle.. This last one was rather hard, it became a question of, “Would they use this word, or this one?” It took me five tries, and if the fifth one were wrong, I had no more obvious ideas. I wonder if people will complain; maybe not, because the actual word is more familiar to some than my fourth guess with the same first three letters.

    Anyway, after Joe DiMaggio hit in 56 straight in 1941, his streak was stopped, primarily because Ken Keltner, the third baseman of the Cleveland Indians, made two excellent plays to rob him of hits. And then after that, DiMaggio hit in another sixteen straight games! DiMaggio won the MVP that year, even though Ted Williams hit .406, the last time a major league player hit .400 or higher. Some say that DiMaggio won because Williams was not liked by the sportswriters who voted, while others point to statistics showing that DiMaggio had the better year. It is a classic baseball history controversy. My personal goal is to get some more wordles before my little streak is stopped.

    • It was a PHEW day for me. I had 4 letters after 3 guesses (none in the right place) but still wasn’t able to figure it out until my 6th guess. An off day for me (maybe the word was a little difficult, at least that’s what I’ll tell myself). I have only one Wordle strikeout so far (SHIRE). Pretty good for my rookie season.

      I enjoyed the Joe DiMaggio history lesson. I hope your Dodgers have an outstanding year.

      • Phew for me too…

        Had O E Y after four moves with only the Y in the right place… thought I had it JOKEY, sadly not true. Thought about it for a few minutes and the only thing I could come up with happened to be correct.

        • Ah, you had the y, which kept you from making the guess I did on my fourth try, a good word, but too archaic for NYT, perhaps. I rarely guess a y early, and it is a risk, because sometimes one is in there. I think the first or second wordle I did was abbey, and that took me a long time to figure out!

      • Judging from the articles,this word was very difficult, so getting it at all is highly commendable.

  5. I am a creature of habit. My first word is always adieu and my second is crypt. Then sometimes, if the answer is not at all clear to me, I’ll do a throwaway or two (words I know based on my previous guesses cannot possibly be the answer) on my 3rd or 4th guess to get an ‘o’ or a ‘w’ or a couple of consonants. My goal is to solve the puzzle and if it takes 6 guesses, so be it. It’s fun to get it in 3 or 4 guesses (I think 4 is my average) but that’s not my be-all and end-all.

    I hope the above makes sense. It’s my way of Wordle.

    • I too am a creature of habit, Unless I get real lucky, my first three guesses are words that test 15 letters including all the vowels; I have 5 sets of 3 words that I rotate through. IF I don’t have 4 letters, or a darn good idea what the answer is my fourth guess is always gawky or pawky, which tests 4 more letters, after the 4th guess I have tested 19 (maybe 20, if the Q is also eliminated, imagine the outrage if NYT throws in one of the Q not followed by U words) and I generally have 4 letters known, it’s those double letter words that trip me up most. I am still waiting for nanna, and eerie to show up.

  6. I have fallen into the sere, the yellow leaf.

    I was down to my last guess today and could think of two possible answers. I chose the wrong one.


    • Bummer… I did Splendidly. After my first 3 guesses I could see only one possibility.

    • A very difficult word, I barely got it on my fifth guess, and I don’t know if I could have come up with a sixth guess if that was wrong. Any record which has only two misses out of a hundred or so, as you have, is very impressive. What if this word was peppy? Who would get that?

  7. Another PHEW day for me. Not a difficult word but there were too many possibilities. It’s not fair!

    I’ve been off my game since DST began on March 13th. I’ve missed only one answer (yesterday) since then but I’ve had several PHEW days. The blame for this abysmal performance lies directly with the Chamber of Commerce and the Republican Party. That’s my story and I’m sticking to it.

    Another thing: Duke vs UNC in the Final Four. No one saw that coming, did they? Bah! Humbug!

    • Yes, those words where you get all but one letter, and then there are several possibilities, are not very fair. Today I essentially had the final four letters after three tries,but there were actually four legitimate words, any of which could have been the answer. I did not think of one of them until after I finished the game, and thus could well have lost by trying the three I thought of, but it is rather random which of four to guess, anyway. So I got the word in five tries, but it is almost impossible to know which of four letters is the right one to finish the word. If Wordle keeps doing that, eventually everyone will have a streak broken, through no mistake of their own.

      Maybe they want to hand Coach K the title without playing the games? I do not like Duke. I will root for Villanova, but a key player is out. I will root for anyone to beat Duke. Maybe Will Smith will get angry and punch someone to decide the outcome, this appears to be a current new option. Why did no one even nominate Alana Haim? I saw “Licorice Pizza” yesterday, and she was great. Wrong minority for the “New Academy”?

      • I want to see “Licorice Pizza”. I believe it’s about a first romance (?) set in the early 70’s in LA, with quirky but charming characters. Seems like a movie I would enjoy. Does it have a good soundtrack?

        I will also be rooting for any team that is not Duke to win the tourney.

        • It has a good soundtrack, though the early ’70’s were not as good a musical era for my taste as the ’60’s. The movie has charm; it jumps around some, but is always enjoyable, and with a very nice ending. The two leads are good, particularly Alana Haim. It is nice to see a movie which has some “old-fashioned” charm to it, is not filled with social moralizing, and you just watch unfold.

          The depiction of Jon Peters, apparently quite accurate, is very funny, he is played by Bradley Cooper. Haim’s entire family, two sisters, and parents, are in the movie. Apparently the director Paul Thomas Anderson as a boy had a big crush on the girl who ultimately became Mrs. Haim. I guess that the title “Licorice Pizza” is not made obvious, I thought it would be. There was a small independent record store chain of that name, and one of them may still be open, though perhaps not. They used to do commercials on the music stations during the time the story is set.

    • Got very lucky today… After my first 3 guesses I had all 5 letters with four in the right position… it didn’t take a genius to get it in 4.

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