Rhinestone Cowboys, Part 2: Crooked as a Virginia Fence

Image: Robert James Russell.

“Don’t be afraid, baby. I’ll stay with you until your little friend comes back. ”


Calvin “Slick” Stanhope / Jeff Goldblum
Silverado (1985) / 133 minutes run time

Image: Original 5x7 watercolor and ink by Robert James Russell.

In 1977, the Western genre was all but extinct, replaced with Vietnam War movies that modernized the familiar tropes, re-brandishing American jingoism from the low deserts of Southwest America to the damp jungles of Southeast Asia.

But even when on a hiatus, Western iconography was alive and well. In a Native American Literature course in college, my professor challenged us to go to a supermarket — any supermarket — and survey products that use Native American visages / cultural ideas as their logos. I was shocked, not only by the sheer number of products found (Argo corn starch, Land O’Lakes butter, Pemmican beef jerky, to name a few), but also that I hadn’t even noticed them until I was actively looking for them, products I had in my very own pantry.

Like Westerns, the Vietnam film cycle often glossed over or completely rewrote history. For Western films in particular, the very notion of the myth of the West, of cowboys and outlaws, of sidekicks and women needing saving and the many indoctrinations of Native Peoples to white culture (or else!) was more important than the truth: they paved over the truth.

When we think of the West, we have very specific ideas in mind, most of which have been informed by popular culture and a quick-cut-style history lesson in high school (at best). Westerns, on some level, represent a justification for westward expansion, for taking land — the notion of a white savior narrative was, for generations (and, yes, still today) something believed to have been rightfully inherited. In fact, whole sections of American history are founded on this false myth, that land was available to be plucked up (never mind the peoples who were already there, what the lands meant to them, the ensuing murders and rapes and displacements that followed), that there were no rules in the West other than meting out justice with your own two hands, that you could reinvent yourself and be a farmer or raise cattle, be one with nature and live how God intended.

In the early 1960s, Westerns were being re-thought. We call films from this period (and still today) Revisionist Westerns. These are the films that birthed the antihero, that got rid of (elementary) good versus evil signified by white hat / black hat characters, that gave Native Peoples and women marginally more interesting (and three-dimensional) roles in the narrative. Previously, Westerns were mass-produced: they used the same sets, in many cases, and even “stock footage.” But Revisionist films gave the Western some depth. There was a thoughtfulness woven into the stories, and while not perfect, they began to question our notion of the West, of our history, and of the dangers of cultural myth-making.

Perhaps this was enough to turn people away from the genre?

Perhaps people wanted to live in a stupor, not to be told they were wrong, that they owed someone an apology, that their self-perception was all built on lies?

To believe a thing you know isn’t real, to stake your claim on that, what does that do to people over time?

Silverado was received well at its release (and holds up well yet today), but audiences wanted to be entertained, not scolded. When I began my love affair with Westerns, really dug deep into them, I didn’t see them as entertainment, even when I was young. Sure, there are cool maneuvers, daring stunts, and gunplay; but these Revisionist Westerns I gobbled up were reports on times and places, both natural and urban. They were time capsules that forced me, like my college professor forced me years later, to start questioning what I thought I knew and to draw my own conclusions.

Perhaps this is what the genre does best — Silverado isn’t a particularly original film, like most Westerns. (They all lean into their tropes, and there’s a certain strength in doing so.) The movie’s plot — about revenge and love and tragedy and retribution and ego and personal histories being righted and family and friendships — is irrelevant. It may be entertaining in parts, of course, but where it succeeds, where any good late-20th-century Western does, is to make you think of the lack:

Who isn’t present in the narrative?

What are the stories not saying?

What’s been left out completely?

It’s fascinating to look at the commercial success of Western films. When a mainstream, modern Western is made, critics call it brave — they call it a genre comeback. But a quick glance at a sampling of “mainstream” Westerns from the past six years shows how infrequently they make their money back — people are not flocking to see them the way they do other types of films:

Image: Box Office Mojo.

And yet, the visage of the cowboy perseveres. Every few years, there’s a new film that tries its hand at telling us something new, often critically lauded but not seen. It’s like they’re there, reminding us how much has been hidden in our history: that until we make peace with our past and honestly talk about what’s been done and what there is yet to do, they aren’t, they won’t — like the reluctant heroes in these films — go away.

What I’ve come to understand slowly over the years is that cowboys — as we know them — are a fantasy. Men who reared and took care of cows existed. Ranches existed. Range detectives and boomtowns and shady backdoor poker games and outlaws with names like Rattlesnake Dick and Black Bart and Texas Tom and Big Nose George Parrott and Three-Fingered Jack existed. But my love of Westerns is based on a fantasy, the notion of some sublime, beautiful, natural world outside of time and space.

It’s just some wild animal.

ROBERT JAMES RUSSELL is the author of the novellas Mesilla (Dock Street Press) and Sea of Trees (Winter Goose Publishing), and the chapbook Don’t Ask Me to Spell It Out (WhiskeyPaper Press). He is a founding editor of Midwestern Gothic and CHEAP POP. You can find him online and on Twitter.

Bibliography

Box Office Mojo, www.boxofficemojo.com.

Cameron, Ian, and Douglas Pye. The Book of Westerns. Continuum, 1996.

Fenin, George N., and William K. Everson. The Western: From Silents to Cinerama. Bonanza Books, 1962.

Slotkin, Richard. Gunfighter Nation: The Myth of the Frontier in Twentieth-Century America. University of Oklahoma Press, 2008.