Rhinestone Cowboys, Part 4: Shoot, Luke, or Give Up the Gun

Image: Robert James Russell.

“So it’s fortunate that you’re headed North because West, it’s bad, big trouble, big storm coming.”


Payne / Ben Mendelsohn
Slow West (2015) / 84 minutes run time

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

In 2007, when the film The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford was released — first, to New York and Los Angeles theaters only — I was visiting a friend in Manhattan. I’d read the source material novel (1983) by Ron Hansen years before and considered it then (and still today) a masterpiece. What I didn’t know, walking into the theater, was how much the movie would move me.

The story — both film and book — revolves around the final years of Jesse James’ life as he descends into paranoia and, some might say, slight madness. He’s in his thirties; he has a young family but is relentlessly beset by phantasms of his past, assured he’s on the verge of being betrayed and captured at any moment. Beleaguered, Jesse reluctantly makes friends with Bob Ford who, ultimately, assassinates him (spoiler’s in the title, folks) in Jesse’s own house as the famed outlaw dusts a picture on the wall. It’s a brooding and melancholic and sumptuous film with riveting, yet restrained, performances all around. I consider it to be seminal in the New Western Canon, showing the characters — bloodthirsty outlaws, surely, in any other film — with prudence and care and dimensionality. There are no caricatures here.

Everyone, this movie elegantly reminds us, is worthy of a fully-rendered backstory.

Walking out of the theater, I remember staggering gobsmacked along the streets of New York City, slowly pacing the perimeter of Central Park. I was so agape that I passed by actor Richard Kind — who was waiting for his ride outside of a luxurious apartment building — without much fuss at all. But I couldn’t quite place it right then why this movie moved me so.

I remember thinking: What was this showing me that other Westerns hadn’t?

And, years later, revisiting the book and then the film (in that order, always), it hit me: it was the mighty deconstruction of the genre that makes it so potent. Directed by an Australian (Andrew Dominick), the film uncoils what it meant to be a famed outlaw in the West. It strips bare the very notion of hero worship, of what it means to aim for glory alone in our short, sepia-toned lives. It does so in a way that author Hansen — as an American himself — perhaps can’t even fully comprehend in the way an outsider like Dominick will.

This analysis of Westerns by non-Americans produces some of the best in the genre. Some of the most influential works are the Spaghetti Westerns — casting mostly Italian actors and often filmed in Spain — directed by Sergio Leone and starring a then (relatively) unknown Clint Eastwood. Two masterworks especially were produced during this era: The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly, and Once upon a Time in the West (both Leone films). (This era also produced some of the most beautifully swelling orchestral tracks of all time, courtesy of Ennio Morricone; if you’re uninitiated, go listen to “The Ecstasy of Gold” and see how it fills you with triumph.) More recently, we have (to name but a few):

Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee (2007), made by Canadian director Yves Simoneau, about the transition of Native Americans off their land and onto government-mandated reservations.

Blackthorn (2011), made by Spanish director Mateo Gil, about the lost, later years of Butch Cassidy living in Bolivia.

Salvation (2014), made by Danish director Kristian Levring, about a Danish settler who gets embroiled in a fight with a dangerous land baron.

Slow West (2015), made by Scottish director John Maclean, about a teenaged Scottish immigrant searching for his lost love in the wilds of old Colorado.


Slow West, especially, is fascinating: the film stars a litany of Australian, New Zealander, and British actors as, predominantly, Americans. But again, it seems the distance from the source material produces luscious results. We see the West, the bounty hunters, the crisscrossing stories, the xenophobia, from an outsider perspective, which bolsters our own view of the landscape, the genre. We’re better able to peel its layers and ask: What is it that makes a Western? It doesn’t, surely, have to star Americans or reflect their experience — in fact, it doesn’t, if we cut down to the core, have to be about the West itself.

Take Jan Troell’s The Immigrants (1971) and The New Land (1972), which, together, form a single, coherent narrative arc. The films are about a family of poor Swedes who emigrate to the United States in the mid-19th century, ultimately settling in Minnesota and battling the harsh climate, as well as other people and their ideals, in order to thrive. They’re beautiful films, as much Westerns as any, but perhaps non-traditionally so. There aren’t shoot-outs. There’s no posse of bandits riding through town like in a John Ford film, no dusty set-pieces and towering mountain ridges toothed along the horizon, and yet, it captures the zeitgeist of the time perfectly: that we are a land made up of immigrants, people who were seeking a chance for a better life, to work the land and, often, to commune with it, but that battled adversity from all angles (natural, and of course, xenophobic, especially).

George Parrott, better known as “Big Nose” George, was an infamous Wild West outlaw. Throughout his life, he evaded the law, was captured, escaped, but was eventually lynched by a mob of over 200 people, strung up on a telegraph pole. Doctors were eager, however, to study his body — to understand criminality — so quick to desecrate his remains for the sake of science. Here’s where it gets gruesome: His skull was sawed off, and the cap was given as a gift, used, ultimately, as an ash tray. (Hold on, it gets worse.) The skin from his thighs and chest were removed, tanned, and made into a pair of shoes and a medical bag, kept by Dr. John Eugene Osborne, later a Governor of the State of Wyoming (he famously wore the shoes to his inaugural ball). The rest of Parrott’s body was eventually buried in a whiskey barrel, not discovered again until 1950.

This dissection of Parrott’s corpse, while crude, serves as a perfect metaphor for what the best Westerns do: they cut apart, slice open from the outside, to reveal what the genre has to offer, beyond being about the West. That is to say a Western is, perhaps, a state of mind. It’s an idea of what it means to be an American — or, to want to be an American — especially during the heyday of Western Expansion and great migration to this country. It is through this perspective that we gain the best understanding of the genre’s importance — it doesn’t really matter what a cowboy is, but what the land and the open space and the attitudes and the ability to cobble a life together, a new, greater life, perhaps, say about becoming an American.

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

Matray, Margaret. “‘Big Nose’ George.” Casper Star-Tribune, October 30, 2011.

Russell, Sharman Apt. Kill the Cowboy: a Battle of Mythology in the New West. HorseShoe Books, 2016.

Smith, Henry Nash. Virgin Land. Harvard University Press, 1971.

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