Language and Landscape

Jane Tompkins

What you see in the insets to . . . the opening shots of western movies, shots that put a whole set of values in place before a single word is spoken. I'll discuss those values in more detail later. But for now, it is enough to say that this is the same world we enter when we read a passage from Louis L'Amour's 1958 novel Radigan:

"She had never felt like this before, but right now she was backed up against death with all the nonsense and the fancy words trimmed way. The hide of truth was peeled back to expose the bare, quivering raw flesh of itself, and there was no nonsense about it. She had been taught the way a lady should live, and how a lady should act, and it was all good and right and true. . . but out here on the mesa top with a man hunting her to put her back on the grass it was no longer the same....There are times in life when the fancy words and pretty actions don't count for much, when it's blood and dust and death and a cold wind blowing and a gun in the hand and you know suddenly you're just an animal with guts and blood that wants to live, love and mate, and die in your own good time."

This passage contains what I am calling an ontology for the western. Faced with death, we learn the truth about life. And that truth is that human nature is animal. When your back is to the wall you find out that what you want most is not to save your eternal soul-if it exists-but to live, in the body. For truth is flesh, raw and quivering, with its hide peeled back. All else is nonsense.

The passage proposes a set of oppositions that are absolutely fundamental to the way the western constructs the world. There are two choices: either you can remain in a world of illusions, of fancy words and pretty actions (as L'Amour puts it, "the way a lady should live, and the way a lady should act"), or you can face life as it really is - blood, dust, death, and a cold wind blowing. What the cold wind seeks to wipe out are all the values emblematized in the plush, cluttered, overstuffed&emdash;and, as the western sees it, corrupt&emdash; interior of the Victorian home.

For the literary genre of the western, which came into its own with the 1902 publication of Owen Wister's The Virginian, entered the cultural mainstream at a moment when the central values of American life were being contested. The stunning triumph of women's fiction from 1850 onward, the continuing power of a religious establishment increasingly associated with Women's culture, and, later in the century, the steady movement of women out of the home and into public life had engendered a profound crisis in male identity. If Teddy Roosevelt's championing of "the strenuous life" dramatized a desire to remasculinize the culture in the image of a warrior ideal, the harsh desert - a site seeming to require brute strength for mere survival&emdash;offered itself as the ideal setting for staging a rev iv al of physical toughness and martial valor. In this light, the Western represents not so much the conquest of nature, as has been thought, as a need to reassert a masculine identity, an identity increasingly threatened by the growing influence of Christian, domestic female culture of the mid 19th century.

The western's desire to sweep the board clear of all civilized encumbrances-especially of everything having to do with the way society teaches women to behave-is as thorough and uncompromising in the great feature films of the 20th century as it is in popular western novels from Owen Wister and Zane Grey to Louis L'Amour, whose books were constantly made into movies. Whether in print or on film, the same desert--hardened heroes ride across the same empty spaces; in understanding how the genre molded the behavior and shaped the beliefs of men who came of age in the present century, the difference between word and visual image seems to make no difference. The traditions of representation are the same in both media, and they are, ironically, anti-representational. It is not only Christianity the western wants to do away with, but forms, images, simulacra of every kind. That is why, for example, no one in Delmer Daves' Cowboy, 1958, can remember the proper words for burying a man: there simply aren't any. It is precisely words, the western argues, that cannot express the truth about things. Similarly, the impatient distaste and flat affect with which John Wayne utters the lines "the Lord giveth, the Lord taketh away" as he buries a man in Howard Hawks' 1948 Red River go beyond challenging the authority of the Christian god (Wayne is the only authority in this universe); they reflect a disgust for all the outward forms of belief and their expression liturgies, litanies, rituals, representations&emdash;all of which are seen as betrayals of reality itself.

Thus, western literary and film heroes, almost to a man, use language grudgingly. In a classic scene of male bonding from George Stevens' Shane, 1953, when the little boy Joey asks Shane if he knows how to use a rifle, Shane answers-though we can barely hear him&emdash;"little bit." The rank understatement, the clipping off of the indefinite article, are the kind of minimalist language heroes speak, a kind of desperate shorthand, comic, almost, in its attempt to communicate without using words. Or watch John Wayne again in Red River. He uses a punch first, and only then words, to teach a young boy a lesson ("Don't ever trust anybody till you know him.") The string of commands Wayne issues in the same movie&emdash;"Tie'em up short," "Get up on the seat," "Let's go," "Keep em movin"'&emdash;are typical. Heroes give abrupt orders in monosyllables. (They're also partial to pithy epigrammatic sayings of a strikingly aggressive sort, like "There's only one thing you gotta know. Get it out fast and put it away slow.")

Typically, to the extent that a strong man is forced to employ language in a western, his strength is diminished. thus, westerns often dramatize contrasts between people who spout words and people who act. When Stonewall Troy, in Shane brags that he can face the Ryker gang any day, we know he's going to get shot; it's Shane, the man who clips out words between clenched teeth, who will take out the hired gunman. When Wayne, in John Ford's 1956 The Searchers, rudely interrupts an older woman who is taking more than a single sentence to say something--"I'd be obliged, ma'am, if f you would get to t he point"&emdash;he expresses the genre's impatience with words as a way of dealing with the world. For while the woman is speaking, Indians are carrying a prisoner off. Such a small incident, once you unpack it, encapsulates the Western's attitude toward a whole range of issues:

(1) Chasing Indians, that is, engaging in aggressive physical action&emdash;is doing something while talking about the situation is not.

(2) The reflection (and negotiation) that language requires is gratuitous, even pernicious.

(3) The hero doesn't need to think, he just knows, for being the hero, he is in a state of grace with respect to the truth,

It all goes together-instantaneous knowledge, commitment to violent action, impatience with language, and the ultimacy of male authority.

The features I am describing here, using the abstract language the western shuns, are dramatically present in Lewis Foster's 1956 movie Dakota Incident, whose themes are the bootlessness of words and, secondarily, the perniciousness of money (another form of representation). Near the beginning, a windbag senator, about to depart on the stagecoach from a miserable town called Christian Flats, pontificates to a crowd that has gathered to watch a fight: "There's no problem that can't be solved at a conference table," adding, "Believe me, gentlemen, I know whereof I speak." The next minute, two gunfights break out on Main Street, in one of which the hero shoots and kills his own brother.

The theme of loquacity confounded by violence re-plays itself at the end of the film when the main characters have been trapped by some Indians in a dry creek bed. The senator has been defending the Indians throughout, saying that they're misunderstood, have a relationship with the land, and take from the small end of the horn of plenty. Finally, when he and the others are about to die of thirst, he goes out to parley with the Indians. He makes a long and rather moving speech about peace and understanding, and they shoot him; he dies trying to get the arrow out.

In case we hadn't already gotten the point about the ineffectuality of language, we get it now. But no sooner is the point made then the movie does an about-face. The other characters start saying that the senator died for what he believed, that he was wrong about the Indians, but true to himself." They say that perhaps his words "fell on barren ground: the Indians and us." And the story ends on a note of peaceful cooperation between whites and Indians (alter the attacking Indians have been wiped out), with talk about words of friendship falling on fertile ground.

Language in this movie is specifically linked to a believe in peace and cooperation as a way of solving conflicts.

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