Why Revisionist Westerns Lost Out

No less an authority than John Wayne is said to have told Clint Eastwood that he didn’t think much of “High Plains Drifter.” It was dark and dirty and filled with nasty people, including the hero. If the Gangster Film was The Everlasting Nay thrown in the face of The American Dream, the Western was supposed to be its Everlasting Yea. No matter how many gunmen, or how much clout that rotten town boss had in “Dodge City,” everyone paid their quarter knowing the white-hatted Errol Flynn and his salty buddies would have that rat dead or ridden out of town on a rail by the fade-out. He’d also romance and win the girl, even if she started out hating his guts. By “High Plains Drifter,” the would-be reformer has been bull-whipped to death by hired thugs in the employ of the boss, and “the drifter”–is he an avenging angel, a dead man’s ghost?–satisfies himself by raping the town hottie. John Wayne would not have been amused.
Of course Wayne himself starred in one of the earliest revisionist westerns–John Ford’s “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valence”–but he played a hero who sacrifices his own happiness for the common good.
Almost twenty years earlier, in Ford’s “Fort Apache” Wayne co-starred as a subordinate who covers up his deceased commanding officer’s stupidity for the good of the service. Henry Fonda’s Lt. Col. Owen Thursday–Lt. Col. George Armstrong Custer in all but name–is presented as wrong-headed but not necessary vicious or mad. Later depictions of the glory-seeking Custer wouldn’t be quite so charitable. But then who was Douglas Kennedy, or even Robert Shaw, compared to Henry Fonda?
Tyrone Power’s Jesse James first came to us in Technicolor as an honest young farmer turned bad by a conniving railroad official (Donald Meek) and his brutal “problem-solver” (Brian Donlevy). It took almost forty years before Jesse came to be seen as a psychopathic career criminal, successively incarnated on-screen by Robert Duvall, James Keach and Brad Pitt. Similarly Billy the Kid went from matinee idol (Johnny Mack Brown and Robert Taylor) to disturbed youth (Paul Newman) to scuzzy back-shooter (Michael J. Pollard) before being incarnated by Kris Kristofferson as a wandering Lord of Misrule. Lawmen–Wyatt Earp, “Wild Bill” Hickok, “Bat” Masterson–have also had their ups-and-downs, being portrayed now as paragons, now as problem children with six-shooters.
My point being, that those who liked their westerns clear-cut and simple found more and more to disturb them. Was Wyatt Earp really a cold-blooded killer who used his badge as a hunting-license? Did wealthy Wyoming ranchers really draw up a death list of immigrant settlers and import an army of hired gunmen to carry out their wishes? This is a far cry from Errol Flynn cleaning out the bad guys and making Dodge City a fit place to live in.

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