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CHRISTOPHER TAYLOR'S BOOKS

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

COWBOYS vs ACTION STARS

"Remember when I said I'd kill you last? I lied."
-Arnold Schwarzenegger, Commando

Shane
I was born in 1965, which means I grew up in the action hero era. That never really had any significance to me, until I read a piece by Terrence Moore at Big Hollywood about Arnold Schwarzenegger. Moore's thesis is that we need real men who are what they say they are, but this is the part that really struck me:
This virtue of integrity, which now goes by the opaque moniker “transparency,” was better understood in the age of the Western hero. The characters played by John Wayne, Gary Cooper, and, for that matter, Ronald Reagan, did not say much. But what they said they meant, and they would back up what they said with their very lives.

But we do not live in the age of the Western. Those of us in our thirties and forties grew up in the age of the action hero. The action hero is the figure who does not do the merely human things well but performs superhuman deeds that defy the imagination. He does not simply draw a gun faster than another man. Instead, he races through explosions on a motorcycle and dives out of planes without a parachute and yet invariably emerges from the ruins unscathed. Of course, the action hero has half a dozen stunt doubles and computer graphics and millions invested in the movie to pull it all off. But it’s all worth it: for the illusion, for the moment of suspended disbelief.
I've more or less gotten used to the absurd extremes in how action heroes are depicted. Its one thing to watch Spider-Man fall 40 feet on his back across a car and crumple to the ground. He is superhuman, you can buy that he won't be crippled for life and possibly dead. But when Arnold Schwarzenegger runs across a lawn with 156 people firing machine guns at him and never gets his, that's become a farce.

The martial arts and stunts that movies expect us to buy get a bit ridiculous. The movie Salt for instance was much more calmed down than most of the genre, but she does manage to leap from truck to truck speeding down a highway and ignoring physics. I'll buy that she might get lucky and not tumble off a truck top that's moving beside her at the same speed, but when you jump off a bridge on to a truck that's going 55+ miles per hour... well its the same thing as jumping off that truck to the road at 55. You don't do a roll and come up looking back at your pursuers, you skip off and hit the freeway, then are run over by 8 cars before anyone notices you were there.

Action films give us superhuman impossible heroes with ever-greater stunts. James Bond always had breathtaking stunts, but after the Bourne movies now he's a superhuman martial artist that can run 8 miles over incredible terrain and not be out of breath. These characters are primarily defined by what they can do.

By contrast, cowboy movies were about normal human beings with real limitations who has to face the problems they did with grit, character, and personal integrity. They may have been great at fist fights, but it was a fist fight with another regular guy, not a martial arts extravaganza involving paint buckets, ropes, and gymnastics. They may have been very quick and accurate with their pistols, but they got shot and missed and hurt and had to hide behind cover.

Westerns were primarily about human stories, about struggles between people in rough conditions, where the environment was as much a danger as their foes. In these conditions, merely survival was often heroic, and no one had a computerized gadget to find their way or contact help. That didn't just make these heroes self reliant, but skilled beyond the ability to destroy.

Usually the western hero was defined by what he did other than fight bad guys. They were cowboys, sheriffs, miners, and scouts. They had a job to do and in the process of that job, they ran into trouble and would not back down. Shane*, for instance, was an absolutely deadly gunfighter, but he was also a top hand at a ranch. He wasn't too cool or too filled with self importance to help dig out a stump or ride a fence line. These were men who worked, and whose character was defined by who they were rather than what they did.

For the old west, much of it was open territory without law. Even if a community had a Marshall, he was limited to the town, not the area outside it. Communications were very limited even when the telegraph was established. If there was trouble, each man had to face it on his own - and each woman, too. Western heroes were men who stood tall to face these troubles in the midst of the rest of their lives. Modern action heroes are usually elite killing machines waiting for action, rogue cops, or actually bad guys who have a heart of gold or rules they won't break and end up being the hero.

For modern heroes, there is a system of laws and government in place, there are instant communications, and there is a community established. No one has to go vigilante in the real world because there are so many layers of protection. No cattle baron or rail despot is going to burn you out for building a house on land you own but he wants for the water rights, at least not in America. So the modern action hero has to face monsters and extralegal villains. Most of these movies don't even show cops, there's no apparent structure of law enforcement in existence.

The bad guys are above the law, untouchable, so rich, powerful, and connected that no one can dare reach them except our hero who breaks all the rules and is the only one who can solve the case. In their pursuit of... well, beating the bad guys, they destroy all the evidence, kill nearly or actually all the suspects, and trample over the rights and property of everyone they meet.

The cowboy was in a situation where there were no contracts, no lawyers, and no one to back them up. They had to trust, and when they made a deal, they shook hands and their word was bond. If someone broke their word, they were ruined. Integrity was everything and honor was how a good man lived his life. Watching a good western taught basic ethics and virtues to young boys and girls wearing cowboy hats at the theater.

Watching a modern action movie teaches that if you're strong enough you can flip over a car and
cling to the front of a bullet train by a whisker as someone flies a helicopter down a tunnel at you. Modern action movies are spectacular and entertaining, but they teach you nothing about who you should be, only what they can do.

It isn't that I think modern action movies are awful and old westerns are wonderful. There were a lot of just lousy old westerns and some terrific new action films. There's a place for both. My problem is that the action movie mindset and genre has totally displaced the western movie one.

And I can't help but wonder how much damage that's done to our culture and the perception of heroes, right, and wrong among our youth.

*If you ever get a chance, read the book Shane. Its even better than the movie.

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