The iconic final shot of John Ford's The Searchers (1956, directed by John Ford) frames John Wayne in a doorway against an infinite Technicolor expanse of hardpacked earth and bluing mountains, he and the mountains both a sliver of uncivilized trammel being swallowed up and rendered small by the encroaching darkness. The frame narrows Ford's saturated primary colors and Monument Valley photography to an eclipsed pinprick.
The Searchers itself is a kind of twilight over the popular image of the Western – cowboys fighting Indians over the dry bloodless pops of toy guns, black and white morality, uncomplaining heroism. It is too brutal, too ambivalent. Its hero is a ruthless and alienated man who spends years pursuing a white girl captured by Comanches, not to save her, but to kill her and avenge the threat of rape and miscegenation. (Refer to A.O. Scott's piece in the June 11, 2006 New York Times for a fuller retrospective).
The Searchers sends us into the wilderness, but not into darkness; the darkness we bring along with us, and that final sliver of light swallowed by darkness feels in some ways like a curtain pulled down on the Western. With the death of the traditional Western will come its rebirth in revision, in the Western that eats its own tail in re-imagining the past to mirror our compromised, fragmented, brutal present. There are masterpieces, here, the late Robert Altman's McCabe & Mrs. Miller being one of them. But in eating its own tail, the Western lost its formerly wide commercial public, and today a hack over at Entertainment Weekly can mention offhandedly in an article that Westerns have been dead for years.
In that spirit, then – because God knows I play well with Entertainment Weekly - here are two dead Westerns from the modern era, with all the self-doubt, second-guessing, blurring ethics, slaughter, and collapse that modernity have taught us to know so well.
Forty years after The Searchers, Jim Jarmusch, a Swede, will shoot another film that collapses into an untracked wilderness: a short, black and white film called Dead Man (1996). If The Searchers saw the twilight of the traditional Western then here and now it is midnight and a new man. Words can't quite capture what it feels like to watch the movie. The score, written and performed special by Neil Young, sounds like an old, old man dropping an electric guitar in shock again and again trapped in a coal-burning tube amplifier the size of a barn. It circles itself like Borges in a brambled labyrinth, coming back to the same modal phrase like a rosary rubbed, the theme never quite resolving. It approaches itself in halved steps. It grows, infernally, between the cracks of the movie.
Johnny Depp wanders in and out, dazed, devolving from an accountant's checked Cleveland suit into a Bowie glam-era fur coat, acquiring Amerindian ochre lightning bolts on his cheeks and dying by inches of a gut wound while he learns how to kill. Buildings gape with grotesque rot. Mud is everywhere, and skulls. A trading post preacher leers about smallpox blankets. Indians stare out from the corners of new towns, sap still bleeding from the cabin planks. A trainload of passengers – slowly devolving themselves into fur-decked barbarian hunters as the tracks continue west – acquire Winchesters and fire blindly out into an unseen herd of buffalo while a coal-faced engineer talks about Hell. There is a cannibal bounty hunter who wears black, and one of William Blake's infernal mills. The movie collapses in on itself like a burning building, but slowly. It's the damnedest thing to watch.
The Western has never been about that sliver of time between the American Civil War and the onset of modernity. It is, to use Jay Fred MacDonald's words, a "memory and vision of the deepest meaning of America." Dead Man is a fever dream, but the genre itself is visionary, paring the past down to essence. Civilization is reduced to its bare particulars on the frontier, the edge of all things, so that each object that rises in the empty country acquires a weight in isolation verging on the symbolic.
The Western is a man standing framed in a doorway, alone looking out at a desolate expanse; the line that separates the wilderness and the garden; the cost of violence; the moment at which society's foundations are laid over blood and sand.
A Western will be hailed from time to time as 'realistic' – the HBO series Deadwood (2004), discussed in a moment, is one of these. But Gunsmoke too was 'realistic' 50 years ago – Dodge City, circa 1875 a waypoint for boozing Texas drovers, was the 'Gommorah of the Plains' just as Deadwood was Sodom of the Black Hills, and Gunsmoke was considered notable for its hard-bitten fidelity.
Realism – to digress briefly – is just an aesthetic, and an unattainable one at that. All art is artiface. In claiming realism and, in their time, being hailed for historical truth, they speak volumes about their own times. History is a story we tell ourselves, and it is self-revealing. The Western does not just distill the American dream, it reflects on it: see the racial terror underlying 1956's The Searchers, the progressive and scientific march against ignorance and 'medieval cruelty' that preoccupies the civilizing sheriff of Gunsmoke, and, finally, Deadwood, inheritor of the revisionist Western and of all our modern discontents.
Neither as inscrutable, or as self-contained, as Jarmusch's concussed picaresque, Deadwood coils up and out from the same mulch, like a nightflower. Resolutely prosaic where Dead Man is dreamlike and surreal, expansive and detailed where the other is compressed and poetic, Deadwood benefits from the unspooling and compounding incident afforded by its medium. In the Black Hills of Dakota Territory, in Sioux country, gold is discovered and illegal squatters flood mining camps outside United States jurisdiction and, consequently, without rule of law. There is no open range in the Black Hills, no Monument Valley photography; the action is set indoors or else in the mud and piss and tumult of the thoroughfare. In 14 months, the camp – Deadwood – has telegraph service, beating out San Francisco. Chinese immigrants set up shop and pogrom is threatened. The dusty blue reach of the US Cavalry, Custer's avengers, arrives choking and heat-mad on the border to effect reprisal massacres against the 'dirt-worshipers,' the Sioux who loom invisibly over the camp like a shroud, unchristian, irrational, capable of anything.
Noting that the ecstatically profane dialogue unfurls, curls around itself in the Baroque with Shakespearean cadence is by now a cliche. 'Cocksucker' becomes punctuation; the dialogue is anarchic in its assault on the viewer. Motives are concealed, multifarious, oblique.
A.O. Scott – I referenced the article and now, in rereading it, have found a few unconscious appropriations – claims Deadwood as unremitting in its sordid violence, primarily as an aside to offer up Ford as a contrast, but to do so ignores the careful evolution of the town towards a civil society founded on a kind of gradual realization, colored and kept tamped down by blind rage and ten a.m. whiskeys, that random killings won't be good for business. Spontaneous order coalesces in the blood and shit and backrooms of society; it is opposed to the civilization brought as a beacon by Dodge City's sheriff, unquestioned in his righteousness. Gunsmoke circa 1956, whatever the hardscrabble realities of frontier life that it depicts, sees the past as ignorance and history as a march of progress. Society, it follows, is perfectible.
Deadwood is not unremittingly sordid; it is deeply suspicious of progress. The civilized commit the worst atrocities. In the pilot, our erudite newsman, A.W. Merrick, opines that the treaty with the Sioux will inevitably be ripped up as scrap paper, that it is America's manifest destiny to swell to encompass the land – the Sioux are an unlucky impediment. A.O. Scott writes about an original sin at the foundation of civilization, a worm in the apple, a body in the concrete pilings. Conrad's Heart of Darkness ends with darkness rising, not over a ruined and enslaved graveyard in the Congo, but on the Thames. The unnamed Belgian city is a sugar-white mausoleum. The heart of darkness is not in the wild but among us. Deadwood may be run by pimps, killers and thieves, but their operations are small-scale and benign compared to the civilized types that encroach – dusty, sun-mad cavalry units riding out for genocidal vengeance, mightily corrupt magistrates. The show gains a good deal of its power from the marriage of rhetoric and the spotless marble halls of culture to grit, blood, madness. They are locked in an embrace personified by Swearengen and Bullock, opposed sides of the same coin, necessary to one another.
For first time viewers, I should add, on a more prosaic note, that Deadwood requires exactly four episodes of your time – no more, no less – to assert itself, but that if you stop on three you'll be wondering what all the fuss was about. Keep going.
If civilization is founded on an original sin or the necessary lie that births the tall buildings and the truth and beauty – and Deadwood can be read as the first half of a grand thesis and indictment of American institutions (cf. second half: The Wire) – then the Western takes us back to that moment of creation, breathes life into it, stands it up and makes everything that follows seem uncertain and transparent by comparison. You look at the buildings and they flicker. The present fades, and suddenly time is a line of arid brown hills, empty, and the empty vastness swallows up the lived-in specks, and you wonder at how brief they are.
The fate of the western proceeds from an uncomplicated myth of America to one that, in trying to account for the suppressed, the forgotten, and the distance between rhetoric and reality, confronts vast and insoluble contradictions played out in despairing violence. In a very real way, the Western is America, which is why its end as a monolith (only a magazine titled Entertainment would regard this as death) suggests so much about the course of our culture over the last 50 years. There is no solution; The Searchers, Deadwood and Dead Man are composed of endless questions, interrogations of our unspoken and unspeakable past.