Screenplay by Craig Storper from a novel by Lauran Paine
Produced and directed by Kevin Costner
The Western film genre has often been criticized for celebrating gun violence. But mainstream oateaters often have more in common with the peace-loving Jane Austen than with the blood-besotted Sam Peckinpah. My Darling Clementine, Shane, The Fastest Gun Alive, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, and, most recently, Open Range all exemplify the principle announced so saucily in the opening sentence of Pride and Prejudice: “It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good gun must be in want of a wife.” OK, I cheated a little. Austen said “fortune,” not “gun.” My adaptation is not without warrant, however. In the American West of legend, a man’s fortune was often determined by how he chose to handle his gun.
Consider the hero of the typical Western film. He is an armed man in need of feminine guidance. Without such influence, he will be forever haunted by what he has already done with his six-shooter and tormented that he may do it again. Although he uses his weapon skillfully and courageously, he too frequently uses it with wanton disregard for the mayhem it perpetrates. With maturity, he finds himself in one of two conditions. Either he becomes a man apart, isolated from the domesticated world by his violent reputation, or he lays down his weapon for the sake of his gal and tries mightily not to let his past catch up with him. If it does, it is usually in the form of a younger man much like his former self, itching to test his murderous skill against a proven master, demonstrating that our earlier selves die hard. In the first condition, the Western hero is regarded as a revolting enemy of domestic tranquility. In the second, he is warmly embraced by his community as one of its responsible members who may in a pinch be able to revive his gunslinging prowess to defend them against any new trigger-happy marauders.
This narrative line has gone through many permutations, but the one constant is the tension between the undisciplined and the domesticated, anarchy and civilization. The dividing line between these two estates is always drawn by the wedding aisle.
Kevin Costner’s Open Range continues this theme, albeit rather clumsily. Costner directs and stars as Charley Waite, a hard-riding cattle man. With his older partner Boss (the always invaluable Robert Duvall), he drives his stock across the open range, happily heedless of boundaries. Charley and Boss are nomads who believe they have a God-given right to let their cattle graze wherever they roam. Understandably, Denton Baxter (Michael Gambon), the local rancher, thinks otherwise. “I didna come all the way from Eye-rr-lend to have free-grazers eat the grass from under me cattle,” he snarls in what sounds like an especially mean-spirited Ulster accent. When Baxter has one of Costner’s trailhands beaten and later killed, the die is cast. An obligation of honor falls on Charley and Boss. Before showdown time arrives, however, Charley runs into Sue (Annette Bening), who, despite her trim good looks and flirtatious eyes, has unaccountably reached early middle age a spinster. Soon, Charley finds his murderous intentions colliding with his amorous ones. Sue decides not to miss her sunset opportunity. “So is it marriage that scares you, putting down roots,” she says, her bluntness startling the roving cowboy. There is no way out for Charley, nor does he want one. But first he must make a confession: There are some things in his past he ain’t proud of. This is his delicate allusion to the hundreds of men he killed as a youthful sniper in the Civil War and afterward in the hire of men just like Baxter. He goes on to point out that now he must take up the gun again in the cause of self-administered justice. If he should prevail, he adds, maybe . . . well, you know. She knows. She freely explains that she has been waiting all these years for a gentle, caring man like him. That he has gunned a few hundred men onto glory road and is about to blast 20 or 30 more to their just deserts does not seem an impediment to this aging lass. She even gives her knight a locket containing a picture of her mother—a civilizing influence indeed.
Open Range is good enough to make you wish it were better. Costner’s cinematographer, James Muro, has transformed Calgary into the Platonic conception of the West, with incandescent ripe-peach sunsets and cloud-scudding moons the size of Spanish galleons as a backdrop to his larger-than-life characters. The film, however, is far too self-conscious and mannered for its own good. Costner sacrifices narrative logic to incorporate every Western trope he can think of. Bening, for instance, has not been given a role to play so much as a gap to fill. On her petite shoulders rests the burden of civilization itself. In one gloriously silly scene, Costner has her run directly into the midst of the finale of a gunfight in a starched blue blouse and white apron. Once there, Our Lady of the Frontier berates the gunmen on either side for their foolishness. The conflict between anarchy and order could hardly be clearer—or funnier.
Earlier Westerns handled this material with considerably more grace.
Take George Stevens’ Shane, for example. This 1953 screen adaptation of Jack Schaefer’s novel is a luminous meditation on the primacy of the family in a just social order and the obligation to defend its rights against its enemies. The story is filtered through the perceptions of Bob Starrett, an eight-year-old boy who idolizes both his father, Joe, and Shane, the stranger who mysteriously appears on his family’s farm one morning.
Here, the conflict between guns and order is expressed as the difference between these two men. Van Heflin plays Joe Starrett as a man determined to succeed as a homesteader for the sake of his wife and son. Alan Ladd portrays Shane as a decent man who has somehow fallen into the life of an itinerant gunman. He is a man of sorrows who sees in the Starrett family the kind of life he has forfeited either by choice or by circumstance. This is why he decides to aid them in their battle against a cattleman who wants them off the open range. Knowing they do not have the resources to succeed in their struggle with this wealthy man’s hired guns, Shane decides to sacrifice himself in their cause. The word sacrifice is not too much. Schaefer’s Christian imagery marks Shane as a savior who ransoms Joe’s life with his own. Stevens echoes this in the film. He has Shane ride slowly by a cemetery on his way to the final showdown with a hired gunman. The camera repeatedly returns to three trees on the hill overlooking the cemetery, recalling Calvary. It then focuses on a gravesite crucifix. In a lingering fade, this crucifix becomes superimposed on Shane, the man willing to harrow Hell to save the virtuous.
As in other films in this genre, Shane treats the role of the gun ambiguously. Although Joe owns a pistol, he never wears it. Shane puts his away once he decides to work for Joe. Yet the gun becomes the instrument that vanquishes evil. How is this to be explained? With perspective. When Shane teaches Bob how to shoot, the erstwhile gunslinger tries to demystify the weapon’s romantic aura. “Listen, Bob. A gun is just a tool. No better and no worse than any other tool, a shovel—or an axe or a saddle . . . Think of it always that way. A gun is as good—and as bad—as the man who carries it.” As a tool of self-defense, the gun may occasionally be necessary, although the consequences can be grave. They certainly are for Shane, who leaves his friends after defeating the cattleman and his minions lest his presence lead to further violence.
The desire to demystify the gun is also at the heart of The Fastest Gun Alive, a 1956 B movie starring Glenn Ford as George Temple, a fidgety frontier shopkeeper. Outwardly, he seems an unassuming man so domesticated that he never wears a gun. One day, however, he uncharacteristically visits the local saloon for a drink, and the truth emerges under the influence of a nearly fatal glass of booze. Tired of being treated like a Milquetoast by the gun-wearing braggarts at the bar, he reveals that he was once a gunslinger. He gave up his manly trade for the sake of his wife and the children they hope to have. With alcohol in him, however, he cannot resist demonstrating his gunmanship. He has two men step into the street and toss up a silver dollar each. He shoots them both before they hit the ground. Once word of this feat begins to spread, it acts as a magnet. Soon, a psychopath in the form of Broderick Crawford shows up to challenge him to a draw. When Temple refuses, Broderick threatens to burn down the town. The terms of this showdown are so stark as to resemble a syllogism: Men wearing guns threaten the social order. Temple is wearing a gun. Forget your Marquis of Queensbury.
John Ford’s Westerns also preach this message, especially in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance. When idealistic lawyer Ransom Stoddard (Jimmy Stewart) goes west, he discovers what happens in a might-makes-right world. He is pummeled unconscious by a thug in the pay of cattle barons who are determined to keep the law out of their land. They want the range permanently open and are determined to thwart the local citizens’ desire for statehood. As long as the region stays territorial, they can run their cattle undeterred by property laws. With a name meant to suggest the worst excesses of libertarianism, Liberty Valance is Stoddard’s attacker, and he gleefully demonstrates the law’s powerlessness by tearing apart one of Stoddard’s legal texts. Upon recovery, Stoddard vows to have Valance arrested. His naiveté is met with laughter. Mocking his assumption that the law has a remedy for the likes of Valance, Tom Doniphon (John Wayne) holds up his gun and tells Ransom that he has a choice: He will either have to arm himself or clear out. Stoddard dismisses this counsel and decides to instruct the townspeople in their unalienable rights so that they will stand up to such hired thugs. Soon, he is teaching reading and government to all comers, including a pretty waitress named Hallie (Vera Miles). This brings him into conflict with Doniphon, who has long assumed Hallie was his girl. For her own part, she is drawn to both men: the brash, impulsive, gun-wielding Doniphon and the considerate, idealistic, gun-shy Stoddard. She does not get to choose her man, however. Events decide for her. Forced into a gunfight with Valance, Stoddard incredibly emerges victorious, although seriously wounded. (Unbeknownst to him and everyone else, he survives courtesy of Doniphon, who knows Stoddard is virtually helpless against the sadistic Valance and, therefore, shoots the outlaw from the shadows.) After the battle, Hallie instinctively embraces Stoddard. Seeing this, Doniphon throws a childish tantrum, gets drunk, and sets fire to the home in which he had planned to install Hallie as his wife. Hallie is left to marry Stoddard, who goes on to a successful career in government, while Doniphon declines into obscurity, eventually dying impoverished and alone. Ford’s sour message is clear. Both men are worthy heros, but only one can prevail in a civilized world. Wayne’s mercurial Doniphon may be the more engaging swain, but Stewart’s thoughtful Stoddard is the more reliable and, as such, wins the bride. Doniphon has been outgunned by Stoddard’s lawyerly canons.
The classic gun-smoking Western, it seems, is really a parable about men who need to grow up. Not to put too Freudian a turn on matters, each finds that, after a life of drinking, whoring, and gunplay, he is better off putting his pistol in a holster sanctioned by matrimony. Once there, the gun ceases to be a fetishistic talisman of manhood. It becomes merely a gun, an important and necessary tool for self-defense, but otherwise something to be kept out of reach of children of all ages.