What has always drawn me to Westerns is the interesting play on ethics that is present, the singular male, and the presentation of the primary female figure(s) (or lack thereof). Within the narrative, there is an internal system of ethics that is maintained despite whatever cultural norms we might apply to those scenarios today. Some of the tropes the viewer sees on display are both fantasy and reality in the present, and upon further reflection from within the closed system of the American-made Western or the Spaghetti Western, we can see various threads of the presentation of an ethical dilemma; the predominance of and lack of remorse over “justified” death and the revenge plot within the closed system of expectations; the patriarchal hegemony’s foothold in all aspects of society and intimate relationships; the presentation of all other men (besides the primary lone wolf) as savage, uncivilized, clearly “unethical” along internal standards, and sometimes (usually also) sex-crazed beasts; the perpetuation of the species (impotent or not) despite all odds; amongst other things. What is interesting is that Jane Austen isn’t the only one with consistent marriage plots; if we deconstruct the notion that perpetuation of the species is possible outside of the traditional marriage plot within the Western genre, we see that, indeed, the spreading of the lone wolf’s seed is a consistent trope in many of those films. This doesn’t even begin to scratch the surface of the situation with the consistency of rapes and what I’m calling impotent perpetuation of species—the act performed but to no result other than the act of violence itself. In the cases of the Western, Spaghetti Western, the Peplum (Sword & Sandal) genre, or any classical text, like Homer’s Odyssey–in which the singular male follows an internal beacon “home” (if he can be said to have a home, truly) where his woman is always on the precipice of being defiled by another man, or many men; where he runs up to find the act in medias res; or he is always beating them off as they continually push the boundaries of his possession over the female. And no Western (or Classical) story would be complete without a peripatetic moment, when fortune is reversed dramatically for the protagonist and those in “his” midst.
Within that closed system, the viewer sees many presentations of similar values on display–for instance, the metaphorical stabbing of people in the back, the revenge trope, the lone wolf trope, the raping or near-raping or constant threat of defiling of women, the singular female in need of rescue by the lone wolf male protagonist, the loyal sidekick, the showcasing of masculinity or cockfighting prowess, the dichotomy (“good” versus “uh….not as good,” the “good” versus the “obviously not good,” the “I know that’s the good guy because he was just minding his business and didn’t do anything to anyone and is just trying to avenge his family’s death” versus “I suppose that’s the bad guy since he’s the one who actually did things to hurt the guy who I’m calling the good guy”). There are no true “good” or “bad” characters, but scenarios that lead the viewer to believe that, under certain circumstances, some rise above others. That’s the internal system of ethics that I’m referencing above. But the lines of ethics are blurred in many, many ways. The good guy in the film is also technically the bad guy because of what he does within that closed system.
Recently, I watched three Westerns: two American Westerns and one Spaghetti Western. First, I watched Death Rides a Horse, also known as Da uomo a uomo (As Man to Man), a Spaghetti Western from 1967. What stands out about this film is that there are no female leads; the only females really are Bill’s mother and sister who are raped and killed in the beginning. After that, it’s a story about two men, revenge, demonstration of skill and showcasing of masculinity, and ethics. What’s amazing about characters in Westerns is that they can perform terrible acts, or be a part of terrible acts being performed, and yet they still have a sense of ethics toward “someone.” That someone differs from case to case. In the case of Ryan, who is the older gunslinger who comes back to get/give perspective on an act that got him put into prison 15 years beforehand (which is really a side effect of his drive for revenge), he has a sense of duty to Bill; eventually, however, Bill realizes Ryan’s participation in the massacre of his family. By then, Bill has grown somewhat distantly fond of Ryan and doesn’t exact revenge on him because he didn’t actually rape or kill his family; everyone else, however, isn’t as lucky. What’s interesting about this film is that it leads in with the rapes and massacre, the terror on a little boy’s face (the peripeteia IS the beginning of the narrative–life as he knows it is no more), and the revenge plot unfolds from there–the driving force of his entire life is revenge, which is subdued by the end when the seeming, now-revealed enemy becomes the “uh….not AS good” character that’s not as bad as the obviously bad character(s). Mild, but not permanent, guilt by association. The internal system of ethics in this film is this: kill people who piss you off and challenge your masculinity or skill; kill people who have killed someone you love without a good reason; don’t kill people who show you they’re actually not “as bad” as the other guys because they treat YOU well and they didn’t actually rape your mother (though more than likely, outside of the diegesis of this story, that character probably raped someone else’s mother or sister)…but the character didn’t do it to me, so….
In The Outlaw Josey Wales (1976), the viewer has the same lead-in as Death Rides a Horse with the raping of Wales’ wife and the massacre of the wife and son. Like Bill (who was a child at the time), Wales appears to be a gentle father and a hard worker, as the viewer sees him plowing his own field and showing his son how to do it; he also appears to not be a fighter at all because he is easily defeated by the “red boots.” then there is the peripeteia–the reversal of fortune. Wales’ intense drive for revenge leads him to become a proficient gunslinger and after a stint with the Southern resistance, he becomes the lone wolf, hunted by someone with whom he once rode fighting a common enemy, but who ultimately had completely ironic respect for him as he hunted him down. The viewer is exposed to two acts of violence against women in this film because someone Wales encounters later, who will become his love interest, is attacked violently and nearly defiled. Later in the film, Wales couples with her and tries to leave her the next morning (typical of the lone wolf male), but is forced back because the compound is being attacked by the Union red legs who have finally caught up to him. Eventually it appears he settles down but not without a lot of internal struggle; in fact, it is pointed out to him in the film that he is a good fighter because he has an edge. It’s clear to the viewer that the edge he retains is because he’s not tied down by love or a woman, but is driven by hard-core revenge for his massacred family. He softens at the end, but not at the expense of a lot of lives in retribution for their acts of violence against his family and his former resistance fighters. Death comes to those who deal death to others; even in cold blood, death is dealt ethically in this film, as in all other westerns, because of the internal system of expectation that 1. you do me harm, 2. you try to hold me back from my justified revenge, or 3. you do harm to those whom I love or who are otherwise innocent (even if they’re whores).
In One-Eyed Jack’s (1961), the protagonist, Kid (aka Rio), is a complicated character who appears to be a creature of habit in terms of deception, which the viewer can interpret as a coping skill he has developed to survive, and in the case of women, to get what he wants out of them. But even within that, remorse and real feelings are somewhat revealed throughout the narrative as he struggles with how he interacts with Louisa, a love interest that’s maybe more than just for fast love, but it’s hard to tell how long lasting it could have had the potential to be as a result of the trajectory of the narrative. Along with deception, revenge is also a major trope in this film, as Kid and his antagonist, Dad (and no, the nomenclature isn’t lost on the viewer), attempt to outwit each other with stories of deception to keep the other from knowing his ultimate goal: to kill the other–one in revenge for leaving him to be captured; the other out of guilt for what he’d done. This one could go metaphorically deep–Dad deceives Kid; Kid goes to prison for 5 years as a result; Kid escapes and comes after Dad and realizes an opportunity to milk ambiguity to get deeper into Dad’s graces before the deed is exacted on his life. One of the ironies about Kid’s personality is that he seduces women and yet can’t stand to see prostitutes manhandled by men. He manipulates others, and is manipulated by them; but he draws the line at whores. Interesting. Same thing happens in The Outlaw Josey Wales–he can’t stand to see a woman manhandled, but Wales isn’t a womanizer like Kid. Kid sort of gets what he deserves karmically. But then again, within the closed system of ethics, he is not truly violating any codes; it’s the others who do that and turn on people within their group unexpectedly. So while Kid is the noticeable “good” within the system, he is not that good really. But the film ends with his revenge exacted, his deflowered and now pregnant conquest willing to (….wait for it…) WAIT until he returns at some mysterious time in the spring, AFTER she has had “her” baby. Like Penelope, in perpetual longing for her husband after an excruciating TWENTY YEARS, so Louisa will wait for Kid. The chances are high he will likely forget about her as there is no indication throughout the narrative that he has any fidelity to anyone other than his male companions (who all turn on him except for his Mexican prison mate, Chico). This is the trope of the lone wolf male–he will keep going. She will long for his return and still be in love with him, though he will be absent, and even if present, emotionally unavailable because, as could be seen in their interactions, despite her pleas to let go of his revenge, he cannot and is miffed by her insistence that he relinquish his grip on his goal.
Westerns and Spaghetti Westerns are great examples of the presentation of ethics within a closed system of the “old American West.” Death is doled out and punishment for cold blooded murder isn’t the norm if it’s systemically justified. Men are out doing their things. Women are at home trying to tie them down when they just want to be free. I see nothing wrong with being free!