The lone cowboy
Randy rides alone
A Man Alone, Lone Rider, Lonely Are the Brave, Lonesome Dove, Randy Rides Alone, The Lone Gun, The Lonely Man, The Lonesome Trail: what is it about the Western that it puts so much importance on solitariness? There are many other Westerns with titles that emphasize this aspect. Countless Western movies begin with the hero as lone rider, maybe approaching a town, maybe about to be bushwhacked, maybe just driftin’ (cowboys never traveled anywhere; they always drifted there). Probably the most famous of these were the pictures that we have reviewed recently on this blog, the ones Randolph Scott made with Budd Boetticher in the late 1950s. Indeed, two of those even had ‘lone’ titles (Buchanan Rides Alone and Ride Lonesome) and they began with Randy riding alone in a remote landscape (usually up at Lone Pine), often on a quest of revenge.
Boetticher himself said, “I am not interested in making films about mass feelings. I am for the individual.” That’s why, although Budd was a man’s man, and you might have expected him to be drawn to the war movie, he only made one, Red Ball Express, and that he accounted a disaster. For in war a man is subsumed in a force, a nation. He isn’t an individual. And the ‘loneness’ of the Western hero is closely tied to this notion so essential to the genre, individualism.
Not all Westerns stressed this. John Ford, for example, always put the accent on community, especially of course the fellowship of the army. He often featured community dances, as symbols. We’ve recently been looking at his cavalry trilogy. If you take Fort Apache, for example, John Wayne represents the Western free spirit, the individual, the loner, while Easterner Henry Fonda is the army, stiff, rigid, by-the-book, with a group mentality. So at first you think the movie is pro-individual, for Duke is certainly a more attractive figure. Yet at the end Wayne defends Fonda's memory, starts wearing Fonda's cap and barks out orders in the army way. It is the group that has won.
But a much stronger tradition in the mythical West, I suggest, is the lone man doing what a man’s gotta do.
The Wild West (of romanticized legend, anyway) was an ‘uncollectivized’ time and place. It placed reliance on the man alone, doing what a man’s gotta do. Law – official law – was often absent and it was a lone man’s six-gun, so the legend had it, which made the law. A cowpoke or drifter needed a gun on his hip to deal with the occasional sidewinder, maybe, but the occasional human sidewinder too. “In other words,” Boetticher went on, “I prefer my films to be based on heroes who want to do what they are doing, despite the danger and the risk of death.”
But maybe there’s more than this. The word lonesome contains more than just being alone. A lonesome man is solitary, certainly, but he regrets it. He pines for society, maybe a mate. Lone, though, as opposed to lonesome, seems to me an especially Western word. It implies singleness, isolation, a lack of support, even a lack of necessity for it – though that didn’t stop the Lone Ranger having a useful sidekick. Philosophy teaches us the value of solitude and that alone does not always mean lonely. Usually, alone is what you choose to be, perhaps for good or even noble reasons, and lonely is a condition imposed upon you or one you are unhappy with. The cowboy word lone is kind of neutral and we do not know what is behind it. Montaigne’s “backshop” or Woolf’s “room of one’s own” are places where we might be wholly free and commune with ourselves “so privately that no outside relationship or communication may find a place there.” A cowboy would be at home there.
It isn’t just the Western. Martin Scorsese says that the notion of alone-ness is essential to the whole thread of American fiction, from Moby Dick to Taxi Driver. And not just American, I would add. Byron’s Childe Harold was described by Lord Macaulay as "a man proud, moody, cynical, with defiance on his brow, and misery in his heart, a scorner of his kind, implacable in revenge, yet capable of deep and strong affection". That sounds pretty much like a Western hero to me. And Byron's Corsair too:
Lone, wild, and strange, he stood alike exempt From all affection and from all contempt.
This individualism is certainly part of the appeal of the Western. We all live in a society where a person cannot truly act alone. There are laws and limitations and social norms. We have family responsibilities and civil ones. We have lived like this throughout the life of the Western movie, i.e. the twentieth century and this one, and of course we always did live like that. But Byron was a frontier enthusiast who loved the adventures of Daniel Boone, and readers thrilled to Boone’s exploits in the early nineteenth century, just as they did to tales of Natty Bumppo in Fenimore Cooper’s Leatherstocking tales in the 1820s and ‘30s. It was the allure of the semi-wild white man, free as the beasts, daring death on the far frontier, lone and self-reliant, able to shoot straight and kill when necessary without pesky laws to stop him. And this appeal continued with the dime novels and then the Western movies, when they came along. Who wouldn’t want to be that lone pistol-packing rider, meting out frontier justice to the bad guy, protecting the weak (especially the frail women) and righting wrongs? Or even a dashing outlaw. They usually protected fair damsels too.
A classic example perhaps is Shane. Jack Schaefer's hero (Alan Ladd in the movie) is a true loner, riding the West, coming out of nowhere, righting wrongs in the valley and then riding off into the sunset. This is what we mean by a lone cowboy. Shane is the strong, silent type and so we can only guess at the reason behind his loneliness. We infer it from his actions or occasional, oblique references. What lay at the bottom of Shane’s lonesome life? Was it lost happiness, a love gone wrong, a wife died? Was it some evil deed for which he is now trying to atone? We can only guess. And why does he ride off? It seemed that he had been reaching out for belonging, admiring the decent Starrett, attracted to Marion, fond of the boy Joey. Yet off he goes when the town has been cleaned up, bleeding, possibly dying, riding off to nowhere, alone. All the justification he gives is to young Joey: “A man has to be what he is, Joey. Can’t break the mold. I tried it and it didn’t work for me.”
The mysterious lone horseman Clint Eastwood in Pale Rider, known in French as Le Cavalier Solitaire, is alone for a similar but more mystic reason. He is some lone avenging angel, a gunman in a clerical collar riding a pale horse from Revelations, and he arrives, rights the wrongs with superhuman skill and rides off into the winter wilderness. Pale Rider is a mystic remake of Shane. Who is the stranger? Where has he come from? Where is he going? We don’t know and we don’t need to know. But even he reaches out for a passing relationship with Sarah Wheeler, and Sarah’s daughter Megan reaches out (to no avail) for him. The preacher is less vulnerable than Shane and rides off unwounded and less touched by love and family. But he's certainly le cavalier solitaire.
Perhaps the archetypal Western loner is John Wayne’s Ethan Edwards in John Ford's The Searchers. Ethan hardly even reaches out for belonging. He can’t. Perhaps he is inhibited by social mores, because his love for his sister-in-law is hinted at but he cannot succumb, any more than Shane can take Marian away from Starrett. But it’s more than that. Ethan is truly alienated. When he comes back from the war and its aftermath, he does not fit in. He is awkward and gauche. On his quest he is accompanied, yes, but he is scornful of his fellows and distances himself from them. Even after he has devoted years and much of his life (and all the film) to finding his niece, or rather avenging her, once he has brought her back to civilization he cannot enter the homestead. We see him standing alone in the desert, framed by the doorway, in that characteristic Harry Carey pose with his left fist clutching his right elbow, almost autistic in his inability to relate.
But lone Western heroes are not all solitary by choice or inability to fit in. Gary Cooper’s Will Kane in High Noon doesn’t want to be alone. He has not deliberately cut himself off from society. In fact he has acclimatized to town life, has married an Eastern Quaker wife, wears a suit, will put away his gun. Left to face Frank Miller and his varmints, he does everything in his power to rustle up some deputies but they all turn away. Even his pacifist wife seems to forsake him. But a man’s gotta do what a man’s gotta do and all that, and as the title song has it,
If I'm a man
I must be brave
And I must face that deadly killer
Or lie a coward, a craven coward,
Or lie a coward in my grave.
It is the very fact that he does it alone that makes Gary Cooper’s Will Kane so heroic.
Sometimes we are shown what causes the alienation. In The Outlaw Josey Wales, Clint again, Josey’s farm was burnt and his wife and child brutally slain. It drove him into a guerrilla band and eventually to a life as a loner on the run, refusing to surrender after Appomattox. He gathers about him a motley ‘family’ despite himself – an abused Indian girl, an old Cherokee chief, an old lady and her simple-minded granddaughter, also a mangy redbone hound, and later a saloon girl and a broke-down gambler – but even these he eventually leaves.
Sometimes the hero is a loner but there is a hope of salvation. A hope that he (it’s nearly always a he) can find love, a home, a spouse. Unlike Ethan Edwards, maybe he can enter the household at the end of the movie. Think of Hondo Lane (Duke again), the perfectly self-reliant Westerner who comes alone (except for Sam) from out of nowhere but in the end bonds with Angie Lowe and her son Johnny as they ride off to California together, a family, in Hondo.
Or Henry Fonda’s Morg Hickman in The Tin Star where much the same happens. Think of Clint Walker in Yuma. For these, the filmed story is the end of that lonesome trail. In Stagecoach, jailbird gunman Ringo goes off to an idyllic ranch and a new life with the 'fallen woman' Dallas at the end. He is no longer lone. But for most it doesn’t work out so well. Charlton Heston’s Will in Will Penny is on the very verge of forming a family unit similar to Hondo’s or Morg’s, with a deserted woman and a young son he has grown attached to, but in the last resort he cannot do it and rides off to an old age of loneliness and despair. And guess what the French title is? Yup, Le Solitaire.
Even for the few members of The Magnificent Seven who don’t end up in a grave in a Mexican village it won't end well. The gunmen were not really a band of seven but seven lonely individuals on their way to a dusty death - with the exception of the campesino Chico, who is there to prove the rule. Sometimes loners are alone for the simple reason that they are on the run. They are fleeing some criminal action and must lie low, and that means alone. Gregory Peck’s Jimmy Ringo in The Gunfighter is essentially a tragic figure who desperately wants to settle down with his family but is doomed to fall to a punk kid’s gun. He will die truly alone. Many of the Jesse James and Billy the Kid movies show us an essentially lonely man doomed to a lonely death. The same happens in The Shootist to dying gunman JB Books.
The pale rider of the eponymous film is known only as “Preacher” and of course Clint made rather a thing of the man with no name. In lesser Westerns (the Italian ones) it became almost a trademark (though actually if you listen carefully you will hear his name mentioned, but people tend to forget that) and he is the nameless The Stranger in High Plains Drifter. This namelessness underlines the solitariness and the solitude. Though Shane has a name, it is only half a name. In some films, such as the ghastly ‘comic’ junk My Name is Nobody or the very fine psychedelic Western Dead Man, the anonymity of the characters is played upon. “I’m traveling with Nobody,” says the hero of Dead Man William Blake (Johnny Depp) when asked if he is alone. Nobody is, of course, the name of the Indian he is with. Odysseus used that trick with the Cyclops so it ain't new. Perhaps all heroes, from Ulysses on his Odyssey to the Arthurian knights on their quest, have been Western characters coming in from nowhere, righting wrongs and ridin’ off into the sunset.
A key characteristic of the Western hero is his stoicism. Maybe the lone cowboy owes more to that tradition. The Stoics thought that loneliness was in fact the better way to lead your life. Life has no real meaning anyway. The aim must be to live it free from disturbance. You are only a character in a play, not the playwright. If your part is to be short, well, it will be short. All you can do is play it well. This Stoic sense of detachment and the uselessness of fearing death fit the Western hero well. James Stewart’s Will Lockhart in The Man from Laramie is a classic example of this. He has a soldier’s and an avenging brother’s sense of duty and mission, and will suffer anything to accomplish it. If death comes as a result, so be it. But he has to do it alone. He rejects the offer of work and belonging and even gives up the girl at the end. And it isn't only Anthony Mann dramas. Stoics can even operate in the comic domain: look at Destry Rides Again or The Sheepman.
Or maybe (but here we are getting a bit hi-falutin’) lone cowboys have been reading Sartre. Existentialism teaches us that individuals are free to follow their own paths and live their lives passionately. To fulfill themselves, they must live authentically. Don’t just fall in with the crowd. Go your own way. Being socialized can be detrimental to our freedom and happiness. Hell is other people. What could be more Western? But does that mean that Western novelists, screenwriters, actors and directors were steeped in Montaigne or Camus? Probably not, pards. Still, all writers absorb such ideas, even unconsciously. The heyday of the existential writers was after all also the time when Western movies were at their height. I do know that Tommy Lee Jones gave the cast of The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada Albert Camus’s L'étranger to read. But I don't guess most directors of Westerns did that… Leonard Cohen sang, in ‘Love calls you by your name’ (Songs of Love and Hate, 1971):
Shouldering your loneliness Like a gun you will not learn to aim You stumble into this movie house Then you climb, you climb into the frame
You feel he had seen a Western or two…
Though of course he worked in an entirely different medium, Cohen was a huge admirer of Hank Williams, who lived "a hundred floors above me in the tower of song", and Hank's most famous song, probably, was centered on the idea of the lonesome. "The silence of a falling star/Lights up a purple sky/And as I wonder where you are/I'm so lonesome I could cry." Country music, what used to be called country & western, loved the idea of the lone cowboy, and I'm sure you can think of other examples.
So, yes, the Western hero was a solipsist. The word has only recently taken on a more negative sense, suggesting an ego-driven selfishness or self-indulgence. For most of its history solipsism, from the Latin solus, alone, and ipse, the self, has had a more positive meaning. Webster’s defines solipsism as “a theory holding that the self can know nothing but its own modifications and that the self is the only existent thing”. That Western enough for you?
And the lone cowboy dream endures. I wonder if you know who said, “I've always acted alone like the cowboy … the cowboy entering the village or city alone on his horse … He acts, that's all." Henry Kissinger in 1972, that’s who. Ronald Reagan projected a cowboy persona with great skill. In his final book Fractured Times (2013), the late Eric Hobsbawm wrote, “I don't think it was an accident that the ideal-typical cowboy hero of the classic invented west was a loner, not beholden to anyone. I suggest that the cowboy, just because he was a myth of an ultra-individualist society … was an unusually effective vehicle for dreaming.”
All those sad gunfighters, those half-crazed mountain men, those decent marshals that none of the townsfolk would back up, those poor cowpokes on the far range who prayed Bury me not on the lone prairie, the men in single-minded pursuit of revenge, it may be from choice, it may be from loss or because they just can’t build human relationships, or it may be because they have to do what’s right and the spirit in them burns high and free. But they sure are lone heroes.