Howdy, pardner. Belly up to the bar with your little filly, elbow aside that sodbuster yonder and that tenderfoot who tumbled into town like a tumbleweed on the noon stage from Jefferson City, order up a shot glass of rotgut from the barkeep wearing the arm garters and hear my sad story.
Moviegoers have saddled up and ridden into town to see two new westerns and are wondering if that genre is back and standing tall. On the evidence of "Silverado" and "Pale Rider," the answer can be put in laconic cowboyese:
"Nope. Bang the drum slowly and play the fife lowly. The genre (yes, I know only schoolmarms use that word brought in from St. Louis) died in 1953, plugged full of lead by Alan Ladd. It is now face down in the streets of Laredo, wrapped in white linen and cold as the clay."
What's that, pilgrim? You say you don't give a damn? Smile when you say that, hoss, 'cause youre walking on the fighting side of Clint Eastwood.
"Silverado" is about four drifters who band together to do down bullies. Such joining together is what today is called "male bonding." Perhaps that explains the decline of westerns: who wants to see a male-bonding flick? Fortunately, "Silverado" has a barmaid named Stella and an honest-to-Randolph Scott stampede. Like all proper westerns (and like "Hamlet," which is a sort of Danish western), it is about vengeance.
Unfortunately, the younger generation of moviegoers -- varmints under 40 -- is not worth the powder it would take to blow it up. Whatever sense God gave the younger generation has been driven out of it by movies like "Friday the 13th, Part 13." So that generation is going to be slow to warm up to westerns. And older moviegoers have seen Alan Ladd as Shane and may see Eastwood's "Pale Rider" as a pale imitation.
"Shane" begins with Shane's mere silent presence causing some cowpokes to quit picking on a God-fearing family that wants to farm. "Pale Rider" begins with Eastwood using an ax handle to whomp on some mean miners who are whomping on a virtuous miner. (In "Shane," the ax-handle scene comes when a virtuous farmer barges into the saloon to rescue Shane.) In "Shane," the male-bonding bit comes when Shane and the farmer wrestle with a stump. In "Pale Rider," the object is a rock. In both movies, a feisty but foolish fellow goes to the one-street town to show he cannot be buffaloed by the establishment, and he gets perforated by gunslingers in front of a dry-goods store. Both Shane and the Pale Rider go back to gunfighting reluctantly, then head for the horizon while a young sprout shouts "Don't go!"
Because "Shane" so perfectly presented all the themes and images of the western, all subsequent westerns seem either camp or flat. Indeed, "Pale Rider" is, at one level, a long wink at those of us who worship at Shane's shrine. But "Pale Rider" does have all the healthy homilies that fly thick as bullets through good westerns -- the right stuff about putting down roots so you can put up schools and churches.
Today's young people, weaned on "A- Team" and movies about helicopters that destroy nations, are too desensitized for westerns, which deal out violence only as fast as a six-shooter or an ax handle can administer it -- retail, not wholesale. But perhaps they will emulate the president, and read a western.
Unfortunately, the alarming news from Bethesda Naval Hospital concerned the presidential reading list. No one wants Ronald Reagan reading Henry James and disappearing into one of James' syntactical swamps, never to be heard from again. By all means read westerns, Mr. President, but why Louis L'Amour? He is a pale writer. If Reagan wants to encourage the reading of westerns (has any president since Lincoln rendered the Republic a service that large?), he should curl up with Zane Grey's hair-curling "The Spirit of the Border." As the book's cover says, "Only a handful of hard-living, scalp-hunting riflemen stood between kill-crazed Indians" and a reptilian renegade named Girty, who is turned into buzzard bait by Lou Wetzel, a hero so taciturn he makes Eastwood seem like Joan Rivers.
"Wetzel drove the blade into the renegade's groin, through flesh and bone, hard and fast into the tree. Shrieking in agony, the pinned man fumbled and pulled at the knife, but could not loosen it. . . . Dark birds sat on the dead branches waiting for their feast."
Okay, so the American Civil Liberties Union probably thinks Lou Wetzel is naughty. But really, mom, which do you prefer -- America's youth watching "Rambo" or reading Zane Grey?