Westerns, at their hearts, are stories about heroes. The hero defeats the villains and saves the honest townsfolk using, not just his wits, but also his fists and gun. While the town doctor might be a brave, kind, smart man, in the mythical land of the West that is not enough to free him from oppression at the hands of gunmen stronger than he is. Violence and the barrel of a gun are the only language the men in black hats will understand, and even the fragile arm of the law can not touch them without a hero to back it up.
The situation presented in these classic Westerns is not reality of course, merely the byproduct of the rules that American mythology has set for itself. Just like the Arthurian hero must fight the black knight at the bridge crossing, the hero of a western must eventually shoot it out with the bad guy. Thus the notion of a “pacifist Western” has always seemed a bit conflicted to me since brute force wielded by a righteous hand is really the only possible solution when you are working within the mythological confines of the American Western and to say otherwise you are either setting yourself up for failure, or no longer making a “Western”. However, upon further reflection, I have come to realize that the pacifist Western is a far more worthwhile member of the “Western” genre than I had once thought.
When evaluating the Pacifist Western film genre (I am far more familiar with filmed Westerns than I am with the stories that spawned them and will thus focus on them for this post), perhaps it is best to start by attempting to figure out the filmmaker’s intent. Were they trying to say that there actually is a way to resolve the central conflict other than a violent denouement? Or were they attempting to show the futility of trying a nonviolent approach within the confines of their mythological setting? One would suspect that these pacifist Westerns were taking the latter approach since, in almost every case, the pacifist hero MUST resort to violence by the end of the film, negating every well reasoned non violent argument he stood for. One of the few real Westerns that I can think of where the pacifist hero does NOT resort to violence in the end would be Angel and the Badman, where John Wayne’s gunfighter learns to be a pacifist from the Quaker girl he falls for. Yet, though he doesn’t even use his gun the whole movie, he is only saved in the final shootout when the marshall shoots his assailants for him. Is it really a triumph of non violence if someone else had to shoot the bad guys anyway?
Of course, no one can say what a director’s true intentions were, but I will admit I have often been skeptical of the notion that every pacifist Western director actually intended for the delicious moral ambiguity of creating a well reasoned case for pacifism and then showing how futile it is anyway. Though if any of the pacifist Western directors were actually trying to show pacifism as a viable option I would say they failed for I have yet to see a Western that succeeds in this mission without deviating so far from the tenets of the genre that it is no longer a Western.
Not that an attempt at pacifism has no place in a Western. Westerns are America’s representative mythology after all, and what is more American than the uneasy duality between violence and peace, law and free will, good intentions and suspect methods? Other countries might not even question the violence, but in American mythology the non-violent approach is almost necessary to maintain the duality. The only difference between a regular Western and a pacifist Western is that the hero attempts to take the non violent approach rather than the town doctor or judge (the usual “voice of reason” in a western). Destry Rides Again is one film that almost manages to present the pacifist case from the hero’s viewpoint without compromise, but then you realize that he is only able to enforce order after a display of his shooting prowess, and by the end every woman in the town takes rolling pin in hand to charge the bad guy’s saloon (advocating the violence that Destry would not up to that point) while Destry finally straps his guns on and uses the skills we’ve all been waiting to see to shoot it out with the bad guy anyway.
This brings up another interesting aspect of the pacifist Western, the desire to see someone who has been holding back finally use their skills and kick some ass. You can see aspects of this in plenty of places other than a Western, everything from the Hulk to Yoda in the new Star Wars movies; there is nothing more satisfying to the viewer than to see a character that they know to be bad ass finally show what they can do. In The Big Country Gregory Peck is a “city boy” that goes out west to marry a frontier girl. When his unwillingness to play the games of machismo required to fit into frontier society shames him to everyone he makes a very good point to his girl about how it’s silly to play such macho games…and then goes on to secretly break the wild horse and kick Charlton Heston’s ass anyway (much to the viewer’s delight).
Of course, this element of machismo, while a large part of the delight found in watching Westerns, is not in itself very thematically compelling. But it is an added bonus when, after seeing how conflicted Clint Eastwood’s character is in Unforgiven at taking up his gun again, you finally see him in “Any man don’t want to get killed…better clear on out the back” mode. Thus, new layers of psychological complexity are added to what otherwise might have been a routine (though still quite enjoyable) film about kicking ass and taking names.
I think that at the end of the day, the thematically conflicted pacifist Western draws a great deal of its strength from how at odds its themes are. This is made abundantly clear in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, a movie that reveals deeper layers each time I rewatch it. Jimmy Stewart is a lawyer who refuses to stoop to the level of frontier savagery that he sees around him. Yet, he ends up being forced into a gunfight with the villain Lee Marvin, who would have killed him if John Wayne hadn’t shot the Marvin at the last minute instead. Then, on the basis of the legend that Stewart killed Marvin, Stewart goes on to a political career that finally tames the West while Wayne dies forgotten. It is movies like this that show, not just the power of the American Western, but the complexity that can be found in the pacifist Western genre. Even if the filmmaker intended for their movie to be a condemnation of violence, if they stay within confines of Western mythology, something far richer emerges. A film with all the high points of a traditional Western along with a fascinating commentary on the notion of embracing peace even though it is an untenable goal. There is something very American about the idea of striving to reach an unrealistic ideal, and I mean that in the most positive way possible.