The original European settlers of what is now the United States came to America fleeing trouble. This may have been religious persecution or a myriad of other difficulties, effects, and frictions, but the predominant desire of the early settlers was to avoid the absolute control exerted by European governments. The unduly harsh “Bloody Code” of England, with its several hundred crimes that were punishable by death, is perhaps the best example of this administrative power, which was common throughout the Continent.
With the discovery of a New World that was an ocean away from the laws and regulations that bound them, the first American colonists sailed west to establish themselves in a place free of European governmental obstructions. They still considered themselves Englishmen, but now they were free Englishmen who did not owe the Crown more than was its due. Likewise the Dutch, Germans, Poles, Irish, and others who followed them also found they had more opportunities for self-improvement and advancement than they had in their home countries.
But eventually the British government tried to re-establish its control over the descendants of those who had escaped its easy grasp. With improvements in cartography, ships, and frequent trade boosted by the colonies’ increasing economic strength, it was inevitable that the Crown and Parliament would attempt to re-assert their power over their distant subjects. Following the French and Indian War, they enacted numerous taxes such as the Stamp Act not only to pay off the debts they incurred during the war, but also to remind their far-flung subjects who was in charge.
Having lived so long, largely unmolested by their government, as well as having fought the Indians and the French personally to protect their lives and property, the colonists did not appreciate the Crown’s intrusion into their affairs. Those who wished to avoid dealing with the Old World moved west, even after the Crown forbade expanding into the Ohio Territory. Meanwhile those better established along the coast tried to reason with their mother country. When reason did not sway either King or Parliament, the War for Independence broke out.
Most of us have a passing acquaintance with these facts, but few take the time to see how these historical facts directly tie into the development of an American character that was later portrayed in the Western genre. Even fewer have noticed what this tie between fiction and reality says about us as Americans as a whole, up to and including the present day. The Western genre was more than just an escape into the facts and myths of yesteryear for the American people; it was and remains emblematic of the American character that stands as a warning to tyrants both within and without the country. For what the Arthurian Cycle and Robin Hood are to England, Westerns such as Rio Bravo and Open Range are to the United States of America.
“I’m not lookin’ for trouble.”
A review of Western films, television shows, and novels will turn up numerous adaptations of these words: “I’m not lookin’ for trouble.” The phrase is often used by characters in a Western to denote the fact that they seek only to mind their own business. If the affair presented to them does not appeal or is not urgent, then they will do their best to avoid becoming embroiled in the issue. As an example, in the 1959 film Rio Bravo, the young cowhand Colorado (played by Ricky Nelson) refuses his boss’ offer to lend him to Sheriff John T. Chance (John Wayne).
Currently holding the brother of Nathan Burdette, the most powerful man in the territory, on a charge of murder, Chance has only a recovering alcoholic named Dude (Dean Martin) and a gimpy elderly man called Stumpy to reinforce him as deputies. Though the townspeople have offered aid, Chance has refused it on the grounds that if he is killed, Burdette will exact vengeance on them for their support. Only after his employer is killed by Burdette’s men for trying to encourage others to help Chance, does Colorado reverse his decision to remain out of the conflict.
This second murder also convinces more townspeople to back the sheriff, even when it puts their lives at risk. During the climactic final confrontation the townspeople, represented by hotel manager Carlos, arrive to help Chance bring the Burdettes and their hired guns to heel. The scene is reminiscent of actual incidents in American history, such as the Great Northfield, Minnesota Raid in 1876 and the 1892 battle of Coffeyville, Kansas. In both cases the townspeople themselves fired on the criminals who attempted to rob the local banks, thereby taking the honest residents’ hard-earned capital for their own. Though the James-Younger Gang escaped Northfield, all but one member of the Dalton Gang was killed in the confrontation at Coffeyville.
Given this historical precedent, one has to wonder how matters came to pass in Rio Bravo. It is implied throughout the film that everyone knows Burdette is an unscrupulous man intent on abusing his wealth and position. His brother Joe (Claude Akins) is worse, demonstrated by his cold-blooded murder of a man who intervened to save an unconscious Dude from Joe Burdette’s fists. Yet before this incident, no one moved to stop the brothers from exploiting their power.
It would be easy to blame the inaction of the townspeople on Nathan Burdette’s authority and influence. His advantage in this area is certainly terrible and it prevents the people from simply running him and Joe out of town, as they would a less potent menace. The fact that neither Nathan nor Joe had committed a crime in plain sight of the law (represented by Chance) up to this point is another reason why they did not resist the Burdette brothers.
But the main motive for their inaction was that the brothers had not yet made themselves an intolerable problem. If they gained power over the territory, then those who disliked their rule could always leave. They were not trapped in one place, but had the option of moving onward to the ubiquitous “greener pastures” available throughout the North American continent. Thus, until Joe obviously broke the law, they had no reason to openly and definitively defy the Burdettes.
Kate, Bar the Door
We can see this facet of the American mindset at play in the present, as cities across the country devolve into lawlessness and residents abandon them for safer districts. New York City is experiencing an exodus unlike any they have known before while California, which has had a declining population for decades, is also witnessing a mass evacuation. Cities such as Seattle, Minneapolis, and Portland have found that their inhabitants will leave rather than subject themselves to rising crime rates and wanton destruction.
As long as Americans have the ability to avoid trouble, they can and they will take it, an option unavailable to most residents of Europe. For those in the Old World, their only choice was and is to remain in place and endure, until endurance becomes intolerable and action is taken to relieve the pressure. With the ability to simply leave one’s troubles behind, Americans lack the “fuse” inherent to many societies throughout Europe.
But when an American is bereft of any avenue of escape, they will turn and fight. Once again, the Western illuminates this point, as we see in the 2003 film Open Range, where Robert Duvall stars as “Boss Spearman" and Kevin Costner as Civil War veteran "Charley Waite". The film begins with these two open range cattlemen and their cowhands, Mose and Button, stopping near the town of Harmonville to buy supplies. Though they do not intend to stay long the local land baron, Denton Baxter (Michael Gambon), takes steps to force them on their way when he has Mose beaten and eventually killed, while leaving the much younger Button for dead in the process.
An irate Spearman and Charley return to Harmonville to have their remaining hand treated and to exact vengeance on the land baron. Given the power Baxter wields the townspeople are too afraid to oppose him on their own. Only the doctor and his sister Kate (Annette Bening), along with the livery stableman, offer them more than frightened looks and shaky comments.
Eventually, Spearman and Charley end up in a running gun battle with Baxter and his men, leading the townspeople to finally take up arms and join them in “cleaning up” Harmonville. Following Baxter’s death, viewers are treated to a scene reminiscent of the San Francisco vigilantes in the 1850s, where shop owners literally chase down and shoot a wounded, fleeing gun hand who turns to fire on his pursuers. With Baxter’s reign at an end the residents are free to pursue their occupations in peace, without his interference.
Americans’ tolerance for abuse is not as easily distinguished as it is for Europeans. Provided they have the “elbow room” Daniel Boone so appreciated, they can and will deal with an inordinate amount of discomfort. However, should this distress become too much for them to happily remain in their place of origin or choice, they will simply move to an area where there are fewer infringements on their lives and livelihoods.
But pushing an American into a corner from which he cannot escape tempts retaliation, which will come in an unexpected form and at a time the abuser least expects. It may require an outside impetus to prompt this response, such as the arrival of a person or persons who will take the brunt of the attack (Open Range). Or it may require an obvious violation of the law (Rio Bravo). In the end, however, when all peaceful alternatives to avoid a conflict have been exhausted, Americans will stand and fight. The Western memorialized this fact for all to see – and remember– regardless of place, station, or time.
Photo Credit- Great Western Movies.com