The Non-Western of the New West, 1973-75

By McCracken, Janet | Film & History, Fall 2014 | Go to article overview

The Non-Western of the New West, 1973-75


McCracken, Janet, Film & History


Non-Westerns of the New West, 1973-75

In the penultimate scene of Dennis Hopper's Easy Rider (1969), Peter Fonda's character, Captain America, offers the enigmatic claim: "We blew it." Interpretations of this famous line have proliferated since the movie's first release, although it's generally taken to mean that the protagonists sold out to the "establishment" by dealing in hard drugs for big money.261 argue, however, that in addition to this reading, "we blew it" refers to the degeneration and death of the Western film genre and of the characterizations of laudable American masculinity that that genre explored. I investigate a set of movies, made and set in the first half of the 1970s, which succeeded Easy Rider in developing this theme-Electra Glide in Blue (1973, James William Guercio), Charley Varrick (1973, Don Siegel), Thunderbolt and Lightfoot (1974, Michael Cimino), and Rancho Deluxe (1975, Frank Perry). I call my set of movies "Non-Westerns of the New West" (NWNW) because they are set in the Western United States contemporaneously to the time each is made, and their meaning is partially dependent on the history of Hollywood Westerns, although none is a member of the genre itself. These four movies, and others like them, invoke the classic Hollywood Western, as a dead genre, in order to study the fate of the Western hero in the New West of the 1970s.

The four movies were produced too closely together in time to mark much of a development in the sub-genre, but I discuss them in order of the increasing ubiquity and senselessness of the violence they depict, an order which parallels the increasing mystery and omnipresence of the civilized, Eastern, "system" which the protagonists attempt to escape by emulating the absent Hollywood Westerner. These are certainly not the only films in the NWNW sub-genre: they have predecessors (such as Archie Mayo's 1936 The Petrified Forest or Jacques Tourneur's 1947 Out of the Past) and successors (e.g., City Slickers (Ron Underwood, 1991), The Big Lebowski (Joel and Ethan Coen, 1998) Smoke Signals (Chris Eyre, 1998), and Brokeback Mountain (Ang Lee, 2005)). One might include Peter Bogdonovich's 1971 The Last Picture Show among them. But I focus on these four on account of their proximity in time to Easy Rider and the social upheavals that that movie evoked, and because they are all not only made during that time period, but also set in the time they were made.

Easy Rider depicts the cross-country motorcycle ride of pot smokers-Wyatt ("Captain America") and Billy from Los Angeles to New Orleans. The iconic youth-culture status of Easy Rider, the year of its release, and the route of its protagonists' journey can be read as a bittersweet goodbye to the Hollywood Western's West. In that sense, "we blew it," while still referring to trade in hard drugs and selling out to the establishment, also refers to leaving the West and crossing into the Eastern U.S.-abandoning the frontier for an overly-domesticated, debauched, constraining civilization. There's good evidence for this reading: in addition to Hopper and Fonda's claiming as much,2' the film is fairly explicit about it: The trip runs from West to East, retracing the U.S. Western expansion that inspired the Hollywood idiom. As Wyatt and Billy cross from Texas into Louisiana, Jimi Hendrix's "If 6 Was 9" starts abruptly: "If the sun refused to shine, I don't mind, I don't mind./lf the mountains fell in the sea, Let it be, it ain't me. ..." The landscape changes just as abruptly, from wide-open spaces to a closed-in, aboveground Louisiana graveyard. As the Hendrix lyrics that play over the Louisiana scene tell us, the protagonists have crossed the line from the freedom, sunshine, and grandeur of the West into the oppression, decline, and death of the East. The NWNWs attempt to reclaim that Western territory, fictional though it may be, and with mixed success.

The Western Then / The West Now

According to David Cook, "If there was a death blow to the Western genre, it was delivered by the political violence of 1968, Vietnam, and Watergate, after which the heroic utopian mythography of the American West became impossible to sustain. …

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