My girly crush on the manly Western

Westerns are without a doubt one of the manliest genres of film; so why can’t I get enough of them?

The epitome of the movie cowboy: John Wayne in Rio Bravo (1959)

All of my closest friends are men. Because of this the films I watch when I get together with my pals almost always are full of laughable plots, language and violence. I put up with it because I enjoy the company and know that I always have my mom when I need my girly film fix to counterbalance all the testosterone.   Its not all torture for me though; for all the bad action flicks and retarded comedies I’ve sat through in the name of friendship there’s one “manly” genre that I don’t mind at all; the western.

The idea for the column this week came when I was deep in my “thinking about life” time of day (the 162 bus ride to/from my house to Villa Maria metro on my way to work) when I seriously asked myself; for a modern woman who embraces her femininity, sexuality and independence… what is that you like so much about these films?

Think about the standard plot of a western for a minute; a lone man, usually a sheriff, who defends morality with his gun and uncompromising masculinity. Paul Rudd and his bromantic- loving ways wouldn’t survive five seconds out in the old west; these films are populated with men who drink whiskey straight, and wouldn’t be caught dead doing anything so ridiculous as sharing a feeling.

When it comes to women in the western, the hero always has a “friendship” with the local saloon bar girl/whore. Every scene they share is loaded with sexual innuendo, and almost always the hyper sexualized saloon gal gets dumped for/transformed into the saintly schoolmarm-type character by the end.

Some of the most misogynistic moments (apart from a Sean Connery era James Bond film) I’ve ever seen on film are in westerns; in the Marilyn Monroe/Robert Mitchum western River of no Return (1954) Monroe plays a saloon singer who finds herself traveling down the river with the Mitchum character and his young son. Although he literally tries to rape her in one scene, the Monroe character still decides to ride off into the sunset with him in the end…

Mitchum asserting his masculinity in River of no Return (1954)

Thinking about all this, what is it that keeps me coming back for more? Well first and foremost film is a visual medium, and with the sprawling countryside this genre is set in, it’s really hard to make a bad looking western. And when you combine the pretty landscape with a good director of photography, you’re already halfway to making a great film. Although I did find it a bit too slow for my taste, Once upon a time in the West (1968) is one of the most beautiful looking films I’ve ever seen; every shot is pure perfection.

It’s that great look combined with the mythic quality of storytelling in the western; every film is some variation on the theme of revenge, greed, fear, life, death… that in my opinion gives the genre a certain artistic integrity that the straight out action or comedy film don’t have. That’s not to say that an action or comedy film can’t be artistic, but more than not these films are produced purely on a commercial basis. The western hasn’t been a commercial genre of film in awhile and even then it produced some of the some of the most iconic films of all time; The Searchers (1959) High Noon (1952) Stage Coach (1939)… I could go on and on, but you get the idea.

And then of course there’s all that masculinity and misygony. I can’t deny I’ve always had a fondness for the rugged/outdoorsy type of man and there are certain movie cowboy characters that bring out the dreamy girl in me… Montgomery Clift in The Misfits (1961) for instance. I know that the practical, realistic woman that I am would never be with any of these men, ESPECIALLY ones that tried to sexually assault me, yet film is also about losing yourself in a fantasy world… while my idea of a good fantasy isn’t being a wife to a drunken cowboy there are plenty of other fun scenarios that come to mind…

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  • I Love the old film “Westward the Women” (1951).”Only two things in this world scare me – and a good woman’s both of them!”
    I think they’re pleasing because it’s all so simple. Even if the standards of behavior evidenced are deplorable – they’re clear and well-understood.

  • i agree the plots are simple, and yet still always engaging. I can’t always say that for other genres where you know exactly where the plot is going…

  • Great artcile, I’ve been really into watching Westerns as of I love westerns however I am not the biggest John wayne fan. I don’t find him the most versitile actor and many of his movies seriously unrealistic. BUt I guess he was a product of his time.

  • well people don’t watch John Wayne movies for the realism, they watch them for the personality…. I just watched unforgiven this week and that’s a great movie but it’s pretty hard not to focus on the Eastwood personality.

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