Those familiar with the Western will easily recognize the components of what this text calls the Western of social reconfiguration. First, there is an unjust dominant social group coercively ruling citizens through economic and/or armed force. This dominant group's power usually coincides with an established government, but even if not the group always holds incredible power over local citizens and effectively controls the local government. Second, there is a non-dominant social group living under the conditions stipulated by the dominant group. This non-dominant group may include a continuum of individual responses, from complacency to outright rebellion, toward the dominant group, but overall this group is helpless in its ability to overcome any injustice inflicted by the dominant group. Third, there is a male hero, usually arriving from a distant or mysterious place, who aids the non-dominant group by unifying its purposes before violently challenging, and ultimately overcoming, the dominant group. Many times, this hero's decision to act violently challenges his individual morality, forcing him to decide between his individual conscience and the good of the collective. His ultimate choice is, usually, for the collective.
Filmmakers, both in the "classical" and "revisionist" forms, have used the Western film as a vehicle for such stories of social reconfiguration and social justice, yet the critical tendency, particularly since the so-called "New Western Historians," has been to demythologize myths of American expansionism and exceptionalism in classical texts while praising the historical revisionism of more recent Western films. There is, no doubt, certain merit to this approach. Many critics have challenged the apparent moral clarity of traditional Westerns, particularly in relation to the apparently immoral reality of Western history. The classical Western's preference for violent heroism, its segmentation of gender roles and perpetuation of gender stereotypes, and its penchant for, or in some cases ignorance of, racial inequality, are all relevant and important topics to explore and critique. However, amidst these critiques, it is important to recognize the use of social reconfiguration plots in classical Hollywood Westerns. These classical Westerns of social reconfiguration ultimately arrive at similar conclusions to those of the revisionist period: that injustice perpetrated by dominant social groups deserves punishment; that in order to punish and overthrow dominant social groups, coercion is necessary; and that the necessary coercion challenges and threatens notions of individual morality.
These conclusions utilized by Westerns of social reconfiguration, and the narratives accompanying them, align with studies on the rhetoric of protest and social movements. Using rhetorical strategies connected with social protest makes classical Westerns of social reconfiguration less imperial-minded than many critics present them to be. They also champion certain aspects of revolutionary politics. This argument aligns, in part, with Noël Carroll's work on the "professional Western" set in Mexico. Carroll challenges Will Wright's simple delineation of the Western into four major types. In particular, Carroll argues, Wright's definition of the "professional Western," which Wright argues becomes the dominant form during the "revisionist" period, is too narrow. Wright sees the hero of the "professional Western" as a man-for-hire, not aligned with any political or moral cause, and simply willing and able to sell his "profitable skill" to the highest bidder (97). The professional Western hero's fight is, according to Wright, "divorced from all its social and ethical implications" (85). Many see Clint Eastwood's "Man with No Name" as an appropriate example of this character type, yet Carroll's analysis of certain post-1950s "professional Westerns" set south of the American border present a "recurring motif" in which these professional gunfighters "devote their energies in support of certain social values, namely, freedom and resistance to tyranny" (60). Politically, Carroll sees these films as "an opposition to oppression" and in "support of social liberation" (60). It is the contention of this article that classical Westerns of social reconfiguration present a similar political argument.
The recurrent use of reconfiguration rhetoric in classical Westerns will become particularly evident by analyzing four films – Billy the Kid Returns, Destry Rides Again, The Westerner, and Jesse James – all released between 1938 and 1940, a period often regarded as pinnacle years in classical Hollywood filmmaking. Each of these films presents a slightly different perspective on social reconfiguration, yet all depict the struggle between an oppressive structure and an oppressed populace. In choosing to violently overthrow the oppressive structure, Westerns of social reconfiguration emphasize the very foundational myth of American experience, continually replaying alternate versions of American colonial resistance to British rule. The Western of social reconfiguration, to varying degrees, focuses on the challenges, implications, and potential successes of violent social revolt rather than, as many critics of the Western often do, focusing on the myths of American expansion often utilized by other Western film types. These Westerns identify American existence, and a continued American-ness, as the ability to challenge and overcome political and economic oppression through an organized social movement.
The major objective of social movements is to realign societal power relationships. The desire to enact such change stems from widespread dissatisfaction with the current status-quo, leading to a feeling of unrest amongst those who feel unable to influence social decisions. Almost undoubtedly, this unrest leads to agitation, which occurs when "(1) people outside the normal decision-making establishment (2) advocate significant social change and (3) encounter a degree of resistance within the establishment such as to require more than the normal discursive means of persuasion" (Bowers et al. 3-4). A continuum of protest rhetoric exists between calls for agitation and calls for outright revolt, and there is much diversity even amongst similar social movements. Herbert Simons writes that along the "continuum from the sweet and reasonable to the violently revolutionary, one may identify moderate, intermediate, and militant types of strategies, each with its own appropriate tactics and styles" (7).
In order to achieve unified success amidst these diverse approaches, social movements must create some form of organization. This process includes formulating a "program of action, an ideology" and an administrative network organizing "meetings that provide interaction among the members" (Bormann 17). Most importantly, social movements require "rhetoricians who provide both the insider and outsider with a meaningful interpretation of the movement" (Bormann 17). This "man of words," as Eric Hoffer calls him, "prepares the ground for the rise of a mass movement: (1) by discrediting prevailing creeds and institutions and detaching from them the allegiance of the people; (2) by indirectly creating a hunger for faith in the hearts of those who cannot live without it, so that when the new faith is preached it finds an eager response among disillusioned masses; (3) by furnishing the doctrine and the slogans of the new faith; (4) by undermining the convictions of the 'better people' – those who can get along without faith – so that when the new fanaticism makes its appearance they are without the capacity to resist it" (128).
The Western hero functions as this "man of words" for the non-dominant social group. He becomes the motivation to organize against and challenge the status-quo. The hero provides what Orrin Klapp terms the "symbolic world," a collectively constructed frame of reference allowing "members to coordinate their behavior in ways which would never be possible without such common understandings" (91). People always respond to a symbolic reality, Klapp argues, since humans continually construct "images of the present, images of the future, and images of the past," ultimately tying them together "by symbols" (91). Thus, it is the leader's job to rhetorically construct a symbolic reality consistent with social reform. Constructing this reality includes, first, degrading and stigmatizing the opposition by defining an individual target of opposition and connecting a larger, oppressive, group to this individual target. Arthur Smith labels these initial strategies as "vilification" and "objectification" (26-29). Second, rhetorical construction of a symbolic reality involves an attempt to "unify and defend" the followers of a social movement (Smith 42). This process includes "mythification," which demonstrates that this "agitation is sanctioned by history because great agitators have sought to establish justice, create equality, and build dignity," and "legitimation," which explains, vindicates, and justifies "the activists involved in the movement" (Smith 40).
It is not hard to notice incredible similarities between the rhetorical strategies of social movements meant to rectify injustices and the very strategies used by classical Western films many scholars attempt to demythologize because they perpetuate injustices. The problem many have with Western storytelling is its penchant toward vilifying and objectifying racialized "others." Many Westerns celebrate national expansion and the "frontier thesis" of Frederick Jackson Turner, which also, according to Patricia Limerick, is a celebration of colonialism, or what she terms America's "legacy of conquest." Turner's thesis, that "the existence of an area of free land, its continuous recession, and the advance of American settlement westward explain American development" (1), ultimately sets up a "meeting point between savagery and civilization" (4). Turner, and those following his lead, dichotomize democratic, white American culture and Native American culture. Vilifying and objectifying Native Americans "savages" allowed for the mythification of the Western hero, whose purpose was to establish justice, dignity, and, of course, civilization across the previously untamed American frontier. It also, as Richard Slotkin points out in Regeneration Through Violence, legitimizes the violent means the hero and his followers take in producing this justice and dignity.
Though similar, there is a key distinction between the rhetorical tactics of Westerns demythologized by contemporary scholars and those of the Western of social reconfiguration. The Westerns so often demythologized attempt to legitimize the actions of a group that it narratively sets up as socially dominant. These films often show Native Americans attacking established towns or good-willed citizens trekking across the open plain, visualizing Turner's civilization/savage dichotomy. In these scenarios the hero and his group are defending or expanding, rather than overthrowing, a social structure either already established or in the process of establishment. The historicity of such narratives is irrelevant to the rhetorical purpose of such films, which is to mythologize and legitimize the defense of an established social order. Heroic actions in these narratives are the response to, rather than an example of, social agitation.
In contrast, the Westerns of social reconfiguration villainize and objectify the group who controls the social structure. This challenges John G. Cawelti's claim that it is impossible to have a Western without an antagonist "playing the role of savage," a character who, according to Cawelti, has "the capacity to live and move freely in the wilderness" (80-81). The wealthy ranchers, bankers, and politicians corruptly oppressing citizens, when shown outside the confines of the town, often do not fare well. Rather than racial vilification and objectification, these films degrade those of political and economic advantage, almost uniformly portraying their power as gained and maintained through immoral acts of violent, political, and economic oppression within the bounds of civilization. The hero is the one whose presence agitates societal norms, challenges injustice, encounters resistance, and unifies the oppressed people to violently reconfigure the established mode of life. Thus, the rhetorical purpose of Westerns of social reconfiguration is social agitation, defending people against socially sanctioned oppression rather than defending a dominant social structure. Again, narratives of this kind do not always concern themselves with historicity, but rather concern themselves with the legitimization of the hero's ultimately violent actions against the socially dominant group. They are, as Carroll notes in his article on the "professional Western" set in Mexico, expressing "a wish" about the way Americans want to define American idealism (60).
As previously mentioned, these narratives are, in essence, following the narrative of America's establishment as a nation. American colonists felt it necessary to agitate what they saw as oppressive British laws, most memorably in acts like the Boston Tea Party. The British responded to this agitation with stricter laws, known in Britain as the "Coercive Acts," but called the "Intolerable Acts" by the colonists. These Acts led to further agitation, such as the Suffolk Resolves, but more importantly to the formal organization of colonial objectives with the formulation of the First Continental Congress. After the British rejected the Continental Congress's rhetorical petitions, and more prominently after the events of Lexington and Concord, the Second Continental Congress appointed George Washington, the "man of words" for the colonies, as General of the Colonial Army. The colonies were now ready to use violent as well as rhetorical coercion in attaining their objectives, and in this they were ultimately successful. Therefore, Westerns of social reconfiguration, in following this pattern of agitation, response, organization (including the emergence of the hero), and violent action, reaffirm a foundational American desire to live, individually and collectively, free of oppressive governmental or economic control.
As is the case in American history, the Western certainly has limitations regarding who can live free from oppression, and most scholarship produced in the last thirty years focuses on these limitations. The content in Westerns of social reconfiguration, and their repeated quests for social justice, does not exempt them from similar critiques. As Brett Westbrook points out, regarding gender limitations in Western films, the "edges of the genre will stretch only so far" (45). Almost all characters in each of the films discussed below are white, presumably Protestant, and each of the protagonists are men. These films barely provide, and some could even say erase, depictions of ethnic and racial distinctions. When non-Anglo ethnic or non-white racial characters appear, as in Destry Rides Again and Jesse James, they are caricatures. The films also predominantly stereotype gender roles, including old women dying of heartache and stress, and the well-known Western dichotomy of whore vs. madonna for younger women.
But the Western of social reconfiguration contains a desire and formula for social justice lying beyond the limitations of the classical Western. These films overtly chastise corrupt economic practices against lower-income citizens and power-hungry businessmen monopolizing production and distribution. They also condemn unjust governments and governmental collusion with wealthy business owners. Overall, they argue honest citizens have a right to earn an honest living, own property, and live without fear of unwarranted government sanction.
Setting these tales of social reconfiguration in the historical American West provides the filmmaker with several advantages. First, as many scholars point out, the American West immediately calls to mind foundational, and sometimes conflicting, American myths of collective expansion and individual freedom. As Henry Nash Smith famously argued in The Virgin Land, the earliest visions of an American Empire saw in the Western frontier both the potential to increase economic and world power through the discovery of the ultimately illusive Northwest Passage, and a more insular, righteous, and agrarian-based society removed from the economic and moral burdens of industrial, big-city life. Individuality plays a major role in both of these visions, particularly in the "hunter and trapper who served as the pathfinder of overland expansion and became one of the fixtures of American mythology," and, though Smith does not focus upon him, the lone cowboy who helps establish or maintain small-town civilization (Smith 12). These two myths of American expansion encapsulate America's never-ending ideological tension between global imperial force and revolutionary democracy. The second of these seemingly conflicting visions of American destiny provides the narrative setting for Westerns of social reconfiguration. Most scholarship on the Western assumes Western texts hold the imperial, colonizing vision. Gordon S. Wood writes that, since "the United States has so often stood on the side of established governments and opposed to revolutionary movements," many people find it hard "to think of the United States as a revolutionary nation operating out of a revolutionary tradition" (320), yet this revolutionary tradition is clearly visible in Westerns of social reconfiguration. The individual Western hero fights for the individual rights of a non-dominant social group by challenging a reigning power structure currently under the control of a few. The end result is more individual freedom and less control over individual economic well-being for the governing body.
The second advantage of setting these tales of social reconfiguration in the historical American West is that the small, frontier towns used in many Westerns provide a manageable size for noticeable changes brought about by a successful social movement. In these small towns, a non-dominant group can easily alter the political landscape through organized economic or armed force. Citizens of the town, and film audiences, can also quickly notice changes brought about by the success or failure of such force. The limited size of the small Western town distinguishes it from locales in other genres often concerned with social change, such as the gangster film and film noir. The large metropolitan settings of these latter genres makes stories of large scale social change nearly impossible, leading critics to often read the gangster and film noir cycles as containing dire cultural messages. The violent death of a gangster or film noir anti-hero may momentarily save society from their individual menace, but widespread relief always seems out of reach. In contrast, the death of a corrupt sheriff, politician, or businessman controlling a Western town, and the replacement of such a person with a morally pure (and collectively appointed) sheriff, politician, or businessman, drastically alters the fortunes of the citizenry.
Certain Westerns, though, do present the West in larger social contexts, and this decision alters the way films can finalize the actions of a hero or any social reconfiguration that hero may accomplish. Therefore, it is important to account for the amount of character change and/or societal change when analyzing a specific Western film's contribution to the ongoing dialogue of social reconfiguration. This process aligns with arguments made by M. M. Bakhtin, who sees several ethical implications related to character and societal change when discussing his theory of the chronotope.
Bakhtin's chronotope is, in short, the interaction of time and space, yet Bakhtin argues individual storytellers, through the use of time and space, ultimately present a particular view of mankind. He writes that the chronotope, "as a formally constitutive category determines to a significant degree the image of man" in a story because "the image of man is always intrinsically chronotopic" (85). Therefore, "a work's artistic unity," through its presentation of man in time and space, when viewed alongside "actual reality" beyond the story, "always contains within it an evaluating aspect" since the story's "abstract elements – philosophical and social generalizations, ideas, analyses of cause and effect – gravitate toward the chronotope and through it take on flesh and blood, permitting the imaging power of art to do its work" (Bakhtin 243, 250). In other words, Bakhtin directly ties the meaning of a text, and particularly the meaning of mankind in a text, to the way characters function in that text's formulation of time and space.
Like most socialist thinkers, Bakhtin also connects meaning with change, or what many would term "progress." His discussion and evaluation of all his major chronotopes centers upon how much characters and places change over the course of the narrative. Bakhtin focuses above all on the unity of individual and social narratives within any story. He writes that, parallel to "individual life-sequences – above them, but outside of them – there is a time-sequence that is historical, serving as the channel for the life of a nation, the state, mankind. Whatever its general ideological and literary assumptions, whatever its concrete forms for perceiving historical time and the events that occur within it, this time-sequence is not fused with the individual life-sequences. The historical time-sequence is measured by different standards of value, other kinds of events take place in it, it has no interior aspect, no point of view for perceiving it from the inside out. No matter how its influence on individual life is conceived and represented, its events are in any case different from the events of individual life, and its narratives are different as well" (217), yet the influence of society on the individual and the individual on society in any story shapes the conception of a story's meaning, which becomes even more relevant, as Bakhtin points out, in historical fiction such as the American Western.
There are three major plots filmmakers use in Westerns of social reconfiguration. In the first plot-type, the protagonist does not change with the town, functioning instead as a fully formed tool for social reconfiguration. He is, in many ways, a salvific figure. Films of this nature provide plenty of rationale for judging immorality in dominant social groups, but do not provide significant challenges to individual morality in overthrowing the dominant group. These films also end with the sense that the struggle between the dominant and non-dominant group is over, and that the hero has helped permanently banish, or kill off, the dominant group. Formerly oppressed citizens are now free to live their lives and seek economic gain without recourse from corrupt officials. The hero positively impacts society, but society does not affect the hero.
One example of this reconfiguration film-type is the Roy Rogers vehicle Billy the Kid Returns (Kane, 1938). The film quickly dichotomizes powerful, corrupt, and government-tied ranchers with oppressed homesteaders, setting up a coercive and unequal status-quo in the New Mexico territory. The opening scene depicts a group of local officers, along with ranchers, shooting guns at the famed burning McSween house in the hopes of killing Billy the Kid (also played by Roy Rogers). Billy has run afoul of the ranchers, and one of the homesteaders even asks the most powerful of the ranchers, J.B. Morganson (Morgan Wallace), if he is going to let Billy "be murdered because he stood up for us homesteaders." Morganson simply replies that he cannot "interfere with officers who are enforcing the law." After Billy escapes, three officers enter a homesteader's home. They ask for Billy and claim they are running these "nesters" off of their "range" because the homesteaders protect "murderers like" Billy. The homesteader, however, argues the ranchers are removing the homesteaders from their "claims because" the "big ranchers begrudge" the homesteaders "a little of the open range."
Billy's continual defense of the homesteaders, all of which takes place prior to the film's plot, is a form of agitation against the status quo, and the homesteaders face significant resistance from the ranchers because of Billy's actions. There are, though, two major reasons why Billy's agitation proves unsuccessful. The first is Billy's status as an outlaw who not only agitates the ranchers but also commits crime and murder for personal gain. With his allegiances split between the homesteaders and himself, he is unable, and probably even unwilling, to organize and unify a social protest movement. The second reason is Billy's death near the beginning of the film at the hands of his old friend Pat Garrett (Wade Boteler), the town sheriff. Garrett, the only lawman untainted by the powerful ranchers, wants Billy to leave town, but reluctantly shoots the outlaw when Billy tries to shoot Garrett.
The homesteader's fortunes turn with the arrival of Roy Rogers, who bears a striking resemblance to the now-deceased Billy the Kid. Roy continues Billy's agitation of the ranchers by stopping their raids on homesteaders' property even before he knows of his physical resemblance to the well-known outlaw. When riding into town, Roy sees several ranchers setting fire to a home and stealing horses, and he quickly acts to save the house and the horses. Then, when Garrett realizes Roy's true identity after nearly mistaking him for the dead Billy, the sheriff hires Roy as his secret deputy, paying him to impersonate Billy the Kid and continue saving the homesteaders from the ranchers.
Roy embodies the prototypical "man of words" necessary to realize organized social reconfiguration. He discredits the ranchers and emboldens those on the side of the homesteaders, organizing the latter enough to overthrow the corrupt power structure in the territory. A scene near the middle of the film captures Roy's ability to accomplish more than the mere agitation initiated by Billy the Kid. Nathaniel Moore (Edwin Stanley), owner of a new general store in the territory, and his daughter, Ellen (Lynne Roberts), present unwanted competition to the head rancher Morganson. The Moores, as new arrivals in the territory, are unfamiliar with Morganson's monopoly over all business in the area and promote their new store throughout the town. When business grows, Morganson and his fellow ranchers enter the Moore's store to intimidate and buy out the newcomers. Nathaniel Moore refuses to sell as a nervous crowd fills the store, unable to counter or resist the corrupt influence of Morganson's gang. However, when Roy, still pretending to be Billy the Kid, arrives with guns drawn he quickly changes the dynamics of the scene. Morganson's gang hold their hands in the air as some in the previously nervous crowd disarm them, and instead of buying the store, Morganson and his associates purchase items from Moore through Roy's coercion.
Roy's ability to embolden the homesteaders and discredit Morganson's ranchers through agitation meets with a familiar attempt from the ranchers to resist the change in power, but Roy proves more selfless and organized than Billy the Kid. Whereas Billy's allegiance wavered between the homesteaders and himself, Roy's full devotion is to the homesteaders. As Morganson plans a return to Moore's store in order to steal their money back, Roy devises a plan to take the Moore's money and hide it from Morganson's gang. This action, however, confuses the Moores who think Roy's actions are those of the greedy Billy the Kid, forcing Roy to take the money from the Moores at gunpoint. Roy also confuses Garrett, who believes Roy's newfound power has corrupted his actions just as it did to Billy, yet there is nothing in the film to suggest money tempts Roy away from his duties, and the narrative quickly resolves Garrett's suspicions to pick up again on Roy's organizational efforts to overthrow Morganson's corrupt rule. With the local government completely under Morganson's authority, Roy devises a plan to lure Morganson's ranchers into stealing federally owned horses, making the crime a federal crime, and allowing Morganson to stand trial under just circumstances. Roy's plan, naturally, fools Morganson and his men, and the film ends with arrest and the assumed disappearance of Morganson's corrupting influence. Thanks to Roy, the town changes without further fear of oppression, and the social movement proves successful.
Roy's uncorrupt and temptation-less leadership does not mean his actions avoid violent coercion, as evidenced by the scene in the Moore's general store along with his shootout with Morganson's ranchers near the end of the film. Unlike the plot-types discussed below, however, the violence in Billy the Kid Returns never challenges Roy's individual morality. While he would rather not forcibly take the money from the Moores, he does not hesitate to do it because it is in their best interest, and he knows his actions are pure and right. Gunplay merely serves the higher moral purpose, and as a fully-formed protagonist, all of Roy Rogers's actions unquestioningly align with goals of the non-dominant group. In this form of the Western of social reconfiguration, the protagonist is the full embodiment of the non-dominant group's ideology, and the only character capable of turning the ideology into reality through his ability to agitate, organize, and utilize coercive means in overthrowing the dominant group.
The second, and most common, reconfiguration plot-type involves the protagonist changing, to varying degrees, along with the town. Much of the hero's character change directly relates to his willingness to help the non-dominant group overthrow the dominant group because it specifically challenges the protagonist's notions of individual morality, which is a more humanized version of the salvific cowboy. Films of this type both produce rationale for overthrowing the immoral, dominant social group, and present varying levels of challenge to the individual's moral conscience in reconfiguring society. As with the first plot-type, though, the reconfiguration is complete and seemingly beyond reversal by the end of the film. Often this film-type ends with the cowboy hero remaining in the town, usually as the sheriff or as a fellow homesteader, to maintain and propagate the newly formed societal structure. Many critics view the hero's act of staying in the town, derisively, as one of "domestication," focusing either on the strong paternal actions of the sheriff (Jacobowitz 89) or on the expansion of "civilization" across the previously untamed American frontier (Bandy and Stoehr 117). This line of argumentation, however, misses the main reason these films provide for the hero staying in town. The hero remains not chiefly to expand society into previously uncivilized regions, but to maintain freedom from societal oppression.
Two films that exemplify this second plot-type are Destry Rides Again (Marshall, 1939) and The Westerner (Wyler, 1940). The town of Bottleneck in Destry Rides Again resembles the corrupt New Mexico territory of Billy the Kid Returns in its corrupt hierarchy. Kent (Brian Donlevy), a saloon owner interested in profiting from the local cattle industry, effectively runs the town with the help of the equally corrupt mayor, Judge Slade (Samuel S. Hinds). Sheriff Keogh (Joe King), the only form of agitation against Kent's power, disappears early in the film after Keogh confronts Kent about having cheated a local rancher out of his ranch in a game of cards. To further strengthen their hold on the town, Kent and Slade promote the town drunk, Washington Dimsdale (Charles Winninger), to Keogh's place as sheriff.
The drunk Dimsdale is, of course, not the "man of words" the innocent homesteaders surrounding Bottleneck need to organize a movement against Kent. The customers in Kent's saloon merely laugh at Dimsdale's attempts to agitate the hierarchy, and his decision to bring in Tom Destry, Jr., (James Stewart) the son of the sheriff during the town's last period of law and order, only exacerbates the situation. First, Destry exits the carriage carrying him into town holding a woman's parasol and canary cage, a humorous sight from the perspective of Kent's men. Then, when Kent follows his "tradition" in asking all new deputies for their gun, Destry provides the saloon's inhabitants with more fodder by admitting he does not carry guns. Dimsdale and Destry initially embolden the dominant group rather than the non-dominant group, a reversal of successful social protest rhetoric.
Destry, however, literally proves to be the "man of words" the town needs. At first, Destry, who claims he "doesn't believe" in guns, accomplishes all his agitation verbally. He challenges but quickly wins the respect of Frenchy (Marlene Dietrich), Kent's girlfriend, by respecting her intelligence and natural beauty. After confronting her with the reality of Kent's crimes against Sheriff Keogh, he ends their conversation by telling her she probably "has a lovely face underneath all that paint," and that she should "wipe it off one day, and figure out how [she] can live up to it." He then alludes to Kent's crimes in a conversation with Judge Slade, and tricks Kent into sending a man to Keogh's hidden burial spot so Dimsdale can follow and arrest the man. Destry even sends for a federal judge to prosecute the arrested man and convinces the honest ranchers to follow the corrupt law until he can legally rid the town of Kent.
Destry reluctantly must move beyond verbal agitation as Kent's resistance threatens to undo Destry's organizational efforts. Kent's men find out about the federal judge and kill Dimsdale as they break the arrested man out of prison, leading Destry to forego his individual moral stance on gun violence in order to strap on a gun and lead the honest citizens in a violent revolt against Kent. It is this revolt that ultimately proves successful in ridding the town of Kent's corruption, but unlike Roy Rogers, Destry's use of the gun clearly presents a challenge to his ethical worldview. Rather than a fully formed character acting merely as an agent of change, Destry's individual morality conflicts with his sense of group morality. Throughout much of the film, Destry attempts to keep his individual and group morality connected, which works to a certain extent. He is able to win the affections of the honest townspeople and challenge the corrupt dominant group through verbal resources and intelligence. But while Roy Rogers's entire moral being connected with that of the non-dominant group, Destry's does not. Destry's decision to use the gun is a decision to place the group's moral well-being above his own. His decision is a successful one, ridding the town of corruption and violently establishing the "law and order" Destry hoped to instill without resorting to violence.
Cole Harden (Gary Cooper) follows a similar, though more pronounced moral challenge in The Westerner. Harden is a drifter brought before Judge Roy Bean (Walter Brennan), leader in the corrupt town of Vinegaroon, on a false charge of horse theft. Bean enforces the law on his own terms, and from inside his bar, blatantly promoting the cause of cattle-ranchers at the expense of homesteaders, and had just finished hanging a homesteader for defending his property from ranchers when Harden arrives. Harden, unlike Roy Rogers and Destry, engages in some questionable behavior. He lies to postpone his hanging when sentenced to death for the horse theft, telling Bean he intimately knows, and owns a lock of hair from, Bean's favorite actress Lily Langtry (Lilian Bond). Harden fights and takes money from the real horse thief who enters Bean's bar after Harden's conviction. He also drinks alcohol and gambles with Bean's men, actually winning the stolen horse in a game of cards later in the evening.
Though less clean-cut than Destry, Harden similarly hopes for a peaceful resolution to the conflict between Bean's cattle-ranchers and the homesteaders. He befriends both Bean and a homesteading family, actually stopping several homesteaders from lynching Bean. He also similarly uses verbal means at first, trying to convince both sides of "the other side's point of view." As with Destry, this method works to a certain extent as Bean agrees to drive all the cattle away from the homesteader's land in exchange for the lock of Langly's hair, which Harden supplies by taking a sample of hair from his new, homesteader love interest Jane-Ellen Matthews (Doris Davenport). But Bean and his men do not allow for a peaceful resolution, and once he has the lock of hair, Bean orders his men to burn the homesteader's crops and homes, an action that kills Jane's father Caliphet (Fred Stone). Rather than peaceful negotiations, Bean views Harden's actions as agitation and attempts to reconfigure the power structure.
Bean's violent resistance encourages Harden to further organize the social movement, more firmly take the side of the non-dominant group, and resort to violent coercive means in challenging the status quo. In doing so, Harden also challenges his individual morality, sacrificing his feelings of friendship for Bean in an effort to save the homesteader's from the judge's oppression. To enact his plan, Harden signs on as a deputy sheriff in a neighboring town, which brings in Lily Langly for a show. He knows Bean cannot resist the opportunity to see his favorite actress in person. As in Destry Rides Again, this action results in a decisive gunfight between the "man of words" and the corrupt leader, yet, unlike Destry, Harden's ethical conflict is not with the use of his gun, but in the killing of a friend, as evidenced by his escorting of Bean backstage to meet Langly after fatally shooting him. Bean's death saves the homesteaders and rids the town of corruption, and the final frames of the film show a now-married Harden and Jane watching a parade of homesteaders entering the land. By the end of both Destry Rides Again and The Westerner, society and the hero seem permanently changed.
The third type of reconfiguration Western presents a less finalized version of societal reconfiguration by expanding the scope of civilization outside of the isolated town. This plot-type places the humanized salvific cowboy within a larger, more complex world where changes happen slowly, seem minor, and do not effect society outside the hero's specific locale, and may not seem to effect much even within his locale. As with the previous plot-types, these films produce a rationale for overthrowing the immoral, dominant social group and present varying levels of challenge to the individual's moral conscious in reconfiguring society, but these films also recognize a more realistic world in which changes of this sort are difficult and slow in developing. Often, they end with a realization that the fight for justice will remain a recurrent effort in that particular location or with the protagonist moving to another location in a continuing effort to establish justice for his cause. The hero and society affect and change each other, but the changes are less complete.
One such film is Jesse James (King, 1939). As with the Westerns of social reconfiguration discussed above, Jesse James quickly and clearly presents a situation of oppression enacted by a dominant group upon a non-dominant group. After the opening credits, a title card overtly states the status quo: "The advance of the railroads was, in some cases, predatory and unscrupulous. Whole communities found themselves victimized by an ever-growing ogre – the iron horse." Of course, the advancing railway system is not the main problem. The real issue, as the film presents it, is the way in which the railway men, backed by the government, economically coerce homesteaders out of their property for much less than they originally paid for the land. The film makes this clear in the first scene as well-dressed railway men offer $1 an acre to a farming family for a property the family purchased for $15 an acre. The film emphasizes the dichotomous power dynamics in the scene not only when the railway men promise the family $1 an acre is their best offer since the government will simply condemn and take the land without any payment later on, but also in the land owner's sheepish indecision, reluctant acceptance, and his inability to read or sign the contract because of illiteracy. The railway men's visit to another property showcases their use of violent coercion in addition to their economic and rhetorical coercion. When a teenage son slightly agitates the situation, convincing his mother to at least visit a lawyer before signing the documents, the head railway man pulls the teenager from the house and punches him in the face, knocking him to the ground. Emotionally distraught, the mother quickly signs the contract.
The James brothers more fully agitate the status quo when the railway men visit their mother's farm. Unable to convince the mother (Jane Darwell) to sign the document, the head railway man tries to punch Frank (Henry Fonda), but receives a jab from Frank instead. As the other railway men start to intervene, Jesse (Tyrome Power) pulls a gun and fires a warning shot, stopping their advance. Jesse then holds a gun on the men and allows Frank to fight the leader one-on-one – a fight Frank easily wins. However, after Frank turns his back, the leader sees a scythe, grabs it, and prepares to hit Frank, but Jesse shoots the leader in the hand before he can act.
Jesse's agitation leads to the first attempts at organizing a social movement against the dominant group. He calls a meeting of the local homesteaders, asks them all to raise money for a lawyer, and convinces them all to stand together against the railway's corrupt business practices, yet the dominant group's resistance makes the organization short-lived. The leader of the railway men, citing his wounded hand, secures a warrant for Jesse's arrest and, in the attempt to find Jesse and Frank, throws some dynamite into their home, killing their mother.
The James' mother's death turns Jesse and Frank's quest for social justice into one of revenge. Like Billy the Kid in Billy the Kid Returns, Jesse's personal interest conflicts with fully realized social reform. He becomes an outlaw after killing the railway leader, then leads his gang on a continued quest to agitate the railways by repeatedly holding up train cars. The robberies accomplish nothing more than a cycle of agitation and resistance, one from which Jesse and Frank cannot escape. The townsfolk and homesteaders admire the James boys, but they do not work alongside them. The people see Jesse and Frank as unique crusaders fighting for the people rather than as "men of words" able to organize the people in an effort to work together, overthrowing the corrupt society.
Unlike in Billy the Kid Returns, no "man of words" arrives to fill the organizational void left by Jesse and Frank James. The gang's inability to place the good of the people before their own pursuit of revenge never allows for an end to the status quo. The dominant group meets all agitation with resistance until the outsiders providing the agitation disappear, leaving the non-dominant group still open to oppression. Though Jesse's relationship with his wife, Zee (Nancy Kelly), tempers his revenge and periodically makes him reconsider the morality of his actions, he never fully gives up his individual goals for the good of the group. His inability to organize the collective makes the power of the dominant group, and particularly their economic incentives, a temptation for Jesse's supporters. Jesse's inevitable assassination by Robert Ford (John Carridine), who succumbs to the dominant group's promptings, effectively ends the non-dominant group's hope of overthrowing the dominant group.
Jesse James ends with a reminder that society is constantly in flux and that there is always hope in altering the status quo. Jesse's funeral in the final scenes provides the film the opportunity to eulogize Jesse as both an outlaw and a man of whom the townspeople and homesteaders are not ashamed. Though sad, the people retain a bit of hope that certain ideals initially held by Jesse and Frank James will remain and that future organized efforts will end the economic and sometimes violent oppression forced upon the people.
The survey supplied above is both an acknowledgment of and response to current scholarship on the American Western. First, it acknowledges and supports the long-held belief that Western stories often project and reflect myths of American identity. Second, it responds to the overwhelming critical emphasis on the Western film as a propagation of the imperialistic American identity by focusing specifically on a Western film-type seemingly preoccupied with America's myth of revolutionary societal alteration. Western stories of social reconfiguration are, at their core, stories of social protest and social movements. They fictionally depict a type of story essential to American existence, and inseparable from America's foundation. These stories represent more than a fleeting armed conflict – or in the terms used throughout this article, mere agitation. Westerns of social reconfiguration, instead, represent political movements and revolutions founded upon equality and justice.
Films such as those discussed above attempt to work out – as Lewis P. Simpson writes Washington, Jefferson, and Adams attempted to work out during and after the American Revolution – "the definition of the reality of the Revolution" (47). Simpson argues, particularly of Washington and Jefferson, that these men ultimately conclude that the violation of "certain unalienable rights" such as "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness" to a "sufficient degree justifies the alteration or abolition of a government and the institution of a new one more likely to secure the natural rights of men and to promote their 'safety and happiness'" (50). Westerns of social reconfiguration most often come to this same conclusion. There is, however, variety in the ways these films portray any moral culpability connected to the "man of words" as he organizes others to the cause of justice to overthrow the status quo. There is also variation in the completeness connected to the institution of new governance through abolishment of the dominant group. For films of this nature, the West serves "as a sacred time which is understood to be recurrently present, both in and out of history, both past and present" (Cawelti 11). The films, surely, seek to entertain, following singular stories of heroism and resolve, but those singular stories are also, first, representative of America's defining revolutionary event and, second, lenses through which to view other historical and contemporary social movements against oppression.
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Billy the Kid Returns. Directed by Jospeh Kane, performances by Roy Rogers, Smiley Burnett, and Lynne Roberts, Republic, 1938.
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