My wife and I watch a lot of old movies together, and we have in common what you might call a “default position” on choosing the ones that we see: Whenever we can’t make up our minds about what to watch, we’re more than likely to put on a western. In recent weeks, for instance, we’ve watched Colorado Territory, Hondo, The Man from Laramie, Seven Men from Now, Tombstone, and The Westerner, each of which we’d seen many times before and each of which satisfied us just as much the umpteenth time around.
What is it about westerns that keeps Mrs. T and me coming back for more? Part of the pleasure they give arises from their clarity of conception. George Balanchine, the great Russian-American choreographer, also loved westerns, a taste that puzzled his highbrow admirers, to whom he replied that he liked them because “there is nothing superfluous in them. Simple things without pretensions. . . . You watch a western and think, Ah! There’s something to this.”
But that “something” also has to do with the moral clarity of the Hollywood western. I’m talking not about black and white hats, but about the fact that the characters in every great western are forced to make moral choices that are always clear but rarely easy, especially since they live in a world in which sheriffs and jails are few and far between. In a world without laws or lawmen, we must all choose between the moral integrity of the old-fashioned hero and the moral cannibalism of the self-willed villain. Such stark choices are the essence of the classic western, which is why the genre and its three brightest stars, Gary Cooper, Randolph Scott, and John Wayne, continue to retain their near-mythic hold on the imaginations of American moviegoers.
I just used the words “mythic” and “American,” which brings us to the heart of the matter. Taken together, the best Hollywood westerns come as close as anything ever has to comprising America’s creation myth, a tale of brave men and women who rode toward Monument Valley to make better lives for themselves and their children. Of course we all know it wasn’t as clear-cut as that, which is what makes their story mythic: It’s what we want to believe about American history. But if it isn’t all true, neither is it all false, and there is something both beautiful and vitally important in the perfect simplicity of the story that these films collectively tell. An all-American tale, if you like — and I do.
That’s what John Ford meant when he put these oft-quoted words into the mouth of one of the characters in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance: “When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.” A country without such larger-than-life legends is a land without a soul. It says something sad about America that Hollywood doesn’t make many westerns nowadays. It says something hopeful that so many of us still love the ones we already have.
This article appears as “Westerns” in the September 9, 2019, print edition of National Review.