Wednesday, February 23, 2011

The Old West Rides Again

When my son was in kindergarten, he had to fill out an “expert” list so that he would never be short of something to write about when it came time for “writers' workshop.”  His six-year-old scrawl went like this: "I am an expert on The Magnificent Seven, bullfights, Stagecoach, John Wayne and snow leopards."

Obviously, there is no lack of testosterone in my house. 

The first time my three boys watched The Magnificent Seven, my youngest asked if he could watch it again even before the credits rolled through Charles Bronson, Yul Brynner, James Coburn, Steve McQueen, Robert Vaughan and Eli Wallach.

Days later he was still mesmerized by those heroes on horseback.  He wandered into the kitchen and asked, "Do you think if I wrote Chris, he'd write me back?" Confused at first, I finally figured out that he was talking about Yul Brynner's character, the leader of The Magnificent Seven -- or as the aficionados know, the leader of the Seven Samurai.  I explained that as real as Chris may be to him, Yul Brynner died in the 1980s, so no, he was no longer pen pal material.

In the years since, my son has added High Noon, True Grit, Once Upon A Time In The West, and one of The Duke's later pictures, The Cowboys, to his cinematic saddlebag of westerns. He has no patience for the more complicated pop-western Butch Cassidy and The Sundance Kid.  And we’re holding back on the Coen brothers' first contribution to the genre, No Country For Old Men.  At least for a few years.

Even though he has advanced to full third grade maturity, my son still returns to his first love.  Last week, he came home from school mid-morning with a fever and stomachache.  He got into his pirate pajamas and asked if he could have some crackers, lie on the couch and watch The Magnificent Seven.  Perhaps not what the doctor ordered, but it was just what a nine year old needed.

Westerns – as a genre – are built for nine-year-old boys.  And ninety-year-old boys. They are considered to be one of the few wholly original American art forms.  They tell simple but grand stories of the frontier, making order out of chaos, good versus evil, and that intangible yet definitive goal of justice.

The films are set in worlds with very clear order, the story lines are obvious and clean, and the characters fit traditional and predictable archetypes. They are tales of courage, determination and loyalty. The women can be damsels in distress or brothel betties, but all deserve protection. The good guy wears a white hat and the bad guy black.  

Yes, they can be that simple.  And at the same time, The Magnificent Seven and so many westerns, can be as complex as you would ever need them to be to teach a boy about being a man. They offer action, enduring dialogue, dramatic storytelling, character development, and morality. Mythic America meets Shakespeare.

Sure, the greatest injustice my son sees in his world is someone budging in line to go out for recess.  But Westerns have a rare ability to meet a viewer where he lives, and then to expand as he matures. Filling me in mid-movie one time, my son explained why the less-than-virtuous woman was being shunned by all but John Wayne, "See mom, the others don't know yet if they like girls, but Ringo does."

When my boys watch Westerns, it is a whole body experience. They stand. They sit. They jump up and down on the couch, cheering the hero during fight scenes or when the good guys take chase on horseback. Even down with a fever, my son sat right up when the seven horsemen had gathered and began their search for the bandit Calvera and his men.

"Oh, this is my favorite part," he said. "From here to the end of the movie." There was an hour and twenty-seven minutes remaining.

This year, the Academy of Motion Pictures is awarding The Magnificent Seven’s “bad guy” Eli Wallach with an Honorary Oscar to recognize “a lifetime’s worth of indelible screen characters.” Sure, Wallach has been in more than 90 movies – including one of The Godfather franchise, Mystic River and last year’s Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps.  But he is best remembered and most loved for his Western roles.

"I'm going to write him a letter," said my nine-year-old, as soon as he heard the news of the award. Never mind that Wallach played the hard-hearted bandit stealing from farmers. My son still desperately wanted to have some personal connection to that world of heroes and fighting for justice.  Okay, maybe it has something to do with the guns and horses too.

Sure enough, just like a gunslinger’s promise that he’d be back, one week later a letter arrived in the mail for a 9-year-old boy from a 95-year-old Eli Wallach. 

“Respectfully yours, from an old Mexican bandit.” 

And that’s how lessons of kindness, integrity, and reverence are passed on, from one hero to the next. And then, of course, he mounts his horse and rides off into the sunset.


  1. I live in a home where Sergio Leone, John Wayne, John Ford, Clint Eastwood, and Eli Wallach are practically members of the family, so I am particularly moved by your piece, and want to thank you for your wonderful insight. Describing my husband as a "fan" of westerns doesn't come close to describing his love and reverence for the genre. Now he's passing that appreciation on to our 9-year-old (and me for that matter!), and your post struck me in a way that it wouldn't have in my pre-Leone/Wayne/Ford years. Thank you once again for a great read!

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