VARIATION ON AN ALMOST ENDLESS THEME
This one was worked out on a computer, so don't blame me for it; after all, it is a bit algorithmic. It was meant to explain how, in the face of nature being 'red in tooth and claw' and all that, altruism could have emerged. "In the beginning there were two kinds of people. The nice people and the nasty people. The nice people were altruistic, the nasty people were selfish, so, of course, it was only a matter of time before the nasty people took over and began to take advantage of the nice people. However, they also mated with the nice people and that in the end was their undoing, because the offspring they produced were half-nice and half-nasty. And the reason why that was their undoing was that these half-nice and half-nasty offspring were nice to the nice people and nasty to the nasty people, and in time came to act as a buffer between the nice people and the nasty people, isolating the latter. Gradually, after a few generations, the nasty people declined in numbers and the nice - along with their nice-nasty protectors, of course - dominated the planet." Of course, I'm sure things were a bit more complicated than this, but, perhaps as some kind of foundational myth it may contain some element of the truth.
In fact, the film-genre known as the Western might be described is an exemplar of such myths working themselves out in 'reality'. The heroes of Westerns are not 100% nice people, nor are they 100% nasty people. Instead, they are usually half and half people, who are nice to the nice people and nasty to the nasty people. The hero of the typical Western is the decent man who stands his ground and knows how to be mean when he has to. But he is not basically mean, at least not to the nice people; he is only mean to those who are nasty. What the myth, repeated with variations through endless Westerns, tells us is that such people win in the end because they combine the attributes of both niceness and nastiness. In the process, the nice people lend them their support and nasty people find themselves isolated, even though they may rule the roost and have the law on their side.
The film, Open Range, is a film about a town which has come under the thumb of a ruthless rancher who has the marshal of the town on his payroll. The rancher's name is Denton Baxter ((Michael Gambon) and the marshal's name is Sheriff Poole (James Russo). These are the nasty guys and by nasty guys I mean nasty with no mixture of nice. The nice people, I suppose, you could say are the townspeople, unassuming mediocrities who up to now have let the nasty people have it all their own way. Among them are some who do fight back in the end, but only after a couple of nice/nasty outsiders have set them the right example. The nice/nasty outsiders are Boss Spearman (Robert Duvall) and Charlie Waite (Kevin Costner). These two free-grazing cowpokes resent being pushed around by the rancher and his henchmen and in their determination to stand their ground become catalysts of resistance for the rest of the town.
So far so Western. The film has been described as a nostalgic trip into a past where, in fact, things never turned out as they usually do in a movie, with our two victorious heroes riding off into the sunset, having settled their score with the villains. In the real historical past, it was the nasty ranchers who eventually won and drove the free-grazing cow-pokes off of the land. However, in this film - and in many another Western - we are in the realm of myth, rather than history, and such myths have a cyclical nature, which invariably sets them at odds with a linear account of history. This film was made in 2003, and has more relevance to our own era than it does to the past in which it is set. It is a film about how 'ordinary Joes', who say things like "It's a shame what this town has come to", but do nothing about it, rise up against ruthless usurpers once the seed of revolt has been sewn by outsiders. In other words it is a sort of morality-tale which has more contemporary than historical relevance, precisely because it is cast in the form of a myth rather than presented in a realistic way. It was directed by Kevin Costner, whose film, Dances with Wolves, seems to suggest that he's at the Howard Zinn end of the spectrum when it comes to interpreting American history. This film is set after the 'Indians' have been conquered—mention is made of that—but before the big ranchers and robber-barons have started to move in. Baxter is clearly a big rancher in the making.
The two characters around whom this film revolves are both as I've said, half and half types who are nice to nice people and nasty to nasty people. (No turning the cheek here; nor do either of them think much of God - that "son of a bitch" in the sky.) Of the two, Charlie Waite is the more morally ambiguous because he has a past as a ruthless killer which continues to haunt him. He has been a Civil War soldier and his behaviour while a soldier has been less than exemplary. In other words, he has done things which soldiers quite often do, though it is never admitted they do it. (Why do you think Bradley Manning is where he is right at the moment?) He is ashamed of his past and has a hard time living it down, but he is not able to do it without the help of Boss Spearman, who is, if you like, the moral heart of the film. Grizzled, gruff, yet easy-going and humorous, he can still be very stubborn and truculent when someone tries to push him around. He is outraged when one of his hands, Mose (Abraham Benrubi) is murdered by Baxter's henchmen and another, the 16 year old Button (Diego Luna) is shot and clubbed so badly he may not live. This sets the scene for a High Noon type showdown which will decide the fate of the participants in this drama and bring the film to its climax though unfortunately not to its close. They could have lopped off the last 15 or 20 minutes while Charlie Waite sorts out his feelings for the doc's sister, Sue Barlow (Annette Bening) and eventually decides that he loves her. Apart from this anticlimax, the film remains in the realm of myth in which the nasty guys get their come-uppance and the nice guys inherit the earth.
Perhaps the reason why the romantic episode is superfluous has something to do with the relationship between Boss Spearman and Charlie Waite, which the former jokes about in terms of their being like an old married couple. In many films the violently disposed man is saved by a woman and, if that had happened here, the romantic episode would have been necessary. But Charlie Waite, who still contains residues of his violent past, and on two occasions feels the impulse to enact it by killing defenceless people is saved from himself not by Sue Barlow, but by Boss Spearman, so that what happens after is more or less gilding the lily and contributes not one bit to the drama. Romantic episodes I feel are only justified if they contribute to whatever catharsis is brought about in the denouement. But this was a Hollywood movie, so one should not expect it to confine itself to a mythic format in such a bare and minimal way.
This defect aside, Open Range distils the mythic essence of every good Western, while at the same time making the myth relevant to ourselves in 2012. The 'ruthless ranchers' these days are called bankers and big corporations, while their 'marshals and deputies' are their bought and sold lawmen - and, of course, their smooth-talking politicians. This is how it all works, and why the western is such a good genre for certain kinds of myth to work themselves out in. A myth, to be truly cyclical, must have a strong element of abstraction about it such that it can be seen to be applicable to numerous historical contexts, including our own. This mythic current is what makes films like Open Range more relevant to the times they are made in than they could possibly be to those they are actually set in. And for that reason, they are more than just trips down Memory Lane.