The Western genre symbolizes life, minus the sugar-coating.
Typically, the Western portrays a place and time that fuses ultimate freedom with ultimate responsibility, a place where people have to consider the consequences of their words and actions. Talk only gets a person so far; in fact, talk can be taken too far. What matters are actions and consequences, and the consequences are often straightforward - life, or death. Sometimes both.
Larry McMurtry's 1985 classic novel, Lonesome Dove (1), focuses on the lives of two retired Texas Rangers, Captains Woodrow Call and Gus McRae (1). Call is the perpetually grim leader and fighter; McRae, the eternally nonchalant joker and philosopher. Both are wanderers at heart. For reasons sometimes mysterious even to them, they have settled in the Texas border town of Lonesome Dove for a number of years, tending to their small cattle company and ruminating on the past, on what might have been.
Call and McRae.
"The hardest thing on earth is choosing what matters."
Both had many chances to do something else in life, and there are many times when neither seems satisfied about where they have ended up in their later years. Yet both also realize that "the hardest thing on earth is choosing what matters," and deep down, neither regrets the choice to wander and stay free rather than settle down. They chose to give life to their deeds, and death to any chance of marriage or family. Perhaps they could have chosen otherwise. Or, perhaps not. Either way, they both accept the outcome, even if not entirely satisfied with it.
An important aspect of choices in life are the inevitability of making a "wrong" one (although from a certain point of view, there are no wrong choices, only experiences). Gus reflects that if one is truly making choices, then errors cannot be avoided, stating:
"I'm glad I've been wrong enough to keep in practice. . . You can't avoid it, you've got to learn to handle it. If you only come face to face with your own mistakes once or twice in your life it's bound to be extra painful. I face mine every day-that way they ain't usually much worse than a dry shave."
This Western exemplifies the stark reality of making choices, and learning to live - or die - with them.
Yet the Western depicts more than just choices and their consequences; it depicts the objectives of the choices.
The legendary 1968 film Once Upon A Time In The West (2), co-written and directed by Sergio Leone, revolves around the lives of five people on the frontier of the Old West - Harmonica, an itinerant drifter with a secret; Frank, a ruthless gunslinger who follows his own rules; Cheyenne, a reckless, sort of noble bandit; Jill, a fearless survivor and seeker of change; and Morton, a greedy, yet pitiable railroad tycoon. The film is slow, but that is its power. The ending is majestic, tragic, and inevitable.
The film touches on the objectives that dictate one's life decisions. Morton appears to be a greedy businessman, yet simply wants to go west, to see the Pacific before he dies. Jill seems to covet the money, but only insofar as it helps her start a family. Cheyenne has a reputation for robbery, yet we later see that he is actually more motivated by honour. Frank thinks he wants to be a businessman and become rich, yet in the end, realizes he cares little for it, that his ability to determine the course of his own life is what matters, and that he would rather be "just a man."
Harmonica. Jill. Cheyenne. Frank.
"They call them millions."
Yet it is Harmonica whose perceptions are most intriguing. When Cheyenne explains to him how he could earn many thousands of dollars, Harmonica smiles casually, even wistfully, and says, "They call them millions," symbolizes that he cares little about the prospect of personal gain, and more about an accurate description of the idea (and maybe even the enlightening of his fellow man). He certainly is not hiding any scheming or ulterior motives. Harmonica knows that seeking "millions" will not produce a life worth living. Not to him, anyhow.
The Western is also no stranger to love. There may be many forms of love, and who is to say which is best, or true, other than those involved in the experience? Towards the end of the film, when Harmonica has fulfilled his main task in the film, he encounters Jill one last time. He states that it's time for him to leave. Cheyenne looks quietly on, knowing what will inevitably happen, as Jill says to Harmonica:
"I hope you'll come back someday."
Harmonica turns his head from his vision, briefly, and stares hard at her; for a moment, he thinks about staying with Jill, settling down. But only for a second. His focus sharpens again, and he looks away, into the distance, and simply replies:
Yet this single-word reply is a mere formality, a ritualistic stop-gap stated for the sake of conversational etiquette. For he is looking elsewhere, with his eyes, mind, and heart, and "someday" will never happen. The beginnings of a love cut short, one that for right or for wrong could have been greater. Or maybe was never meant to be at all (if you have a moment, the scene is captured here at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fHRP6gadDQ4 but it is better to see the whole film to understand just what is happening).
This Western signifies the importance of staying true to what matters, at least to you.
Follow The Light...
Yet, perhaps more than choices, consequences, or objectives, the Western often depicts the utter superiority of the uncertain path over the familiar route. The former inspires awe, and purposeful growth; the latter, routine.
Cormac McCarthy penned a true classic in Blood Meridian (3), a 1985 anti-Western novel that reveals the darker aspects of the genre, aspects that are sometimes conveniently brushed over by other books and films. The story follows the lives of two main characters, "the kid" and "the judge," neither of whom are particularly likeable, both of whom rank highly on the fascination scale - the kid is a fighter, a sort of anti-heroic protagonist who performs many violent actions, even if he does allow a moral streak to guide those actions; the judge is a near-supernatural antagonist, a creature of extreme perversion, who states toward the end of the story that "War is God."
Yet this novel touches on many truths about the concept of submitting to versus taking the reins of life, stating that:
"The man who believes that the secrets of the world are forever hidden lives in mystery and fear. Superstition will drag him down. The rain will erode the deeds of his life. But that man who sets himself the task of singling out the thread of order from the tapestry will by the decision alone have taken charge of the world and it is only by such taking charge that he will effect a way to dictate the terms of his own fate."
Live the mystery, but follow the light.