COWBOY HERO

   The center of every classic Westernis the cowboy hero, such as Shane, who at the edge of the frontier mediates between the coming civilization and the innate savagery of the wilderness. The cowboy hero inhabits two worlds: he can live in the town and work among those who represent civilization, but he can also read sign (follow tracks), use firearms, and fight the forces of savagery, whether Indian or outlaw, on their own terms. He is a man who abides by a strict codeof behavior, prefers the life of men to that of women, rides a horse rather than a buggy, wears a six shooter and can draw quick as lightning, is a man of action rather than a man of words, and yet knows his days are soon to be over. The term cowboy hero distinguishes this character from the generic cowboy characters who abound in Westerns.
   Real cowboys of old were low-paid, migrant agricultural laborers. In Hollywood movies, however, the cowboy hero in Westerns is rarely depicted as working. His connection with agrarian labor—and at that, only with horses and cattle—is mostly symbolic in that it relates him to traditional masculine intimacy with the land. We associate the cowboy hero with our nostalgia for a time when all work revolved around farm and ranch work and the laboring animals. But on film the hero rarely settles down and, instead, maintains a desire to keep moving. While he may talk of someday finding a ranch of his own to work, seldom does he actually take up ranching. Instead, while he somehow maintains enough income to keep ammunition in supply and to take care of his horse, the typical film cowboy hero is quintessentially a man of leisure. He does not pursue classic American virtues of work, enterprise, and success. While the cowboy hero is invariably a loner, one who knows the West and himself, he also knows he does not want anything to do with the civilizing, feminizing forces coming from the east. Of course, he is a man—usually a young man—so despite the dominance of male forces in his world, the cowboy hero must inevitably deal with his need for female companionship beyond the occasional prostitute or dance hall girl. Cinema Westerns often develop this issue as a subplot. Usually the hero shuns marriage because it limits his freedom. Thus, for example, Johnny (James Ellison) in Hop-Along Cassidy (1935) falls deeply for Mary Meeker (Paula Stone), but just when it looks like a wedding will soon occur, Johnny hears that Hoppy and Red are heading to Montana to begin a new ranch. As “The End” appears on the screen, we see Johnny riding to catch up with the boys.
   When marriage does occur it usually comes only at the end of the film and is usually only implied. The hero is most comfortable with a woman who is his gender complement. Those with criminal reputations are attracted to women who are also social outcasts, as with Ringo (John Wayne) and the prostitute Dallas (Claire Trevor) in Stagecoach (1939). The virtuous Wyatt Earp (Henry Fonda), on the other hand, is attracted to the virtuous Clementine (Cathy Downs) in My Darling Clementine (1946). Uncomfortable, or mismatched, relationships require one partner or the other to subsume his or her masculinity or femininity to the other. Will Kane (Gary Cooper) in High Noon (1952) and Amy (Grace Kelly) can make their marriage work only if Amy becomes more masculine and kills in order to save her man’s life and if Will becomes more feminine and repudiates the code of the West, which says he must assert his masculinity or suffer the consequences. On the other hand, Ysobel (Dale Evans) can never marry Roy Rogers in Cowboy and the Senorita (1944), and most of the other films she makes with him, until she casts off her eastern feminist mores and assumes a degree of Western masculinity.
   See also HOMOEROTICISM.

Historical Dictionary of Westerns in Cinema. . 2012.

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