poster for Pale Rider

Watching my box set of Western films has fired my interest in gunslingers…

The other day I watched the last film in my box set of eight Westerns, all from the mighty Warner Bros studio which marks its 90th anniversary this month, and all new to me.

Just as I would savour drams from a fine bottle of whisky and make it last, I’ve been spreading my viewings over a period of many months. The order in which I watched them was largely random, but I made an early decision to leave the most recent film, The Unforgiven, till the end.

In the meantime, I had hours of Sunday afternoon entertainment – if that’s not too flippant a word to describe The Searchers, in which John Wayne doggedly pursues the murderers of his family. Lighter in approach was Sam Peckinpah’s stylish Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid, with music by Bob Dylan.

I’d long known that The Unforgiven was Clint Eastwood’s ‘revisionist’ Western, but didn’t think that description amounted to anything more than being nice to Indians. As it turned out, Indians hardly feature in the film, which is actually an attempt to lay bare any illusions we may have about the glamour of the Wild West. In one scene, a defenceless man is shot while sitting on the lavatory. The bravado of the boy who has pulled the trigger and thus registered his first kill quickly turns to sorrow, almost mid-sentence, as the enormity of taking a life dawns on him. Eastwood’s gunfighter character has a mediocre aim, needing several shots to take out the easy target presented by a hurt bad guy crawling towards the safety of a rock (even then Eastwood can’t fire a clean shot, getting him in the guts).

The myth of the west is a powerful one and it has helped shaped the American character. As far as rugged individualism and a pioneering spirit are concerned, it’s no bad thing.

But myths obscure more debatable truths. There’s no more striking embodiment of this than the real-life Billy the Kid, about whom I’ve been reading since watching the Peckinpah film.

I’ve learned that often the only difference between an outlaw and a sheriff was the badge on the latter’s lapel. I’ve learned too that there were few real heroes in the 19th century American West – just men who were greedy, recklessly violent, or both.