PRINT February 1990


WHAT YOU SEE in the insets to the left are the opening shots of western movies, shots that put a whole set of values in place before a single word is spoken. I’ll discuss those values in more detail later. But for now, it is enough to say that this is the same world we enter when we read a passage from Louis L’Amour’s 1958 novel Radigan:

She had never felt like this before, but right now she was backed up against death with all the nonsense and the fancy words trimmed way. The hide of truth was peeled back to expose the bare, quivering raw flesh of itself, and there was no nonsense about it. She had been taught the way a lady should live, and how a lady should act, and it was all good and right and true. . . but out here on the mesa top with a man hunting her to put her back on the grass it was no longer the same. . . . There are times in life when the fancy words and pretty actions don’t count for much, when it’s blood and dust and death and a cold wind blowing and a gun in the hand and you know suddenly you’re just an animal with guts and blood that wants to live, love and mate, and die in your own good time.1

This passage contains what I am calling an ontology for the western. Faced with death, we learn the truth about life. And that truth is that human nature is animal. When your back is to the wall you find out that what you want most is not to save your eternal soul––if it exists—but to live, in the body. For truth is flesh, raw and quivering, with its hide peeled back. All else is nonsense.

The passage proposes a set of oppositions that are absolutely fundamental to the way the western constructs the world. There are two choices: either you can remain in a world of illusions, of fancy words and pretty actions (as L’Amour puts it, “the way a lady should live, and the way a lady should act”), or you can face life as it really is—blood, dust, death, and a cold wind blowing. What the cold wind seeks to wipe out are all the values emblematized in the plush, cluttered, overstuffed––and, as the western sees it, corrupt—interior of the Victorian home.

For the literary genre of the western, which came into its own with the 1902 publication of Owen Wister’s The Virginian, entered the cultural mainstream at a moment when the central values of American life were being contested. The stunning triumph of women’s fiction from 1850 onward, the continuing power of a religious establishment increasingly associated with women’s culture, and, later in the century, the steady movement of women out of the home and into public life had engendered a profound crisis in male identity. If Teddy Roosevelt’s championing of “the strenuous life” dramatized a desire to remasculinize the culture in the image of a warrior ideal, the harsh desert––a site seeming to require brute strength for mere survival—offered itself as the ideal setting for staging a revival of physical toughness and martial valor. In this light, the western represents not so much the conquest of nature, as has been thought, as a need to reassert a masculine identity, an identity increasingly threatened by the growing influence of Christian, domestic female culture of the mid 19th century.

The western’s desire to sweep the board clear of all civilized encumbrances–– especially of everything having to do with the way society teaches women to behave––is as thorough and uncompromising in the great feature films of the 20th century as it is in popular western novels from Owen Wister and Zane Grey to Louis L’Amour, whose books were constantly made into movies. Whether in print or on film, the same desert-hardened heroes ride across the same empty spaces; in understanding how the genre molded the behavior and shaped the beliefs of men who came of age in the present century, the difference between word and visual image seems to make no difference. The traditions of representation are the same in both media, and they are, ironically, antirepresentational. It is not only Christianity the western wants to do away with, but forms, images, simulacra of every kind. That is why, for example, no one in Delmer Daves’ Cowboy, 1958, can remember the proper words for burying a man: there simply aren’t any. It is precisely words, the western argues, that cannot express the truth about things. Similarly, the impatient distaste and flat affect with which John Wayne utters the lines “the Lord giveth, the Lord taketh away” as he buries a man in Howard Hawks’ 1948 Red River go beyond challenging the authority of the Christian god (Wayne is the only authority in this universe); they reflect a disgust for all the outward forms of belief and their expression––liturgies, litanies, rituals, representations––all of which are seen as betrayals of reality itself.

Thus, western literary and film heroes, almost to a man, use language grudgingly. In a classic scene of male bonding from George Stevens’ Shane, 1953, when the little boy Joey asks Shane if he knows how to use a rifle, Shane answers—though we can barely hear him––“little bit.” The rank understatement, the clipping off of the indefinite article, are the kind of minimalist language heroes speak, a kind of desperate shorthand, comic, almost, in its attempt to communicate without using words. Or watch John Wayne again in Red River. He uses a punch first, and only then words, to teach a young boy a lesson (“Don’t ever trust anybody till you know him.”) The string of commands Wayne issues in the same movie—“Tie ’em up short,” “Get up on the seat,” “Let’s go,” “Keep ’em movin’ ”— are typical. Heroes give abrupt orders in monosyllables. (They’re also partial to pithy epigrammatic sayings of a strikingly aggressive sort, like “There’s only one thing you gotta know. Get it out fast and put it away slow.”)

Typically, to the extent that a strong man is forced to employ language in a western, his strength is diminished. Thus, westerns often dramatize contrasts between people who spout words and people who act. When Stonewall Tory, in Shane, brags that he can face the Ryker gang any day, we know he’s going to get shot; it’s Shane, the man who clips out words between clenched teeth, who will take out the hired gunman. When Wayne, in John Ford’s 1956 The Searchers, rudely interrupts an older woman who is taking more than a single sentence to say something—“I’d be obliged, ma’am, if you would get to the point”—he expresses the genre’s impatience with words as a way of dealing with the world. For while the woman is speaking, Indians are carrying a prisoner off. Such a small incident, once you unpack it, encapsulates the Western’s attitude toward a whole range of issues:

(1) Chasing Indians, that is, engaging in aggressive physical action—is doing something, while talking about the situation is not.

(2) The reflection (and negotiation) that language requires is gratuitous, even pernicious.

(3) The hero doesn’t need to think, he just knows, for being the hero, he is in a state of grace with respect to the truth.

It all goes together—instantaneous knowledge, commitment to violent action, impatience with language, and the ultimacy of male authority.

The features I am describing here, using the abstract language the western shuns, are dramatically present in Lewis Foster’s 1956 movie Dakota Incident, whose themes are the bootlessness of words and, secondarily, the perniciousness of money (another form of representation). Near the beginning, a windbag senator, about to depart on the stagecoach from a miserable town called Christian Flats, pontificates to a crowd that has gathered to watch a fight: “There’s no problem that can’t be solved at a conference table,” adding, “Believe me, gentlemen, I know whereof I speak.” The next minute, two gunfights break out on Main Street, in one of which the hero shoots and kills his own brother.

The theme of loquacity confounded by violence replays itself at the end of the film when the main characters have been trapped by some Indians in a dry creek bed. The senator has been defending the Indians throughout, saying that they’re misunderstood, have a relationship with the land, and take from the small end of the horn of plenty. Finally, when he and the others are about to die of thirst, he goes out to parley with the Indians. He makes a long and rather moving speech about peace and understanding, and they shoot him; he dies trying to get the arrow out.

In case we hadn’t already gotten the point about the ineffectuality of language, we get it now. But no sooner is the point made than the movie does an about-face. The other characters start saying that the senator died for what he believed, that he was wrong about the Indians “but true to himself.” They say that perhaps his words “fell on barren ground: the Indians and us.” And the story ends on a note of peaceful cooperation between whites and Indians (after the attacking Indians have been wiped out), with talk about words of friendship falling on fertile ground.

Language is specifically linked in this movie to a belief in peace and cooperation as a way of solving conflicts. And though it’s made clear from the start that only wimps and fools believe negotiation is the way to deal with enemies (the movie was made in 1956, during the cold war), that position is abandoned as soon as “our side” wins. Dakota Incident is not the only Western to express this ambivalent attitude toward language—and the peace and harmony associated with it. In fact, such ambivalence is typical. The position represented by language, always associated with women, religion, and culture, is deliberately proven wrong—massively, totally, and unequivocally—with pounding hooves, thundering guns, blood and death, yet its plausibility and its value are allowed to appear. They function as a critique of force and, even more important, as a symbol of the peace and harmony that force is invoked to preserve. This contradiction, between an ideology of matter and force and an ideology of language and forgiveness, is the tension that generates the western narrative in the first place. It arises again and again. And when this tension blurs and changes shape with the advent of the women’s movement and the disillusionment of Vietnam, so does the genre itself.

Meanwhile, because the western is in revolt against a culture, perceived as female, where the ability to manipulate symbols confers power, the western equates power with “not language.” And not language it equates with being male.

IN DESCRIBING ERNEST HEMINGWAY'S STYLE, Mark Schorer spoke of its “ascetic suppression of ornament,” “its habit of understatement,” and “its insistence on the objective and unreflective (for good fighters do not talk).”2 These qualities characterize what Peter Schwenger in Phallic Critiques, 1984, calls “the language of men,” a language that belongs to what he terms the School of Virility, starting with Jack London and continuing through Hemingway to Norman Mailer and beyond. Infused with colloquialism, slang, choppy rhythms, “bitten-off fragments,” and a diction that marks the writer as “tough,” this is language pitted against itself as language, and devoted to maintaining, in Schwenger’s terminology, “masculine reserve.”3

Drawing on Octavio Paz’s definition of the macho as “a hermetic being, closed up in himself” (“women are inferior beings because, in submitting, they open themselves up”), Schwenger shows the connections these authors make between feeling, speaking, and feminization.4 “It is by talking,” he points out, “that one opens up to another person and becomes vulnerable. It is by putting words to an emotion that it becomes feminized. As long as the emotion is restrained, held back, it hardly matters what the emotion itself is; it will retain a male integrity.” Thus, “not talking is a demonstration of masculine control over emotion.”5

Control is the key word here. Not speaking demonstrates control not only over one’s feelings, but over one’s physical boundaries as well. The male— by remaining “hermetic” and “closed up”— maintains the integrity of the boundary that divides him from the world. (It is fitting that in the western the ultimate loss of control takes place when one man puts holes in another man’s body.) To speak is literally to open the body to penetration by opening an orifice; it is also to mingle the body’s substance with the substance of what is outside itself. Finally, it suggests a certain incompleteness, a need to be in relation. Speech relates the speaking subject to other subjects (as opposed to things); it requires acknowledging their existence, and by extension, their parity. But it is not so much the vulnerability or loss of dominance which speech implies that make it dangerous, as the reminder of the subject’s own interiority. For “to become a man,” says Schwenger, commenting on the School of Virility, “must be finally to attain the solidity and self-containment of an object.”6

The interdict masculinity imposes on speech arises from the desire for complete objectivization. And this means being conscious of nothing, not knowing that one has a self, not knowing that one is separate from the world. To be a man is not only to be monolithic, silent, mysterious, impenetrable as a desert butte, it is to be the world. At this point we have come upon the intersection between the western’s rejection of language and its emphasis on landscape. Not fissured by self-consciousness, nature is what the hero aspires to emulate: perfect being-in-itself. This is why John Wayne was impatient with the woman who took longer than a sentence to speak her mind. As the human incarnation of nature, he neither speaks nor listens. He is monumentality in motion, propelling himself forward by instinct, no more talkable to than a river or an avalanche, and just as good company.

The opening shots of western movies signal the importance of the landscape, of matter over words. The fact of the land put out front, before the story proper begins, has a message of its own to send. This scene, composed of solids rising from a level plain bathed in a pristine light, declares the irrefragability of the physical world and celebrates its hardness. But the opening landscape shot, clearly intended to frame the action, is itself silent. Its power lies in its taciturnity. Nature’s silence guarantees its value and makes an existential claim. This alone is real, it says, this abides.

The first sight we see is usually a desert or prairie, punctuated by buttes and sagebrush, or sometimes by cattle, small hills, or a wagon train. Not infrequently, a rider appears in the opening shot, but more often, the human figures enter the picture later. The desert offers itself as the white sheet on which to trace a figure, make an impression. It is a tabula rasa on which man can write, as if for the first time, the story he wants to live. That is why the first moment of western movies, in which the landscape is empty, is so full of promise. It is the New World, represented here, not for the first time, as a void.

The scene’s austerity, the sense of its dryness and exposure, translate into a code of asceticism that founds our experience of western stories from the start. It is an environment inimical to human beings, a landscape defined by absence: absence of trees, of greenery, of houses, of the signs of civilization, above all absence of water and shade. Here a person is exposed, the sun beats down, there is no place to hide. The landscape of the Western challenges the body to endure hardship—that is its fundamental message at the physical level. It says: this is a hard place to be, you will have to do without here. Its spiritual message is the same, and equally irresistible: come and suffer. The negations of the physical setting —no shelter, no water, no rest, no comfort—are its siren song. Be brave, be strong enough to endure this and you will become like this—hard, austere, sublime.

The American West as imagined in these narratives incarnates the European sublime. Men may dominate or simply ignore women in westerns, they may break horses and drive cattle, kill game and kick dogs and beat one another to a pulp, but they never lord it over nature. Nature is the one transcendent thing, the one thing larger than men in this world. Nature is the ideal toward which human nature strives. Not imitatio Christi for the western hero, then, but imitatio naturae. What is imitated is a physical thing, not a spiritual idea; a solid state of being, not a process of becoming; a material entity, not a person; a condition of objecthood, not a form of consciousness. The landscape’s final invitation—death as merger—promises absolute materialization. Meanwhile, the qualities that nature implicitly possesses—power, endurance, rugged majesty—are the only ones that men can aspire to while they live.

The validity and primacy of nature are echoed in the hero’s looks. He must be an emanation of the land; as far as possible, indistinguishable from it. Here is the title character of Hondo, in L’Amour’s opening description:

He rolled the cigarette in his lips, liking the taste of the tobacco, squinting his eyes against the sun glare. His buckskin shirt, seasoned by sun, rain, and sweat, smelled stale and old. His jeans had long since faded to a neutral color that lost itself against the desert.7

The first thing L’Amour mentions is a man-made thing, the cigarette, but it is quickly resolved into a sensory effect, the taste, and its organic substance, the tobacco, and both give way, via the hero’s eyes, to “the sun glare.” The entire passage melds its heterogenous elements—man-made objects (cigarette, shirt), natural substances (tobacco, buckskin), parts of the body (lips, eyes), bodily effluvia (sweat, smell), natural phenomena (sun, wind, rain, desert)—into a single continuum. Everything blends imperceptibly into the desert.

He wore nothing that gleamed. The lineback’s dun color shaded into the desert as did his own clothing.8

[His face] had all the characteristics of the range rider’s— the leanness, the red burn of the sun, and the set changelessness that came from years of silence and solitude.9

He was a big man, wide-shouldered, with the lean, hard-boned face of the desert rider. There was no softness in him. His toughness was ingrained and deep.10

He had plainly come many miles from somewhere across the vast horizon, as the dust upon him showed. His boots were white with it. His overalls were gray with it. The weather-beaten bloom of his face shone through it duskily.11

These quotations, from three different novels (Hondo, Riders of the Purple Sage, and The Virginian), are all describing the same man, a man, as L’Amour writes in the foreword to Hondo, “bleak as the land over which he rode,”12 and described on the cover of Heller with a Gun as “merciless as the frontier that bred him.”13 Perhaps Zane Grey sums it up best in his description of the quintessential cowboy, Nels, in The Light of Western Stars, 1913: “He’s just come to be part of the desert, you might say he’s stone an’ fire an’ silence an’ cactus an’ force.”14

The qualities needed to survive on the land are the qualities the land itself possesses. And these qualities are not regarded as merely necessary to survival, they are the acme of human moral perfection. The ethical system the western proposes, and the social and political hierarchy it creates, never appear to reflect the interests or beliefs of any particular group, or of human beings at all. They seem to have been dictated, primordially, by nature itself. The sage-dotted plains, the buttes, the infinite sky tell more plainly than any words what is necessary in a man. Thus the landscape sets up, by implied contrast, an image of the effete life that the genre never tires of criticizing, the “fancy words and pretty actions” L’Amour dismissed in Radigan. We know that the people who get off the stage wearing suits and top hats and carrying valises are doomed, not because of anything anyone says about them but because of the mountains in the background and the desert underfoot that is continuous with the main street of town.

It is, of course, an interpretation of nature that does the work I am referring to. The various kinds of hardness Western nature seems to inculcate are projected onto the landscape by men and read back off it by them. The emptiness we see there, the sense of a hostile environment, is an effect of a certain way of life and of mental habitude.

For the desert is no more blank or empty than the northeastern forests were when the Puritans arrived there. It is full of growing things and inhabited by animals and people, just as Massachusetts was before the English came—though they called it a vacuum domicilium. An empty space. When European man walks or rides into a forest, however, he is lost among the trees, he can’t see ahead, he doesn’t know what might be lurking there. Strategically, he is at a disadvantage. And visually, the forest doesn’t provide a flattering contrast to the human figure. It surrounds it, tends even to obscure it, literally with shadows and structurally by its similarity of composition (vertical trees and the vertical human form) and by its competitive detail. But when a lone horseman appears on the desert plain, he dominates it instantly, his view extends as far as the eye can see, enemies are exposed to his gaze. Strategically, he has an even chance. Visually, he conquers; he is the most salient point in the picture, dark against light, vertical against horizontal, solid against plane, detail against blankness.

Thus the blankness of the plain serves a political function that remains below the level of consciousness. It implies—without ever stating—that this is a field where a certain kind of mastery is possible, where a person can remain completely autonomous, alone and in control of himself, while controlling the external world through brute strength and sheer force of will. The western situates itself characteristically in the desert, because the desert seems by its very existence to affirm that life must be seen from the point of view of death, that physical stamina and strength are the sine qua non of personal distinction, that matter and physical force are the substance of ultimate reality, and that sensory experience, the history of the body’s contact with the world, is the repository of all significant knowledge.

It is the power of the western that when we are reading the novel or watching the movie these truths seem to be self-evident. But of course they do not simply emanate from nature itself, as the desert landscape would have us believe; they are dictated by the very things the western is pitting itself so strenuously against: language, book-learning, laws, abstract systems of exchange, big corporations, social hierarchies, fancy clothes, plush interiors, temperance, the way ladies are taught to behave in society. The opposition the western sets up between landscape and language, nature and culture, matter and representation, itself belongs to a particular mode of representing the world. Therefore, the story the western tells, which seems to be about the struggle between a pristine nature and a decadent culture, is really about who will have the right to dictate the terms according to which the culture operates, to say what the true oppositions are, or, to put it somewhat differently, it is about who will have the right to name God.

That right, in the course of the 19th century, had been passing from the clergy into the hands of popular women authors, whose power the western genre is contesting. And so when the hero rides out of the desert at the beginning of the story, and back into the desert at the end, his existence and journey are an assertion that ontological purity resides in the masculine body, in masculine action, in a masculine vision of the world. What disrupts this certainty is not the appearance of oppositional images—the woman, as romantic interest casually sidelined as in Fred Zinnemann’s High Noon, 1952, or as “imitation cowboy” ultimately thwarted in her ambitions by the weakness of her female nature, as in Sam Fuller’s Forty Guns, 1957. Indeed, like those book-educated clergymen and ineffectual lawyers from back East, the image of the woman serves to fix in place the binary oppositions the Western is founded on. There is, however, an occasional instance when women do disturb these antinomies.

Foster’s Dakota Incident is particularly memorable for one thing, or perhaps I should say two things: Linda Darnell’s breasts. From the moment Darnell appears in the film—dressed in bright red, hourglass waist, and low, low neckline—it becomes almost impossible to look at anything other than those breasts. Though the characters all around her pretend they aren’t there, Darnell displays them with a calculation that lets you know she knows they are. And when what’s-his-name touches her, as they jut out in front of her, huge, luscious, and tempting, glimpsed through the gauziness of her underblouse, his hand goes to her waist, but we can feel where it really wants to go.

Those breasts are the most powerful thing in the movie; the Indians, by comparison, are small change. Darnell’s breasts constitute a massive, almost military assertion of the body (she also brandishes what appears to be a black cane with a certain swagger and precision—only later do we actually make out that it’s a parasol). This is an assertion of a female body, of flesh that is not wind-dried, sun-tanned, weather-beaten, desert-hardened, but soft, smooth, full of milk, abundant but also protected—by gauzy material, by red cloth, but most of all by social taboos. The cowboy’s body is the body of physical labor; Darnell’s is all about sensuality and reproduction. Her breasts are nature itself. Yet all done up in red material, concealed and exposed at the same time, they are an ingenious, exasperating combination of nature and artifice. Soft and hard, inviting and threatening.

The way Darnell’s breasts are displayed and deployed in this movie is characteristic of the ’50s of Marilyn Monroe—when breasts were fetishized as symbols of provocative sexuality, temptingly offered to the male gaze, while female sexuality itself was censured. Respectable fashion favored the Doris Day model of Peter Pan collars, men’s pajamas, circle pins, and Pepsodent smiles, as female labor power, at the same time, was being rigorously redomesticated after its emergence during World War II.

Darnell’s militant breasts have something to do with the era, but they have just as much to do with the western’s longstanding fear of women’s power. The entire plot of Dakota Incident is geared toward the hero’s coming into legitimate possession of those breasts. They are his prize, what he gets in return for going out into the desert, fighting off Indians, and almost dying of thirst. Indeed, we can say that the aim of Dakota Incident, as of almost all westerns, metaphorically speaking, is the safe possession of a woman’s breasts—breasts that represent a completely different way of organizing the world from the one the Western assumes.

By the end of the story, Darnell loses her cane and red jacket and her bossy ways. She becomes the hero’s prize, soft and embraceable. In an exact parallel, Jane Russell’s breasts, in Norman Z. McLeod’s The Paleface, 1948, make a stupendous appearance when, dressed in lacy underwear and brandishing two six-guns, she terrorizes all of the men in an opening scene. By the end, obeying the sissified hero played by Bob Hope, she is dutifully—and in almost a burlesque of modesty—adorned in “Buttons and Bows.”

In both cases, though the explicit conflict of the movie is supposed to be between a white man and some sketchily portrayed Indians, the real struggle is between the initially ineffectual hero and the powerhouse of female sexuality represented by those huge mammary glands—in combination with a brain, a sharp tongue, a bossy personality, a capacity for decisive action, and a smashing outfit. The only way, it seems, to defeat this deadly combination is to get it out of town and out into the desert. This, then, is the meaning of a place where fancy words and pretty actions don’t count and what you need is a gun in the hand. It is the place where the softness and vulnerability—and the power—of female sexuality are denied, where the aim of living is not to reproduce but to survive, and where life is lived out not under the sign of nurturance (read, female power) but against a barren landscape whose message is always the imminent presence of death (read, masculine force).

The western arose as a mainstream popular genre at the end of the 19th century, when the male culture was reacting against a perceived softening and feminizing of its discourse, and against the enhanced power of women as producers of discourse and meaning. It invented a story about life in an environment where physical strength and fighting skills look like the ultimate human virtues. In the 1950s, in the wake of World War II, the great decade of western films replays this scenario. If the classic films of the period marginalize and trivialize women in ways that seem ludicrous now, the fact remains that what the western still tells us—and what we still continue to buy—is that reality is blood and dust and death and a cold wind blowing; and as long as that seems true, two breasts will never be as good as a gun in the hand.

Jane Tompkins teaches at Duke University, Durham, N.C. She is the author of Sensational Design: The Cultural Work of American Fiction, 1790–1860 (Oxford University Press, 1985) and of the forthcoming West of Everything, a study of the cultural meaning of western novels and films in the 20th century.



1. Louis L’Amour, Radigan, New York: Bantam Books, 1958, pp. 144–45.

2. Quoted in Peter Schwenger, Phallic Critiques: Masculinity and Twentieth Century Literature, London and Boston: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1984, p. 37.

3. Ibid., pp. 39, 45.

4. Ibid., p. 43.

5. Ibid., pp. 44–45.

6. Ibid., p. 54.

7. Louis L’Amour, Hondo, New York: Bantam Books, 1953, p. 1.

8. Ibid., p. 92.

9. Zane Grey, Riders of the Purple Sage, New York: Pocket Books, 1912 (rep. 1940), p. 8.

10. L’Amour, Hondo, p. 1.

11. Owen Wister, The Virginian: A Horseman of the Plains, 1902, New York: Dodd, Mead & Company (rep.), 1968, p. 3.

12. L’Amour, Hondo, p. v.

13. L’Amour, Heller With a Gun, New York: Fawcett Books, 1955.

14. Zane Grey, The Light of Western Stars, New York: Pocket Books, 1913 (rep. 1942), p. 57.