The Western as Commentary about Decaying Values
The Western, as a genre, is subversive of the values that its Christian characters possess. Western films frequently depict social depravity in terms of the mythology that developed during westward expansion. The mythology was inspired by the threat of the frontier wilderness to Puritan culture. In order to preserve their society, some Puritans departed from their ideal Christian lives. Western films portray compromises that cultures make of the values that they define themselves by in order to protect the integrity of their other values.
A contemporary Western, Open Range, which Kevin Costner stars in and directed, released in 1995, deals with a conflict between morality and justice and the genre mythology. In it, Boss Spearman and Charley Waite herd cattle across the Western frontier. When they allow the herd to free-graze in Fort Harmon country, they infuriate a prominent rancher, Baxter, who tells them “Free-grazers ain’t gonna take the feed off my cattle.” A confrontation with Baxter’s henchmen results in them killing one of Boss’ helpers and another, Button, is severely hurt. Boss and Charley are faced with the options either to run away, in which case Button would die, or to risk their lives by entering the town to find him a doctor.
Boss and Charley both are generous to each other, their workers, and people they encounter. Charley is a former Civil War fighter who is trying to escape his past with the guidance of the old, collected cowboy, Boss. Both have clearly been in fights before; however, Charley’s past troubles him in a deeper way than his demeanor suggests. He explains that he first shot a man in the throat who tried to take advantage of his mother when Charley was young.
In the Civil War, he had been part of an elite unit that had orders simply to kill. He tells Boss one evening, “My first skirmish was pretty much like hunting in them woods with my friends. We just sat up in some trees and they came marching right at us. Must’ve been a hundred of them lying dead when the smoke cleared; went around and shot the rest who weren’t.” Charley had joined Boss to leave his dismal past behind him. Baxter’s threat, however, forces both men to evaluate their situation and to decide how to approach it.
An important theme in Open Range is that violence is best avoided when it’s possible to, but that sometimes people must do what is ethical and violence is inevitable. Boss and Charley both know that to take Button to the town’s doctor mean that Baxter will try to kill them. They also know that, ethically and as his friends, they owe Button whatever help they can find, and so they decide to take the risk of visiting the doctor.
A noticeable role inversion occurs following Charley’s story about his past as a solider. Once the inevitability of confrontation is known, his superior skill...