Rachel Lu thinks heroes of the western genre like John Wayne embodied a noble vision of American manhood as honorable, reliable, and self-sacrificing—everything a good American man should be.
Understood in that light, Lu argues that the FX series “Justified,” although it has elements of the western genre, is thoroughly modern, its characters “infused with far more moral ambiguity than John Wayne typically faced.” The show’s protagonist, Deputy U.S. Marshal Raylan Givens (played by Timothy Olyphant), might dress like a cowboy, but “as a family man, he leaves much to be desired”—because he sleeps around with strange women and refuses to join his wife and baby in another state. By contrast, the show’s villain, Boyd Crowder (the excellent Walton Goggins), is devoted to one woman and his “devotion even inspires dreams of respectability.”
In other words, the moral complexity of these characters has chiefly to do with their sexual fidelity. The good guy isn’t faithful to his woman but the bad guy is. For Lu, that places “Justified” outside the traditional western genre—it feels like a western, with marshals fighting outlaws in a wild country, but its hero doesn’t really fit her mold of the honorable American man. She goes on to suggest that, despite Raylan’s failings, if the series ends with him going back to be with his family, “Justified” will prove to be a “brilliant renewal of a classic genre,” presumably because the hero will wind up being honorable and “manly” in an American, John Wayne kind of way.
The trouble with this reading of “Justified” is that it reduces the western genre to nothing more than an extended sermon on the virtues of personal morality and manliness, which it decidedly is not, and in the process it totally misunderstands the show itself.
Westerns Aren’t About Personal Morality
Perhaps John Wayne’s greatest role was that of Ethan Edwards in John Ford’s 1956 epic film, “The Searchers,” widely considered to be the greatest western ever made. The film chronicles the search for a young girl, Debbie, after a band of Comanche massacres her family in 1868 and takes her and her sister captive. Ethan, the girl’s uncle, and a man named Martin Pawley set out on a years-long quest to find her.
Ethan’s character is dark, vengeful, and violent, nothing like the paragon of honorable manhood Lu imagines. Shortly after they set out to find Debbie, Ethan mutilates the corpse of a Comanche they killed in a raid, and for much of the film he intends not to rescue but kill Debbie when he finds her, reasoning that during her years of captivity she’s become a savage and would be better off dead. Indeed, when they finally find Debbie she tells them she is Comanche now and wishes to stay, whereupon Ethan tries to shoot her. Later, after Martin kills the Comanche chief, Ethan scalps the corpse—a blatant act of savagery. In the film’s famous last scene, after delivering Debbie to her family Ethan doesn’t step inside but turns to leave alone, a wanderer unfit for civilization.
A 2013 book about “The Searchers” by Glen Frankel made the mistake of thinking the film was all about race. Ethan was a racist and his hateful racism forced audiences in 1956 to confront their own racism and so on. Douglas Jeffrey, in a piece published last year in the Claremont Review of Books, demolishes this misreading and explains that the film, like all true westerns, is an American variation on the epic form: it is chiefly concerned with “the virtues required to defend civilization.”
That is, the film isn’t concerned with manliness or even with America as such. “The Searchers,” after all, is the quintessential western, and the western is at heart about the tension between civilization and barbarism—and the interplay between the two. Its heroes are often savage anti-heroes, as in the Greek epics. Here, it’s worth quoting Jeffrey’s use of an essay by Paul Cantor, “The Western and Western Drama: John Ford’s The Searchers and the Oresteia,” in which Cantor “discusses the film as a classic revenge story in which the ‘revenge ethic is characteristic of pre-political situations’ at a moment of transition to civilization.”
‘Cowboys versus Indians in Ford,’ Cantor writes, ‘turns out to be a reprise of Greeks versus barbarians in ancient epic and tragedy and involves a similar degree of complexity.’ He cautions critics to ‘pause and reflect before condemning either Homer or Ford as racist,’ pointing out that neither constructs a simple opposition between Greek/cowboy and barbarian/Indian. Indeed, both Homer and Ford suggest that something grand is lost in the transition to civilization, represented in the savage heroes—Achilles and Ethan Edwards—who alone possess the virtues to make the transition possible but who are left behind.
During World War II, Ford worked as documentarian in the Office of Strategic Services, filming major battles in every theater of the war. He was among the first to see the German death camps, an experience that doubtless impressed upon him the tenuousness of civilization and imbued his films, as Jeffrey notes, with “an element of pessimism about the endurance of the virtues required to defend civilization.” Ford’s films, like the Greek epics from which they’re drawn, portray civilization as a fragile thing, always under threat and always in need of protection—a task that often falls to those willing to step outside of civilization and into a state of nature. Hence, heroes like Ethan.
What Kind of Man Defends Civilization?
That brings us back to Raylan. In discussing “Justified” and the western genre, Lu conflates the virtues required to defend civilization with the virtues required to be a good husband, which she considers essential to honorable manhood. And perhaps they are. But that has little to do with the western hero. Lu faults Raylan for sleeping around, neglecting his wife and baby, and having a fascination with violence and danger. He’s not the honorable American man she imputes to the western genre but a thoroughly modern man—undisciplined, unfaithful, and, at least to Lu, dishonorable.
In this, Lu misreads Raylan’s role in the world of “Justified”. Whether he decides to be with his wife and child at the end of the series has nothing to do with whether “Justified” is a western in the epic tradition of Ford. In fact, the show would hew much closer to the western genre if Raylan doesn’t return home but remains a kind of outcast, seeking justice and vengeance among the lawless. (It also has almost nothing to do with what makes the show a compelling drama, but that’s a different essay.)
True western heroes defend civilization, inhabiting the frontier that protects the civilized world from the barbarians beyond its borders. The man with the character to sacrifice the comforts of civilization for the sake of preserving it might have many other fine qualities. He might love his wife and children. He might be good neighbor and citizen. He might even pay his taxes and sit on the school board and sign peace petitions.
But he also might be a man like Ethan Edwards, unfit for civilized society and unwelcome in it. He also might be a lot like Raylan Givens.