"Each man has a song and this is my song." (Leonard Cohen)

Sunday, October 10, 2010

I'm so lonesome I could cry

The lonesome trail

The words lone, lonesome, alone, lonely or solitary often appear in Western film or book titles. The Lone Gun (United Artists, 1954); The Lone Hand (Universal, 1953); the fine, fine Lonely Are The Brave (Universal, 1962), the sense of whose title was totally lost in translation when the French called it Le Dernier des Braves; The Lonely Man (Paramount, 1957); The Lonesome Trail (Lippert, 1955); Lone Star (MGM, 1952 and the excellent Columbia, 1996 one, the titles of both of which refer to more than the Lone Star state); and The Lone Texan (Fox, 1959) are some examples. When Andy Warhol wanted to produce a pastiche Western about sex on an Arizona ranch, he called it Lonesome Cowboys. And of course The Lone Ranger galloped over the range for years in countless TV episodes and feature films.

And The Lone Ranger shows us, by the way, that you can still be a loner even if you have a sidekick. The Lone Ranger was no less alienated, masked and cut off from society for having Tonto around. Solitude is not only to be found in the Christian tradition of desert hermit but also in the Greek polis, as Socrates knew, pausing for hours on a friend's doorstep before going in to dine, pondering alone. Easy Rider’s alternative title was The Loners. Many of the cheaper serial Western heroes had their sidekicks, necessary as foils, often comic. And, as Lyle Lovett sang, “Tonto did the dirty work for free”. But those sidekicked were still lone rangers.

IMDb lists 56 films with the word “lone” in the title and no fewer than 260 with the word “lonely”. That shows us that the notion of the solitary hero is not limited to Westerns. There’s something about the whole nature of heroism that makes lone-ness a part of it.

Martin Scorsese says that the notion of alone-ness is essential to the whole thread of American fiction, from Moby Dick to Taxi Driver.

I would say not only to American fiction. The notion of American alone-ness also comes from the solitude of the Byronic hero. Childe Harold was described by Lord Macaulay as "a man proud, moody, cynical, with defiance on his brow, and misery in his heart, a scorner of his kind, implacable in revenge, yet capable of deep and strong affection". That sounds pretty much like a Western hero to me. And Byron's Corsair too:

Lone, wild, and strange, he stood alike exempt
From all affection and from all contempt

Westerns are particularly noted for the loner. A self-evident example is Will Kane in High Noon (United Artists, 1952), left alone to face Frank Miller and his varmints. Not that he wants to be alone: he does everything in his power to rustle up some deputies but they all turn away. Even his pacifist wife seems to forsake him. But a man’s gotta do what a man’s gotta do and all that and

If I'm a man
I must be brave
And I must face that deadly killer
Or lie a coward, a craven coward,
Or lie a coward in my grave.

A more classic example, perhaps is Shane (Paramount, 1953). Alan Ladd as Shane is a true loner, riding the West, coming out of nowhere, righting wrongs in a valley and then riding off into the sunset. This is what we mean by a solitary cowboy. He is the strong, silent type and so we can only guess at the reasons behind his loneliness. We infer it from his actions or occasional, oblique references. What lay at the bottom of Shane’s lonesome life? Was it lost happiness, a love gone wrong, a wife died? Was it some evil deed for which he is now trying to atone? We can only guess. And why does he ride off? It seems that he had been reaching out for belonging, admiring the decent Starrett, attracted to Marion, liking the boy Joey. Yet off he goes when the town has been cleaned up, bleeding, possibly dying, riding off to nowhere, alone. All the justification he gives is to young Joey: “A man has to be what he is, Joey. Can’t break the mold. I tried it and it didn’t work for me.”
The archetypal Western loner is probably Ethan Edwards in The Searchers (Warner Bros, 1956). He hardly even reaches out for belonging. He can’t. Perhaps he is inhibited by social mores, for his love for his sister-in-law is hinted at but he cannot succumb, any more than Shane can take Marian away from Starrett. But it’s more than that. Ethan is truly alienated. When he comes back from the war and its aftermath, he does not fit in. He is awkward and gauche. On his quest he is accompanied but is scornful of his fellows and distances himself from them. Even after he has devoted years and much of his life (and all the film) to finding his niece, or rather avenging her, once he has brought her back to civilization he cannot enter the homestead. We see him standing alone in the desert, framed by the doorway, in that characteristic Harry Carey pose with his left fist clutching his right elbow, almost autistic in his inability to relate.

Sometimes we are shown what causes the alienation. In The Outlaw Josey Wales (Warner Bros, 1976), Josey’s farm was burnt and his wife and child brutally slain. It drove him into a guerrilla band and eventually to a life as a loner on the run, refusing to surrender after Appomattox. He gathers about him a motley ‘family’ despite himself – an abused Indian girl, an old Cherokee chief, an old lady and her simple-minded granddaughter, a mangy redbone hound, and later a saloon girl and a broke-down gambler – but even these he eventually leaves.

The mysterious lone horseman (Clint again) in Pale Rider (Warner Bros, 1985), known in French as Le Cavalier Solitaire - which is true but once again misses the whole point - is alone for a different, almost mystic reason. He is some avenging angel, a gunman in a clerical collar riding a pale horse from Revelations, and he arrives, rights the wrongs with superhuman skill and rides off into the winter wilderness. Pale Rider is a mystic remake of Shane. Who is the stranger? Where has he come from? Where is he going? We don’t know and we don’t need to know. But even he reaches out for a passing relationship with Sarah Wheeler, and Sarah’s daughter Megan reaches out (to no avail) for him. The preacher is less vulnerable than Shane and rides off unwounded and less touched by love and family.

A common Western plot has a solitary man riding the West looking for revenge. Ride Lonesome is a classic example, and the title is pure Western movie, but Randolph Scott certainly wasn't the only one.

Sometimes the loner with the checkered past finds love and stays. Unlike Ethan, he comes in from the cold. Think of Hondo Lane, who in the end stays with Angie Lowe and her son Johnny as they ride off to California together, a family (Hondo, Warner Bros, 1953). Or Morg Hickman in The Tin Star (Paramount, 1957) where much the same happens. For these, the filmed story is the end of that lonesome trail. Jailbird gunman Ringo goes off to a ranch with the lonely saloon prostitute Dallas at the end of Stagecoach (United Artists,1939). But for most it doesn’t work out so well. Will in Will Penny (Paramount, 1968) is on the very verge of forming a family unit similar to Hondo’s or Morg’s, with a deserted wife and a young son he has grown attached to, but in the last resort he cannot do it and rides off to an old age of loneliness and despair. And guess what the French title is? Yup, Le Solitaire.

Even for the few members of The Magnificent Seven (United Artists, 1960) who don’t end up in a grave in a Mexican village it doesn’t end well. They are not a band of seven but seven lonely individuals on their way to a dusty death - with the exception of Chico, who is there to prove the rule.

Sometimes loners are alone for the very simple reason that they are on the run. They are fleeing some criminal action and must lie low, and that means alone. Jimmy Ringo in The Gunfighter (Fox, 1950) is essentially a tragic figure who desperately wants to settle down with his family but is doomed to fall to a punk kid’s gun. He will die truly alone. Many of the Jesse James and Billy the Kid movies show us an essentially lonely man doomed to a lonely death. The same happens in The Shootist (Paramount, 1978) to dying gunman JB Books.

The pale rider of the eponymous film is known only as “Preacher” and of course Clint made rather a thing of the man with no name. In lesser Westerns (the Italian ones) it became almost a trademark. Even when he got a name in the third volume of the trilogy, it was only ‘Blondie’. This namelessness underlines the solitariness and the solitude. Though Shane has a name, it is only half a name. In some films, such as the ghastly ‘comic’ junk My Name is Nobody (Universal, 1974) or the very fine psychedelic Western Dead Man (Miramax, 1996), the anonymity of the characters is played upon. “I’m traveling with Nobody,” says William Blake when asked if he is alone. Nobody is, of course, the name of the Indian he is with. Odysseus used that trick with the Cyclops so it ain't new.

Perhaps all heroes, from Ulysses on his Odyssey to the Arthurian knights on their quest, have been Western heroes coming in from nowhere, righting wrongs and ridin’ off into the sunset.

Philosophy teaches us the value of solitude and that “alone” does not always mean “lonely”. Usually, alone is what you choose to be, perhaps for good or even noble reasons, and lonely is a condition imposed upon you or one you are unhappy with. The cowboy word lone is kind of neutral and we do not know what is behind it. Montaigne’s “backshop” or Woolf’s “room of one’s own” are places where we might be wholly free and commune with ourselves “so privately that no outside relationship or communication may find a place there.” A cowboy would be at home there.

Maybe the lone cowboy owes more to the tradition of Stoicism. The Stoics thought that loneliness was in fact the better way to lead your life. Life has no real meaning anyway. The aim must be to live it free from disturbance. You are only a character in a play, not the playwright. If your part is to be short, well, it will be short. All you can do is play it well. This Stoic sense of detachment and the uselessness of fearing death fit the Western hero well. Will Lockhart (James Stewart) in The Man from Laramie (Columbia, 1955) illustrates this. He has a soldier’s and an avenging brother’s sense of duty and mission and will suffer anything to accomplish it. If death comes as a result, so be it. But he has to do it alone. He rejects the offer of work and belonging and gives up the girl at the end. Stoics can even operate in the comic domain: look at Destry Rides Again (Universal, 1939) or The Sheepman (MGM, 1958).

Or maybe (but here we are getting a bit hi-falutin’) lone cowboys have been reading Sartre. Existentialism teaches us that individuals are free to follow their own paths and live their lives passionately. To fulfil themselves, they must live authentically. Don’t just fall in with the crowd. Go your own way. Being socialised can be detrimental to our freedom and happiness. Hell is other people. What could be more Western?

But does that mean that all Western novelists, screenwriters, actors and directors were steeped in Montaigne or Camus? Probably not, pards. Still, all writers absorb such ideas, even unconsciously. The heyday of the existential writers was also the time when Western movies were at their height, after all.  I do know that Tommy Lee Jones gave the cast of The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada Albert Camus’s l’étranger to read. But I don't guess most directors of Westerns did that...

In any case, consciously or not, the whole of Western culture is founded on this notion of the lone hero. It has become a cliché, a commonplace. We don’t even notice it any more. Modern action films have carried the tradition on. Bruce Willis dying hard, alone in a skyscraper in 1988, is only doing what a man’s gotta do. Popular culture is suffused with the idea. Bob Dylan in ‘Brownsville Girl’ (Knocked Out Loaded, 1986) sang:
Well, there was this movie I seen one time
About a man riding ’cross the desert and it starred Gregory Peck
He was shot down by a hungry kid trying to make a name for himself
The townspeople wanted to crush that kid down and string him up by the neck
Well, the marshal, now he beat that kid to a bloody pulp
As the dying gunfighter lay in the sun and gasped for his last breath
“Turn him loose, let him go, let him say he outdrew me fair and square
I want him to feel what it’s like to every moment face his death”

Rather more poetically, Leonard Cohen sang, in ‘Love calls you by your name’ (Songs of Love and Hate,1971):

Shouldering your loneliness
Like a gun you will not learn to aim
You stumble into this movie house
Then you climb, you climb into the frame

All those sad gunfighters, those half-crazed mountain men, those decent marshals that none of the townsfolk would back up, those poor cowpokes on the far range, the men in single-minded pursuit of revenge, it may be from choice, it may be from loss or because they just can’t build human relationships, or it may be because they have to do what’s right and the spirit in them burns high and free. But they sure are lonesome.

As Hank lamented,

Hear that lonesome whippoorwill
He sounds too blue to fly
The midnight train is whining low
I'm so lonesome I could cry

I've never seen a night so long
When time goes crawling by
The moon just went behind a cloud
To hide its face and cry

Did you ever see a willow weep
Its leaves began to die?
That means he's lost the will to live
I'm so lonesome I could cry

The silence of a falling star
Lights up a purple sky
And as I wonder where you are
I'm so lonesome I could cry

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