THE CONTEMPORARY WESTERN – MEDITATIONS ON FREEDOM

The previous post on this site looked at the lineage of the Contemporary Western that A&E’s current series Longmire draws upon – the example of Cade’s County, a 1971 series starring Glenn Ford, was examined. This writer frames a contemporary Western as one that that is set in the time it is made. Longmire, now into its second season, is set in the Wyoming and American West of the present.

The contemporary Western offers a singular creative approach toward a range of issues in North America because of its connection to the Western genre as a whole. It is singular in that the larger genre itself is directly drawn from the history and geography of North America, a past and place that has been most often explored in those films and TV shows set in the Old West (i.e. prior to 1914 / World War One). The contemporary Western draws upon both actual history and its treatment within creative media to examine the West of today. Western landscapes, history, relationships (e.g. between Indigenous and non-Indigenous peoples) and approaches to life are carried forward from both the real past and the historical Western to find expression in the present. Past truly is prologue for the Western set today.

The previous post, in its contextualization of Longmire, named a contemporary Western entitled Lonely Are the Brave (1962), directed by David Miller. Starring Kirk Douglas as free-roaming cowboy Jack Burns, the film looked at the difficulty of trying to carry Old West codes and ways of living into the New Mexico of 1962. It is to that film that this post turns for an example of how the contemporary Western can provide an opportunity to meditate on the level of personal freedom that North Americans experience today.

Based on the Edward Abbey novel, The Brave Cowboy (1956), Jack Burns is a ranch hand who consciously rejects modern society and its technology. Burns resists the need to carry identification cards – he says it’s unnecessary as he knows who he is – and detests the carving up the land by borders and fences that he sees as artificial. As he rides into the home of his long-time friend, Paul (Michael Kane), he discovers from Paul’s wife, Jerry (Gena Rowlands), that Paul has been arrested for helping “illegal” immigrants find assistance. An imaginary line that one could not find on the ground by looking for it – the border – has literally imprisoned Burns’ good friend.

Burns will get himself purposely arrested in order to help his friend bust out of jail. Paul refuses to do so – he knows that the power of the central state will not let things “blow over” as Burns claims they will. Burns escapes jail, heads to the adjacent hills with his horse, Whiskey, and is pursued by the contemporary technology of the time. Despite the use of jeeps, walkie-talkies, planes and helicopters, Burns and his horse are able to elude his pursuers by moving across the natural geography in a way they can’t. The ending of the film, as Burns appears to finally be free, is poignant.

One key theme within Lonely Are the Brave – evident from the opening to the closing shot – is the encroachment of technology upon society and the natural landscape. Within that idea is the film’s core component of resistance by maintaining personal freedom. As illustrated in the film, Jack Burns believes that a man on horseback should still be able to move across the land without restriction. When Burns transgresses the conventions of law, technology is employed to restrict his personal freedom to the utmost degree. This is the trailer for the film:

As a contemporary Western, Lonely Are the Brave (which Douglas has cited as his favorite film) offers a viewer today the chance to reflect upon the level of free movement he or she currently can exercise in North America. Does a river know when it is half in one country and half in another? Should it care how others define it? Jack Burns would say no. What would you say?

 (Copyright – Chad Beharriell)

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2 thoughts on “THE CONTEMPORARY WESTERN – MEDITATIONS ON FREEDOM

  1. Thanks for the comment, Jay. The approach of Jack Burns is definitely a challenge to a certain way of social organization.

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