I love Westerns. I realize that most people love a good Western, but they typically require a quality example to appreciate the genre’s beauty. I, on the other hand, love all Westerns regardless of their competence. After all, how would we appreciate the mastery of an Oscar winning performance without a field of its spaghetti based peers? In this spirit I have watched many, many Westerns of varying quality in an effort to determine overarching themes, and I believe I’ve finally chased one down, cornered it, and beaten it into submission. Modern Westerns seem to rely in large part on the role of the ultimate badass, a character who relies on brains, strength, skill, and otherworldly luck to forge a path through the world.
Westerns both great and terrible are replete with examples of this phenomenon, typically in the form of an antagonist, but often enough as the lead character or an ambiguous combination of the two. The one defining, unchanging trait of this trope is an enforcement of the character’s personal morality, goals, and beliefs about the world around them through an application of their own power. Cormac McCarthy’s novel No Country for Old Men personifies evil in the form of Anton Chigurh, an assassin hired to kill the protagonist and retrieve the money he stole from the site of a botched drug deal. In the novel Chigurh kills indiscriminately, often choosing to let a coin flip decide the fate of one of his victims, and always surviving and overcoming through his power and skill. Chigurh’s warped sense of chaotic guidance provides a good baseline for the ultimate badass of the Western, a character capable of fighting the order of the world and winning.
>Once I realized the simplicity of the definition other examples began to stack up, some portrayed quite differently than Chigurh. In the 2007 version of 3:10 to Yuma the outlaw Ben Wade overcomes the men taking him to a train bound for prison, can easily escape, and yet chooses to board the train and honor the dying effort of his captor Dan Evans. The film implies that Wade will escape from prison on a whim in the future, clarifying that he chose to be arrested simply to let the world know what Dan did, because he felt like doing that. Similarly, in any of the iterations of Clint Eastwood’s Man with No Name series or the portrayals of Wyatt Earp in both Tombstone and Gunfight at the O.K. Corral, the heroes are all unstoppably powerful fighters.
But why? Why do Westerns have to rely on an unstoppable pinch hitter as a plot device? I believe it is a combination of two beliefs, the first an abiding love of the romanticized freedom of the West, and the second a desire to see the world in black and white. The West has always been a symbol of freedom for the American people, but never has it been viewed as more so than the mid to late nineteenth century, a time when a single determined individual could forge their own fate. The end of that century represented the death of individualism on a particular level; no more could a skilled gunman battle law and order and win, the frontier became civilized. Added to this was an innate desire on the part of audiences for early Westerns to see polarizing themes, black and white, right and wrong, good and evil. People wanted their heroes and villains to be romantic, to stand for morality and overcome all obstacles with their power.
In the modern era this has evolved. Some Westerns still follow the white hat/black hat mold but often the villain is the most compelling character, and a flawed morality is the driving motivation in the film. The Western is a product of history and idealization and its focus and voice will always be changing, but it will likely never shed the role of the ultimate badass.