Boomers grew up watching "Bonanza" with Lorne Greene as the patriarchal role model. Like many of those actors, Greene had a background in movies first, and ironically he did not play characters with the highest character. He was the bad guy lawyer in "Peyton Place." He prodded everyone to just think of the victimized woman as promiscuous. He played the cowardly city father of New Orleans who argued for capitulation to the British in that movie about the Battle of New Orleans (with Charlton Heston as Andrew Jackson). But Greene emerged as a paragon of unquestioned virtue in "Bonanza" with his son characters.
Teaching us right from wrong
We're charmed by those old shows today, but no way would today's entertainment industry even consider putting out stuff according to that template. Any western made today would be more nuanced, with no clear coded messages about good guys and bad guys or even good and evil. Sub-plots would complicate.
Maybe the '60s taught us that good and evil are not so easily defined. The United States had major sins to answer for in that decade. The tumult of that decade was due to a generational shift, the arrival of a generation (mine) that wouldn't put up with the B.S. anymore. We couldn't gloss over America's shortcomings by watching westerns with their simplistic plots.
The one-time popularity of westerns had an additional element, I would argue. They were a vehicle helping Americans move away from the sense of conflict coming from the Civil War. The great advancement West was dramatic and represented a shedding of the unpleasantness of the North/South conflict. "The West" was literally a new frontier. The stereotypes of Northerners and Southerners seemed far away. The West was a new chance for America to at least try to find consensus.
The Judeo-Christian ethic got woven in constantly. Civil War scars were still meaningful in the mid-20th Century. So much time has now passed. I doubt that "Stone Mountain" means much to people anymore. A new "spin" has been put on Stone Mountain (in Georgia): Today it's presented as a symbol of unification, as if the South was eventually willing to be absorbed in with its Northern cousins. It even has corporate sponsors like Pepsi. The Ku Klux Klan once had a big gathering of renewed commitment of their cause there. Time passes and the meme changes dramatically.
You see, history and nostalgia are really about the causes of today. Everything is framed in the context of today's issues and values, even if people choose an antiquated symbol like the Confederate flag.
"Quaint" describes the old western TV shows and movies. The TV shows came at us fast and furiously at one time. Reviewing those old shows is an interesting trivia challenge. And the whole genre died off rather suddenly.
A grand movie from 1956
I got to thinking of the genre when watching the movie "The Last Wagon" recently. The old movie westerns did a service in making us aware of an under-appreciated region of the U.S. "The Last Wagon" is a fantastic exhibit for "Monument Valley." Try to imagine the movie if it were filmed in a more plain place. It would lose much of its appeal. Monument Valley is a truly breathtaking place worthy of being a national park. Many moviegoers have seen those scenes but are unaware that the place even has a name - it's just a standard panorama of "the old West."
Hollywood knew all about Monument Valley, especially director John Ford. Monument Valley is a region of the Colorado Plateau characterized by a cluster of vast sandstone buttes, the largest reaching 1000 feet above the valley floor. It's located on the Utah-Arizona border. Moviegoers came to see the mere five square miles with its wild, foreboding nature, as being representative of the whole U.S. West. The valley lies within the range of the Navajo National Reservation.
"The Last Wagon" starring Richard Widmark was made during the heyday of Hollywood westerns, in 1956. I was one year old. The movie affords a wonderful Cinemascope widening of classic and colorful Monument Valley vistas. I started to feel bothered about how the characters seemed oblivious to the breathtaking scenery.
The movie shows how a rugged mountain man, Widmark, gets captured and treated brutally after vengefully murdering those who slaughtered his family. Widmark's "Comanche Todd" is a white man who has lived most of his life among the Indians. Todd is able to dispatch his chief tormentor, then he joins a wagon team whose members learn to trust him (in a halting manner). Apache Indians are poised to avenge some tragedy in their ranks.
A small U.S. cavalry attachment comes on the scene, and here we see a very familiar face: James Drury. James Drury! He's ten years younger here than how we remember him from TV's "The Virginian." Guys my age remember how Drury was the top-billed actor on "The Virginian," but he became second banana to Doug McClure as "Trampas." There's a Stevens County family who named one of their sons after "Trampas."
The primary theme of "The Last Wagon" is different from the usual Judeo-Christian one that we associate with such stories. It's a rather cutting-edge theme, actually: Justice is more important than the law. The characters gain lessons not only in survival but in character.
Widmark, with Minnesota roots
Hey, Widmark is a Minnesota native! He was born in Sunrise Township MN, located in east-central Chisago County. Its northeast border follows the St. Croix River which is also the state line between Minnesota and Wisconsin.
The climax in "The Last Wagon" comes when "Comanche Todd" saves the cavalry attachment from an ambush. The explosions are good by the standards of 1950s Hollywood! Despite being wanted for murder, Todd is spared at the end and is placed in the custody of a female traveler. Widmark plays a character who seems designed for him: complicated and bitter but with a prevailing sense of honor and goodness.
"The Last Wagon" is the perfect showcase for Monument Valley, a place that ought to be a household word like Yellowstone Park, but isn't. Maybe that can be remedied someday.