As far as film endings go, John Ford’s 1956 Technicolor epic The Searchers sports one of the more memorable finales in cinema’s illustrious history…
From a frame within a frame, we look out the doorway at the contrasting light of the prairie, from the juxtaposed pitch darkness of inside the family homestead. As Ethan Edwards (John Wayne) returns his abducted niece there is a striking vulnerability in his disposition as he watches the family take her inside.
It’s no coincidence that Ford’s framing within contrasted light separates the protagonist from the others. For this notion of isolation is what forms the very psychology behind the hero of the Western.
In fact one might argue that with the introduction of the Western, our fascination with the hero on the big screen became far more complex. Upon closer inspection, however, it would seem that the rogue cowboy has played his part in popular culture even before Hollywood first built sets of saloon bars and ranches. Indeed the modern teenage rebel, the social outcast, the hot-headed gangster, all borrow some influence from the un-relinquished grit of the wild frontiersman.
Dwarfed by the wide-open backdrops of America’s old West, with the chips stacked up against him, the cowboy has always captured our imagination. These rocky, desolate and parched landscapes are often captured in all their magnanimous splendour through super wide framing made synonymous from such visionaries as John Ford, Howard Hawks, Anthony Mann and Samuel Fuller.
The looming presence of these harsh environments form rich symbolism around the characters who etch lonesome paths around their cliffs and through their valleys.
With themes of honour and virtue (Shane, I Shot Liberty Valance) revenge and retribution (Winchester 73, One-Eyed Jacks), in the end all that matters is who is quickest on the draw.
And it’s women are no exception. From the aggressive and thick-skinned saloonkeeper Vienna (Joan Crawford) in Nicholas Ray’s Johnny Guitar, to Barbara Stanwyck’s character in Samuel Fuller’s Forty Guns, stubborn landowner Jessica Drummond, it’s almost inherently instinctive for them to isolate themselves from everyone around them… often trading in their cards and squandering chances of love or happiness.
Some Westerns have even explored the marginalised isolation of the native American through the opportunistic encroachment of the white man. Films like Howard Hawks’ The Big Sky, Robert Aldrich’s Apache and Martin Ritt’s Hombre are notable mentions.
Whereby other significant examples of the genre, like Ford’s Fort Apache illustrate how an arrogant lack of scruples and irrational logic manage to isolate a regiment commander from his U.S cavalry post.
Ultimately though, it’s the big unknown; the unchartered territory of the old West and the quest to uphold justice that has developed these characters of drifters and nomads, gunslingers and lone wolves.
Much of the genre shares a common thread; these imminent feelings of isolation… whether isolating themselves through their actions (Ride Lonesome, High Plains Drifter) or feeling a sense of isolation through their environment (McCabe & Mrs Miller, Dead Man).
Whatever the case may be, it’s evident these tales of adventure wield an element of romanticism within us. The iconography of the cowboy riding off into the sunset may well be one of the most nostalgic cinema images.