The Western As Moral Drama
If the adult television Western offered a seductive interpretation of the law and its enforcement, it also dealt with the religious and humanistic morality basic to American civilization. In fact, legality and morality were often synonymous. This was succinctly noted in "Day of the Scorpion," an episode of The Virginian aired September 22, 1965. Here one character declared: "We have laws here, Mr. Pierce, to hold all of us in.... Law and morality have to be the same thing."
In this way Western heroes were moral as well as legal agents. In their actions were found ethical, even religious, judgments. Importantly, three of the more compelling contemporary explanations of the video Western suggested that the genre held great moral significance.
For Peter Homans in 1962, the Western was essentially "a Puritan morality tale in which the savior-hero redeems the community from the temptations of the devil." Certainly, all viewers did not consciously register such a metaphysical relationship each time Johnny Yuma on The Rebel or Clay Culhane on Black Saddle bested a criminal and saved a town. As a pattern of social action, however, the formula closely followed the fundamental motif of Christian faith—the single selfless savior giving his life for the salvation of the multitude.
In Homans's view the Western champion was a religious operative moving within a secular environment to reaffirm the Judeo-Christian morality originally planted in American civilization by Puritan ancestors. "Tall in the saddle," remarked Homans, the Western hero "rides straight from Plymouth Rock to a dusty frontier town" where "his Colt .45 is on the side of the angels."' '
Two years earlier Martin Nussbaum delineated the sociological symbolism detectable in the adult Western, an important quality of which was the moral persuasiveness of the genre. According to him, the Western proposed that all men were both good and bad, but that by their own will or by unavoidable circumstances some "have placed themselves on the wrong side of the law, a law which transcends man's law and has overtones of moralistic law."
In this dilemma, according to Nussbaum, the Western hero operates as a decisive moral force. "It falls to the western hero, then, to judge the rightness and wrongness of an act and to satisfy the law if it has been violated." With reference to the contemporary social and political quandaries, he added: "Today when all our problems are so complicated that there really is no right or wrong but rather many shades of gray, it is gratifying to see complex problems reduced to an either-or proposition, adjudicated and resolved by a single action."
More theological in its direction than either Nussbaum's or Homans' argument was the explanation offered in 1957 by Alexander Miller in The Christian Century magazine. Miller stressed the appearance within the genre of many of the profound dialectical themes of Christian theology. Pilgrimage and rest, justice and mercy, war and peace—basic contradictions between which religious humanity fluctuated—were integral to the TV Western as well as to personal spirituality.
Miller contended that the cowboy hero was a fatalistic, yet moralistic, individual. "A man does what he has to do," claimed Miller, "and justifies it in one way or another." Like modern religious man, the central character in the video Western possessed "the incorrigible yearning after virtue, the inevitable implication in sin, the irrepressible inclination to self-justification." He concluded that in the genre "every theological theme is here, except the final theme, the deep and healing dimension of guilt and grace."
Again, however, social realities since the 1960s impinged upon the uncomplicated moral vista proposed by the Western. The generalized reformism of the past twenty years has created a moral ambivalence unanticipated in the genre. From civil rights and the Vietnam War, to the ecology movement and the crusade for women's rights, new "good guys" and "bad guys" have been recognized. But if good can change, and good equates to moral, where is the universal morality so crucial to the Western?
In a world of moral justice, there is no place for the politics of Governor George C. Wallace, yet in the late 1960s he found great national support, in part because of his opposition to the black social movement. In a world of moral certitude, there could be no simultaneous appreciation for Abby Hoffman and General William C. Westmoreland. Yet both men—one a respected leader in the anti-War movement, the other the most celebrated officer to emerge from the Vietnam conflict—had their moral constituencies.
What to one group of women appeared as a "male chauvinist pig," to another might be the stereotypical Western hero doing his formulaic duty. What to some in the civil rights movement cynically might be termed an "Uncle Tom" faction, to others might appear rational, temperate, and distinguished. When labor unions oppose cleaning up the environment because it might cost jobs, where is the moral right?
It might accommodate psychotic behavior, but the Western made no provision for moral confusion. Yet to remain accepted, the genre had to fit into a society in flux. The reevaluations under way in American thought since the mid-1960s clashed with the fundamental certainties of the genre. The religious foundation of the Western as described by Homans and Miller might still be discernible, but the social answers communicated by the cowboy heroes have been compromised. Erectly they might have sat in their saddles as they rode from Plymouth Rock to Dodge City and beyond, but the value systems they upheld were no longer accepted unquestioningly by a sufficiently large component of the American population.