SPECIAL FRIENDSHIPS: THE WESTERN AS PLAYGROUND (GIRLS KEEP OUT!)
This is the eleventh chapter of Special Friendships, Steven Freeman's unpublished book about the depiction of close friendships between men and boys in film, which is introduced here.
The Western as playground (girls keep out!)
It did nevertheless reveal the close parallels, often overlooked, between the seafaring genre and the Western. The wide expanses of open prairie were, after all, simply an ocean of sage, traversed by small fragile vessels liable to attack by pirates (bandits) or heathen natives (indians), the lawless shanty towns of the old West merely far-flung islands in that ocean, and Roy Rogers and the Lone Ranger were in direct descent from Captain Drake, and all those noble buccaneer captains played by Errol Flynn and Douglas Fairbanks Snr. The Wild West appealed to the native anarchist in boys (of all ages), being another realm where the rules and restrictions of civilisation were in suspension, an adventure playground on the epic scale, and a place where ladyfolk, thank goodness, were few and far between, like cacti. From the harpoon whaler of yore to Marlboro Man, the conventions of a “man’s world” remained unchanged. The parallels are fairly exact.
Another film to make this kinship evident was “CATTLE DRIVE” (51), a straightforward transposition of “CAPTAINS COURAGEOUS” into the Western context. Here it was bratty Dean Stockwell (again) who jumps train while travelling with railroad baron father (Leon Ames) and falls into the hands of cowpoke Joel McCrea, who breaks in the frisky young colt and wrassles the orneriness out of him. “The boy’s getting out of hand,” we hear his exasperated father lament to an underling, “What he needs is discipline, a good strict school!” (Hear hear! we concur silently). “Confound that boy! What he really needs is a good old-fashioned spanking!” (Yes yes! We agree with mounting hopes). “I’m afraid that’s a little out of my line sir” the underling demurs. “Yes, mine too.” father concedes. Time then for Marlboro Man to step in — his designated function on the cattle drive, hilariously, being that of “ramrod”, so let’s consider “The Boy and the Ramrod” as the film’s working title. For once, the studio did not feel it necessary to slay one or other of the adult components in the triangle, and this film ends, unlike so many others, with the delirious vision of Leon Ames, Stockwell, and bosom pal McCrea literally riding off into the sunset together, a happy threesome. What happened next, the tumbleweed will not tell.
“RED RIVER” (47), to continue that theme, had close and obvious parallels with “MUTINY ON THE BOUNTY” (35), John Wayne playing Bligh to Montgomery Clift’s Fletcher Christian, but the opening ten minutes show the boyhood Clift (Mickey Kuhn) hitching himself onto Wayne following a wagon train massacre and the two of them (plus old faithful Walter Brennan) setting up ranch together. Followers of boyhood cinema grind their teeth at these fleeting prologue sequences in 1001 memorable films. Our interest is whetted in the first few minutes, and then the boy metamorphoses in one quick wipe to a 25-year old.
“Ever thought of hiring boys, Will?” Slim Pickens suggests to rancher Wayne in “THE COWBOYS” (71) when all available trail hands have been swallowed up by a goldrush, and after due reflection Wayne stomps into the nearest schoolhouse to roust up some grubby hands of the 12-15 year old vintage for his cattle train. As with most school or Scouting films (which we’ll consider later) there is no direct special friendship in “THE COWBOYS”, rather the over-familiar tale of a crusty patron warming gradually to his charges, but it’s tolerably well done, with a particularly pleasing performance from Roscoe Lee Browne as the black trail cook, and it does distinguish itself by an unpatronising tone of genuine respect for the young greenhorns trying to do a man’s job. Audiences of the day were distinctly underwhelmed because Wayne was such a towering presence on the screen, his death midway leaves a gaping dramatic void, and the whole “settling of scores” third act just has an improbable, contrived look about it. The film coincided with other bleak revisionist Westerns such as “THE CULPEPPER CATTLE CO.” (72, also centred on a boy trail hand, Gary Grimes) or “JEREMIAH JOHNSON” (72), and the general dystopian gloom of these nouveau Westerns all but killed off the genre for a decade.
Think Westerns and the first boyhood classic that springs to anyone’s mind will probably be “SHANE” (53). In point of fact it deserves only an honorary mention here, because the intense bond is absent. Young Joey (Brandon de Wilde, who was nominated for a Best Supporting Actor Oscar) is clearly smitten with the mysterious gunslinger who stays briefly at his parents’ farmstead, but no relationship to speak of blooms between them, beyond Shane teaching the boy to fire a revolver. In the scene below, where Joey comes to Shane’s rescue in the saloon, the boy is revealing his solicitous, protective instincts, and when a small boy does that for a grown man, it betokens a more than passing fondness. A boy’s native instinct for chaos normally delights at bar-room brawls.
“SHANE”s writers could never have guessed that this sub-strand would resonate deeper in the audience mind than the coy will they?/won’t they? flirtation with Joey’s mother, that the image by which the film is chiefly remembered would not be the serpentine grin on Jack Palance’s face as he pulls on his sleek black killing glove, but the final winsome parting shot, with Joey calling “Shane, come back Shane!” after the receding figure of Alan Ladd. Strictly, it qualifies as a relationship that might have been, an unrequited love of boyhood, if you will. Be that as it may, the film became an instant cinema archetype, and the story has been reworked many many times, but at least no-one has been fool enough to attempt a remake (as they have recently done with “PSYCHO”, “KING KONG”, “THE OMEN” and others).
Some of those “SHANE” retreads were obvious – Clint Eastwood’s “PALE RIDER” (85), where Brandon de Wilde is given a sex-change operation to make flirtation possible – while others arose in non-Western settings and genres. “NOWHERE TO RUN” (93), for instance, had desperado Jean-Claude van Damme (a kind of low-rent Stallone) spring to the aid of a fatherless family being hounded off their land by the thugs of greedy property developer Joss Ackland. Brandon de Wilde’s Joey became Kieran Culkin’s “Mookie”, a small boy pining for his father and attaching himself more decisively than his mother (Rosanna Arquette) to the stranger of few words. So the “hero worship”/”father substitute” paradigm is well milked here to account for the “improbable” friendship, and Culkin is a more affable boy than his famous sibling, but Van Damme’s films are simple action B movies that waste little time on character development and, as with Schwarzenegger, the more he tries to expand his range the more he exposes the limits of his talent.
The serials of the late silent period featured one or two Western boy heroes — most famously Buzz Barton — aimed expressly at child audiences, and these had their own adult sidekicks as they giddyapped from scrape to scrape, but most man/boy double acts in the Western fall under the category of “adoption” titles, and adoption films are actually a quite separate strand from the one we’re considering here. Certainly they often feature intense, affectionate relation-ships between a boy and a man of no direct kin, to the extent of their setting up home together, but (in my own analysis) adoption recreates the father/son relationship too exactly, with all its connotations of parental authority. A substitute father can never, in the truest sense, be a close friend, even with the best will in the world. It is not a relationship on an equal footing, while one is dependent for food and shelter on the other, and one attains the status of legal guardian over the other. True, the same case could be made against marriage, but why drag marriage into the argument? Adoption titles are legion, and certainly important in the cinema of boyhood, but we must glance over them quickly and move on.