Friedrich Wilhelm Nietzche had his gloomy moments but also his compensations. Supposedly, he liked to dance and he recommended that it should be done every day. He must have been adept because he was convinced that only those men with chaos inside them could dance on a star. These days we worry about domestic violence. We rarely connect intense troubled men to poetic transcendence. The poets are expected to smile and network across media. But the dancing would have been important to Freidrich because he was born before Westerns, and even philosophers need relief.
Nietzche would have been a big fan of ‘Man Of The West’. Doubters should remember his famous quote. ‘Battle not with monsters, lest you become a monster and if you gaze into the abyss, the abyss also gazes into you.’ In the movie, Link Jones is obliged to battle with those that he thought he had successfully abandoned. Gary Cooper plays Link Jones and the monsters he faces belong to a gang of outlaws that included Link when he was young. He also needs to confront his monstrous past. Jones understands the abyss that waits for him even if he defeats the outlaws. ‘Things have gone to hell,’ he says.
Anthony Mann directed ‘Man Of The West’. He also made a series of great Westerns with James Stewart. Link Jones has been compared to the Stewart characters. He is the hero after he has settled down and been transformed by a decent woman. But the characters played by Stewart were merely self-centred and narrow. Fumbling gentle mannered Link Jones has been a cruel killer, shaped by a psychopathic ‘father’. ‘He is my work,’ says Lee J Cobb. Link needs to be the hero and save saloon singer, Billie, but to do that he has again to be the monster he had forgotten. Because Cooper is a fine actor we believe that Link can be the two men he reveals in the film. He is the clumsy hesitant character who appears at the beginning, and who is scared by the noise of the train, and the vicious man who later strips and beats Coley, the gang member that forced Julie London to strip.
The name Link is important. Lincoln Jones is the link that his nickname implies. He connects worlds and people – the father and the son, the good and the bad, town and country, men and women, violence and ambition, mercy and belief. He is even a link between the 2 people that exist inside him. This the chaos in all of us that Nietzche describes, and it is why destiny never satisfies. Julie London plays Billie, another example in a Western of a female lead being given the name of a man. At the end of the film, both Link and Billie know they have futures that will deny their love. Destiny, of course, and the influence of others shape everyone. The ‘father’, Doc Tobin, describes Link as, ‘my right arm trained by me. I put a piece of work into you.’ When he talks to Billie, Link remembers his past differently. ‘I don’t know what I was,’ he says. But somehow, Link had understood that he needed to leave the outlaws, his family. ‘Grow or rot,’ says Link. Like Nietzche but unlike most, Link realises that the goal is more important than the path. Doc may be forceful and clear in his objectives but he is trapped on his path. He merely thinks about the next bank. In this instance, the bank exists in a ghost town. There is no money.
It is in the ghost town that Link has to confront Claude, the gang member who is most like Link and who has also returned. Claude exists as a reminder that Link has betrayed his family and is still betraying them. Inevitably, the two men have a duel but they do not face one another. They are both in front of the bank and they look into the street. Link is above the boardwalk and Claude below, two similar men separated by a line that symbolises alternative paths. After he has killed Claude, Link has regrets. ‘It could have been so different,’ he says. In the same shootout, there are 2 deaths that disturb. Rather than die quietly, the mute member of the gang runs down the street, screaming in agony before he collapses. Claude and Link are men who made choices. We are
aware that some lives are so doomed that they even deny bleak explanation. The town has no people apart from one old Mexican couple. The wife is murdered needlessly, and Link when he meets the husband merely says, ‘Sorry’ and rides on. Link is a survivor. He left Doc and the dark side to avoid rotting. He did not, though, become a moral force which is why he finds it possible to revert to the warrior he had once been. ‘Ever since we arrived here you’ve been different,’ says the passenger that follows Link and Billie to the hideout of the outlaws. If Link is unable to prevent the murder of the innocent Mexican woman, neither is he able to properly protect Billie. While he faces Claude in the ghost town, Doc rapes Billie. This is not sexual lust by Doc but a defiant attempt by a father to assert his authority in what he knows are the final days. The inevitable duel between Link and Doc has the father say to his prodigy, ‘Shoot me, shoot me’. It is the only resolution left now his favourite son has destroyed his family.
‘Man Of The West’ may not be a political film but it has implications. Here, the isolated family is dysfunctional. It is why the gang of Doc does not survive and why perhaps the wife of the isolated Mexican couple in the ghost town is allowed to die. There are alternatives to the family. It exists in the community that has helped Link to reform. This community is called Good Hope. Link begins the film looking for a schoolteacher for his neighbours, a professional matriarch. We never see the town of Good Hope but the name and the account by Link to Billie make it clear that it differs from the towns where Billie earns her living as a saloon singer.
The town she is leaving has crime and exists to satisfy appetites, which is why it makes Link so uncomfortable. Human nature is flawed and families that exist in isolation will be destructive. They need to be supported by communities, and the support is most effective in communities that serve ideals and aspiration rather than gluttony.
‘Man Of The West’ contains elements of ‘King Lear’ so it is theatrical rather than realistic. Lee J Cobb who plays Doc is 10 years younger than Gary Cooper but this works because we understand how Link has outgrown the others. In the opening shots, we not only have marvellous Western vistas but also see the rider return to the mesa that he has just left. This indicates immediately a man who will be drawn back to a past he thinks he is escaping. Landscape dominates the film but it is not pictorial. When Billie and Link wander unwittingly to the hideout we see them struggle against bleak moorland. The gunfights take place against harsh rocky landscapes. Nobody dances on a star because there is a craggy chaos that is even grander than complex human personality. The rocks are unyielding and unforgiving. In ‘Man Of The West’, nobody achieves what he or she wants. The family has been destroyed, Billie will have to forfeit Link so he can return to his family and the ideals of Good Hope, and Link will know that he only prevails because he is a match for the monsters and is adept in an abyss he would rather forget.
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