Lawmen, drunks, women behind men, and bad guys – all of these are common tropes in the western genre. The two stories I chose to read, “The Bride Comes to Yellow Sky” and “Ice Man”, both had these tropes at the forefront. In the first one, written by Stephen Crane, a town marshal comes home with a bride to find a drunken menace roaming the streets, ready for a gun fight. The second, written by Elmore Leonard, also features a man of the law, only this one happens to be crooked and looking for a fight of his own.
These two stories worked well as alternates of one another, with similar themes but different perspectives and endings. Both had a man of the law coming into town to deal with drunken troublemakers and a woman at their side. However, Crane’s lawman was good and willing to negotiate with a genuine threat in order to prevent harm, whereas Leonard’s lawman only perceived men as drunks to be arrested. In the end, his woman addresses his blatant prejudice – he only arrests them for being Indian – and he willingly owns up to it without a moment of pause or guilt.
While Crane’s story clearly embodies the Old West idea of a late-19th / early 20th century Texas, Leonard’s offers a much more modern take on a similar storyline; the lawman, a federal agent, communicates with a cell phone and the main character’s prize for winning a rodeo consists of four thousand dollars. Despite these centuries of difference, both of the tales told offer the feel of a western, with similar settings and themes. The results are dramatically different, of course. Crane’s version deals with the prejudice of middle class modernity against a small-town, old-fashioned man of high importance within his own world. On the other hand, Leonard’s version deals with prejudice along the racial-ethnic lines, where people of Indian and Mexican background are consistently and knowingly targeted for the sole purpose of removing them from the public, regardless of their success or lawfulness. While the two kinds of prejudice are incredibly different on the surface, both run deep in the western genre.
Class and race/ethnicity are issues that westerns consistently aim to address, even as they are published today. The storytelling potential of this genre gives plenty of room to allow writers and directors to explore the deeper meanings of these social prejudices. The West as a setting is a blank slate, pale and unconcerned with the good guys and the bad guys. Once people come together in this unquestioning field, however, it really is a matter of human nature to determine what occurs next. Perhaps those in power, like the marshal in Crane’s story, are truly lawful and willing to go only as far as they must in order to maintain peace. Or perhaps the powerful come from somewhere more remote, with the harsh prejudice ingrained in their distant cultures, like Leonard’s lawman, only to stir up trouble and attack those who are otherwise accepted by the West.
Such social dynamics show how versatile the western genre truly is. Not every story mandates a cowboy and a gunfight, nor does it end with the good guy winning or walking off into the wilderness to be judged only by Nature itself. There are deeper themes to find in the depths of this narrative field, and once they are discovered they are well worth any amount of thoughtful consideration.