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Wednesday, March 15, 2023

March 15, 2023: Wild West Stories: Walt Longmire

[175 years ago this coming weekend, Wyatt Earp was born in Illinois. Earp would go on to become one of the most iconic Wild West figures, so this week I’ll AmericanStudy stories of that complex and mythic region and history. Leading up to a weekend birthday post on engaging Earp!]

On clichés, classic and revised, and a character who straddles the line.

However far back you want to go to define the origin of the cultural genre known as the Western—Owen Wister’s bestselling novel The Virginian: A Horseman of the Plains (1902) is a popular choice, but you could go further back to the Gilded Age’s Wild West shows or dime novels, among other possibilities—one central feature has been a very particular type for its protagonist: the strong, stoic, stubborn cowboy-lawman, good with a gun and horses, true to his word, a noble and mythic frontier archetype. By the early 20th century moment of Wister’s novel that type was already largely a relic of an earlier era (if it had ever existed at all—as many Western historians have noted, neither frontier lawmen nor cowboys were much like the myths), and thus quickly became more of a cliché than anything else, a shorthand way to signal a specific kind of hero and storytelling. But few American cultural clichés have had more resonance or staying power, as illustrated by one of the 20th century’s most iconic and influential actors: John Wayne, that identity itself a persona or construction of Marion Morrison’s.

While that type has found its way into various late 20th and early 21st century cultural texts as well—Timothy Olyphant’s Marshal Seth Bullock on Deadwood, as well as his modernized version of the same character on Justified, come to mind—many of our recent Westerns have offered complicatedly revisionist depictions instead. These revisions don’t tend to undermine the Western hero type exactly, so much as to suggest layers and contradictions while nonetheless keeping core elements of the cliché and myth intact. I’m thinking of Clint Eastwood’s retired gunfighter turned quasi-lawman (for hire, at least) William Munny in Unforgiven (1992), or Val Kilmer’s dying and sarcastic gunfighter turned lawman Doc Holliday in Tombstone (1993), or Christian Bale’s rancher turned reluctant lawman Dan Evans in 3:10 to Yuma (2007), among many others. Sharon Stone’s gunslinger out for revenge Ellen in The Quick and the Dead (1995) and Will Smith’s smooth-talking lawman James West in Wild Wild West (1999) offered gendered and ethnic revisions of the archetype, but still retained many of those core elements. Despite their many differences, all of these characters and texts reflect a desire both to carry the Western hero forward and to look for layers or quirks beneath the mythologizing.

Robert Taylor’s Walt(er) Longmire, the titular sheriff protagonist of Longmire, is in many ways a classic Western hero. All of the descriptions I employed in the opening sentence above apply quite precisely to Walt, and in a couple telling moments in the show’s later seasons he was characterized directly as a man born in the wrong time, one who would have been more comfortable in an era long past. But at the same time, Walt features layers and contradictions beyond those most mythic Western qualities, character traits often highlighted by his closest friends and loved ones (his daughter Cady, his deputy and potential love interest Vic, and his best friend Henry Standing Bear, on all of whom see those respective posts) but also seen in encounters with his perceived enemies (such as the ambiguous casino developer Jacob Nighthorse, on whom see that post). Without spoiling any of the details of the show’s final seasons, I would say that the tension between the most heroic and the most complex sides to Walt became a defining thread as the show moved toward its epic yet thoughtful conclusions. And while I’m generally in favor of complexity and revision, in this particular case (again, without any spoilers) I’ll say that it was entirely appropriate that there remained elements of the Wild West Walt in the character with whom we ended the wonderful story that is Longmire.

Next Wild West story tomorrow,


PS. What do you think? Wild West stories or histories you’d highlight?

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