SHREWSBURY, Massachusetts – Good guys vs. bad guys has always been a popular theme of dramas going back to the earliest days of film. Nowadays of course the stories are either about cops and gangsters or the CIA and terrorists, but before the Godfather trilogy started our current fascination with the Mafia, cowboy movies dominated and the bad guys were either outlaws or Indians. Simple stories for a simpler time, where the hero could always be recognized by his white hat that never fell off even during brawls and chases, while the villains always wore black hats or feathers.
During the transition from horses to Cadillacs there were a few so called “adult westerns” that portrayed the protagonists as multi-dimensional figures with doubts and human frailties. In “High Noon,” an aging sheriff had to face his sworn enemies alone while torn between performing his duty and the fear of losing his young bride. “Shane” on the other hand was about a gunslinger trying to escape his past only to find it impossible. Deep stuff, but I preferred the westerns of my youth that never required any thinking, with stars like Tom Mix, Gene Autry, Hopalong Cassidy, and Roy Rogers who always caught the desperados while trick riding and roping, singing, and never kissing the girls. What he-men they were, and there never was any question as to the outcome as they brought law and order to the early west.
Cowboys only fought against stagecoach robbers and cattle rustlers but it was the cavalry who made the plains safe for homesteaders, having to face bands of wild Indians who attacked seemingly without provocation. There was no uncertainty as to the savages’ bravery and ferocity, picturesquely decked out in loin cloths, war paint, and feathered headdresses, but it was always just a matter of time before the group of outnumbered palefaces were miraculously saved by a troop of cavalrymen at the last minute. No one ever wondered how the rescuers knew where the ambush had taken place without benefit of a cell phone or GPS, but that was a matter of little concern. The main thing was that the cavalry won and the Indians were subdued once again. It was manifest destiny, wasn’t it?
Of all the larger than life heroes, the most enduring was the Lone Ranger and his faithful Indian companion Tonto, who rode the range not only in movies and TV but on radio as well. Oddly enough, Jay Silverheels who played Tonto was a real native American, unlike most of the others who were usually Italian and only looked Indian-like. In every episode the pair would ride into a town besieged by a greedy landowner, somehow manage to conquer the evildoer, and eventually head out into the sunset to the gratitude of the town folk who asked “who was that masked man.” Someone would reply “that was the Lone Ranger” as the strains of the William Tell overture faded in the background, melodramatic fluff that always gave me goose bumps.
My all-time favorite though was a movie with Randolph Scott who played a Lone Ranger-type character that rode into a town plagued by evildoers of some kind. Naturally he rallied the terrified people of the town to action, convinced them to take arms against their oppressors, and lead them to ultimate victory. In the last scene when all the men were in the local bar congratulating each other on their success, Scott walked in, scowled at their gaiety and snarled, “where I come from, men don’t celebrate when they act like men.” It just doesn’t get more heroic than that.