Coming-of-age stories have an important place in art, religion, and philosophy. In Judeo-Christian and other Abrahamic religions, the Bible contains one of the quintessential coming-of-age story: Adam and Eve, innocent and child-like, live in the Garden of Eden until they disobey God by listening to the Serpent, who represents their own temptation, and eat the fruit from the Tree of Knowledge. Of course, once this knowledge of good and evil is attained, it can never be forgotten, and those who have matured into from innocent childhood to adulthood are forever changed. Whether the protagonist mourns or welcomes this loss of innocence depends on each individual story, but no matter the tale, the passage from childhood to adulthood, from innocence to knowledge can never be undone.
Western films, usually set during the second half of the 19th century when encroaching civilization and expanding technology began to eliminate any previously idyllic vision of life in the American west, often feature the iconic loner cowboy or gunfighter as their protagonist. Since he himself represents the desolate environment and its harsh life, he has long since lost any innocence he might have had. Instead, it is the other characters who come into contact with the Loner who lose their innocence and “mature.” Sometimes the other characters suffer by loving the Loner since they are “abandoned” by him when he moves on (Will Penney). At other times, the Loner’s actions, violent or not, force other characters to face their own moral bankruptcy (High Plains Drifter) or compels them to abandon their idealized image of themselves (Unforgiven).
In Coming-of-Age Westerns, where fistfights are as brutal as gunfights, violence is a primary antagonist, whether it appears in the form of the environment (deserts, mountains, drought, storms, fires), animals (unbroke broncs, stampeding cattle, rattlesnakes, bears), or fellow humans. The iconic Loner, whether cowboy or gunslinger, is never what he seems to be, though loyalty to him is expected if the character who loses his innocence is to retain his own honor. America’s violent past, whether dealing with environmental or human elements, forces the innocenti to evolve from childhood to adulthood.
Shane (1953), one of the classics of the Western film genre, portrays a woman and her son — concentrating mostly the young son — who mature suddenly and irrevocably because of the Loner-protagonist’s violence. Cowboy (1958) and The Cowboys (1972) both feature naïve protagonists who are themselves forced into a painful “adulthood” when confronted with the harshness of the American West. These three films are classic coming-of-age Westerns.
You’re a dreamy idiot,
and that’s the worst kind.
In one of his best roles, Jack Lemmon stars as hotel clerk Frank Harris, who desperately wants to impress Mexican cattle baron Vidal, father of Maria (Anna Kashfi), the woman Harris loves. After rough-and-tumble, opera-loving Trail Boss Reece (Glenn Ford) appears at the hotel, Harris desperately wants to join the next cattle drive to prove himself worth of respect and to attain Maria’s hand in marriage.
After a somewhat slow start detailing every aspect of Reece’s character — spoiled, selfish, demanding, gambling, womanizing, hard-drinking, proud — the film picks up after Reece leaves the swank hotel and returns to the trail. Accompanied by Harris, who has now become a partner by investing his savings to purchase a herd after Reece lost his funds gambling, the trail boss treats everyone harshly, but especially the greenhorn Harris.
As the cattle drive continues, the uneasy relationship between Reece and Harris — “master” and “pupil” — becomes increasingly contentious and volatile, leading their comrades to worry about which man will survive.
Part coming-of-age story, part homage to the American West’s iconic cowboy, and part ironic morality tale, Cowboy explores a young man’s spiritual and emotional growth along with examining a mentor’s responsibility for his charges.
Based on Frank Harris’ semi-autobiographical novel My Reminiscences as a Cowboy, with the screenplay written by uncredited and blacklisted Dalton Trumbo, the film Cowboy is available for rent from $2.99-3.99 from Amazon and YouTube.
Shane, come back.
Adapted from the novel of the same name by Jack Schaefer, which based its story on the 1892 Johnson County War between Wyoming ranchers and homesteaders, Shane analyzes that historic conflict by telling the story of one man, Joe Starrett (Van Helfin), his family, and his tiny group of neighbors.
Starrett works hard to support his wife Marion (Jean Arthur) and his young son Joey (Brandon de Wilde), but he’s in conflict with local cattlemen who want Starrett’s small homestead. When a mysterious stranger arrives and helps Starrett ward off violence, he and his family welcome the Loner, Shane (Alan Ladd). Little Joey, who’s entranced by all things related to guns and who’s desperate to learn to shoot, immediately falls in love with Shane, partly because of his gun and partly because of his gunslinger past, which Shane never openly discusses.
As Joe Starrett’s wife and Shane begin to fall in love, the conflict between the cattlemen and settlers increases, and the brutality escalates. After a hired gun (Jack Palance) arrives, Shane must make a difficult moral decision. In the final tumultuous confrontations, Joey reluctantly learns what violence really does to families, to love, and to boyhood heroes.
Ignore Ladd’s dorky fringed-deerskin “suit,” silver-conch holster, and ivory-handled pistols, along with the other anachronistic hairstyles and clothes: put them all down to Hollywood’s typical carelessness with historical fiction. What remains is a powerful story about a man’s inescapable past, and about the importance of love, honor, and loyalty. Shane is a moving tribute to America’s violent and frequently romanticized past.
Though playing a gunfighter, Ladd was uncomfortable with guns, while Palance, playing fellow gunslinger Wilson, was nervous around horses. Shane is available for rent from $2.99-3.99 from Amazon, iTunes, and YouTube.
It’s not how you’re buried [that’s important]:
it’s how you’re remembered.
After gold rush fever causes his hired hands to desert en masse, rancher and cattleman Wil Anderson (John Wayne) is desperate for help. After searching everywhere — even in the local one-room schoolhouse — for cowboys to help him take his herd to market, he begins to despair. The next morning, a group of boys, including Robert Carradine in his film debut, awaits him outside. Though very young, the boys want to be hired on, and are determined to prove themselves.
Desperate, Anderson trains and hires the boys, even turning down some experienced paroled prisoners who request work. Anderson doesn’t mind that they’ve been in prison, but he doesn’t like liars. When Anderson and his boys leave to take the cattle on the two-month trip to market, the only adults on the drive are Anderson and his cook Nightlinger (Roscoe Lee Brown), who “doesn’t trust boys.”
As if the cattle, harsh landscape, and constant exhaustion weren’t challenging enough for everyone involved, a group of outlaws, led by the parolee Long Hair (Bruce Dern), is tracking the group in order to steal the herd and get rich.
Some reviewers were critical of what they termed the film’s “implication that boys become men through acts of violence and vengeance,” but The Cowboys delivers a stronger message concerning the importance of loyalty, commitment, and remembrance as the very young boys mature into young men.
Dern had difficulty finding work after The Cowboys was released, due to the final conflict between Dern’s Long Hair and Wayne’s protagonist Wil. Available for rent from $2.99-3.99 from Amazon, iTunes, and YouTube.
My original Top 10 Westerns post
If You’re Going to Shoot,
Shoot: Don’t Talk
is now divided into two posts,
updated with official trailers and film availability:
I’m Your Huckleberry:
5 More Top Westerns
(originally films #6-10)