The Western is a quintessential American art form. Traditional Westerns spoke to American audiences of a shared culture yearning for self-reliance, justice and a civilization with the strength to protect Western values. For decades Americans have enjoyed Westerns in print, later in film and finally in television. But over a period of roughly 15 years, from the mid-60s to the late 70s, Westerns lost their audience. Maybe the movement from traditional Westerns to comedies, Spaghettis and other revisionist fare killed the genre. Or maybe Americans ceased to have much in common with the values of prior generations. Whatever the reason, but for the occasional standout, the genre has been dead for nearly 35 years.
As the Western Goes So Goes Western Civilization
I have been hoping for many years for the comeback of the American Western. My father was a fan of the genre, whether in writing through the works of Louis L’Amour or in television and film. However, his preferences trended towards the traditional Western tale. Lacking in virtue I found these stories slow and predictable. I preferred the nihilistic violence of the Spaghetti Western and face of the Spaghetti, to many American males coming of age in the 80s, Clint Eastwood. But as I aged I learned to appreciate the wisdom of those older films.
2015 saw a comeback for the traditional Western. That comeback started, for purposes of my narrative, with two European westerns in 2014, The Dark Valley and The Salvation. In the 60s and 70s the Europeans gave us nihilistic revenge dramas or weird commie allegory posing as Western. But both of the aforementioned European Westerns of 2014 were very traditional: vengeance tales, but of men defending their family and the values that make family possible.
Then 2015 brought Bone Tomahawk, The Hateful Eight, The Keeping Room, The Revenant and, the film I would like to bring to your attention, Slow West. If you consider that the US release of The Salvation was in 2015, you would arguably look back to the 1960s for a better year for the traditional Western. And that conclusion isn’t altered by the presence of the execrable Diablo, The Timber and The Ridiculous 6. Or that The Hateful Eight is more properly characterized as revisionist (although it has traditionalist elements).
Why did 2015 bring with it the resurgence of the traditional Western? Are Americans yearning for the shared frontier culture of another era? For the masculinity and traditional family exemplified in the traditional Western? Maybe there is something to the Trumpening. Will the Donald, despite his questionable behavior, return America to a state of semi-civilization as uncivilized men in the Western prepared the ground for the founding of the city? Have men become emboldened to stand athwart history and yell “Stop”? I seriously doubt it. But, still, we see traditional norms bubbling up in strange places.
You Shall Not Fear the Terror of the Night
Manliness is central to the Western. The central conflict of the Western, at least good Westerns, is the necessity of masculine attributes (violence, a desire for justice, protection of family and defense of virtue) for the establishment of civilization, and the tension between improperly ordered masculinity and the continuation of civilization. Because Westerns are set in the frontier at the edges of, and ofttimes beyond, civilization this tension is central to the story.
Manliness is also central to Slow West. Without giving away too much of the plot, the film is about a brave and wealthy 16 year old Scottish boy who travels to the American West to find the woman he loves. She fled, with her father, to escape punishment for a tragic assault her father committed defending her honor. The father lived in civilization, where the city holds a monopoly on violence and masculinity is either directed towards the good of the city or punished. As his violence was extra-judicial, and the victim a wealthy lord, he flees, with his daughter, to the American frontier. To live beyond civilization where he will attempt to raise his family.
The young man, Jay Cavendish (played by the goofy looking Kodi Smit-McPhee), is responsible for the violence that exiled his love and her father. His love for her and his responsibility for her situation impels him to make the journey to the new world. But Jay lacks self-knowledge. While he is confident and brave, he lacks the skills necessary to secure the safety of his hoped-for bride. In fact, he is woefully unprepared for the difficulties that a pampered European aristocrat will face beyond the edge of civilization. When tested he will run or hide under the bed. He has virtue, but his virtue has not been honed against the steel of life. The edge is there, but it needs to be straightened.
Midway in the journey across the frontier Jay comes to himself in a dark wood and encounters his chaperone, Silas (Michael Fassbender). Silas exemplifies the traits Jay lacks. His confidence is supported by skill and physical attributes: woodcraft, the care and use of firearms, horsemanship, interaction with less seemly frontier characters, strength, endurance and self-knowledge. But Silas is not exactly a good man. He previously rode with Payne (played by the always excellent Ben Mendelsohn), the leader of a rag-tag group of bounty hunters. Still, Silas recognizes the virtue in Jay, is attracted to it and aspires to it even though he is tempted by the easy violence and immediate gratification of his prior life. For a price Silas offers to lead Jay West.
The names of these characters are interesting. Silas rode with Saints Paul and Barnabas to Antioch to preach to the gentiles. Barnabas was born Joseph, for which Jay is a nickname. That’s probably a stretch, but the central theme of Slow West is conversion. Specifically, Silas’ slow transformation from a vicious man to a virtuous man. And Jay’s slow reckoning with the practical wisdom necessary to become a man who might protect the ones he loves. A closely related theme is the proper formation of the consciences of both men as they undergo their odyssey, the deadly scrupulosity of Jay’s and the hardened iron of Silas’. Payne’s name offers the obvious connotation of the gift he offers to those whose path he crosses. But less obviously he and his hellish band are an allegory of the ignoble suffering caused by sin, which is contrasted in the film with the suffering chosen by the virtuous. Payne is in pain, driven by envy and covetousness. Silas recognizes that. But in a world where pain is the default condition why not be the inflictor rather than the afflicted?
The Necessary Taming of Masculinity with Family
A family with father and mother is the norm of Western Civilization. For various reasons we will continue to ignore the empirical studies recognizing the dysfunction of broken families, whether they be mothers raising children alone, or mothers and grandmothers raising children together. That’s not to say that mothers are not a critical element of the traditional family. Only that the threat to the family that has become normative in our contemporary culture is the lack of a father. Masculinity is necessary for a healthy family. But family is also a necessary condition, generally, for a healthy masculinity. Obviously there are exceptions, the celibate priesthood being one. But there masculinity is directed towards God in the way that masculinity, in the family, is directed towards the care and protection of spouse and children and, as time passes, parents.
In Slow West the character of Silas is untamed. Taming man for the good of civilization is a consistent theme of the Western. The setting at the edge of the frontier is perfect for either exploring the foundations of civilization (as does the traditional Western) or the nihilism of untamed masculinity (as does the revisionist Western). But in Slow West the setting is beyond the edge of the frontier. There isn’t a single city in the film. Slow West relies on the traditional trope of taming masculinity but in a setting that precedes civilization. The only reason man has any interest in civilization is because of the family. In the family man recognizes the possibility of human flourishing, for his own and for others. Slow West investigates the necessary taming of masculinity as an antecedent to the family.
Tamed, perhaps, is the wrong word insofar as it suggests civilizing through outside influence. Unless we’re talking about Grace, the taming of man within the family cannot be demanded by others. A husband tamed by his wife has forfeited his masculinity. This example is shown in Slow West and the results are predictably tragic. Further, “taming” suggests that masculinity has been rendered toothless. This also is the wrong impression. Jay is excited to start a family. But his exsanguinated masculinity could never support, protect and defend a family.
And yet, man must be tamed to live in civilization. That taming comes from within. And not as an expression of autonomy. Taming is the thing that men ought to do. But taming is effective only when it is undertaken voluntarily, when a man strikes a curious balance on the narrow edge between civilization and barbarity. Men understand the importance of civilization and bequeath some elements of masculinity to the city and redirect others: giving the city a monopoly on violence, dedicating their sexuality to a single person in a permanent commitment and redirecting the desire for personal freedom to the protection of the family and the rearing of children.
This theme is central to Slow West, the contrast between the barbaric masculinity of Silas and the feminized dreamy masculinity of Jay. And of the masculinity of the father who, through a desire to defend his family, attacks the city and is forced into exile, where protecting his family will become increasingly difficult.
These Violent Delights Have Violent Ends
Slow West depicts a time in which men have left civilization. There is no room in the city. The desire to defend honor leads to exile. The desire to be free leads men past the frontier into a wilderness of lawless violence. This is problematic. Civilization needs men. Absent men of virtue civilization will quickly dissolve into tyranny, be it a tyranny of the wealthy few or tyranny of the uncivilized many. In Slow West, Jay is a man of the city. But he is insufficiently masculine to lead (although he does lead Silas to virtue). Silas is sufficiently masculine to lead, but he has little desire to give up his freedom for the good of the city. Towards the end of the film an Indian sheds his Western dress and picks up his traditional weapons. He will do this “until civilization comes.” Because civilization, in 1870, is already failing. The film tells us, through Jay’s comic conversation with a Herzog-like documentarian chronicling the death of cultures, that “to the East is violence and suffering.”
This is the tension of the newly ascendant Western. What kind of man can withstand the onslaught of the barbaric progressive order? The Western of 2015 is not about expelling the violent men who founded civilization. It is about welcoming those violent men back within the city gates. The new tension is that the men who carved the city out of the wilderness have gone back to the wilderness, and the city cannot survive without them. The city has succumbed to tyranny. Because the violence that founded the city is necessary, at least in its potential, for the city to flourish. The city needs men who will daily clear the land for their families. To carve out a space where the family can be protected and grow in virtue. There is more to life than surviving. If the city is just the means through which our property is protected, is it worth the sacrifice of our freedom?
The reemergence of the Western may, unfortunately, not evoke a return to a civilization founded upon virtue. It may be that such a return is impossible. Because the men we thought necessary to expel from the city are our only hope in maintaining order.
Slow West is not a perfect film. It is, at times, pretentious. It is slow paced. But it is a sometimes funny, always thoughtful and enjoyable film and a welcome reminder of the necessity of masculinity, properly understood, to the family and to civilization.