And then the western grew sick in the heart and mind, sick with ruined mythopoeia and squandered righteousness and violent lies, and died, awaiting resurrection as a colder, sadder, less forgiving American idea. You mark the time line when this happened wherever you’d like; I’d say it was 1962, when the Cold War became apocalyptically hot over Cuba, when Adolf Eichmann was hanged, when astronauts left the Earth and then returned, when whatever was happening in Vietnam became a war. Pourquoi le western? The genre’s sanctified, manifest-destiny pope-king, John Ford, makes The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, a pernicious flimflam that maintains that history is rightly a matter of convenience and control, and that justice—the western’s renegade chromosome, dispensed relative to the individual’s whim but still called justice—is just another tale, defined by the teller. It’s an autumnal exhalation, virtually an apologia for Ford’s career of reactionary simplemindedness and eager militarism. (Among his last projects was a pro-intervention documentary for the USIA titled Vietnam! Vietnam!) Suddenly it was apparent what the old frontier had left to offer us: cock and bull.
But two months later, the 37-year-old Sam Peckinpah released Ride the High Country (screening with Liberty Valance March 30 and 31), a western that took the genre’s sclerotic menopause as its subject. New wave-ness had arrived at the western’s doorstep, openly contemplating ambivalence, moral relativity, aging, and the costs of violence. Never again would the western come to be regarded as a national dream. Instead, in the hands of Peckinpah, Hellman, Leone, and Eastwood, it became a chronicle of our sins.