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Bar News - February 19, 2014

Opinion: Scoff Not: Western Films Address Relevant Issues


From this yearís Oscar nominations: The heroes of both Philomena and 12 Years a Slave suffer from the enforcement of brutal and impersonal laws; Captain Phillips makes a hero of someone who faces the utter breakdown of law; American Hustle makes heroes of those who enforce the law, but who do so in an underhanded and sneaky way; and Dallas Buyers Club makes a hero of someone who breaks and evades the law. The law matters in each of these movies, but no single outlook on it overlaps from film to film. You need to readjust your professional compass with each new take.

Of them all, though, Dallas Buyers Club not only deals the most overtly with law and lawyers, but it also strikes the deepest chord in that regard. It tells the true story of Ron Woodruff, an AIDS patient who finds that certain drugs available in Mexico are helpful in the treatment of his illness. He begins smuggling them into Texas and sharing them with others, only to earn the attention of law enforcement. The FDA steps into the situation. He eventually brings suit against that agency, to allow him and others to use these drugs in legal fashion, but a sympathetic judge can do nothing for him. Those helpful drugs remain illegal.

Jean-Marc Valleeís film, starring Matthew McConaughey, and replete with sympathy for criminals and drag queens, presents the law in populist fashion as a stumbling block to progress; as a monolothic and unresponsive force in life that harms more than helps those who are subjected to its dictates. And for that reason, this big-hearted movie deserves to be catergorized as a very specific type of film: itís a western.

But maybe you knew that already, from the title. Also, to be more specific, itís a revisionist western.

The classic western-genre story is a simple one. A small community exists on the frontier. Rough and violent men participated in its founding. The arts of civilization are just starting to flourish (typically a school or a church, often represented by a female love interest) when a new threat of violence looms, which the new citizenry cannot cope with. Violence needs to be met with violence Ė the lone gunslinger comes to the rescue. But once that happens, the peacekeeper himself becomes unwelcome. He cannot exist in civil society. He rides off, literally, into the sunset.

In its purest form, this story can suffice for great drama. Both George Stevensís Shane (1953), starring Alan Ladd, and John Fordís The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962), starring John Wayne and Jimmy Stewart (who plays, nicely enough, the only lawyer in town), follow it nearly verbatim. There are shades of Greek tragedy in it and endless opportunities for cinematic suspense. But itís the way Hollywood plays variations on that theme that has been defining the art of the western for decades now.

Consider Fred Zinnemanís High Noon (1952), starring Gary Cooper, where the townspeople plead with their hero to leave, and he perversely refuses to do so: the most famous shoot-out in cinematic history is nothing short of a nihilistic coup díetat. Consider also Anthony Mannís psychologically-inspired works, like Winchester 73 (1950) or The Naked Spur (1953), both with Jimmy Stewart again, movies that dissect the stoicism of the standard cowboy hero, showing the angst and the anger underlying his every move. And compare those films to the handful of westerns starring Randolph Scott made by Budd Boetticher (a favorite of Quentin Tarentinoís), like Seven Men From Now (1956) and Ride Lonesome (1959), presenting the lone avenger as a cold-blooded killer.

But most of all, consider the great westerns of the 1960ís and 1970ís, films that question the idea of progress at all, asking whether so-called civil society is better or worse than the violent frontier: Sam Peckinpahís The Wild Bunch (1969), or Robert Altmanís McCabe and Mrs. Miller (1971). These are the movies that cut closest to the bone; the ones that show lawyers in league with big business, and big business as inimical to the idea of freedom. In the latter movie, Warren Beatty stars as a saloon keeper who refuses to sell out to a mining concern. The mining concern is progress; modernity; the future. It also kills whoever opposes it, to a pitch-perfect soundtrack by Leonard Cohen.

In Dallas Buyers Club, the frontier town is Dallas itself. The violence faced by its citizens is a disease. The feckless establishment is represented by the FDA. And the lone cowboy is a drug-dealer. But he loses in the end. He has to. Because those are the rules of the genre.

Michael Davidow is a staff attorney at the NH Public Defender office in Nashua and the author of Split Thirty, a novel about politics and advertising. The authorís opinions are his own and do not represent the opinions of his employer, or the NH Bar Association.

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