DAD'S IN THE SADDLE AGAIN
A FATHER'S DAY REFLECTION
Steve Hockensmith writes the Holmes on the Range mystery/Western series.
To can learn more about Steve and his books visit his website.
I am an American dude. (Since this is a Western-themed blog, I should stipulate that I’m using dude in the modern sense, meaning I’m a male of the everyday goes to the store wearing pajama pants and flip flops variety, not the Old West comes from the East and can’t rope a steer sense.) Once upon a time, being an American dude meant there was a 95% chance that I would love Westerns. Alas, the U.S. Dude Western Appreciation Index has fallen quite a bit since the genre’s heyday in the 1950s and ’60s, and today it’s probably less than...well, let’s not go there. Again, this is a Western-themed blog, and the numbers are probably a bit of a bummer.
I was born in 1968, which was hardly a high-water mark for Western movies. Tons were still being made, but they were mostly spaghetti Westerns with titles like Shoot Them and Leave Their Bodies for the Buzzards Then Come Back and Shoot Them Again! By the time I was old enough to have an opinion on what I wanted to watch other than Cartoons! Cartoons! More Cartoons! there were hardly any Westerns in the theaters at all. American dudes my age were all about Star Wars. Westerns...that was grandpa stuff.
Literally, in my case. I can remember my mom’s dad watching them when I was small, sometimes pointing at the screen and asking me, “Which one’s the bad man?” I learned young that for a certain kind of Western there was an easy answer to that: “The guy with a mustache and a black hat.”
My dad loved Westerns, too, which is why I know who Hoot Gibson and Smiley Burnette and Lash LaRue are—forgotten men with fantastic names. One of the local TV stations would play B Westerns on the weekends, so I got to see the cowpokes people remember a little better—Roy Rogers and Gene Autry mostly—singing and riding and punching guys with mustaches and black hats.
The B’s weren’t really my thing, though. I hate to say it, but Red Ryder jumping on a rustler from a boulder isn’t going to wow you once you’ve seen the Death Star explode. I knew there were more respectable Westerns out there. I’d even seen and enjoyed some of them. But the movie West didn’t call to me the way galaxies far, far away did.
My dad remained a fan, of course. And as I got older and grew to appreciate Westerns more, he and I would talk about his favorites. He remained fond of the Poverty Row Westerns that lured him to the matinees as a kid in the ’40s and ’50s, but he knew the genre’s best came from elsewhere. The Searchers was at the top of his list, and over the years he became a bit of an amateur John Ford historian. He embraced Westerns by plenty of other directors, though. When I was in my mid-forties William Wyler’s The Big Country came up in conversation for reasons I can’t recall. Maybe it was going to be on TCM (Turner Classic Movies), a.k.a. TCD (TV Crack for Dad). I’ll never forget the way my dad’s eyes lit up when I said I’d never seen it.
“You’ve never seen The Big Country?” he gasped.
It was like I’d just admitted that I never learned to drive and had been secretly hitchhiking everywhere all these years.
Needless to say we watched it that night. Today it’s not just one of my favorite Westerns, it’s one of my favorite movies period.
It’s easy for me to see why my dad would feel so strongly about The Big Country. It’s a great, sweeping epic of a Western, but it’s also more. It’s about something. Gregory Peck is a dude (in the Old West way) who comes to Texas and is constantly misunderstood and underestimated because he refuses to abandon his values and conform to local norms. He won’t pretend to be a man by showing off or acting tough. He simply is a man, in the best sense of that perhaps archaic idea. He has a personal code. He knows right from wrong. He’ll stand up for his values—and only he will decide how.
The Big Country is, in some ways, a response to the clichés and assumptions of most Westerns. But its hero has a lot in common with Gene Autry and Roy Rogers and the rest of the B movie bunch. They’re stalwart men—brave and bold but also kind. I think that’s why my dad never warmed up to spaghetti Westerns, even the Clint Eastwood classics. The Man with No Name may be cool, but he’s also a Man with No Heart.
My dad had a heart. The Westerns he watched as a kid helped it grow, I think. His own father wasn’t around much, and the male substitutes who came and went through the household weren’t necessarily kind. So my dad would scrounge up a couple quarters from somewhere and spend his weekend afternoons with Gene and Roy. Cowboys. But more importantly: good men.
So as Father’s Day nears—the first in my life that I won’t be able to speak to my dad, because he passed way in April—I tip my Stetson to those good men. Even if they were just actors. And even if I don’t have a Stetson to tip. I’m a modern dude, remember? But when it comes to Westerns, I guess I’m an old-fashioned man.
I’ve showed The Big Country to my eldest son, by the way. We’ve also watched Stagecoach, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, The Tall T, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, True Grit, True Grit (we like both versions), The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, Little Big Man and Dances with Wolves. We’ve also watched a bunch of spaghetti Westerns. Sorry, Dad...And thanks.