I was on the treadmill yesterday watching Rio Bravo on AMC. It’s been called Howard Hawks’ finest film, and that may be, but sweating through my fifth mile I was struck mostly by how cheaply life was regarded in the glory days of the Western.
In one scene, John Wayne and Ricky Nelson gun down three outlaws who have been distracted by a flower pot tossed out a window. The poor saps are just standing there, and then they’re dead in the street without so much as a “drop your guns.” When the Duke notices another man trying to flee on horseback, he kills him too. Fifty yards out and a moving target, that’s pretty good shooting. But the guy was running away. Might want to review your guidelines on the use of deadly force, sheriff.
So we’ve got four men dead in about 15 seconds of screen time. By way of comparison, the actual gunfight at the O.K. Corral resulted in three fatalities, and we’re still aware of it 128 years later. I swear, I watched dozens of movies like Rio Bravo during my formative years and I sometimes wonder today why I don’t use more gunplay in my daily routine.
Or more dynamite. In westerns, dynamite appears only slightly less often than Colt revolvers or Gatling guns. Rio Bravo has a sequence where Walter Brennan is hurling sticks of it at an outlaw hideout. John Wayne and Dean Martin then detonate the sticks by shooting them as they land on the porch. The house gets blasted to kindling, of course, but the surviving outlaws stumble out with limbs somehow intact. Message: Dynamite is not just for contractors.
Dynamite has a starring role in another Western I viewed on the treadmill: Two Mules for Sister Sara. This one, starring Clint Eastwood and Shirley MacLaine, also has a body count that seems a bit jarring in a movie billed as a comedy. As part of his scheme to steal a chest full of gold, Eastwood enlists the aid of Mexican peasants who hope to get rid of their French oppressors. In the climactic firefight, about 140 of them die horribly — a fair number by running mindlessly (as extras so often do) into the business end of a Gatling gun. That’s a lot of fatherless families to think about. But it’s all good, as Eastwood and MacLaine ride wisecracking into the sunset.
I like old Westerns as well as the next guy — maybe somewhat more than the next guy — but I have to agree that movie-making has come a long way since then. Today even bad movies attempt to consider the consequences of gunshot deaths, if only to show how messy they are. And yet, somehow, guns get used in real life a lot more now than they did when the Western ruled the screen. Dynamite, thankfully, has been slower to catch on. I guess it’s possible to overestimate the influence of pop culture on human behavior. It doesn’t form us, after all; it only reflects.