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The Western  
 
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Buddy Westerns

One of the films of the period that was most popular with American audiences, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (George Roy Hill, 1969) is a celebration of male comradeship featuring two stars who epitomized the cool new masculinity of the 1960s, handsome dark-haired Paul Newman and gorgeously blond Robert Redford.

Though they form a triangle with Katharine Ross, who shelters and advises them during their adventures robbing banks and trains and escaping posses, the film centers on the humorous, almost flirtatious interplay between the two beautiful men, and a gay viewer cannot help thinking that Ross is included as a kind of cover to make the pairing of Redford and Newman acceptable.

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An even more intense expression of this sort of buddy relationship marks Michael Cimino's Thunderbolt and Lightfoot (1974), which, though not really a true Western, makes explicit the homoeroticism so important in the genre. Set in contemporary Montana, it presents Eastwood as Thunderbolt, an ex-con bank robber who falls in with Lightfoot (Jeff Bridges), a lively, charming young grifter who clearly admires the older man and craves his approval.

Somewhat as in Shane, the hero-worship of a younger for an older man is suggestive of male-male attraction, but here it is much more explicit, since both are adults. Bridges amuses Eastwood, joking and flirting with him, and wins his friendship. Ultimately Bridges winds up dressing in drag as part of a robbery scheme with two of Eastwood's untrustworthy former associates (George Kennedy and Geoffrey Lewis); he looks surprisingly convincing, and while the Eastwood character enjoys his feminine playfulness, it infuriates the Kennedy character, who winds up severely beating Bridges.

The suggestions of the sexual dimensions of the relationship between Eastwood and Bridges are intensified by the technique for breaking into banks that gives Thunderbolt his nickname: he blasts their walls down with a phallic Howitzer. Though there is one episode where they pick up female prostitutes, the affection between Eastwood and Bridges is so central that the film cannot permit it to continue, and so, after the two have outwitted Kennedy and Lewis, gotten all their money, and escaped in a big Cadillac convertible, the film ends poignantly with Lightfoot dying as a result of the earlier beating, leaving Thunderbolt silently grieving.

The film not only is significant and moving for its explicit homoeroticism, but also for forecasting the homosocial male action genre that tended to replace the Western in popularity from the 1980s on, the buddy cop film.

The Spectacle of the Male Body in the Western

Though the majority of the millions of male viewers of Western movies, television shows, art, advertising campaigns, and rodeo competitions may be unable to acknowledge it, the fact that these displays focus visual attention on the bodies of strong, handsome men, showing them in costumes and circumstances that accentuate their muscularity and sensuousness, is central in making them compelling to audiences. For decades, Westerns have provided ostensibly heterosexual men with a socially acceptable opportunity to gaze at the beauty of other men.

Other action/adventure genres such as detective and spy films usually present their heroes in some version of the business suit, and war movies often clothe the male body in dull, utilitarian uniforms, unless set in earlier time periods when uniforms were more showy. In contrast, the Western hero's costume decorates his body and spotlights its eroticism: fitted, often colorful Western shirts stress the breadth of his shoulders, the strength of his arms, and frequently are worn open, with a bandanna at the throat, showing his neck and chest. Tight jeans show the muscular shape of his thighs and hips. Chaps, which protect the legs, often are fringed and highly decorated, and also direct visual attention to a man's thighs, crotch, and butt.

The Western hero also is permitted a high degree of display in his costume, which simultaneously is strikingly elegant and roughly masculine. His clothing includes materials such as leather and denim that not only are practical, but also connote masculine strength. Buckskin in particular is strong but also rich and supple, revealing the contours of the body beneath and the play of its muscles. Leatherwork often is elaborately decorated and combined with metal elements, especially buckles, spurs, and conchos, that are practical but also often are very finely, even extravagantly, crafted.

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