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literature

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The Western  
 
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Fundamentally, the Western is a drama of male conflicts, betrayals, alliances, and commitments. Probably the only common form of entertainment that focuses as exclusively on intensely dramatic homosocial male relationships is the war narrative. Both forms present stories of anger, vengeance, violence, devotion, and sacrifice among men from which women may be entirely absent.

Westerns may center on characters who operate alone, in contrast to war stories, which necessarily tend to concentrate on group relationships between men, but ever since Cooper defined the basic construction of frontier adventure narrative there has been a pattern in which the hero is allied to a male sidekick. Usually his position is clearly subordinate to that of the hero.

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Following Cooper, some narratives make him a man of color, and thus, given the racist assumptions operative in the Western tradition, of inferior status; others make him a weaker, or older, or comic character.

Particularly in the twentieth century, due to the construction and propagation of medical-legal categories condemning homosexuality, Western narratives depicting a sidekick scrupulously avoid implications of physical intimacy between the hero and his companion. Still, such narratives often nevertheless portray passionate commitment between two men, especially when, as often occurs, the sidekick is injured or dies assisting the hero, thus enhancing the hero's desire for revenge against his enemies. Many narratives depicting a Western hero and his sidekick may be seen implicitly as male love stories.

While in many Westerns the hero does not settle down but departs from the community and so maintains his individual freedom, in some the elimination of the sidekick facilitates the integration of the hero into the property-owning white community, replacing the relationship with a male friend with one with a woman.

In Wister's The Virginian, for instance, the title character is obliged to hang his best friend, Steve, because Steve has become a cattle rustler. By the end of the novel, Steve's elimination allows the Virginian to marry the schoolmarm and to join the community whose property laws he has enforced.

However, Wister's perspective on intimacy between men in this seminal work is interestingly ambivalent. Despite the novel's overt endorsement of heterosexuality and marriage, readers often are struck by the continual implications of male intimacy, including erotic attraction. The narrator, an Easterner, rhapsodizes about how handsome the Virginian is, and, startlingly, even stresses his sexiness by imagining himself as a woman who would be eager to be the Virginian's bride. Though the hero marries the schoolmarm, the narrator is pleased to succeed Steve as his sidekick.

Homoeroticism in Classic Western Movies

Unsurprisingly, the explicit admiration in Wister's narrative tends to disappear in the four film versions of his novel (1914, 1923, 1929, and 1946; there also was a television series, 1962-1971, and a television movie, 2000), but still, his title character usually has been presented as an archetype of masculine attractiveness. Probably the best movie version was Victor Fleming's of 1929, which helped to make the stunningly handsome young Gary Cooper a star. Cooper was perfectly cast as Wister's "slim young giant, more beautiful than pictures."

The Western was one of the first Hollywood genres to develop, and a rich array of directors and actors specialized in Westerns in the silent period. During the 1930s Hollywood made large numbers of low-budget "B" Westerns, but fewer big-budget "A" Westerns were produced until toward the end of the decade, when the appeal of such films was demonstrated. An impressive group of actors, directors, writers, producers, and other filmmakers emerged who developed the genre and brought it to its peak in the 1940s and 1950s and into the early 1960s.

As the first big star of Westerns in talking pictures, Cooper's persona and acting helped to define the construction of the cowboy hero. He was able to play a variety of roles, but his performance in two big Westerns in the early phase of his career indelibly associated him with Western roles, which he continued to play until his death in 1961.

The first was Cecil B. DeMille's extravagant saga The Plainsman (1937), which improbably but entertainingly brings together Wild Bill Hickok, Calamity Jane, Buffalo Bill, and General George Armstrong Custer. The second was William Wyler's The Westerner (1940), based loosely on the Johnson County Range War and the legendary Judge Roy Bean. In both, as in The Virginian, Cooper presented an impressive masculine presence, combining strength and agility, straightforward boyish charm, and remarkable grace and beauty.

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