Authoritarianism Western Style

I like watching old westerns on Youtube like Have Gun Will Travel episodes, Rawhide, Wagon Train, Death Valley Days, et al and recently I’ve been on running through Gunsmoke.  I spent much of my youth with my grandfather who liked to watch them and I have fond memories of watching with him.  I loved HGWT the best, because it shows people handling their differences privately without “the law” using natural law, negotiation, reason and a hired facilitator.  Gunsmoke is the exact opposite, every conflict must be settled by “The Law” or, as the story goes, we’d all kill each other.  This episode in Season 6 “Love Thy Neighbor” is a classic representation of the underlying propaganda that runs through most episodes with authoritarian “justice” being the precursor to civil society. 
With many of the 1950s and 1960s western icons (Jack Elam, Warren Oates, Dean Stanton, et al) guest-starring in this episode, these poor, ignorant characters could have all been saved if only they had let Marshall Dillon take care of them.  When the Marshall kills somebody, he “had to do it”, but when others use the same methods as he, then they are criminals because they don’t have a tin star on their chest.  As a side note, it’s funny how Marshall Dillon is a stickler for the law with most people, but when he feels “The Law” needs to be ignored for his friends and those he sympathizes with, then it’s the right thing to do to “stretch the law” arbitrarily.  Looking back at how I watched these shows as a kid and how easily I was brainwashed into accepting authoritarianism as the righteous alternative to liberty, I must laugh at myself while realizing how most people never even question how they became authoritarians.


Jim Davies's picture

I wonder how you rate John Wayne's final film, "The Shootist"?  - I watched it again last weekend.
His life principle is good; the character held himself to simple standards and expected to be treated likewise.
His landlady offered to send her son out to buy some "more laudanum" from the pharmacy. So in 1901 Carson City, any kid could pick up a solution of opium in alcohol as a matter of low-cost course. Nobody appeared the worse for it.
At movie's end, though, there'a an ambiguity. The final shootout ends, the kid kills a bad guy, and then tosses the gun across the saloon with the dying shootist's approval. Why? - is that to say, This is a new century, the age of the independent gun is now over?

Mark Davis's picture

The premise of The Shootist that a man should live and die on his own terms as long as he does it with honor is well done.  The end is a bit ambiguous as the turning of the century and a new era is an underlying theme.  Although John Wayne's character wanted to go out in a blaze of glory instead of dying slowly of cancer, he clearly opposed violence for its own sake.  His teaching Ron Howard's young character how to shoot is good, and addresses how the young man had glorified violence as exciting and romantic until the end when he saw it first hand and had to actually kill a man and see his friend facing death.  So the end was, in my view and as you say, about a changing of the guard where the righteous violence of professional gunfighters is no longer needed.  The movie doesn't really flush out why this is so and goes to my point above: was it because of the presence of The Law now prevalent in a formerly "wild west" (ala Harry Morgan's constable character) or because men were more civilized such that reason, understanding and cooperation were prevailing (ala Lauren Bacall's and Jimmy Stewart's characters)?  Perhaps it was left to us to consider?