THE TENDERFOOT IN CONTEXT
In the first Western film, Edward S. Porter's The Great Train Robbery (1903), Broncho Billy Anderson, one of cinema's first cowboy stars, played the role of the tenderfoot who is made to dance at gunpoint by a bunch of roughnecks. After a few seconds, he runs off never to be seen again. The character exists as a joke, a bit of humor that doesn't really advance the story. However, Anderson wouldn't be the last tenderfoot to ever make an appearance in a Western film. In the over 100 year history of the Western film genre, the tenderfoot has played an important role in many films.
Among the Western films in which the tenderfoot plays a significant character are three, produced in the 1970s, starring Jeff Bridges. Actor Jeff Bridges — whose best-known work as a Western film star was his re-imagining of John Wayne's 1969 Oscar-winning performance of Rooster Cogburn in the Coen Brothers' True Grit (2010) — may not come to mind as a significant star of Western films. However, in the 1970s, Bridges starred in almost as many Westerns as Eastwood. In films like Robert Benton's Bad Company (1972), Howard Zieff's Hearts of the West (1975), and Frank Perry's Rancho Deluxe (1975), Bridges's performances as a cowboy are a significant contribution to the Western film genre that is sadly underappreciated. Although his cowboys don't necessarily live in the same temporal space as cowboys played by Tom Mix, John Wayne, and Clint Eastwood, the uniqueness of Bridges's characters and the quality of his performances place him in a Western world, perhaps less entrenched in the traditional Western film mythos than the better known Western film icons, yet still within the vast open spaces that define the horizons of the Western film genre.
The three Western films listed above contain a number of the traditional, clearly recognizable aesthetics established within the long history of the genre. Among these aesthetics is a common story element found in many Westerns: the education of the tenderfoot. Although previous analyses of the Western genre are more likely to focus on some more traditional story elements such as the vanishing frontier, the unique skills of the cowboy, and the relationship between the cowboy and the Indian; the element of the tenderfoot as a significant character type and the teaching of the tenderfoot has played an important role in many Western films as well.
Specific to this analysis is the exploration of that teaching moment in each film — whether Bridges is the student or teacher — as a key focal point both in terms of the plot as well as providing insight into the character Bridges plays. For purposes of this article, the term tenderfoot will be used to designate characters in a Western film who, because they are new to the West or Western traditions, lack a certain education necessary to survive.
Historically, most heroes of Western films are men who are self-sufficient, who need little coaching in the ways of survival in the old West, and who seem to have been born into the role of the Western hero. According to Douglas J. Den Uyl, "There are very few 'greenhorns' among western heroes." In the past, those greenhorns or tenderfoots may not have been the heroes, but their relationships with the heroes were often important to defining the hero at an important juncture in the film.
John Wayne, who played a leading role in around eighty Westerns, was clearly one of those self-sufficient men who never played a greenhorn or tenderfoot. Wayne's characters were always good with the gun, could lead a cattle drive, and understood the ways of the Indians. As Stanley J. Solomon explains, "The Wayne figure itself became probably the dominant heroic type in the genre." Throughout Wayne's long career, because of the inherent iconography of his persona as well as the traditional nature of the plots of his films, he played the role of the tenderfoot teacher to not always a younger man, but always a less experienced man in the West, who needed the guidance of someone who had survived the violent world in order to survive himmself. By way of example, Wayne plays the teacher of the tenderfoot in films like John Ford's Fort Apache (1948), Howard Hawks's Red River (1948), John Ford's The Searchers (1956), John Ford's The Man Who Shot Liberty Valence (1962), Mark Rydell's The Cowboys (1972), and Don Siegel's The Shootist (1976).
When Bridges starred in Bad Company, Hearts of the West, and Rancho Deluxe in the 1970s, he was moving along familiar territory in the Western film genre. There have always been tenderfoots and the experienced old cowboy, like Wayne, to educate the tenderfoot. However Bridges, even though he received top billing in all three films was, unlike Wayne, more likely to play the tenderfoot than to be the teacher of the tenderfoot. In addition, those lessons taught to the men of the West played by Bridges were less about heroic deeds accomplished by a larger than life icon like those played by Wayne and more about the practical necessities for a naïve wanderer trying to survive the mundane realities of life in a variety of Western environments.
HEARTS OF THE WEST: HOW THE TENDERFOOT BECOMES A COWBOY MOVIE STAR
The opening of The Shootist begins with a montage of Wayne in a number of his earlier roles as a Western film star. The purpose of the montage is to establish for the audience a historic context for Wayne's J. B. Books as a master gunfighter. That context is critical to understanding Books's motivation throughout the film. However, beyond the narrative motivation, the montage also reminds the audience that Wayne was above all things, "the" Western movie star and that The Shootist belongs firmly in that earlier body of work. In other words, the producers are breaking the fourth wall to inform the audience that they're watching a Western movie starring the last of the great cowboy stars. According to Thomas Schatz, "This narrative device establishes Wayne/Books not as a historic entity, but rather as an amalgam of previous performances in Western movies: the genre has created its own field of reference."
Other Western films have also let it be known that their narratives are part of the mythmaking tradition of the Western film narrative. In George Roy Hill's Butch Cassidy and The Sundance Kid (1969), the credits are shown over a silent film of Butch and Sundance robbing a train. The silent film proclaims in the beginning that the two iconic outlaws are dead now. But the end of the silent film marks the beginning of the story of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid and frames the rest of the film as an exploration of the Western film genre. Even after the silent film ends — the film within a film — when Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid transitions to a talking film, the black and white imagery remains for the first two scenes. Both scenes are rooted in the iconography of the Western film genre. The first scene, Butch sizing up a bank he would like to rob, and the second scene, Sundance playing Poker and shooting the gun belt off a man who accuses him of cheating, are not in color. By remaining in black and white, Hill draws a connection between one cinematic era and another much like the opening montage and the beginning of The Shootist.
Both The Shootist as well as Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid acknowledge the anthropology of the Western film. They're both about the tradition of the Western film and the origin of its myth as much as they are about the stories of J.B. Books, Butch Cassidy, and The Sundance Kid. The cinematic references at the beginning of each film are a reminder to even the most casual observer that the symbols of Western cinema, beginning with The Great Train Robbery, remain important to the genre.
Hearts of the West takes the examination of the anthropology of the Western film to a greater depth than both The Shootist and Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. Hearts of the West is a film that looks at how those B-Westerns were produced during the Golden Age of Hollywood. The purpose of the story of Hearts of the West is not to show what it was like to be a cowboy in the old West, but how to be a cowboy actor in the 1930s.
Jeff Bridges plays Lewis Tater who is an outlaw in his own home. Rather than settle down to a role he was born into, a farmer during the Great Depression, his thoughts wander off into the American West. Like many cinematic cowboys, Solomon states, Tater "is maladjusted to society," at least in terms of his circumstances on the farm. But unlike the traditional outcasts of the Western genre, Tater doesn't want to be a cowboy. He doesn't want to be Wyatt Earp, Pat Garrett, or Wild Bill Hickock. Tater doesn't even want to a movie cowboy. He wants to be Zane Gray, the next great writer of epic Western prose. Considering Tater's circumstances, a farm boy stuck on a farm he doesn't want to farm, with a family he can barely tolerate, it's no wonder that his thoughts turn to the freedom of being a writer of a genre that in American culture most represents freedom.
Like many men in Western films, Tater goes West to escape the civilization that he finds suffocating. His first journey is to a correspondence school that allegedly will teach him how to be Zane Grey, but instead of finding a stereotypical college campus, Tater only finds a post office box in a train station in the middle of nowhere and two crooks who run the bogus college. Tater, the tenderfoot student, can't fully understand how a college with a great advertising campaign could be fake. Ever the tenderfoot, more comic than heroic, Tater inadvertently steals money from the two men who run the college then escapes into the desert, like many cinematic cowboys, only to find thirst and the threat of death.
Ironically, Tater is saved not by real cowboys, but by a group of movie cowboys on location filming a Western. The movie company takes Tater with them to Hollywood. Once there, Tater doesn't seek to be an actor. He still wants to write, but there are no jobs for writers. However, there is a place for him onscreen as a cowboy actor saying the words he would prefer to write.
In the opening scene of Hearts of the West, director Zieff employs a flash-forward of Tater performing a screen test. Tater, who is not a tenderfoot cowboy, but a tenderfoot cowboy star, is directed to engage not in real cowboy actions, but in the type of behavior that cowboy movie stars must perform. Tater is asked by the voice of an unseen director to confront another cowboy in a saloon, looking like many other saloon sets from countless Western films, first by using his fists and then by drawing his guns. Tater, the Western movie star tenderfoot, is being directed to act the cowboy myth. Even his cowboy costume, from his perfectly white clothes to his makeup, is right out of central casting.
In The Shootist, Books, a legendary gunfighter, is dying of cancer. Gillom Rogers (Ron Howard) plays the son of the woman who owns the boarding house where Books is spending his last days. Gillom is a tenderfoot regarding the realities of the old West, whose mind has been filled with the lies written in dime novels and thus has a romanticized vision of what the life of a man of the West must have been like. Books, who has lived that life, tries to teach Rogers that the narrative often told by men like Bat Masterson was often far from reality. According to Books, "Masterson always was full of...sheep-dip."
Books does provide Rogers with advice on how to be a gunfighter, but the most important advice Books provides reaches beyond the myth of the West. Books's advice to Rogers, the tenderfoot, is advice that is well served not just in the dusty streets and rowdy saloons of Dodge City or Abilene Kansas but also in an America where the old West is being replaced by a modern twentieth century America. "I won't be wronged," Books tells Rogers. "I won't be insulted. I won't be laid a-hand on. I don't do these things to other people, and I require the same from them."
In contrast to The Shootist, Tater's John Wayne is Howard Pike, played by Andy Griffith, a cowboy actor doing bit parts who, at one time, must have been a bigger Western star. Pike's lessons to his tenderfoot partner Tater are not how to use a gun to survive, but how to die onscreen like a movie cowboy, how to get more money from the director for doing a stunt, or how to negotiate a better contract from the producer.
As the cowboy actors are preparing for a gunfight with the leading man, Tater tells Pike that he plans to act as he has been shot in the head. "The forehead is terrible, is awful," Pike responds. "In this business a man gets shot through the heart. Clean. Unless of course they're looking to graze him then in which case the gun hand or the shoulder is acceptable." After the day's shoot, Pike tells Tater to "just die natural." Late in the night, while on location, Tater types away at his Western novel while the rest of the cowboy extras try to sleep. "I know one tenderfoot who is going to get his pecker shot off if he don't turn in," one of the extras warns.
Tater is a tenderfoot cowboy actor who does not understand that his fellow actors just need some sleep especially after they have been given a lecture earlier that evening on how bad they were during the filming and that the production is falling behind. Tater, the tenderfoot, has a lot to learn as an actor because if he doesn't learn how to die on cue, the consequences are not death, as in the real old West, but a loss of employment. "You'll catch on," Pike tells Tater after a day's shooting during which Tater screwed up a scene that put production behind. "Of course it don't always work out that way. Some guys get the axe. Especially if they fouled up."
Later in the shoot, the producer wants one of the extras to jump off a balcony on to a horse. Tater, the tenderfoot too eager to please, agrees to do the stunt without receiving extra pay. The stunt is a classic act in the myth of the old West played out on movie screens for almost as long as Westerns have been produced. But one thing that Tater doesn't realize is the stunt man needs to wear protection for his private parts. Tater does the stunt, lands on the saddle, and clearly hurts his manhood in the process. One of the cowboy extras who pulls the injured Tater off his horse asks, "He didn't wear a cup?"
Pike responds, "Didn't anybody tell him?" The lessons of a tenderfoot cowboy actor are not always easy lessons, and they can be painful. Pike scolds the wounded Tater who is lying on the dusty street of the fake Western town: "Whenever they want something special like that kind of jump you have to make them wait it out. You wait 'til the price gets high enough to make it worth your while. You never do it for nothing. You'll ruin the business."
Tater catches the eye of the producer who wants to replace his expensive prima donna cowboy star with an actor who will work for less and take direction better. Once again, Pike offers Tater advice on making it in the Western movie business: "Personally. I wouldn't accept anything less than one-fifty a week. When you're with Kessler, wait 'til he starts to squawk. Then head slowly for the door."
"What'll happen?" Tater asks.
"You'll never reach the knob," responds Pike. "Guaranteed. Play him like a fish. Anything less than that tell him to take a dunk."
Unfortunately for Tater, Pike's advice only gets him fired. Although, based on the reaction shots from some of the other cowboy extras who were listening to Pike give his advice, there is reason to believe that Pike was trying to get Tater fired. In the more cinematic old West, a tenderfoot, like a Gillom Rogers in The Shootist, could trust the advice of the man of the West like a Books. By contrast, in the world of Hollywood that turned the narratives of the real cowboys into the myths of Western cinema, the advice of veteran cowboy actors can't be trusted.
In the end, Tater, who has been shot twice by one of the men who ran the bogus correspondence school, is saved by Pike. The irony is that is seems as if Pike saves Tater in the traditional cowboy way, with a six gun blasting away at the bad guys, when it turns out that the gun was full of blanks and that Pike stops the bad guys with guile and a swift kick in the rear end. The final lesson for Tater, the tenderfoot trying to make it in the brutal world of a studio that cranks out B-Westerns by the hundreds during the Golden Age of Hollywood, is that a fake cowboy firing blanks can save the day.
At the end of Hearts of the West, the wounded Tater doesn't ride off into the sunset like Shane. Instead he rides to the hospital in an ambulance with the woman who handles continuity for those Western films. As the screen fades to black, it doesn't matter if Tater has learned a lesson a tenderfoot needs to know to be a cowboy star. He still wants to be Zane Gray, not Tom Mix.
BAD COMPANY: THE TENDERFOOT LEARNS THE TOOLS OF THE COWBOY
Wayne was the consummate man of the West with a firearm. In a number of his roles, he offered the tenderfoot sage advice on how to use the gun to survive. His life and death lessons to tenderfoot cowboys trying to survive in a violent West with the best tool possible, a man's gun, are at the core of several films that Wayne starred in.
In Hawks's Red River , Wayne's character Tom Dunson, after he outduels a man, is asked by his fourteen-year-old companion Matt Garth, a tenderfoot cowboy, "How did you know when he was gonna draw?"
"By watching his eyes," Dunson replies. "Remember that."
"I will," Garth states with certainty.
In Ford's The Man Who Shot Liberty Valence, Wayne plays the role of Tom Doniphon, an experienced rancher who has more than once defended his territory with a gun. Doniphon's tenderfoot is an Eastern lawyer named Ransome Stoddard (James Stewart) who's trying to bring law and order to the old West by way of the law book, not the gun. Doniphon finds this approach to Western survival foolish at best. "I know those law books mean a lot to you," Doniphon tells Stoddard, "but not out here. Out here a man settles his own problems." And for Doniphon, the only way to solve those problems in the West is with a gun.
In The Shootist, after Wayne's character offers young Rogers a shooting lesson in which Rogers has hit a target as well as Books, "Mr. Books," a puzzled Rogers asks, "how is it you've killed so many men? My spread wasn't much bigger than yours."
"First of all, friend," Books responds sagely, "there's no one up there shooting back at you. Second, I found most men aren't willing, they bat an eye, or draw a breath before they shoot. I won't." What Rogers, the tenderfoot, doesn't understand is that survival with a handgun is not just about physical acumen, but the psychological will to kill without thinking.
In Benton's Bad Company, Bridges as Jake Rumsey is not the tenderfoot, at least at the beginning of the film. Instead, he's the wiser sage among the company of boys and teenagers, essentially delinquents who are mostly up to no good. Rumsey is less John Wayne and more Fagin, of Dickens's Oliver Twist, leading and teaching his old West versions of artful dodgers how to survive on the streets of St. Joseph, Missouri. The boys live outside of town where the only shelter seems to come from an abandoned old stagecoach without wheels.
The main tenderfoot is Drew Dixon (Barry Brown), a boy who's trying to dodge serving in the American Civil War. In the tradition of the Western film genre, as Jeremy Agnew reminds us, many of the narratives are an extension of the Civil War, particularly its aftermath. In The Searchers, for example, John Wayne's Ethan Edwards is a Civil War veteran who fought on the wrong side and is not willing to accept defeat: "I don't believe in surrenders." Edwards, like the James Gang in other Western films, is a bitter veteran fighting through the Civil War's version of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder by extending their battles into other threats of war. In contrast to Edwards and the James Gang, Dixon avoids the war altogether. His motivation for escape is not to be a casualty of the war like his older brother. As a result, Dixon enters into the old West with less suspicion or bitterness than is evident in the Western heroes who were Civil War veterans. That's why Dixon is a tenderfoot. An innocent in a world that is far from innocent, he's vulnerable to a more experienced hand who can exploit him.
Dixon, the Civil War draft dodger and tenderfoot, encounters Rumsey on the streets of St. Joseph as he's attempting to book passage on the next train to Virginia City. Rumsey, quick to spot a tenderfoot, gains the confidence of Dixon by stating that he too is running away from his obligation to fight in the war. Rumsey then offers Dixon advice on how to avoid authorities looking for draft dodgers, how not to get robbed on the mean streets of St. Joseph, as well as directions to the nearest Methodist church. Dixon, the trusting tenderfoot, follows Rumsey into an alley, an alleged shortcut, only to be hit over the head and robbed by Rumsey himself.
Despite this initial clearly contentious meeting between Rumsey and Dixon, Dixon is eventually convinced to join Rumsey and the rest of the Lost Boys of the West leaving St. Joseph for parts West and bigger returns on their criminal activities. Whether or not these boys can survive in the wilds of the West based on Rumsey's ability is dubious at best. It becomes evident early into their journey that Rumsey's gang, in the words of Rumsey, "All hand-picked for gumption," are ill-equipped to make it as outlaws or anything in the old West because they don't even have the most basic survival skills in the wilderness. This fact becomes apparent when the gang traps a rabbit for food, but none of the gang, save Rumsey, is able to skin the rabbit so that it can be eaten. "Oh for the love of Jesus don't any of you peashooters know how to clean a rabbit?" Rumsey asks his band of tenderfoots. "Damn, I'm sick and tired of being the only boy who gets the job done around here."
The great teachable moment in Bad Company, then, has nothing to do with guns. This is the most significant scene, both in terms of the tenderfoot and the teachable moment, but it debunks the myth regarding modes of survival in traditional Western films. The scene involves Rumsey teaching his young tenderfoots how to skin the rabbit. The best tool for survival is not a gun, but a sharp knife. The seemingly well fed cowboy is an invisible aesthetic of Western films because fans always take it for granted that wherever the cowboy travels, even in the most remote parts of the wilderness, the chuck wagon is always full.
Rumsey teaching his tenderfoots how to skin a rabbit in Bad Company is akin to Books teaching Rogers how to shoot a gun in The Shootist. Both examples are lessons in survival on a very basic level in the old West. But the teachable moment in The Shootist with the gun is a well-accepted requisite aesthetic in a Western film. The legendary gunfighter passing on his skills to a younger man, in films like Red River or Shane, is a basic element of the Western epic tale. By contrast to the more practical and less reverential lesson on how to clean a rabbit in Bad Company, although authentic, lacks the romance of the shooting lesson in The Shootist. However, it doesn't matter how proficient a gunfighter is with his firearms if he doesn't have enough to eat.
We don't see Bridges actually skin the rabbit. There are no graphic close-ups of the process. Director Benton cleverly relies mostly on Bridges narrating the cleaning process to his charge of young runaways. Bridges's body language, facial expressions, as well as the hyper-real sound effects of the gutting of the rabbit, are both disturbing and strangely funny, but inherently more authentic than Wayne's teaching moment in The Shootist. Benton never reveals the faces of the tenderfoots as they watch Rumsey perform his role as professor in the hard and unforgiving college of Western life. The scene belongs to Rumsey alone giving additional weight to his place as the supreme educator.
However, as a leader of a group of tenderfoot outlaws, Rumsey is mediocre at best. Being a tenderfoot outlaw himself, he's clearly no Jesse James. Rumsey's gang of tenderfoots never are able to make a living as holdup men, which eventually leads to the death of most of the gang and his own capture where he's sentenced to hang. It is Dixon, the last survivor of Rumsey's tenderfoot gang, who manages to free Rumsey, and they both escape.
In the end, Dixon is the one who has grown and seems to have learned from his experiences, and it is he, not Rumsey, who will lead them further West as outlaws. In the final scene, Dixon and Rumsey enter a bank. "Say, how'd that Jane Eyre turn out?" Rumsey asks Dixon.
"Fine. Just fine," Dixon responds. Dixon then turns to the bank patrons and states, indicating that he is in charge of this gang and no longer the tenderfoot: "Stick 'em up."
RANCHO DELUXE: THE INDIAN TEACHES THE TENDERFOOT
In Rancho Deluxe, Bridges plays Jack McKee, a 1970s refugee from a prosperous life somewhere in an affluent yet underdetermined neighborhood in the suburbs of America. McKee is something like Ben Braddock (Dustin Hoffman) from Mike Nichol's The Graduate (1967) had Braddock left Elaine sometime after they escaped the church where Elaine was in the process of marrying the wrong man. McKee is an escapee along the lines of any number of Western film heroes, bad men as well as tenderfoots like Lewis Tater or Jake Rumsey.
In McKee's case, he's running from his parents, but mostly from a woman he loves for all of the wrong reasons although those reasons are never fully explained. But in the old West, a man's past is often a sacred secret. In the great Western tradition, McKee escapes to Montana leaving his secrets behind where he finds a partner in crime, in this case an Indian named Cecil Colson (Sam Waterston). Together, they become modern day cattle rustlers relying more on a pickup truck to make their escape than horses.
In Wayne's long film career, one of the few films in which he died was The Cowboys. In the film, Wayne's character Wil Andersen is forced to use boys, still in school, to help him drive his cattle to market. In Red River, Wayne is also a cattle rancher, but he has only one tenderfoot to teach. In The Cowboys, Wayne's Andersen has eleven tenderfoots to teach. The night before Andersen and his tenderfoot cowboys begin their perilous 400 mile cattle drive, Andersen tells them that the only way they will all make it is if they follow his orders without question. "Bring a bed roll, couple of good ropes, horse if ya got one," Andersen tells his cowhands as they start the drive. "You'll get the best food in the territory, no rest, damn little sleep. And fifty big silver dollars, if we make it to Belle Fourche. Now, you'll show up at my place first Monday after school's out at 5:00 a.m. And come with grit teeth, 'cuz gentlemen, that's when school really begins."
Unfortunately, Andersen does not finish the cattle drive because he was killed trying to stop rustlers. Andersen's cowboys, still in their teens with tenderfeet, grow up by hunting down the rustlers, killing them all with guile and cunning, and finish the drive on their own. The tenderfoot cowboys learned well from Andersen, which is how they survived even after their teacher's death. On the tombstone the boys have made for Andersen is inscribed these words of endearment: "Beloved Husband and Father." Andersen was more than just a great cattle rancher to eleven tenderfoot cowboys. He was a positive life influence.
However, prior to The Cowboys, the cattleman haven't always been the good guys in the Western film. They're more likely to be the antagonist than the protagonist. George Steven's Shane (1953) is a classic example in which the cattle baron is an antagonist who hires mercenaries to kill innocent homesteaders. As Edward Buscombe explains, the Western has a long tradition of being anti-capitalist. Even John Wayne's portrayal of a cattleman in Red River is shaded more in the shadows of a needlessly violent man than the fatherly figure in The Cowboys for whom violence is a necessary adjunct of the profession he imparts to the tenderfoot cowboys under his tutelage. In The Cowboys, even though Wayne is not alive to finish the cattle drive with his boys under his guidance, use of deadly force does bring about the success of the drive. By contrast, as John G. Cawelti explains, "in Red River Wayne's overbearing individualism, his tyrannical authority, and his ruthless appeal to violence nearly bring about the destruction of the cattle drive."
Wayne, in the 1960s, viewed his film roles, even his Western roles, as a means to project his right wing values regarding capitalism and private property against the "radicals" and "hippies" that he thought were threatening those values. Andrew V. McLaglen’s Chisum (1970), much like The Cowboys, was built off the foundation of Wayne's personal political beliefs. Cawelti states, "In Chisum, corrupt and lawless men threaten to destroy the peaceful cattle empire which John Chisum has built up through hard work and honest dealing." However, eight years earlier, in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, Wayne's character Tom Doniphon fights against the cattle ranchers who are creating a state of anarchy in the territory in order to intimidate the innocent homesteader and stop the movement toward statehood.
In Rancho Deluxe, the relationship between cattle rustlers McKee and Colson as well as rancher John Brown (Clifton James) is different than the traditional relationship of the rustler and the rancher. In other words, the lines between whether the rustler or rancher is the antagonist or protagonist are not clear. Brown, like McKee, is also an outsider. Brown apparently made his fortune elsewhere then came to Montana to buy a cattle ranch almost like a hobby. However, Brown, despite his outsider status, is respected by McKee. Whereas cattle barons in previous Westerns were seen as the impediments to progress, democracy, civilization, the rights of homesteaders, and the rights of immigrants — because that type of progress is good in the American narrative — McKee respects Brown because he's trying to save the West from the evils of progress. "I don't know if John Brown is so bad either," McKee says to Colson after they have rustled one of Brown's cattle. "He keeps some of these...tourists from putting an aluminum house trailer on a quarter of an acre of pasture."
McKee may be a rustler, but he's ever the Western romantic, despising the loss of ranchland due to the influx of civilization. As William Indick asserts, "a common element in all of the Western character types is the fact that they exist in what Slotkin referred to as 'a terminal environment,' 'a place in time that is fleeting.' In the case of the gunfighters and the outlaws, because they fight against their destiny, trying desperately to change themselves in the last act of their stories, their fate is typically death or disintegration into the vast emptiness of the frontier, as symbolized in the traditional ending in which the hero rides off into the sunset."
"Did you ever see Cheyenne Autumn?" Colson asks McKee.
"Oh yes," McKee responds almost reverentially.
"Well, in another twenty years, they're going to make Aluminum Autumn."
This comment reveals that Colson has a better understanding of the meaning of progress in the old West than McKee does. Colson clearly comprehends that there is a certain irony in McKee's wailings against progress. Both that rationale and irony are lost on the white man and tenderfoot McKee. Colson better understands the concept of "the terminal environment" of the West because he's a Native American. Colson, in his subtle way, is telling McKee that those with the greatest nostalgia for the past have little or no right to that nostalgia especially if that nostalgia is based on a movie written, produced, and directed by white men.
Brown, in a later conversation with his wife, admits that he, like McKee, is not entirely happy with his life in Montana. When Brown's wife suggests that he go out and track down the rustlers, Brown responds, "They've probably not even been around." Brown is like a spoiled child whose game has been ruined because the other kids will not play by his rules. The rules that Brown wants to play by are the same rules that McKee wants to play by, the rules established by Western movies. Both Brown and McKee are caught up in a feedback loop regarding the myth of the old West. Brown and McKee may be rivals, the cattle baron versus the cattle rustler, but they are both just a couple of tenderfoots stumbling around their perception of what the West should look like in a John Ford Western one year after the death of John Ford.
"I'll take your Sharps. Jack and me are about the last of the plainsmen," Colson says to a man who's willing to trade a Sharps .50 caliber Buffalo rifle for some beef that Colson and McKee rustled from Brown. McKee, the tenderfoot, probably doesn't understand the irony of Colson calling himself a plainsman and wanting the weapon used by plainsmen such as Buffalo Bill Cody that helped destroy both a major food source and way of life for the Plains Indians. McKee does not seem to understand Colson's attempt at dark ironic humor. McKee may revere Cheyenne Autumn, but he really doesn't understand that his reverence for the film is misplaced.
In Raoul Walsh's They Died With Their Boots On (1941), a Civil War hero by the name of George Armstrong Custer (Errol Flynn) comes West to fight the Native Americans only to discover that he's a tenderfoot and that the Sioux Indians are "the finest light cavalry on earth. I found that out this morning." Later, when Crazy Horse (Anthony Quinn), the Chief of the Sioux, escapes Custer's stockade and fort in a spectacular manner, he chalks up the mistake by his inexperienced company as a teachable moment from a great teacher, Crazy Horse. "You know..." Custer says, "in a way, I don't mind that Indian getting off."
In Arthur Penn's Little Big Man (1970), Jack Crabb (Dustin Hoffman), the only white survivor of the Battle of theLittle Bighorn tells a scholar, who wants to know some of the tales of the Plains Indians, of his early days with the Cheyenne who saved him from the Pawnee after the Pawnee had killed all of his family, save his sister, and everyone else in the wagon he was traveling in. Once in the care of the Cheyenne, Crabb, the tenderfoot, is taught to survive as an Indian. Crabb explains, "Shadow That Comes In Sight taught me the bow and arrow...and how to stalk game. Burns Red In The Sun showed me how to protect my pale skin from sunburn. It's little known that some Indians, like Burns Red,...will sunburn their own selves. But my real teacher was my adopted grandpa, Old Lodge Skins. He taught me to read a trail, Cheyenne language and lots of other things. For a boy, it was a kind of paradise."
In Fort Apache, the incoming company commander, an Indian fighting tenderfoot, Lt. Colonel Thursday (Henry Fonda) tells one of his officers Captain York (Wayne) that he's not intimidated by the Apaches he has seen up to that point. "Well, if you saw them, sir," York, the veteran of previous campaigns against the Apaches warns, "they weren't Apaches." These examples reinforce a major aesthetic of Western film, be the Indian your friend or enemy, the tenderfoot white man, in order to survive in the old West, must respect and learn from the Indian.
Colson, the Indian in Rancho Deluxe, also has lessons for another white man new to the territory, McKee, that are equally important to survive in an ever-changing West. Those lessons — featured in other Western films — include understanding the territory, having a good strategy against a technologically superior enemy, and knowing the importance of stealth.
"B-Bar or Lazy T?" McKee asks Colson about which ranch they should rustle.
"B-Bar," Colson responds emphatically.
"Why do you say that?" McKee asks, doubting Colson's judgment.
"Because," Colson responds, "their fire road runs above their corral and you can't see it from the house."
But McKee, the white tenderfoot, cannot seem to take good advice. "Let's toss a coin," states McKee, trusting their success to fate rather than the advice of the wise Indian who knows better.
"Let's just decide," replies Colson, not trusting in luck.
Then the conversation between the tenderfoot white man and the wise Indian takes a different turn. "Did you ever walk a quarter between your fingers…?" McKee asks.
"Never mind that," Colson says with some indignation. "That's the first thing they teach you in jail. How to walk a quarter between your fingers. Simple minded card tricks are next."
It appears as if Colson has a criminal past, acquired sometime before McKee ever came to Montana to rustle cattle. Perhaps Colson went to jail because he made the mistakes a tenderfoot would make. Therefore Colson, in the tradition of the Western film, must teach McKee the ways of the West. Colson's experience and confidence allow him to make the right choices. After McKee shoots the cow they want to steal, it is Colson who remains calm when the chainsaw they have bought to butcher the cow will not start immediately. Because by choosing the correct ranch to steal from, Colson knows they're less likely to be spotted in the act of the crime than had they chosen the other ranch.
McKee hatches a plan to steal a truckload of Brown's cattle, but his rationale seems naïve if not downright ignorant. "This is just to prevent us from falling asleep don't you know that?" McKee tells Colson.
"Well...old pal," Colson replies, "the thing is I don't have trouble keeping awake."
Colson is the most aware character in Rancho Deluxe, which is why when McKee and Colson are caught and arrested by an old stock detective, who is on horseback no less, it is McKee, the tenderfoot, who seems surprised that the plan didn't work out. By contrast, Colson takes his capture from the perspective that the plan would fail, and his capture was inevitable.
Rancho Deluxe refers to the prison where McKee and Colson are sent. In the final scene, as McKee and Colson get ready to begin their day's work, Colson sets out the lesson plan for McKee. First, he explains the itinerary for the ranch chores. Then he tells McKee, "I'll make the lunch while you practice walking that coin between your fingers. You can wash the dishes while I practice card tricks."
"Whatever you say...we can find a way," McKee responds, understanding that he is, in fact, still just a tenderfoot who can learn much more from the wiser Indian.
Hearts of the West, Bad Company, and Rancho Deluxe may bypass many of the traditional aesthetics of the Western film, but they're still part of the Western film tradition. At the end of each, it's not clear whether or not the characters Jeff Bridges played will remain a tenderfoot, but the lessons they have experienced are the same lessons the tenderfoot has experienced since the beginning of the Western genre. The lack of a clear resolution in all three films as well as the lack of a clear fate for Bridges's characters may have something to do with the time in which each of the Western films were produced. The aesthetics of any genre are fluid and open to change in the hand of quality filmmakers. As James Monaco explains, Rancho Deluxe "reverses the equation by playing with no longer sacred Western myths in a modern setting." According to Siegfried Kracauer, the nature of the time when a specific genre of a film like a Western was produced has a direct influence on making clear classifications of any genre problematic at best: "Because of their dependence on changing social historical and social circumstances, these subjects or topics elude systematic classification." Therefore, for the aficionado of the Western film genre who is not a tenderfoot Hearts of the West, Bad Company, and Rancho Deluxe are as authentically Western as any Western directed by John Ford.
From guest contributor William Gombash, Valencia College