The other day I took the DVD of The Tin Star from the bargain bin at Shopko, at three dollars under the internet price.
It starred Henry Fonda and Anthony Perkins, two of the premier film actors of the twentieth century. Every possible cliché of a western movie was in it—the stagecoach robbery, the murder of a beloved character, a tragic widow with her little boy, the hero with a mysterious past, and the young man who learns how to be a hero from one who is wise and experienced. Fonda and Perkins took the stock lines, situations, and characters, and made me care. Then The Tin Star was definitely an "A" movie from 1957. Fonda was at the peak of his career and Perkins was beginning his: Psycho was yet to come.
The movie took me back nearly sixty years, to the Saturday night free shows, shown outdoors throughout the summer in the village where we lived for a few years Some of the movies were classics from the thirties (this was the late forties) but most of them were B movies or lower, about the length and quality of the first tv westerns of the fifties: before Gunsmoke set a new standard for everybody.
Most of the heroes of those free movies were forgettable nice guys, who would occasionally break into song, accompanied by a full orchestra, even when riding down a lonesome trail.
But there were writers and actors who understood the myths of the American West--the cowboys, Indians, and gunfighters, and the forces that brought them into being. For these low-budget films they occasionally created heroes more resembling those of the Old Testament and Greek mythology---Joshua, Samson, Saul, David, Joab and his brothers, Hector and Achilles.
Like Henry Fonda in The Tin Star, these heroes were good but not always nice. Hopalong Cassidy, as portrayed by William Boyd, was the first one like this I noticed. He was the good guy and the hero, but with a dark side.
I was shocked when he held a man helpless against a wall and slapped him twice, brutally, in the face.
I was frightened when he and his sidekick quarreled, and the younger man took a swing at him and knocked him down. Cassidy landed on his elbow, his hand already on his six-gun, ready to draw and shoot. I can still see in memory the close-up of his face filling the screen-- the face of a killer resisting the impulse to kill. The young cowboy knows the threat is real. Hit me, and I'll kill you.
Cassidy could be brutal and dangerous, but he was also a middle-aged man, and vulnerable. In movie after movie, he does not save himself. The climaxes were clichéd, but we never tired of them. He and the few with him are trapped by the bad guys, but the audience has hope. Word will get back to the Bar-20 ranch just in time, and Hoppy's cowboys will burst out of the corral to his rescue, to the cheers of the movie audience.
Myth becomes parable sometimes. Cassidy was good, strong, sometimes brutal, always dangerous. In spite of all that, his ultimate salvation lay outside of himself, and the happy ending was not his achievement.