Where Have All the Cowboys Gone?

 The Good, The Bad, and The UglyA Fistful of Dollars. A Few Dollars More. To some people, these may just seem like disjointed, poorly constructed sentences, but to me, they represent one of the best movie trilogies of all time, the saga of The Man With No Name. These iconic Clint Eastwood movies are some of his best work, the rugged hard-mouthed no nonsense cowboy who is in complete control of the Wild Western landscape and society around him. The distinctive music, with the loud whistles and sweeping orchestral instrumentals composed by Ennio Morricone, gets to me every time I hear it, reminding me of the appeal the recently untamed West held for Americans. Even in recent film memory, with hits such as 3:10 to Yuma and the more modern No Country for Old Men, the idea of a man against the wild captivated millions of people, a “modern” day shepherd, seeking his destiny in the rough rural landscape of the Wild West.


I believe that the Wild West represents perhaps the last true bastion of pastoralism in America, the not-so-distant past of our country when large expanses of the landscape were unsettled except by rough Native American tribes and a man could commune with nature and make his own destiny. In the 1800s, Americans embraced the idea of Manifest Destiny, a concept that played a key role in the expansion of the United States into the Western Territories. This concept was used to justify the United States’ war with Mexico in the 1840s, the Oregon Trail, the California Gold Rush, and the founding of the Transcontinental Railroad. Even after the Civil War, when most of the Midwest and Eastern United States were crisscrossed with infrastructure and railroads, the West was still not won, the Indian Wars raged on, and people clamored to seek their own destiny in the wilderness.

The idea of an untouched landscape rings of pastoralism, and the desire of settlers to make their way into nature reflects the idea of an easier life away from the complexities of the Eastern Seaboard, of government influence and social discord. People could explore these unclaimed lands and mine for silver and gold, raise cattle across vast expanses of terriory, and hunt herds of buffalo one million head strong. Even today, cowboys represent a nostalgic figurehead in this imagery, icons of a simpler time in the United States, when these modern shepherds drove their herds of cattle across the countryside to the nearest city to make money, only to return to their peaceful respite far away from the troubles of urban living.

In 3:10 to Yuma, Dan Evans, portrayed by Christian Bale, is a down-on-his-luck rancher in the middle of a terrible dry spell. He cannot pay the debts he owes, and with no rain in sight, takes an offer to escort a fugitive to a prison train for some gold to help save his farm and his family. Evans represents the last of the cowboys, whom are being encroached on by the railroads and are tied to the cities, where those with money own their land and their very lives. Symbolically, he leaves his pastoral respite, similar to the Eclogues of Virgil, when Mopsus and Menalcus trudge wearily on to town, bereft of their land, to seek fortune in the dangers of society. If you have interest in seeing the movie, which I recommend, this last look into my spoil the ending for you.

Evans, having left his farm to try to earn some gold from the U.S. Marshalls in order to save his family, ends up fatally wounded following a gunfight in the city Yuma, when the posse of the captured outlaw attempts to prevent him being placed on the train. Before this scene, the outlaw looks at Evans, and gesturing to the storm clouds on the horizon, indicates that it appears to be raining on Evans’ land. Evans, in leaving the pastoral countryside where his hardwork for so long tied him to nature and earned a living for his family, loses his life just after discovering that, had he stuck it out a few days longer, his fortunes would have been reversed. THe death of the cowboy represents the death of a way of life, a nostalgic look at a time when man could make his own destiny in the uncharted wilderness of the Wild West. With his demise, so too dies the last pastoral part of America, consumed by the vices and tribulations of society that has finally manifested its destiny and tamed the wild. The last American shepherd, the rugged cowboy of yesteryear, rides off into the sunset no more.


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