This is because the Western reflects cultural changes taking place in American society year by year and decade by decade. What Tompkins says applies more clearly to later Westerns--she cites a film like The Outlaw Josey Wales in which the hero places a homemade cross on his son's grave and then picks up a gun: "Exchanging the cross for the gun is a theme replayed countless times in Western films as part of an ongoing guerrilla war against the church as an institution" (Tompkins 35). However, this is not always the case, and indeed it can be argued that the sort of anti-Christian community element Tompkins finds so compelling was not the primary thrust of Westerns in earlier decades. Death was indeed a vital theme, but more often than not, the Christian community was presented as an alternative and as something to be protected and promoted, not countered.
However, the gun is used in service of the community for most of the history of the Western rather than as an alternative to acceptance of the Christian community as Tompkins says and as became more the norm toward the latter half of this century. The key films of John Ford, for instance, elevate the sense of community as an ideal to which the hero tends even when he is excluded from that community. The difference might be seen in a comparison of Ford's My Darling Clementine (1946) and Fred Zinnemann's High Noon (1952) only a few years later.
The importance of landscape is cited by Tompkins as if it were a return to the Creation, to the beginning of land and earth and sky, representing both birth and death in the landscape of the desert: "It is an environment inimical to human beings, where a person is exposed, the sun beats down, and there is no place to hide. But the negations of the physical setting . . . are also its siren song" (Tompkins 71). Tompkins also cites the tension between landscape and town, and both have a tremendous pull. John Ford's Stagecoach (1939) is a good case showing the tensions between the two. The coach of the title moves through the Western landscape as a small microcosm of humanity moving through the universe, with the powerful and dangerous external forces of that universe embodied in the Indians who attack. Safety exists in the town to which the coach is moving, though even there the hero must fight a gunfight to achieve that safety. As Tompkins notes, the Western "is always bombinating between these alternatives" (Tompkins 87).
Ford treats the town in the film as a marvelous creation of human beings who are carving themselves a place on the frontier. This is a traditionalist view of the Western, with settlers braving the elements and fighting for a better life. They are often thwarted by money-hungry people on the borders of the law, men like the Clantons, who believe they have the right to tell new settlers how and where to live. Arrayed against the latter are the forces of good in the form of the lawmen who tamed the West and protected the settlers. The Earps were real characters in history who served as lawmen in a variety of towns in the Southwest at different times. Wyatt Earp would become the most famous of the group, and he was known as much for his seemingly odd friendship with the gambler Doc Holliday as for being a hero.
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