Ken and Robin’s List of Mandatory Westerns

Ken and Robin Talk about Stuff is one of the most consistently worthwhile podcasts, full stop. They cover a broad, characterizing set of topics bent in the direction of tabletop gaming, but from time to time they depart from that subject to cover food, books, history, or cinema, and always seem to make at least a few insightful points when they do.

They’ve done two episodes so far about important films in the Western genre, and I realized that I hadn’t seen quite a few of them. Here, I’ve transcribed their lists, along with the more quotable parts of their encapsulations.

The ✓ character indicates whether I’ve seen it or not. I wouldn’t have painstakingly typed this up if I didn’t intend to watch them all.

Westerns 101

From Episode 191 (Starting at 00:46:40)

Stagecoach (1939) and The Searchers (1956) ✓

Robin: If you’re going to start with a western, you’re going to start with John Ford, and you’re going to have two films… two epochal westerns, one featuring John Wayne as a young man, one featuring him as an old man. One classical, the other revisionist.

Ken: I would argue that The Searchers is not revisionist, that in fact it is ‘visionist’. It is the fundamental agon of the western — and has been since the silent days — that every man who picks up the gun becomes a barbarian unfit for civilization, but the only way to stop barbarism is to pick up the gun. It is this great conflict that is at the heart of westerns as far back as Hell’s Hinges* (1916)… and it is again part of the searchers as you see that John Wayne’s character, because he is capable of hunting down the Comanche, is also incapable of civilized existence, and that is the] same decision that he makes in Stagecoach.

The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962) ✓

Ken: The Searchers, in addition to being the second greatest film ever made, is one of the four gospels of the western, along with another John Ford film, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, which is the film which very clearly lays out the agon of the western.

High Noon (1952) ✓

Ken: Frank Miller is coming to town, and the town cannot be roused to prevent it. Gary Cooper begins to realize that he is the only barbarian left in the town, and he has a choice to make.

Ken: It plays out the morality of the western in an absolutely clear, but never tiresome fashion.

Rio Bravo(1959) ✓

Robin: Hawkes saw [High Noon] and said, ‘I don’t like that Gary Cooper’s going around asking all the townsfolk for help’.

Shane (1953) ✓

Ken: Westerns are always about that moment that the frontier is about to go away, and the western will stop being relevant… which provides ever more mythic depth to the thing, because they’re simultaneously super historically-located, and super mythological. It’s a great illustration of what Eliade calls the illud tempus, the mythical time. Shane is about that moment in mythical time when one guy has to face down Jack Palance.

Unforgiven (1992) ✓

It’s not new, it’s once more about a former bad guy, a sort of Jack Palance character, who has decided to go straight, and can’t do it, because he’s freakin’ Jack Palance, only in this case he’s Clint Eastwood.

The Outlaw Josey Wales (1976) ✓

Ken: Unforgiven is the spot at which you move from the original western toward the revisionist western (people call it revisionist, but it’s not, because it still makes the same decisions about civilization and barbarism). If you want a real revisionist western by Clint Eastwood, look at The Outlaw Josey Wales, which is a great movie, and is 100% on the side of barbarians, on the side of outlaws.

The Naked Spur (1953) ✓

Robin: It’s pulsating with repressed ’50s lust, and like all of these movies, gives you a much different Jimmy Stewart than you think you know if you just know It’s a Wonderful Life, and his doddering appearances in later films. As in Vertigo, there’s something deep, and dark, and strange in the James Stewart that we see in all these Anthony Mann westerns.

The Wild Bunch (1969) ✓

Ken: …About a band of outlaws, and the end of the west closing down on them and crushing them.

Once Upon a Time in the West (1968) ✓

Robin: Unlike other stars of his caliber, Fonda had not played a villain.

The Magnificent Seven (1960) ✓

Ken: The epistle from the virtuous pagan samurai.

Ken: A movie in which everything works, and it works much better than you would imagine it possibly could have if someone had told you, ‘hey, John Sturges remade The Seven Samurai, only with cowboys.'”

Seven Men From Now (1956)

The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly (1966) ✓

Ken: All great testaments need to close down with an apocalypse.

Destry Rides Again (1939)

Westerns 201

From Episode 199 (00:17:40)

Jeremiah Johnson (1972) ✓

Ken: It made a huge impression on me, because it’s about a guy who is — as far as my eight year-old self could tell — fundamentally unkillable, and he goes around, and he sort of monstrously kills a bunch of people, and more and more people try to kill him, and it can’t be done.

Johnny Guitar (1954)

Robin: There are other westerns that overlay a completely different perspective on top of the standard western chassis. For example, you’ve got your psychosexual western…

Rancho Notorious (1952)

Ken and Robin: A den of scum and villainy … in bright technicolor.

Ken: It directly inverts the love triangle, in which there are these two weak men who are duelling for the love of a strong woman.

Forty Guns (1957)

The Professionals (1966)

McCabe and Mrs. Miller (1971) ✓

Robin: Less about the theme of the western, and just about the texture of life in a western town, where the snow is deep and life is hard.

Drums Along the Mohawk (1939)

Ken: Looking at it as the ancestor — both chronologically and cinematically of the cavalry western — is a great way to watch it.

Terror in a Texas Town (1958)

Robin: This is a movie about what happens when a man has to pick up the harpoon.

Ken: Interesting, because the bad guy, the gunman, is in this case, hired by the evil developer, who’s trying to build out the valley into more civilization, and it’s the farmer who’s holding off the developer. That is a very common bit of the revisionist western mythology — that there is a sort of ‘set point’ for civilization, which is the small farmer, and that when ‘real’ civilization comes along, that’s bad news.

Robin: It’s the individual vs. capitalism.

Ken: ‘Individual vs. capitalism’ as opposed to ‘individual vs. the west’, or ‘individual vs. owlhoots’, and that’s one of the strong bits of the revisionist canon.

The Proposition (2005) ✓

Ken: Hillcoat has the sound guy have the gun sound happen before you see the gun fire. So, you’re always terrified by the gunplay, because you didn’t actually see the gun go off, but you still heard the gunshot.

The Shooting (1966)

Robin: If Antonioni had made a western and then cut 20 minutes out of it, you’d have The Shooting.

Fort Apache (1948)

Ken: John Wayne becomes the voice of reason and tolerance in a John Ford western, which all by itself is reason to watch it.

Robin: Basically, Western 215 is ‘watch all the John Ford movies that we haven’t mentioned.’

Medicine

“The most dramatic difference between high schools of today and those of my time is probably not in the curriculum but in the life expectancy of the students. Then, except for the common cold and chilblains any illness might easily be fatal. It was taken for granted that a fourth of July celebration would produce injuries and suffering ranging from powder burns to lockjaw. Quarantines were imposed for the more common ailments of diptheria, scarlet fever, and the like. Treatment consisted of a few simple medications and a nourishing diet while the victim and the family waited cure or death. Diagnosis was hardly exact. ‘Blood poisoning’ was a favorite phrase to cover a multitude of mishaps.”

— Dwight Eisenhower, At Ease: Stories I Tell my Friends

Complete Knowledge

“If the past were recoverable in its totality it would, after all, overwhelm the present.”

— John Hale

I had an idea years ago for a story where all the surviving archaeological secrets that complicate human history were suddenly revealed. Everything which the line of sight keeps hidden: the foundations of an ice age settlement swallowed by the sea; the staggered bones of a lost legion sunk into the desert; every unrecorded explorer’s grave hastily scratched into the tundra; the last surviving copy of a book we thought had burned.

From somewhere in the depths of space, a beam of coordinates is received by our telescopes, and in that instant the globe becomes a cemetary where the dead have risen from their graves. We can only guess at the source of the data, and its motives, but the result is paradoxical: history is broken by uncertainty once every secret is made manifest.

I read the Hale quote much later. It’s most likely I was thinking about this quote by Lovecraft:

The most merciful thing in the world, I think, is the inability of the human mind to correlate all its contents. We live on a placid island of ignorance in the midst of black seas of infinity, and it was not meant that we should voyage far. The sciences, each straining in its own direction, have hitherto harmed us little; but some day the piecing together of dissociated knowledge will open up such terrifying vistas of reality, and of our frightful position therein, that we shall either go mad from the revelation or flee from the deadly light into the peace and safety of a new dark age.

And this one, by Fernand Braudel:

I have always believed that history cannot be really understood unless it is extended to cover the entire human past.

Superciliousness

“In a moment of high drama, his aged father hurled himself on the ground at Gregory’s feet, and cried ‘My son, where are you going? Shall I ever see you again?’

‘It is written,’ Gregory answered, as he stepped over the obstacle, ‘ that thou shalt trample on the ass and the basilisk.’

Thus saying, he mounted his mule, which started to walk backwards. Eventually, another animal was brought, and the pope was able to start out for Marseille, the scribes, lawyers, engrossers, and bullatores of the Papal court dribbling along behind him with their piles of parchment, documents, seals, ribbons, and all the other material of the spider’s web that Avignon had woven around Christendom.”

— Frances Stonor Saunders, Hawkwood: Diabolical Englishman

An engrosser is either someone who seeks to obtain a monopoly in a limited market, or someone who makes illuminated manuscripts. In the context of this sentence I would say that either meaning is equally likely. After a little research, I have no idea what a bullatore is, though it’s probably related to a bulla, which is the round seal used to stamp papal documents (bulls).

Starvation

“The killer targets the most innocent, the people who would never steal food, lie, cheat, break the law, or betray a friend. It was a phenomenon that the Italian writer Primo Levi identified after emerging from Auschwitz, when he wrote that he and his fellow survivors never wanted to see one another again after the war, because they had all done something of which they were ashamed.”

— Barbara Demick, Nothing to Envy

Xerxes whipping the Hellespont

“To forget that we are hemmed in by facts which are for the most part independent of our desires is a form of insane megalomania. This kind of insanity has grown up as a result of the triumph of scientific technique. Its latest manifestation is Stalin’s refusal to believe that heredity can have the temerity to ignore Soviet decrees, which is like Xerxes whipping the Hellespont to teach Poseidon a lesson.”

— Bertrand Russell

In this case, the phrase ‘scientific technique’ refers to the theory of Marx, Dewey, et. al, that science is useful insofar as it allows us to exert power. So, ‘technique’ as the opposite of knowledge, curiosity, wonder, etc.

Philosophical Tapdancing

“Hume, nearly two hundred years ago, threw doubt upon induction, as, indeed, upon most other things. The philosophers were indignant, and invented refutations of Hume, which passed muster on account of their extreme obscurity. Indeed, for a long time philosophers took care to be unintelligible, since otherwise everybody would have perceived that they had been unsuccessful in answering Hume. It is easy to invent a metaphysic which will have as a consequence that induction is valid, and many men have done so; but they have not shown any reason to believe in their metaphysic except that it was pleasant.”

— Bertrand Russell

Propaganda, Unintended Consequences

A North Korean soldier would later recall a buddy who had been given an American-made nail clipper and was showing it off to this friends. The soldier clipped a few nails, admired the sharp, clean edges, and marveled at the mechanics of this simple item. Then he realized with a sinking heart: if North Korea couldn’t make such a fine nail clipper, how could it compete with American weapons? For one North Korean student it was a photograph in the official media showing a South Korean on a picket line. The photograph was meant to illustrate the exploitation of the worker in capitalist society; instead the student noticed that the ‘oppressed’ worker wore a jacket with a zipper and had a ballpoint pen in his pocket, both of which were luxuries at the time.

— Barbara Demick, Nothing to Envy

An Estimate of the Real Military Budget

The Trillion Dollar Defense Budget is Already Here, by Robert Higgs.

The Defense Department’s budget is only a small part of the amount the United States spends on its military: hundreds of billions of dollars are hidden elsewhere, in the Department of Veteran’s Affairs, the DHS, in interest payments on defense-related national debt, and so on.

Therefore, I propose that in considering future defense budgetary costs, a well-founded rule of thumb is to take the Pentagon’s (always well publicized) basic budget total and double it. We may overstate the truth, but if so, we’ll not do so by much.