Hindsight: Appaloosa

The western may be one of the few if not only genres where character development is actually at crosspurposes with audience expectations. We don’t want the passing-through cowpoke/gunhand/lawman/whatever to actually change, do we? Isn’t it all better if they stay the same? Granted, maybe a more intense version of themselves, of the self they’re trying not to be anymore, as in Tombstone, or even a reversion to who they used to be, as in in Unforgiven, but still, in neither of those westerns do you have the protagonist really learning something, having an aha moment about himself, or his place in the world. The only epiphanies are plot-specific: ‘They went that way, Jeb,’ or, ‘So that cattle baron is behind all this . . . ‘

Just thinking this because, yeah, in Appaloosa — spoiler, spoiler — a character does actually change. And it feels strange. Is the western stepping forward, or is ‘drama’ putting on a cowboy hat for a hundred and twenty minutes?

Not sure.

But of course, too, Appaloosa hits a lot of the western conventions along the way to being different from the rest (even The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada was finally conservative, I think), and even manages, some twenty-three years after Rustler’s Rhapsody and Silverado (themselves of course eleven years after Blazing Saddles, just because Blazing Saddles set the bar so high for horse comedy), to not just inject some humor into the proceedings, but to make it a fundamental part of the experience. Not just buddy-cop banter either, but a sense of the comedic that penetrates camera angles, infects the soundtrack, and, yeah, makes us smile. Meanwhile, people are getting shot a lot. Well. Maybe not ‘a lot.’ Enough, though, I suppose. The days of Commando bodycounts are maybe over anyway, Rambo notwithstanding. Too, who knows why, but I of course very loudly applaud how unexpendable Indians are in Appaloosa. Granted, they’re still just a plot device, another obstacle to overcome if this great land is to get all tamed, but still: I think only one of their horses gets shot, yes? And that’s even on purpose, with some Quigly-shooting. Thank you, Appaloosa.

And, talking conventions and the hitting of them, one particularly interesting one is the range war. Only, here, the ‘range’ is a woman, and the two disputers for her hand are the most powerful good guy and the most powerful bad guy. who of course hate each other. Kind of fun, especially as it leaves the deputy suddenly in the position of mediator, solver, fixer, all that. Which of course (spoilers still) necessitates that he leave, because that’s how soldiers are treated in the western: after they serve their purpose, they have to ramble on. There’s no place for them in ‘normal’ society. But of course their exit’s always explained away by their own wanderlust. And we usually buy it too, I think.

But none of that’s what I really meant to be talking about here. All I meant to say was that the ending of Appaloosa, as conventional and time-honored as it is — cowboy, horse, hard-hearted beautiful girl left behind to pine (her hair even blows in the wind mournfully), a convenient sunset, even a windmill, I think — it doesn’t quite satisfy. Not in the carrying-smoldering-coals-in-a-horn way a thing can dissatisfy, I mean, where we wonder if it’s really over, but in the it-could-have-been-better way. Like at the end of Mi Familia (Jimmy Smits, 1995, pretty cool), it’s all set up for him to teach one of these new kids to dance. But then, I don’t know, it kind of just fades out, doesn’t extend itself, won’t take that chance. Appaloosa doesn’t either, I don’t think. However, what use to just complain. Especially if you don’t have something better. Or that you (I) at least think’s better. Like this: instead of it ending as it does now, with the deputy walking his horse into the sunset, no real words of parting between him and his long-time friend and idol, how it should, or could end is with a variation of the joke that’s been threaded through the whole thing: Virgil Cole, standing in the street, reaches up, grabs his (ex-) deputy’s horse’s bridle, gets all dusty/misty (this is how cowboys cry), and says something like “I feel all — all — all dis . . . discon — What’s the word I’m looking for, Everett?” Before, see, Everett’s always been Virgil’s walking thesaurus, so Virgil can come off more educated than he really is. This time, though, Everett, he’s a changed man. Not a sidekick anymore, but a hero in his own right. “It’ll come to you, Virge,” he says, reining his horse away then turning around, leaning on the pommel of his saddle. “It’ll come to you.” Then bam, cut to a close-up of his mustahce-filtered smile and he’s gone, and the look in Virgil’s eyes is one of “what’ll come to me?” His younger self riding away at a slow, almost pondering, come-catch-me pace, of course. Just long enough for the credits to roll. And somewhere in there, a harmonica.

Author: SGJ