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Westerns Movies

(Movie-Poster Image Art/Getty Images)

My wife and I watch a lot of old movies together, and we have in common what you might call a “default position” on choosing the ones that we see: Whenever we can’t make up our minds about what to watch, we’re more than likely to put on a western. In recent weeks, for instance, we’ve watched Colorado Territory, Hondo, The Man from Laramie, Seven Men from Now, Tombstone, and The Westerner, each of which we’d seen many times before and each of which satisfied us just as much the umpteenth time around.

What is it about westerns that keeps Mrs. T and me coming back for more? Part of the pleasure they give arises from their clarity of conception. George Balanchine, the great Russian-American choreographer, also loved westerns, a taste that puzzled his highbrow admirers, to whom he replied that he liked them because “there is nothing superfluous in them. Simple things without pretensions. . . . You watch a western and think, Ah! There’s something to this.”

But that “something” also has to do with the moral clarity of the Hollywood western. I’m talking not about black and white hats, but about the fact that the characters in every great western are forced to make moral choices that are always clear but rarely easy, especially since they live in a world in which sheriffs and jails are few and far between. In a world without laws or lawmen, we must all choose between the moral integrity of the old-fashioned hero and the moral cannibalism of the self-willed villain. Such stark choices are the essence of the classic western, which is why the genre and its three brightest stars, Gary Cooper, Randolph Scott, and John Wayne, continue to retain their near-mythic

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