Courtship is a sub-topic in the picturesque and violent western Open Range. As a volunteer matchmaker on an Internet website, I have some idea of what makes for compatibility between people. Most of all, it involves common goals and dreams. When two people share the same understanding of the future, then the present is much easier to negotiate. Charley Waite and Sue Barlow intuitively grasp this truth and it helps them to decide to marry.
The film opens as Bud “Boss” Spearman and Charley Waite, together with hired hands Mose and Button, are bringing cattle to market. As they travel, accepted convention allows their cattle to feed on grass in the open range. All seems to be going fine until they enter the vicinity of Harmonville, a town controlled by Denton Baxter, a money-hungry Irish immigrant who sees free-grazers as usurpers of other people’s property.
Boss sends Mose to town to get supplies, but his innocent encounter with the locals leads to Mose being beaten and thrown into jail. When Boss and Charley go to town to release him from jail, they are given a warning that free-grazers are not welcome there. To get medical help for Mose, they go to Doc Barlow whose sister Sue assists him in his work. Charley finds her attractive, but does not pursue her because he thinks that Sue is the doctor’s wife, not his sister.
After returning to their camp, Mose and Button are attacked in the middle of the night when Boss and Charley are not around. When Mose dies and Button is seriously injured, Boss and Charley decide to take revenge.
After a tense confrontation between Boss and Charley and Baxter and his cohorts, bullets fly and casualties mount. When the dust settles, Charley and Sue discuss their respective futures. She confesses her love for him and Charley, after some deliberation, proposes marriage to Sue. Sue understands Charley’s complicated past life in which he committed terrible things that still haunt him, and she encourages him to focus on the time ahead and not permit his past life to determine his future: “I don’t have the answers, Charley. But I know that people get confused in this life about what they want, and what they’ve done, and what they think they should’ve because of it. Everything they think they are or did, takes hold so hard that it won’t let them see what they can be.” Sue has a mature perspective on life, realizing that the past does not determine the future.
Rabbi Dov Heller insightfully lists ten questions to ask before getting married, many of which are answered in the affirmative by Sue and Charley as they navigate their relationship. Here are some of them: (1) Do we care about each other as good friends? (2) Are we emotionally honest and vulnerable with one another? (3) Do we take care of each other’s needs? (4) Do we admire and respect each other? (4) Do I trust this person completely? (5) Do we want the same things out of life? (6) Do I have peace of mind about this decision? Sue and Charlie implicitly say yes to all of these questions.
Open Range is a very good example of the western genre that catapults the viewer to the beauty of wide-open spaces and depicts the classic confrontation between good and evil. It resonates, however, on the human level in its honest depiction of people working hard to make ends meet, yet who have hopes and dreams beyond what preoccupies them in the moment.
The portrayal of an older couple trying to find happiness reminds us that it is never to late to find love and meaning in life if, as the great English poet Matthew Arnold writes, one sees life steadily and sees it whole. Viewing things in this way gives one a perspective on all of life’s challenges and possible rewards.