Category Archives: Westerns

High Noon (1952), directed by Fred Zinnemann

high-noon-posterThere have been times in my rabbinic and educational career when I tried to enlist the aid of friends to move a particular project forward. I would speak to many acquaintances, all of whom gave me warm expressions of support. But when it was crunch time, they were with me in spirit only, but not in terms of giving me dollars for my project.

I realized then that I would have to go it alone, and I often applied to foundations for funding rather than solicit individuals within the community. The experience of not successfully fundraising for a project was disappointing, but it taught me a valuable lesson echoed in The Ethics of the Fathers. There it states: “In a place where there is no man, strive to be a man.” If there is a critical project that needs to be done, and no one steps forward to help, then you should be prepared to do it yourself.

Such is the predicament of Marshall Will Kane in the classic western High Noon. The film opens as three outlaws ride into Hadleyville to meet the noon train on which is riding Frank Miller, a notorious criminal whom Kane has arrested for murder and sent to prison several years before. Now Miller has been pardoned and he is traveling to Hadleyville to settle old scores with those responsible for his incarceration.

Serendipitously, Kane is getting married to pacifist Quaker Amy Fowler that same day in the morning. At his wife’s wishes, he is leaving his position as Marshall and looking forward to a quiet time in life. The community encourages him to leave town before Miller and his men arrive, and he does. But once on the open road, he turns his buckboard around. He feels that Miller will continue to hunt him wherever he is and the townspeople, without a new marshal in town, will be defenseless against Miller and his cronies.

Kane solicits the help of the townspeople, but to no avail. He walks to the local saloon to get volunteers and they reject his overtures. He then goes to the church, interrupting the sermon, to get help. The congregants are more civil, but again he comes up empty-handed. Slowly, it dawns on him that he will have to face Miller and his henchmen alone. With that sobering thought, Kane writes a will, which he leaves in his desk drawer, to be opened in the event of his death.

When it is high noon, the train arrives and Miller gets off to meet his gang. They walk into town looking for Kane. The camera shows Marshal Kane all by himself on the deserted street. It is an iconic scene, emblematic of the formidable challenge he has to meet: one lonely man against four very bad men who want to kill him.

Jewish history has within it models of reluctant heroism and leadership, the most famous of which is Moses. He does not thirst for glory. He does not want to be the center of attention, but he eventually understands that he is the only man to lead the Jews out of slavery in Egypt to freedom in the Promised Land.

When he sees a slave being abused by an Egyptian, Moses looks “this way and that.” The Biblical commentators suggest that Moses was looking for help, for someone else to take action, but no one did. At that moment, he realized that it was up to him to act.

Will Kane in High Noon is tempted to leave town and save his own life, and he contemplates that course of action briefly. But in a moment of moral clarity, he decides to protect the community even though he must act alone. In the end, doing the right thing trumps personal considerations.

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All the Pretty Horses (2000), directed by Billy Bob Thornton

all the pretty horses posterOn rare occasions, I have been confronted with having to make a decision knowing that if I decide one way, I will hurt someone I care about; and if I decide differently, I will hurt someone else. Either way, I will wind up alienating a friend.

I recall that about 15 years ago, I was faced with such a dilemma and I decided to consult an older man with great knowledge of Torah and a deep understanding of human nature. He gave me a good perspective on my situation, enabling me to live with my decision without the burden of guilt. I continued to call him for advice until one fateful evening when I called his home, only to find out that his wife and family were in the midst of the week of mourning for my friend and mentor who had died only a few days before.

In the days that followed, I reflected on the time spent consulting with him. Although I could no longer speak with him, I learned much from the wisdom he shared with me, and I attempted to incorporate his perspectives in the way I viewed my own quandaries. Senior wisdom is priceless and I tried my utmost to take advantage of it whenever I could not come up with a satisfactory resolution to a problem. Such is what happens in All the Pretty Horses when John Grady Cole finds himself burdened by guilt by making good decisions that, regrettably, did not turn out well. Ultimately, he turns to a senior to put his own problems into perspective.

The year is 1949. John Grady Cole, a young cowboy raised in the wide-open spaces of a Texas ranch, is forced to find new means of employment when his grandfather dies and his heirs sell the property that was in his family for many years.

Together with his friend Lacey Rawlins, they journey south of the border to Mexico to find work. Along the way, they meet Jimmy Blevins, a savvy but unpredictable teenager, who wants to ride with them. Later they find employment with a wealthy rancher who needs help managing his exceptional prize horses. John and Lacey enjoy their work, but things get complicated when John falls in live with Alejandra, the rancher’s daughter.

Things change dramatically when both John and Lacey are arrested by the Mexican police. In jail, they again meet Blevins who is incarcerated for horse stealing and murder, and they learn that they are viewed as his accomplices. John and Lacey are sent to prison where they are surrounded by cutthroat prisoners who threaten their lives. They languish there until Alejandra’s aunt arranges to free them on condition that John never sees Alejandra again.

When John returns to Texas, he is arrested for horse stealing and appears in court to explain his side of the story. Surprisingly, the judge believes John and tells him that he is free to go. Never having encountered such fair play before, John visits the judge at his home, perhaps seeing him as a wise man and father figure. He confesses that he killed a man in prison and did not do enough to save his friend Blevins from being murdered.

The judge listens patiently and gently tells John that he could not have done anything to avoid those tragedies. Moreover, what John should do now is simply move on with his life, knowing that those tragic moments will be sorted out over time. The judge understands that John needs to share these secrets to assuage feelings of guilt. The judge intuits the wisdom of Ethics of the Fathers, which states that a person should not consider himself evil. When a person lacks self-esteem and views himself as a bad person, he may become emotionally paralyzed and give up trying to improve.

All the Pretty Horses depicts a rite of passage for a young man trying to make sense out of a life filled with contradictions. What enables him to survive is senior wisdom coupled with an abiding belief in God, which animates him every day. This sentiment is openly articulated by John at the film’s close: “I believe that God does watch over us, if he didn’t, I don’t see how we could get through each day.”

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Becoming Bulletproof (2014), directed by Michael Barnett

becoming bulletproofMy sister Carol, of blessed memory, was six years older than me. She had Down’s syndrome, and as a kid I vividly remember going with Carol and my mother to Teen Town, a Thursday night social get-together where developmentally disabled teenagers could mingle socially, form friendships, and plan outings together. It was there that Carol met Sam Berniger, who also had Down’s syndrome.

Carol and Sam were an item in those days, often flirting with one another. At first it was strange to observe because I viewed my own sister as disabled in some way and not capable of romantic relationships. However, after witnessing Carol and Sam’s obvious affection for one another, I realized they were no different from other teens I knew. They wanted human connection. They wanted to feel love and affection, and that desire is common to all people, not just the developmentally disabled.

I thought of their romance as I watched Becoming Bulletproof, an arresting documentary about a cohort of disabled people from all over the United States, who come together once a year to make a movie.

Some background information is in order. Zeno Mountain Farms has an annual project of making a film using people with disabilities of all kinds as actors. Although their disabilities are wide-ranging, the young men and women come together in the service of art, making a movie that somehow transcends the limitations of their disabilities.

The project takes place in their summer camp program, and this year the project is to produce a short western movie by the camp’s residents. Period costumes are used, some paid for and some donated. The key scene is the confrontation between the hero and the villain in a shootout on a deserted street. The entire cast serves as bystanders to the imminent bloodshed. The camera pans over the worried faces of people in the crowd and then focuses on the guns in the holsters of the antagonists, who are about to draw their weapons against one another. It is a scene reminiscent of many classic western movies.

Working with the campers are people without disabilities who relate to the disabled as normal human beings. They see the disabled as significant others; and by doing so, they discover their common humanity, and forget about the disabled label. Watching the residents learn their lines and act their respective parts is both very heart wrenching and inspiring. What is especially noteworthy is how the staff relates to the residents as regular friends and family, even though the disabilities that distinguish them are glaringly evident.

Although there is an implicit message embedded in the movie, the movie is not preachy. The message: the disabled want to be recognized as people of value, who have an independent identity, who want to be taken seriously. This harks back to the Biblical notion that we are all created in God’s image; therefore, we all have infinite value regardless of our physical disabilities.

Jewish law recommends treating the disabled as regular members of the community as much as is humanly possible considering the idiosyncratic nature of each disability. As a synagogue rabbi, I recall vividly a father who painstakingly taught his developmentally disabled son how to recite the Torah portion for his Bar Mitzvah. In the father’s eyes, it was very important that his child experience the same rite of passage as other young men.

Becoming Bulletproof is testimony to the fact that the disabled are part of the human family, and want to be treated as such. Stigmatizing someone as disabled may be a necessity in the world of therapeutics, but labels should not define a person in the world of human discourse.

 

 

Hombre (1967), directed by Martin Ritt

hombre posterRelatives recently visited us in Israel. While here, we visited the celebrated Museum of the Blind, which is part of the Israel Children’s Museum in Holon. The exhibit is called Dialogue With the Blind, which offers an hour experiencing the world of the blind with a sightless guide.

Besides giving me an experiential understanding of the plight of the blind and making me feel so thankful for the gift of sight, I was reminded of how important it is to help our fellow human beings who are going through tough and challenging times. As I wandered in the dark and occasionally lost my footing, the blind guide helped me get back to a stable surface by getting my attention with his friendly and supportive voice and then grabbing my hand to point me in the right direction. He reminded me of how meaningful it is to know that you have a friend who will support you in moments of crisis, who will prevent you from falling. It is comforting when you know that friends are thinking about you and feeling responsible for your welfare.

Feeling responsible for other people is a narrative crux of Hombre, a revisionist Western that hinges on whether someone will step forward and deal with calamities when others cannot. The central character is John “Hombre” Russell, a white man raised as an Indian, who is the object of racial prejudice and alienated from the white man’s culture.

When Russell’s white stepfather dies, he inherits a boarding house owned by him. After inspecting the boarding house, he decides to sell it and return home. He and several other passengers take the stagecoach to Bisbee. The passengers include Jessie, the landlady of the boarding house, Audra Favor and her husband Alex, an administrator of Indian lands and, sadly, an embezzler of Indian reparation funds, and Cicero Grimes, a coarse bully with an agenda of his own.

Grimes’ agenda becomes clear when his cohorts show up to rob the stagecoach. Specifically, they want the embezzled funds carried by Alex Favor. In the ensuing melee, Grimes kidnaps Audra. As they ride away, Russell shoots two of the robbers and recovers the saddlebag of cash. To avoid pursuit by the outlaws, they head through the mountains and stop at an abandoned mining camp.

It is there that a moral dilemma emerges. When Grimes and his crew catch up with Russell and the other travelers on the stagecoach, Grimes offers to trade Audra for cash. To encourage a response, he ties up Audra in the hot sun, knowing that she will die if no one comes to aid her. Alex, Audra’s husband, does not want to risk his life to save his wife. Only Jessie expresses a willingness to help. At that moment, Russell steps forward, knowing that he is the only one who can save Audra and stop Grimes.

Jewish tradition clearly states: “we are all responsible for one another.” The Talmud suggests that this mantra of being responsible for one another means providing for the basic needs of another such us food, shelter, and physical safety. When we see someone in trouble, we need to act to help that person. We cannot simply turn our eyes away and mistakenly think that things will get better on their own.

Hombre is the story of one man who decides to risk his own life in order to help those in trouble. It is not an easy decision for John Russell, who has been exploited as an Indian for many years. However, his essential humanity prevails in a moment of crisis where only he can enable the others to survive.

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Open Range (2003), directed by Kevin Costner

open range posterCourtship 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.

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Dances With Wolves (1990), directed by Kevin Costner

dances with wolves posterEvery once in a while, movies can instantly transport you to another place and another time in an instant of cinematic magic. There is a scene at the beginning of Dances With Wolves that does that for me.

The Civil War is raging and there is stalemate between the Union and the Confederate armies, positioned on opposite sides of a field. Lieutenant John J. Dunbar, whose leg is badly injured, realizes that his leg will be amputated, and so he attempts to end his life nobly by riding his horse in front of the Confederate lines where he will be an easy target. Contrary to his expectation, they shoot at him but do not hit him. It is a poetic scene of transcendent beauty as he rides his horse with his arms flying outwards facing possible death.

Dunbar’s brave act rallies the Union troops who storm the Confederate line of defense. His heroism gets the attention of a general who dispatches his personal surgeon to tend to Dunbar and save his leg. As a reward for his service, he is given Cisco, the horse that he rode in battle, and his choice of a new post. Dunbar chooses to serve on the barren frontier, and so begins his odyssey of personal discovery far away from the fields of war.

Dunbar’s new post is desolate, but he relishes the beauty and quiet of his new home. He begins to repair it and waits for reinforcements to arrive. In truth, his whereabouts are unknown, and in time he is discovered by a tribe of Sioux Indians who are camped nearby. He forms a friendship with Kicking Bird, the tribe’s medicine man, and gradually gains acceptance by the Indians who appreciate his help in finding buffalo for them to hunt for food and clothing.

As I watched the film, which is epic in visual proportion and in theme, I thought about what it takes to become part of a new society. If you want to be welcome, you have to go out of your way to meet people, to share in their pain and in their joy, and you have to learn their language. Realizing that his life of isolation is going nowhere, Dunbar decides to leave his post to get to know the Indians. He does not wait for them to come to him. Once in their environment, he accepts the Indians’ initial suspicion of him, and tries sincerely to understand their way of life. It is only when he masters their language that he becomes fully integrated with them.

Reflecting on my own experience as a new immigrant, Dunbar’s journey provides a good model of adjustment to a new world. I recall an Israeli telling me when I first arrived to introduce myself to my neighbors. Don’t be reclusive and stay home or only associate with Anglos. Such a path is insular and will not connect you with Israeli society. Rabbi Ezra Bick, quoting the great medieval sage Maimonides, observes that the person who separates himself from the community, no matter how great his personal qualities, has cut himself off from the “fullness of the image of God,” for it is only within the community that man can realize his true spiritual potential. Maimonides writes: “One who divorces himself from the ways of the community, even though he has not transgressed transgressions, but is only separated from the congregation of Israel, and does not perform good deeds together with them nor enter into their troubles nor fast on their fast-days, but goes about his way as one of the people of the earth, and as though he were not one of them – he has no portion in the World-to-Come.”

Dances With Wolves implicitly reminds us that it is only within the community that we can truly actualize our potential. John Dunbar understands this when he identifies with the Sioux tribe that has embraced him. Together with others, he finds himself.

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Friendly Persuasion (1956), directed by William Wyler

friendly persuation posterIn my career as a synagogue rabbi and day school principal, I have encountered people who hold extremist views. In my first years in the rabbinate, I myself tended to view community conflicts as issues that could be addressed either as right or wrong. There was no middle ground. As I got older and wiser, I saw that there was lots of grey and it was silly of me to see things only in stark black and white terms. I remember hearing Rabbi Norman Lamm, President of Yeshiva University, give a talk on what he called “radical moderation.” In an age of increased religious polarization, it was refreshing to hear a more balanced and nuanced approach to a problem. Now that I am living in Israel, a beautiful land filled with extreme ideologies of all sorts, Rabbi Lamm’s words resonate even more.

I was reminded of this as I watched Friendly Persuasion, a story of a Quaker family whose belief in non-violence is tested during the American Civil War. Jess Birdwell, the patriarch of the family, is interested in worldly things even though he basically subscribes to Quaker simplicity and pacifism. His wife, Eliza, frowns upon any expression of materialism, but becomes more understanding of her husband’s perspective on life. For example, she at first is totally opposed to her husband purchasing an organ for the home; but after a conversation with him, agrees to have it in the attic as long as it is not played when company is around. It is this kind of practical family accommodation that typifies the Birdwell family, a family that has strong core beliefs but one which makes compromises in the woof and warp of daily life.

Against this background of a contemplative and at times humorous Quaker life, there is a war raging, and it affects the Birdwell household. Jess and his oldest son Josh are recruited to fight against the Confederates, but they both decline because of principle. They are categorically against killing. However, when a band of marauders is about to lay waste to their home and possibly kill their family, they are compelled to rethink the verities upon which their life is based.

The movie depicts various responses to their moral crisis. One family member sticks to his belief in non-violence no matter what. Another chooses the path of violence with limitations. Another decides that killing is sometimes justified when home and hearth are threatened. It is a painful decision for him; and while pulling the trigger, he weeps for the loss of life he is causing. The characters all maintain their core beliefs but their actions indicate a personal vision of what is required in the face of real life challenges. There are no simple answers.

Judaism believes that once there is agreement and commitment to basic principles, then we are free to shape our own individual spiritual destinies. Not everyone has to observe the law in exactly the same way as long as we accept the divinity and integrity of that revelation at Sinai. In a sense, this is what we see in Friendly Persuasion. The Quakers agree on fundamental principles, but as individuals make nuanced decisions as they encounter varied life experiences.

A similar approach is found recorded by King Solomon in the Book of Ecclesiastes. Here he writes that “wisdom is better than weapons.” War in Jewish tradition is always viewed as a last resort after other solutions to a threat are exhausted. However, when the threat persists, Judaism permits battle. It is this complex approach that reflects real-life decision-making, which is at the heart of Friendly Persuasion.

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