Category Archives: Westerns

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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The Cowboys (1972), directed by Mark Rydell

cowboys posterEvery father wants his son to be successful. In the course of my career as a synagogue rabbi and school principal, I have had conversations with parents who are disheartened because their hopes and dreams for their children have not come to pass. Sometimes fathers and mothers are regretful about the way they parented their kids; others wax philosophical, expressing no regrets. They feel they have done their best, but are not in control of outcomes. And so they accept the reality of unfulfilled dreams.

One case of unfulfilled expectations, in particular, comes to mind. When I was a Jewish high school principal, I tried to convince a boy’s parents to send him to Yeshiva University where he would be able to continue his general and Judaic studies. Moreover, I told his parents that the college years were critical, defining years of a young person’s life and it is likely that he will meet his future marriage partner during this time. They ignored my entreaties and enrolled the young man at a very fine state university, where he did well academically. He also met his wife there, and she was not Jewish. It was a classic case of intermarriage. Emotions ruled over logic. For many years after, the parents rued their short-sighted decision.

Rancher Wil Andersen, played by the iconic John Wayne in the twilight of his career, also is a parent whose kids didn’t fulfill his dreams. In a quiet conversation with a friend, he reflects: “My oldest son would have been forty this year. Middle aged. But they went bad on me… or I went bad on them.” He wonders if their choice of lifestyle was because he wasn’t the father he should have been. Perhaps his stern approach turned them off from all his instruction, and their wayward ways were a form of rebellion against his rigid parenting persona.

The Cowboys begins with Wil wanting to bring his cattle to market in Belle Fourche, a 400-mile long cattle drive. The problem: all his drovers want to postpone the drive while they pan for gold. A friend suggests he train and use local schoolboys to replace the drovers. He does not want to do his; but faced with little alternative, he reluctantly hires them. And so begins his arduous trek to Belle Fourche. Jebediah Nightlinger, the camp cook who is a repository of wisdom and life experience, suggests to Andersen that he now has a second chance to be the father that he could have been for his own two boys.

Andersen ponders this message as he teaches the boys to rope, brand, and herd the cattle and horses. Things go well for a while until rustlers attempt to steal the herd. Then all the skills that Andersen has taught the boys come to the fore as they attempt to bring the cattle drive to a successful conclusion.

Wil Andersen is the surrogate parent of these young teenagers and he imparts wisdom to them both explicitly with words and implicitly by being a role model for the boys to emulate. The Cowboys demonstrates that, when it comes to parent-child relationships, children learn by example as well as by words, by what is caught as well as by what is taught. This reflects a Jewish sensibility. It is not only the parents who instruct the young. The prime responsibility to educate the child is the father’s. However, if he is unable to do this, he can hire a surrogate. Nowadays, the surrogate is the Jewish day school with its staff of rabbis and teachers who transmit the wisdom of the ages to students by explicit instruction and by being role models for them. Outside of the school, children learn by observing the adults around them. Therefore, it is wise for adults to be always aware of what we say in front of children, and how we behave in front of them as well.

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Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969), directed by George Roy Hill

butch cassidy posterIn Israel I teach a class that is preparing for the Bagrut, the national matriculation examination. One requirement of the test is to pass an oral test in the English language. The topic of the conversation between student and examiner is a brief research paper that the student submits to the tester a week before the exam. To make the assignment simple, I gave the following topic to the class because it is easy to do and provides a fertile topic for discussion: “Influential Films of the 20th and 21st Centuries.” I suggested that one of my students choose Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.

As a kid growing up, I was a fan of the Western movie. Typically, the good guys were better looking than the bad guys and they wore white hats rather than black ones. It was easy to identify who was on the side of right. My conventional approach to Western heroes, however, was turned upside down after viewing Butch Cassidy. For the first time, I was rooting for the outlaws. The two stars were popular movie stars, Paul Newman and Robert Redford, and their relaxed and affable demeanor won me over.

The motive of the outlaws seems rational. They don’t want to hurt anybody. They just want to earn a decent living and Butch and Sundance feel unsuited for farming or ranching. When Butch hears how much money is being paid to capture or kill them, he wonders why E.H. Harriman, the owner of the robbed Union Pacific train, doesn’t just pay him not to rob the train. It would be more cost effective from his perspective.

Their life of crime continues until they are overtaken by a posse of lawmen led by Joe Lefors, who has a reputation for always capturing or killing his targets. Butch and Sundance elude him by traveling to Bolivia, a place where they feel immune from capture and a place rife with banks easy to rob. Their attempts to rob banks here, however, hit a snag since neither Butch nor Sundance knows Spanish. To remedy this, they spend hours learning the specialized vocabulary that is needed to rob a bank and soon achieve enough language proficiency to resume their nefarious ways. Regrettably, the law catches up with them even here.

For a short time, they try to “go straight,” and obtain work as payroll guards on a dangerous route often plagued by greedy bandits. When they are accosted by them, they kill the bandits. Realizing that they are unsuited for honest work, they return to their old ways. Eventually the Bolivian authorities catch up with them and Butch and Sundance die in a blaze of glory. It is a freeze frame shot that is iconic and memorable.

Jewish tradition in no way supports a criminal life style. Butch and Sundance, as ingratiating as they are, still are outlaws breaking the law and putting the lives of many in danger. It is noteworthy that one of the arch-villains of Jewish history is named Laban, which in Hebrew means white. Laban was the deceiver of the patriarch Jacob and caused him all kinds of grief. We even recall Laban’s name on the night of the Passover seder when we recount the idolatrous beginnings of the Jewish nation. One of the Biblical commentators suggests that his name is no accident. Rather, it deliberately calls attention to the fact that bad people often operate under a guise of legitimacy, of whiteness. Laban’s name, therefore, reminds us that we should not make judgments based on outward impressions, but rather on inner character and on a person’s performance of good deeds.

Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid is iconic and influential in the sense that it paved the way for subsequent anti-heroes in movies, characters with whom we could identify but whose morals and motives were suspect. Indirectly, the film tells us that we have to be wary of role models whose actions do not mirror their likeable personas.

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3:10 to Yuma (2007), directed by James Mangold

Three ten to Yuma posterI recently taught a poem entitled “Those Winter Sundays” by Robert Hayden to my eleventh grade English class. The poem is about the relationship between fathers and sons, how a son finally understands how much his father did for him as he raised him from boy to man. He remembers how hard his father worked to maintain his household and “no one ever thanked him.” He acknowledges that he was unaware of his father’s love for him, which was expressed in taking care of the daily needs of his family: “ What did I know, what did I know of love’s austere and lonely offices?”

These lines resonate in many films that show the complex relationship between fathers and sons, many of which reveal the son not appreciating his father until the father has passed away.

3:10 to Yuma is the story of Dan Evans, a poor rancher and veteran of the Civil War, who is struggling to keep his land in the face of people who want to take it away from him and sell it to the railroad at exorbitant profit. When two men set his barn on fire, he resolves to make things right; but his son, William, has little hope that his father can do this. When Dan tells his son that he will understand when he walks in his shoes, his son bitterly responds, “I ain’t never walking in your shoes.” He sees his father as weak and incapable of fixing anything. He does not see inner courage, only outer trembling.

Dan is pained by his son’s low estimation of him and will do anything to be a hero in his eyes, even escort Ben Wade, a notorious bank robber and murderer, to federal court in Yuma where he will probably be hanged. For a payment of $200 from the railroad company, a huge sum in those days, he puts his life on the line to save his farm and to redeem himself and his family. He wants his son to know that he was the one who brought Ben Wade to Yuma for trial when nobody else would, a feat that would impress and draw the admiration of his son. Against near impossible odds, he gets Ben Wade to the train to Yuma but with tragic consequences.

The Bible tells us that the commandment of honoring parents is rewarded with long life. A parent of a student I teach recently complained to me about his teenage son who almost never speaks to him. My friend said:  “I wish he was an adult already. Then we could talk to one another normally.” He also told me that even though he often told his son that he loved him, his son never told him “I love you, Dad.” He had no doubt that his son loved him but he wanted his son to have long life; it weighed on his mind that his son didn’t seem to understand how meaningful it would be if he would be more forthcoming with expressions of parental appreciation and affection.  To the father, expressing love verbally was a way to honor parents and for his son to receive the reward of long life. He was perplexed that his son was not taking advantage of this spiritual opportunity. Moreover, my friend was fearful that he would no longer be living in this world when his son finally wanted to verbally express his love.

3:10 to Yuma has a lot to say about father-son relationships. It reminds us of how much a father wants to be a good role model for his son, and how satisfying it can be to a parent when children express appreciation and love. A parent-child dynamic may be rooted in love, but the roots have to be watered for that love to flourish.

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