Category Archives: Westerns

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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Jeremiah Johnson (1972), directed by Sydney Pollack

As a young father, vacations generally meant going to places like Disneyland or to resorts with a pool and kid-friendly activities. Once I became an empty nester, vacation destinations changed. National Parks were the place to visit. My first one was to Acadia National Park in Maine; and over a number of years, my wife and I visited many in the United States and Canada. Instead of going somewhere to be amused, we traveled far to contemplate and appreciate the beautiful world that God has given us. Spending time hiking, surveying breathtaking lookout points, and listening to the sounds of nature were rejuvenating. Which is why I greatly enjoyed a recent viewing of the Western classic, Jeremiah Johnson.

Jeremiah leaves civilization as he knows it and journeys to the mountains. He wants to become a mountain man, living away from the hustle-bustle and corruption of the busy city. He wants to be alone,  and to discover the beauties of nature first-hand. There is a parallel here to a famous story told about Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsh, a 19th century leader of German Jewry and Bible commentator, who near the end of his life resolved to visit the French Alps. His students tried to convince him not to go because of the risk to his health, whereupon he told them:”When I come before God, I will have to answer for many things. But what will I tell Him when He asks me, ‘Have you seen My Alps?'”

This thirst to see all of God’s resplendent world is a Jewish sensibility. The Talmud (Yerushalmi Tractate Kiddushin) explains that in the future God will hold us responsible if we do not enjoy the beautiful things He created in this world. It is a good thing to go out and see the trees, the mountains, the rivers, lakes and oceans. Seeing them reinforces our belief and appreciation for God who created all of it.

However, there is a dark side to being a mountain man. “Do not separate from the community,” say our Sages. Jeremiah learns that a life of isolation can be dangerous and unforgiving, and that there is a price to pay for solitude. For example, he has no back-up when things go awry.

One incident, in particular, brings this lesson home. Having married an Indian woman and found a modicum of happiness in the wilderness, he is asked by the U.S. Calvary to lead a search party to bring food to a stranded wagon train. He is not anxious to leave his family, but he reluctantly agrees and leads them to the wagon train. Inwardly, however, he is agitated that the route takes him through a sacred Indian burial ground. The scene of traversing the burial ground is one that encapsulates both the allure and danger of nature. It is a grey day, snowing gently but relentlessly as the soldiers pass by skeletons of dead Indians, foreshadowing a tragedy that is to come.  It is an image of both beauty and dread.

Left alone in a vast wilderness with savages all around, Jeremiah is forced to defend himself on countless occasions in order to survive. The Hobbesian notion that life is nasty, brutish, and short finds expression in the harsh life of Jeremiah Johnson. But in spite of it all, he emerges not as a bitter or angry person, but as one content with his lot, understanding that life is filled with contradictions, with happiness and sadness, with beauty and ugliness. It is a mature sensibility, worthy of emulation.

There is much to admire in Jeremiah Johnson. He is a man of few words, of deep feelings, of personal integrity, who, through age and experience, appreciates and values the beautiful world before him.

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Wyatt Earp (1994), directed by Lawrence Kasdan

My father, of blessed memory, was not a frivolous person. He came to America as a young teen fleeing the pogroms of Russia in the early 1900s. He enlisted in the Navy and served honorably. He married relatively late and I wasn’t born until he was over 40. He worked hard as a painting contractor, breathing in lead-based paint before OSHA was around; and he did not have time to play basketball with me. He was busy trying to earn a living. In spite of his burdensome job, there was lots of love in my home. My father spent time with me, counseled me, and set a good example of upright living. Honest and charitable to the core, he devoted his free time to synagogue service and to rearing a growing family.

One of my favorite memories is going to the movies with him. My father rarely went, generally considering such pastimes a waste of time. But we did share an interest in westerns. Once in a very great while, I convinced him to come with me. I still remember the pleasure I had watching Gary Cooper in Springfield Rifle together with my Dad.

I was reminded of this as I watched Wyatt Earp, a 3-hour long epic revisionist western about that great Western hero. My Dad would not have liked the sordid parts of the narrative and the foul language, but he would have admired the beauty of the vast open spaces and the action sequences.

A subtext of the story is Wyatt’s relationship with his father, Nicholas Earp, who gives him critical pieces of advice along his life’s journey. It is notable that Nicholas Earp does not talk much; but when he does, people listen because they respect him and know that he loves them. Moreover, he gives advice to Wyatt at the right moment. Our Sages tell us we have an obligation to rebuke a child, but only when he is ready to listen. If he is not ready, then one should delay the rebuke.

When Wyatt is still a teenager, his father informs him that there are many vicious people who do not obey the law and “when you find yourself in a fight with such viciousness, hit first, and when you do hit, hit to kill.” He gives Wyatt a basic primer on how to deal with bad people who break the law and hurt other people. Show no mercy. To be affable is to be weak in the face of evil.

Later, when Wyatt’s beloved wife dies of typhoid, Wyatt, depressed and angry, immerses himself in drunkenness and theft. After landing in jail, his father comes to rescue him and pointedly tells him: “Do you think you are the first person to lose someone? That’s what life is all about. Loss. But we don’t use it as an excuse to destroy ourselves. We go on.” He imparts to Wyatt the life lesson that although life at times brings pain, life can still continue. Wyatt accepts these two pieces of advice, which guide him throughout his career as a successful lawman.

The task of a father in Jewish law is to teach his child Torah, to teach him a livelihood, and to teach him to swim, which many commentators take to mean to swim through life. Parents are repositories of wisdom and life experience, and too often we don’t take advantage of this. Advice from a person with much life experience who loves you, and who is invested in your successful living is a treasure. Wyatt Earp reminds us of the supreme value of a parent’s counsel.

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