Andre DeToth's Day of the Outlaw
I spent Christmas in Wyoming, Wyoming is a state I know well, so for this inaugural essay I wanted to write about a Western set there, and because the Snow Westerns collection is still on the Criterion Channel. Prior to starting this, I probably should have given more thought to, among other things, how I would watch all these Westerns. I don’t like to stream from bootleg sites, and torrent downloaders give me a headache. Only writing about Westerns that are conveniently available to watch is certain to change the direction Western Revisionism will go, but I don’t really have a direction in mind, nor do I have a list of Westerns that I was planning on writing about.
The obvious choice from this snowy collection would have been McCabe and Mrs. Miller, without a doubt the most popular among them, and it seems to be enjoying a small renaissance right now, by which I mean I’ve seen a solid amount of action about it on Twitter because it’s on Criterion right now. But McCabe and Mrs. Miller is one of the handful of Westerns I’ve already seen because it was in the Altman collection on Criterion a year or so ago, and part of what I want out of this is new things to watch. I do think it’s a good movie, and might come back to it later on, after the mumbled buzz dies down, a host of room temp takes which miss the point, I think. It’s a hallmark of the revisionist subgenre, but not because it revises the Western’s traditional gender roles in its titular characters. This is merely one note, not the whole tune, as has been suggested.
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This is a movie where the town’s eponymous church—its social and moral center—cannot hold, it literally goes up in flames, and it would seem that any revision of narrative and character tropes is subject to this conflagration. McCabe is not too human to bear the burdensome duty of the hero, instead he is destroyed by it. Mrs. Miller is not liberated from women’s work, but transformed into a winnowed-out businesswoman. Most importantly, the bad guys, not the morally vague guys, win, and it cannot be overstated that this, more than anything, classifies it as a revision of the standard Western. After all, it is at bottom a Western, revisionist or otherwise, and the Western, as the great stanchion of the middlebrow, should not be overthought. This is of course difficult when what passes for overthinking, deeper thinking—all that dreaded nuance—is actually the refusal to think. Come to think of it, there’s not much more to say for McCabe and Mrs. Miller and so I probably won’t do a future essay on it. Because this essay is coming late, consider it a two-for-one.
A couple of the movies on Criterion are set in Wyoming. Why did I choose Andre DeToth’s Day of the Outlaw? Mostly because DeToth has one of the best personal life sections on Wikipedia that I’ve ever read, which is in so few words tells you everything you might want to know about a great filmmaker: that he was married seven times and that he once showed his dick to a bunch of Egyptians to prove he wasn’t an IDF commander. Also because I felt like I needed to start off with a pretty standard Western.
Day of the Outlaw, barring the Wyoming winter as a location and plot device, is a pretty standard Western. That said, I have no idea what a standard Western actually entails. I really should have watched a few standard Westerns or at least read a book about them before starting, but because I watched Day of the Outlaw first, it’s now the bar against which everything else I watch will be measured.
Set in a fictional Bitters, Wyoming, Day of the Outlaw presumably borrows this milieu from the historical Johnson County War, the moment in Wyoming and Old West history that I’m most interested in. I’ll save a real excursus on the Johnson County War for a later essay, assuming there is a more dedicated film about it, but in brief it was a conflict between the wealthy, established ranchers and the homesteaders looking to establish themselves in a newly incorporated Wyoming. The overtones of class struggle are obvious, but there is a significant caveat. The idea of an unpropertied, open frontier actually played to the advantage of the wealthy, established ranchers of the Wyoming Stock Growers Association because it prevented the homesteaders from claiming property of their own. Thus, the open frontier, rather than being some mythologized symbol of collective ownership, was instead the means by which the WGSA monopolized their holdings. This is why the class antagonism of the Johnson County War is so favored by the culture industry, along with this idea of the open frontier itself; the future they offer is already foreclosed, the desire for private property is the first move in a losing battle.
It is no surprise then that the hero of Day of the Outlaw, Blaise Starrett, embodies this open spirit of the frontier with his stock rugged individualism. He was the first to arrive in Bitters before it was Bitters. He felled the first tree, cut the first lumber, and raised the first structure. The movie opens with a shot of this frontier, Starrett and his pardner Dan are mere specks on the invisible road into town. We hear them arguing about something, and as they move closer to us, we see what it is they are arguing about—Hal Crane has ordered a wagonload of material for building a fence around his land. Starrett is ready to kill Crane over this transgression against the open frontier, he’s also sleeping with Crane’s wife Helen, but she’s told him their future together is cancelled if he kills her husband. On the morning of the showdown, though, Crane is outgunned. Dan is too drunk to shoot, and the other farmers in Bitters have sided with Crane and have designs to erect fences of their own. I have a feeling that every Western has to have a progressively more creative plot device for what initiates the shootout, so going forward I’ll be rating these plot devices on a ten-point scale. In Day of the Outlaw, an empty whisky bottle is rolled from one end of the bar to the other; when it hits the ground, it’s time to draw. Again, I have no idea if this is a brilliant innovation or the oldest trick in the book, but because the feigned suspense of the rolling bottle goes in a different direction than we think, and actually did take me by surprise, I’ll give this one a 7/10. The bottle never shatters, the six-shooters are never shot, and as the camera tracks along the bar, in walks Captain Jack Bruhn and his band of outlaws.
Burl Ives’ performance as Bruhn commands Day of the Outlaw. I knew he was a big deal in Western movies and country music, but thought his role was to bring a little levity; to sing a jangly little song about the trail, stray doggies, or his darling Clementine. That is not the case here. It is no coincidence that Jack Bruhn is a former captain of the Union Army rather than a lieutenant or corporal. He has an Ahabian moroseness and a fateful wound that tells his story, sustained in a robbery of an army loot caravan, and now on the run, he has made it to Bitters to rest before trekking on. As for why he has betrayed the army, all we are given is his deep regret about his order to massacre Mormons some years before. Despite his own disloyalty, his men are fiercely loyal to him, and he is the only thing keeping each of them from killing the others and running off with the gold. But the threat of mutiny is never far off, and the more brutish amid his outlaws demand some R&R while they’re in Bitters—namely the town’s whisky and women—which the Captain denies them. “We’ll pleasure ourselves at the end of the trail,” Bruhn tells them, capturing the remorseful austerity that consumes him.
But the end of the trail is coming soon for Bruhn. The town veterinarian, the closest thing to a doctor, tells Starrett, now a prisoner along with the rest of the Bitters townsfolk, that Bruhn will succumb to his wound. Tensions are high—a blizzard is incoming, Starrett continues to defy a dying Bruhn, the army is still hot on his trail, and his men grow more and more restless. It looks increasingly likely that Bruhn’s last stand will happen here, soon, and Bitters will be destroyed along with him. To save the town, Starrett offers to lead the outlaws out through a pass in the mountains, and of course there is no pass in the mountains—he intends to lead all of them to their deaths. The deception succeeds. The next morning, Bruhn and the outlaws are saddled up and ready to ride, but a girl who has gone sweet on the youngest and most innocent of the group informs her beloved of Starrett’s treachery. The boy informs Bruhn, who is prepared to kill Starrett until Starrett tells him what he already knows—he will die from his wound either way—and so Bruhn accepts his fate and continues on with his doomed voyage. Out in the wilderness, the gang is picked off one by one; as soon as Bruhn falls from his horse, his outlaws begin to kill each other, but spare Starrett as they believe he is the only one who knows of the non-existent pass. Soon it is only three, Starrett and the two most vicious of the outlaws. As they settle in for the night, they try and kill him, but rather than fight back, he allows nature take its course and shelters in a cave. In the morning, the bandits are frozen to death, and Starrett triumphantly returns to his ranch.
As I write this, I feel as though all I’ve provided is an extended summary of the movie, and if this was a film review now is the part where I endow the film with the meaning you were too stupid to pick up on as you watched it, a meaning which connects it to the what-are-we-mad-about-today culture war politics du jour. If this was a film review, I’d probably say something like this:
“Of course, in a movie like Day of the Outlaw, where the hero embodies the spirit of the frontier, and where the hostile environment plays such an important role, we expect nature to be that which brings the bad guys to justice. But Starrett himself is spared from the storm, and instead, the blizzard is an extension of Starrett’s responsibility to defeat the antagonists. Rather than a revolver, he enlists nature to complete this task. It is this relationship between man and nature—neither reverence toward it nor mastery of it, but instead the instrumentalization of it in an idealized form—which locates it within the spirit of the American West. We find the most salient expression of this instrumentalization with Roosevelt’s conservationism, which comes at a time when there is no longer a West to expand into, no longer an open frontier for the homesteader to harness his vain hopes upon, but when there nevertheless remains a need to preserve this ideology which played such a vital part in the national consciousness over the past century. In this way, the mythology of the open frontier or even the ‘Wild West,’ which was never lawless but always governed by the laws of capitalist expansion, passes into myth of our current environmentalism; the same spirit is maintained in the form of sequestered National Parks and other wilderness areas, which serve as the justification for our destruction of nature elsewhere.”
But this isn’t a film review. And besides, a summary tells you more about my interpretation than if I were to give you that interpretation outright.
I saw a Twitter thread recently about how film criticism has become so bankrupt these days that all we see is “Movie You Watched: Explained,” which is hilarious to me on the one hand because mainstream criticism has literally always been that—public opinion has literally always been that—but moreover because a Twitter thread explaining the proliferation of Vulture headlines and YouTube thumbnails like “Movie You Watched: Explained” is evidence of the same kind of thinking: “Why Every Headline You See Is ‘Movie You Watched: Explained:’ Explained.” I find Twitter threads like this more pitiable than the pitiable state of mainstream criticism—at least Vulture is only making such headlines because they know people are googling those exact words and they’ll get more clicks that way. The algorithims know that the arc of public thinking and public discourse has been to bring opinion—the sphere of discussion and debate—into the sphere of doxa—that which is an unquestioned social truth; these are merely the most recent techniques in the perfection of this long and ongoing process. We, on the other hand, must have an opinion. That there will be endless debate about increasingly trivial things is the only undisputed guarantee, and implies that any genuine thinking that once perhaps belonged to the sphere of opinion is long gone. Thus, all opinion becomes spoon-fed explanation. It goes without saying, and therefore must be said again, not that anyone is listening or would even hear if they were: the so-called culture war is not a battlefield but a colosseum.
What I mean to say is that I don’t want this to be a film review—I don’t want this to be “Day of the Outlaw: Explained,” but I’m worried that all writing and all thinking can only ever be that. Then I feel like I’m back at square one, once again—I am too terrified by the impossibility of writing, and so I choose not to write, as if this perceived, illusory sense of agency were not utterly pathetic in the face of this impossibility which has been forced upon me. One does not decide against or in favor of impossibility; impossibility is the absence of decision. Part of me thinks I can allay this fear with irony, continue to write Western Revisionism with a tongue-in-cheek, if-you-can’t-beat-em-join-em attitude, but irony can merely inflate a wound in the place of an ego, it can’t puncture through real terror. And this terror of the impossibility of writing is nothing new, is itself a mere explanation, for Blanchot it was the center of the eternal recurrence of the same. But now nobody reads Blanchot, and only bodybuilders read Nietzsche, and their overcompensation drives them to some far-flung, depressing corner of the Empire; so far, in fact, that they convince themselves the Empire is no longer watching, and they are safe enough to compensate, to finally satiate the desire that has so long been deprived. But they forget, more likely they had never known, that the Empire is neither a territory, nor a map of a territory, but was always an eyeball—the remotest possibility and the farthest frontier are permissible only because they are visible, the invisible does not exist, and in the place of the ubermensch we can have only the uberkompensieremensch.
Is that really what I think? Probably not. I’ve been sitting on that ubermensch thing for a while though, and I needed a reason to write it down. Was that the best way to write it down? Probably not. But I can’t reiterate enough that Western Revisionism is just an excuse for me to write. I have no idea for its form, no expectations for its content, and no agenda for what it will explain. I do think it would be funny, though, if this ended up being a parody of a Substack that used Western movies as a crutch for social criticism that always descended into an insane Blanchot-esque paradox about the impossibility of writing. That paradox is genuinely something that fascinates me, both for the social conditions that cause it and as a phenomenon in and of itself. And it’s true that no one reads Blanchot anymore, which makes him a great writer to imitate. As attractive as that is that route is, though, it will undermine any sociological insight I might have and come across as if I need to wrap all my philosophical thinking in a layer of ironic gauze, to make it ambiguous like some kind of intellectual coward. And that might make me guilty of turning Western Revisionism into the same kind of “Life: Explained” writing that terrifies me so much, but damn, some of you people are straight-up wrong and need that shit explained. Am I saying that I am right? Probably not.
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