Content Warning: This review contains discussion of violence and anti-Indigenous racism.
Last weekend, the Cornell Cinema presented the 1958 low-budget Western Ride Lonesome on a tattered, well-loved 35 mm print, both a fitting visual experience for a genre which has largely fallen out of fashion with contemporary audiences and an ironic one, given the genre’s depiction of a lifestyle that, even in the genre’s hay day, remained a wistful reflection of a time since passed. Ride Lonesome, appearing as part of the Cinema’s Cinemascope series, is the most famous of the so-called Ranown cycle, a series of B-Westerns directed by Budd Boetticher and starring Randolph Scott at the tail end of a period of non-revisionist Westerns before Italian Spaghetti Westerns reimagined the genre in the 1960s. Underrated in their day, the films were quickly reappraised by French Critics and have since received wider acclaim stateside, being hailed by Martin Scorsese and awaiting canonization in the Criterion Collection this July.
Ride Lonesome opens with a quintessential Western image: a lone figure on a horse riding through the dusty hills of an unknown, and perhaps unnamed, territory. Ben Brigade, played reservedly by Randolph Scott, is a mysterious bounty hunter, pursuing and capturing the murderer Billy John, who is to be hanged once the two get to town. As they go on, they are joined by a woman and two men who are themselves hunting after Billy John, all while fleeing from the looming threats of Native Americans and Billy John’s brother Frank, who is chasing the crew with his own gang of bandits.
The West of Ride Lonesome is sparse, populated not by towns with saloons, railroads or ranches, but by isolated ruins, minimal structures and miles and miles of blank landscape. The characters, shot to look small against the vast Cinemascope desert, have not tamed the wilderness, but allow themselves to be enveloped by it. Civilization remains far off, alluded to but never seen, and each and every “permanent” structure seen is abandoned, a failure. John Ford’s westerns depict a battle of civilization against nature, but here Boetticher depicts the battle as fought and lost by civilization, with few stragglers either waiting to be swallowed up, or already having succumbed to the landscape.
With few exceptions, classical Westerns are uniformly rife with anti-Indigenous racism, presenting caricatures of Natives as threats and villains with little self-reflection. Ride Lonesome is no exception, featuring a largely faceless band of Native Americans presented as inexplicably violent to our noble protagonists, but, as tends to happen, the film manages to stumble on an interesting truism in its largely depiction of the West. As one character asks why the Natives seek to kill them, and the other responds that it is simply because they’re white, I was struck by the bluntness with which the film tackles these ever expanding invaders — frankly, the characters aren’t supposed to be there. Any sense of Manifest Destiny is betrayed by the fact that nothing seems to be working, no one seems to agree and the only characters who have managed to survive out West are murderers and profit-seeking bounty hunters (always bloodthirsty in their own right).
Scorsese, in his appraisal of Ride Lonesome, refers to the long American cinematic tradition of lone gunmen, including his film Taxi Driver. Though Brigade and Taxi Driver’s Bickle may seem to fall on opposite ends of the moral spectrum when it comes to character identification, Scorsese’s reading provides an interesting layer to the film. The alienation of Bickle and self-imposed isolation of Brigade are two sides of the same coin, an ode to American individualism. Brigade remains largely obstinate when faced with opportunity for collaboration, only offering an olive branch once he’s achieved brutal vengeance. Neither Brigade nor Bickle are able to function in their isolation, though each insists on attempting as such to violent ends (with Brigade similarly operating under the pretense of appeasing a silenced female presence). Together, they represent the Randian ideal of America: an individualistic hero, leaving destruction in his wake just as he ascends to the status of great man.
Ride Lonesome is a brilliant Western, made better by its intoxicatingly brief 73 minute runtime. Like most great entries in the genre, it acts as a project building the American mythology. Here, however, the West exists not as a conquered subject of American exceptionalism, but as a realized failure of Manifest Destiny. The characters, all either partly pernicious or completely deprived of agency, walk aimlessly through the wilderness, hoping that their isolation will add up to greatness. In the end, all that remains is a burning hanging tree, an act of violence committed upon an object designed for violence. The brutality of the West, still sanitized and bloodless before Leone and Corbucci would open the floodgates a decade later, needs to be no more explicit than it is here: tragic, violent, lonesome.
Max Fattal is a sophomore in the School of Industrial and Labor Relations. They can be reached at [email protected]