Being Called a Cowboy

Some of my upcoming posts may be directed at a DS106 course that I’ve decided to check-out. I’m not all that familiar with the DS structure so we’ll see how it goes and I’ll be feeling my way around a bit, starting with some ramblings.

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What does it mean to be called a cowboy? Cowboys are a part of actual American history, and even today they exist as an occupation and lifestyle. But “The Cowboy” also exists as an image. When a writer or a storyteller shows a character as a ‘cowboy’ they are communicating a pre-set package of attributes, an archetype, a storyline. Thinking through some of my favorite stories, I wonder what the role of the cowboy image plays, and what qualities these stories and characters have in common.

In Die Hard (1988), the most classic of all Christmas movie classics, the cowboy theme is interwoven through plot and character. McClane, referred to countless times directly as a cowboy and as one through context and scene, literally flies in to save the day, rustic attire and all. His down to earth, real-guy ways are contrasted with the city-slicker flash of Ellis in the film, who just won’t seem to listen to the cowboy. Considered an outlaw himself by the good guys, McClane is forced into a position to take on the bad guys – forced by circumstance and by an inner set of values that could never let him surrender to the gang of bank-robber types, led by Hans Gruber who is eventually revealed as “nothing but a common thief”. Cowboy McClane is a loner, shown as alone both estranged from his family and alone in the Japanese owned Nakatomi Plaza, surrounded by European thieves. By contrast, the American McClane very much represents the cowboy of pragmatic American history.

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Hans Gruber may as well be spinning a lasso in this scene

With The Cowboy so deeply connected to nostalgic American history, it’s interesting to consider how much influence Japanese Samurai movies have had on this image. It’s also a wonder why such a collectivist society as Japan could contribute to a cultural image so linked to feelings of individuality and “take it upon oneself”ness. I think the first wonder may point to a deeper, universal character shared by both the Samurai and the Cowboy…the Knight, the Voyageur, etc. The second wonder may point to an extensive characterization of The Cowboy apart from the loner and the individual, and more in-line with the bushido ideals of a romanticized “golden age” past and an inherent sense of what is right and wrong. Elements of this are certainly evident in Die Hard – bad guys and good guys are obvious as watching a Star Wars movie.

Two famous samurai movies, Seven Samurai (1954) and Yojimbo (1961), take this sense of knowing inherent right and wrong to another level in that main characters (embodiment of the Cowboy/Samurai image) act upon their conscience, to their own detriment and to their knowing lack of eventual benefit to their own selves. Again, this is a strong theme in Die Hard with the under-appreciated John McClane who knows he fights against the odds, but still does so. Kambei, in Seven Samurai, is introduced into the story playing the role of a selfless monk as part of a ruse to help capture a crazy bandit. Throughout recruitment of the other samurai and throughout the battle preparations there is a sense of thanklessness that Kambei constantly acknowledges. Even his final words of the movie comment of the inevitable fact that they have not won anything – it is the farmers and the bandits who have either won or lost. The Samurai are merely agents that reestablish order in a world where good needs to prevail over evil. In the movie Yojimbo, Sanjuro mysteriously and covertly, to both the restaurant owner and to the viewer, works as an agent for good throughout the film until order, as he sees it, is restored and the town is rid of bad guys and dishonorable ways of fighting. Such restoration of order reminds me of a Shakespeare play, and while it’s probably a stretch to consider a Hamlet as a cowboy figure, he does have some qualities in common with that categorical universal character that cowboys are also a part of.

When thinking of cowboy figures, my mind immediately jumps to an image of Lupin the Third. He’s more of a Robin Hood archetype, but again there are qualities that the both share. An inner sense of fairness, a loner type, an outlaw. Lacking perhaps is that sense of order and fight against the bad. Lupin and Robin Hood are certainly in the middle, often as Cowboys are, but they concern more with money and fairness rather than good vs evil. Theirs is a much more ambiguous, self-centered world. As an aside, it’s interesting to contrast The Cowboy image with that of The Solider – both act on orders of strict morality and ethics, but one takes them from within and one takes them from above.

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Spike Spiegel can even twirl a gun like an old west Buckaroo

A better example of a Cowboy figure from the world of anime is Spike Spiegel from Cowboy BeBop (1998). The name gives this one away, that and that he’s often referred to as Space Cowboy – outer space in the not so distant future being his frontier. He has many of the attributes I’ve mentioned above – a loner, an individual, an inner set of values, in between good and evil but fighting for what he sees as good, often forced into a position to take on the bad and dishonorable, and one additional attribute that stands out throughout the series: simplicity. In Die Hard we see McClane as a simple man: blue collar job, out of place among the rich and well-to-do, bare feet and a plain white undershirt. Spike is similar: he barely makes enough to eat, wears no ambition on his sleeve, and lives by the motto “Whatever happens, happens”. In one episode he meets his character doppelganger “Cowboy Andy” who shares Spike’s dimwittedness, an obvious similarity not lost on any of the other characters in the show and not lost on anyone watching it.

Cowboy movies are often simple, in the same way that good music, good writing, or good food is often simple. One of my favorite movies illustrates this point in its complexity. Unforgiven (1992) is a great Western, but a masterpiece of a Movie because it successfully strikes a deeper chord than the genre represented by Eastwood’s legendary classics. It tackles issues like gun control and the justice system in an emerging America. It takes us into the inner mind of a fantastically complex character in William Munny as he looks back on his life and confronts his own inner set of values. In a sense, it takes the cowboy with no name, and gives him one. Washing away his image, the image of The Cowboy.

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6 thoughts on “Being Called a Cowboy

  1. I have learnt a lot about the genre with this post. Welcome to DS106 and I look forward to learning with you. I need to revisit Cowboy BeBop in light of your thoughts here and I have never watched Unforgiven – that may be first on the list. I am a little scared of the Samurai Movies, but they seem to hold a key as to the essence of the archetype of the cowboy divorced from location…We start the journey…

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  2. Thanks for the compliment. Yes, I think there’s a lot of differences between the historical cowboy and the one we read about. I don’t think this makes the Cowboy as a literary device any less real for its own purpose..

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  3. As I am interested in both, the Western and Japanese media and art this is an awesome connection you have made here, I did not consider yet. (Sometimes I had liked to find a link to interesting things you have mentioned.)

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