Wild Wild West

JeremiahJohnson gave the Injun a kick that must have crippled him, then he gave him a blow as of a sledgehammer between the eyes. Johnson knew he had little time. Seizing the guard’s own knife, Johnson lifted his scalp and tied it to his own belt. Next he slit the buckskin down from the guard’s left leg, felt the flesh, ran the knife’s keen edge around the hip, and cut to the bone socket.

Seizing the knee with one hand and the ankle with the other, he twisted and snapped the whole leg from the body. The victim lived. Johnson stepped into the shadows of the night with the bleeding stump over his shoulder. 

Frontier take out food.

I’ve loved westerns since I was a kid. Belonging to a group of nerdy kids growing up, rainy Saturday afternoons were often spent in a basement wreck room watching Kung Fu films, war movies or westerns. These films entertained and spurred our young imaginations. Surely, our sunny afternoons were spent in the woods recreating battles between Nazis and commandos or cowboys and Indians. I’d usually end up tied to a chair and getting scalped or being traded off for secret Nazi information. Either way, by the time I was heading home for dinner I was usually killed as a traitor or lacking hair.

Westerns were perfect for a group of kids. There were good guys, bad guys, scalping, mountains, horses, cowboys and Indians and Chinese cuisine. The classic westerns we grew up watching complimented our miniature imaginations as well. There was violence, but nothing too grotesque, the bad guys always lost and the good guy always got the girl or rode off alone into the romantic sunset with a pan of Kung Pao chicken and his trusty rifle.

This is, of course, crap.

My continued interest in western novels and films has destroyed that romantic vision of the western story and the passage above is a perfect example. It comes from a book called Crow Killer: The Saga of Liver Eating Johnson, obviously a romantic comedy aimed towards children. The book is a true story about a mountain man whose entire goal in life becomes to avenge his wife’s murder at the hands of a band of Crow Indians. He does this by killing them, scalping them, and removing and then eating their livers raw. Again – true story. The book features other mountain men killing Indians for sport. It contains Indians who rape and pillage, scalp and disembowel, castrate and maim. There are women and children being raped, disemboweled and left for vultures to pick at.

To my knowledge, nobody ever got castrated during our forest recreations.

The movie version of Crow Killer features Robert Redford as Johnson, who, like the book character, does have a big beard, enjoys cooking, loses a wife and kills lots of Indians. However, strain my memory though I may, I do not recall him removing or eating one liver. Nor, as in the passage above, does he rip off a man’s leg for take away before stumbling through the wilderness.

The same censorship can be seen with any genre of entertainment meant to capture audience attention and instill adventure. Disney’s Cinderella often leaves out the evil step-sisters cutting their toes and heels off to fit into the glass slipper. Look at the difference between The Longest Day and Saving Private Ryan, two World War II movies about the same event, D-Day. The history is the same, but there are much fewer intestines and caved in faces in The Longest Day.

In the traditional western the lines are clearly drawn and we know who to root for. You always pulled for John Wayne, the sheriff or the guy in white; you were against the Indian or the evil-looking dude in black. In the more realistic books and films, lines between good and bad are vague, whether they are wearing white, scalping someone, raping, killing or wearing a badge.

But this is good, right because we all want honesty in our art, right?  So what’s the problem with breaking traditional representations if they are not accurate?

Well, sometimes it just freaks you out.

But if you don’t mind being freaked out, or reading novels that break some of the traditional misconceptions I recommend Blood Meridian, Lonesome Dove and Crow Killer: The Saga of Liver Eating Johnson.

What’s a book (in any genre) that broke your traditional thoughts about something?

  1. #1 by Allison on October 15, 2012 - 6:15 pm

    The Bible, when I really read it for the first time… Old Testament especially. The Israelites committing mass genocide was definitely left out of my Sunday School lessons.

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