Among my many favorite fiction genres as a boy were Westerns and I remain fascinated about them to this day. Blame it on the Greenville County Library Bookmobile that would park every couple of weeks at Ebenezer Welcome Baptist Church bringing a random selection of pulpy Max Brand Westerns for me to devour. Brand, whose real name was Frederick Schiller Faust and was known as King of the Pulp, wrote over 220 Westerns before he was killed in WW2. Faust was no Faulkner but his readers were never confused about who the heroes were.
As a teenager, I moved on to Stephen King’s Dark Tower series that chronicles the adventures of Roland, the last gunslinger and his search for the tower. Though King once commented that his writing was the “literary equivalent of a Big Mac and fries”, I disagree. Drawing from the poetry of Robert Browning’s Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came and T. S. Eliot’s The Waste Land, King continues a long literary tradition that traces directly back to Beowulf. A tradition of storytelling about the individual warrior/knight/gunslinger who completes his quest in the face of overwhelming odds. A tradition that represents the best of Western Civilization and American Individualism. King went so far as to say that JFK was our last gunslinger, though I would add Reagan to the list. Should we included Biden and Trump, the princes of non-interventionism and isolationism? Nah. Wearing the big iron would be wasted on them.
As a young adult, I discovered Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian, a disturbingly apocalyptic novel set in the 1850’s West, whose ending proves that as a genre, Westerns can leave us with the big questions about fallen humanity, redemption, science, religion and the personification of the prince of the power of the air. In fact, Blood Meridian raises such a disturbing religious question that it has become known as unfilmable by Hollywood – surprising since Hollywood has been able to profit from all types of Westerns even ones with misinterpreted religious undertones like The Power of the Dog.
As a middle-aged adult, I could have been fine without discovering The Power of the Dog, a film that uses the 1920’s West to frame a story of gay-on-gay violence with a little bit of a messiah complex thrown in as suggested by the title taken from Psalm 22:20. The film begins with the boorish behavior of the main character Phil Burbank, not very well played by a chap-wearing banjo-picking Benedict Cumberbatch, toward, well . . . everyone.
Phil’s rudeness, apparently driven by his struggle with his sexuality, continues throughout the film until he is murdered by his brother’s new stepson, Peter, who also struggles with his sexuality and who is mad at Phil for being rude to Peter’s mother. If we are to believe that Peter represents the messianic figure suggested by the film’s title as being Christ-like in the defense of his mother, then I find that, well . . . unbelievable. There is more mommy-complex than messiah about Peter.
In my minds-eye of the West, rude Phil would have been shot for his behavior at the beginning of the film and saved us a tedious slog through this tragedy of manners, but then I do approach Westerns with a good amount of toxic masculinity.
The Power of the Dog contends for the 2022 Academy Award for Best Picture this weekend. A hero’s tale it is not.