To celebrate the 100th birthday of John Wayne, MGM, in what it must think is a marketing coup, has released a set of DVD's featuring Gary Cooper. In the dusty, archaic world of the Western, Cooper was the awkward and geekily sincere older brother to the swaggering, mannerist Wayne. Whereas Wayne never really left the ranch and cultivated a distinct but narrow set of physical traits centering around his famous walk, Cooper's expressive range was even narrower--he relied heavily on an incredulous squint--but he was more adventuresome in the choice of his roles. Still, like a lot of actors who appeared frequently in Westerns, Cooper turned every film he appeared in into a Western. As Dave Kehr puts it,
Cooper seemed to carry the West with him, the living embodiment (on screen, at least) of all the virtues that best-selling authors like Harold Bell Wright and Zane Grey had built into their western heroes: a taciturn independence, a distrust of city folk and their fast-talking ways, an unshakable sense of right and wrong and enough skill in violence to back up his convictions.
The Western has the reputation of being the most codified of American film genres (I would nominate the horror film, but that's a different blog entry), and Cooper, like Wayne, always seemed most comfortable within the Western's oppositions of social order and anarchy: East versus West, town versus wilderness, garden versus desert, the group versus the individual. Cooper's clipped voice and stiff body were natural vehicles for reciting the Western hero's lines, which often began with "I have to . . ." or "All I know is . . ."
Sometimes, though, the Western hero was thrown a bit of an ethical curve ball, and it takes an entire movie to work it out. In The Virginian (1929), Cooper's character, known simply as "The Virginian," joins a posse to that has captured his friend, who is accused of cattle rustling. According to the code of the West, the rustler must be executed, but the Virginian must also be loyal to his friend, who's been forced into a life of crime by the film's true villain, Trampas. The head rustler taunts the Virginian, calling him a coward, and Trampas is right: the Virginian is guilty of perpetrating violence against his friend and hiding behind the posse's phony righteousness. The Virginian, then, is as much about the hero's redemption as it is about his friend's exoneration. The film moves slowly towards the Western's archetypal confrontation, the shootout. By this time, though, the violence is socially sanctified. The Virginian resisted the temptation to simply gun down Trampas, for restraint is part of the code of the Western. (Here it diverges from the modern action film.) Unfortunately for Cooper's taciturn hero, his girlfriend, the Eastern school teacher, is grossed out by the shootout, too, and lets him know it. She has not yet been indoctrinated into the code of the Western. But time is always on the Western hero. Rather than riding off into the sunset, we're left with the idea that he eventually wins her over with a long series of adoring squints.