War and Peace and John Wayne


When I was growing up, several television Westerns aired on a regular basis. I watched quite of few, including The Rifleman, The Lone Ranger, The Cisco Kid, and Here Come the Brides with heartthrob Bobby Sherman. On Big Valley, my crush was on Heath (Lee Majors before he got his bionic parts and became the Six Million Dollar Man). On Bonanza, it was Little Joe (Michael Landon before he moved into the Little House on the Prairie). My friend Magellan had Western-style clothes and hats and plastic horses for our Barbie dolls, so we lived vicariously through them, dating rugged Ken cowboys. It was the closest I ever got; Flash looked like Serpico when I married him, and he’s never owned a pair of cowboy boots in his life.

I enjoy classic Westerns movies, too, including a few starring John Wayne. At the risk of being charged with treason, I confess I’m not a huge fan of his acting. I heard your jaw drop, dear reader. But don’t judge me too harshly; I love several of his films, including True Grit and The Sons of Katie Elder. A great guy I dated in college, who thought he was The Duke, tried to increase my repertoire of John Wayne movies; he stayed on the phone with me for the duration of Big Jim McClain. He talked me through it, making sure I understood the magnificence of it all. But I was a poor student and never converted to the John Wayne Fan Club.

When I think of cowboys, I picture Clint Eastwood, James Garner, Lee Marvin, Jimmy Stewart, and Jack Palance, to name a few. But when it comes to the voices of the Old West, only two men excel above all others.

When I hear Henry Fonda’s smooth voice, I see him on his trusty steed, riding into an orange, purple, and red sunset as he travels to the next town to become a hero again. And then there’s Sam Elliot. He’s in a class by himself. But when I hear his deep voice, I picture me on his horse with him as we ride into the sunset together to live happily ever after. Sometime in the 90s, I spent a long lunch break driving around Kemah, Texas, with my friend Lurlene as we searched high and low for Sam, who was in the area making a movie. We never found him, but it was exhilarating to drive on the same road he walked on.

Recently, I watched my first Gary Cooper movie. I know, I’m a little behind. I’d been busy for a few decades. Poor Cooper. In High Noon, he's having a bad day. Just got married, about to leave for the honeymoon, and he finds out the creep he helped send to prison was just paroled and is on his way on the noon train to kill him. Cooper's a brave man who decides to postpone the honeymoon to face his enemy. Me? I would have been halfway to Fiji. But not our hero. Nope, he's got chutzpah. He's a marshal at heart. He catches nothing but grief from the cowards who call themselves citizens of the town, and even his new bride gets on the train to leave because she can't bear the stress of it all. There's loyalty for you. The preacher should have included "in gunfight or in health" in their wedding vows. I won’t ruin the end for you. I’ve often been driven to the brink of insanity by friends who told me how they thought a movie would end, while we were still watching the movie. There should be a special kind of incarceration for such viewing crimes.

Some say Westerns remind them of simpler times. Outhouses, horse poop, farming, gunfights, open prostitution, miniscule rights for women, corsets, and no Oil of Olay do not sound simpler to me; it was a rough life. But I enjoy seeing the good guys win after fighting for causes greater than themselves.

When Cowboy started high school, I thought it was time he shared in the whole experience. The dirt, the hats, the horses, the pretty girls, the cows – all of it. I had noticed he paid close attention when I flipped channels and landed on a Western. I’d ask, “Do you want to watch this or something different?”

Cowboy would point to the TV, indicating he wanted to watch the Western.

I’m protective about what I allow Cowboy to watch. Because of his autism, it can be difficult for him to process what he sees and hears, and he might take things literally. But I thought we should try to watch and see how it went. The first ten minutes were fine, then the violence jumped out at me off the screen, and at Cowboy, too. When a saloon fight ensued, Cowboy paced and became increasingly agitated. When actors argued or talked in loud voices, or even calmly disagreed, Cowboy would yell. He can smell tension a mile away, and even when things are not tense, he may perceive a serious conversation as such. So, I would change the channel, and Cowboy would immediately settle down. I tried a few more times on different days, but finally gave up on Westerns with my Cowboy.

More recently, we ran across Rooster Cogburn on TV one day after school. I thought we’d try again. I was determined to make it work and help Cowboy remain calm.

I told him Rooster (John Wayne) was a marshal, like a policeman, and Katherine Hepburn was a Christian woman traveling with him. The movie was already 30 minutes in when we started watching. Pow! Right off the bat, people were shooting each other. I narrated the entire fight scene. It's difficult to explain self-defense to a kid who used to be aggressive; every gunfight looks like aggression rather than survival. Next thing you know, I'm trying to explain war. I could’ve picked bullying. I could’ve picked law enforcement. I could’ve shut up and watched the movie. But no, I picked war as a teachable moment. What started as a tender mother-son experience as Cowboy watched his first full-length Western quickly became a class on what sounded like situational ethics.

Gilligan's Island would have been much easier at that point. Cowboy didn’t seem bothered by the movie, but my neurotic need to not traumatize my son was in full swing. All I could think was, How do I explain the violence to him after we’ve worked for years to teach him that aggression is not appropriate?

I continued on with my Cliff Notes version of good guys versus bad guys. Cowboy was probably looking for more horses and wondering why Mom’s brow was furrowed and her eyes looked worried.

I ran to Cowboy’s room and rummaged around in his closet for a flannel board, or Fisher Price Little People, or action figures, so we could use visual aids and do some role-playing during the movie. I found Woody, who looked the part, but Buzz Lightyear looked like he’d lost one too many battles in the galaxy; he needed some serious rehabilitation for his dangling arms. I decided to try the lecture approach again.

I can do this, I thought, as I returned to the couch. I just need to stick to the basics.

“Sometimes, there are people who do bad things. Those are the bad guys.”

Cowboy nodded.

“Then, the good guys have to protect themselves and other people, so they might have to shoot the bad guys.”

He nodded again as he glanced at the movie and laughed at the horses crossing a stream.

“Cowboy, are you listening?”

He nodded to appease me.

“Like when two countries have a war.” He looked at me, waiting. I was in way over my head. “And, so, they have to fight for their countries and for what is right.” 

I went on to explain the Revolutionary War. “…and that’s how we came to live in America. You understand?”

He nodded yet again.

In five sentences or less, I had summed up fighting for freedom from tyranny. I could’ve saved Tolstoy years of work on War and Peace and spared him writer’s cramp. 

I didn’t know if Cowboy was wondering what the big deal was or if he was wondering why we were watching a movie with shooting in it, since I had always turned the channel before. I have always told him, repeatedly, that movies are not real; they are pretend. The guns don’t shoot real bullets, and nobody gets hurt. “They are just telling a story by acting it out, and we cannot do those things,” I said, ending my dissertation.

I was exhausted from listening to myself. I finished my lesson the way any responsible parent would. I dropped the subject.

“Okay, then, let’s watch the rest of the movie!”

Twenty seconds later, the credits rolled.

Cowboy’s rite of passage into the world of Westerns was a rough one for me, and a noisy one for him with all my chattering. When he’s 30, maybe we’ll try The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance. For now, I can't take the pressure. So, until then, we’ll see how long it takes for those seven stranded castaways to be rescued off that island.