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Westward once again

"I was told when I grew up I could be anything I wanted: a fireman, a policeman, a doctor — even president, it seemed. And for the first time in the history of mankind, something new, called an astronaut. But like so many kids brought up on a steady diet of Westerns, I always wanted to be the avenging cowboy hero — that lone voice in the wilderness, fighting corruption and evil wherever I found it, and standing for freedom, truth and justice. And in my heart of hearts I still track the remnants of that dream wherever I go, in my endless ride into the setting sun." — Bill Hicks

If I recall, it was either "Big Jake" or "Hondo." Perhaps it was "The Sons of Katie Elder." All I remember for sure is it was one of the Duke's lesser films. But still entertaining as hell.

The scene is a living room on some Sunday evening in the Midwest. It's the '80s. A John Wayne flick is playing on a 24-inch, 496-pound Zenith console. I'm stuffed into a narrow slot between my father's left hip and the puffy armrest of a La-Z-Boy. We're watching the Duke box some old hoss' ears and calmly tell a pretty lady to relax and just trust that everything would work out. And if it didn't, he'd shoot enough people so that all the trouble would go away by default.

Near the end of the movie — after the Duke has boxed enough ears, put the pretty lady in her place by enforcing his rigid masculine values and blown plenty of holes through plenty of baddies — my father leaned forward and pointed at the screen.

"See, son, that's the way a real man acts," he said.

For better or worse, that moment with my father has shaped my worldview going forward, most likely up until I join Hicks in that setting sun.

Like Hicks, I grew up binging on Westerns. Of course, the Duke was the gateway. I mean the guy was a monolith. I still believe they should blast one president's face off Mount Rushmore and replace it with John Wayne's visage, circa "The Searchers" era.

(But which president? I'd throw off Jefferson. He was amazing and all, but could you imagine having the Duke glaring toward the horizon along with Washington and Teddy Roosevelt? Now that's a true testament to what made America what it is. Testosterone, baby. By this rationale, you'd think I'd bump Lincoln. No way. Lincoln could have taken any other president in a fistfight. He had the reach and all his biographers take time to describe how country strong Abe was.)

I got older. The Duke's (mostly, see "The Searchers") black-and-white, good-over-evil ethos proved limiting as I grew into the skeptic you see today.

Along came Clint Eastwood, Lee Van Cleef, Charles Bronson, a horde of Italian directors putting their harsh stamp on the American West and, finally, the apocalyptic angels of "The Wild Bunch." And there were the stories of Larry McMurtry, Cormac McCarthy, L'Amour, Elmore Leonard and the vastly underrated Westerns of Robert Parker. All exploded the myths and dug deep into a frayed and bloody national psyche.

Does justice and purity have a place in the myth of the American West? Sure. But for the most part, the real West was teaming with cowards (Robert Ford), money-grubbers (all railroad men), corrupt lawmen (Wyatt Earp) and stunningly violent psychopaths (again, Wyatt Earp and one Jesse James).

I haven't thought about my love of the Western genre much in recent years. My last true touch with it came in 2007 when I declared "The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford" the best picture of that year. By far.

But it all came rushing back to me this past week as I watched "True Grit" at the Varsity in Ashland. I haven't experienced the pure joy of watching a movie like that in some time.

It's not a perfect film. Far from it. It's not even the Coen Brothers' best film. But the Coens' tricky slant on Western formalism and adherence to author Charles Portis' verbal poetry won me over completely.

Then I got to thinking. Maybe we're seeing a resurgence in Westerns in popular culture. "No Country for Old Men" won Best Picture. Fox's neo-Western "Justified" is one of the best shows on television, along with "Sons of Anarchy" which is, for the most part, a Western strewn with motorcycles instead of horses.

I can only hope we'll see more takes on the Western genre in the coming years.

All I know is "True Grit" is the surprise hit of the winter, which was supposed to be dominated by the big-bucks, geek-crack "Tron: Legacy."

"Tron" certainly wasn't a bomb, but for a movie that was previewed during last year's Super Bowl and splashed onto every fashionable magazine, there sure aren't a lot of people talking about it.

"True Grit" on the other hand has been reaping solid word-of-mouth buzz and bringing out a mature audience, a segment of society that has eschewed theaters for more than a decade.

My take: The garish iPhone world of "Tron" just can't compete with the quiet but discomforting beauty of snow wisping through a jagged Southwestern pass in "True Grit."

See them both and tell me which sticks in your brain two weeks later.

Reach reporter Chris Conrad at 541-776-4471 or e-mail cconrad@mailtribune.com.