Lyrical Westerns like Monte Walsh and kindred blood-brothers Junior Bonner and Pat Garret and Billy the Kid were all released in the 1970’s, a decade of American Cinema flushed with poetic genre revisionism and complex characterizations. These films deconstruct iconography by putting a special emphasis on the conflict between friendship and survival, framing these relationships within the dynamic context of a changing frontier. Ambiguous characters replace once standard archetypes of heroism and villainy, while violence stems from social circumstance, not genre expectation. By and large these beautiful films connect the shifting landscape with character psychology, which makes Monte Walsh and its almost elemental focus on character interaction a fascinating deviation from the brooding, fateful Peckinpah films.
Monte Walsh begins in Anthony Mann country, as Monte (Lee Marvin) and Chet (Jack Palance) ride down a rigid mountainside only to encounter a wolf. Director William A. Fraker sets up these characters immediately as Monte aims his rifle, then pauses to reflect on an old story he heard about a man who wrestled wolves. Chet, tired of Monte’s musings, grabs the rifle and quickly shoots the wolf. In a moment, we learn about one man’s devotion to the memory of tradition, and another’s pragmatic determination toward moving forward. The film follows Monte and Chet as they look for work in a desolate town, ride as cowboys for a fledgling outfit recently purchased by a East-coast conglomerate, and inevitably face the pressure of change from all directions.
But plot plays second fiddle to mood and tone in Monte Walsh, a film completely keen on showing the roughly poetic interactions between cowboys, the intricacies of their grueling work, and the melancholy feeling of losing one’s self to an evolving world. Fraker greatly respects Monte and his colleagues, painting their warm interactions against closed backdrops and dirty interiors, forcing the viewer to see them as people instead of icons amidst horizons. Even when one character turns to a life of crime because of impossible circumstances, the film sees his downfall as an offshoot of the economic drain from corporate domination, the open range dwindling into a fenced in mind-numbing stasis.
The true genius of Monte Walsh stems from how it handles tragedy, how Monte is absent from almost every scene of loss while the viewer gets to fully witness each. In turn, standard Western conventions begin to impose themselves on Monte’s life like phantoms of a lost world, pushing revenge, honor, and sacrifice to the forefront as Monte deals with his own failure to save the people he loves. But for this hero, all roads lead back to that first moment in the film – where simplicity and understanding of the past become both inspiring and sorrowful, a reminder of the nostalgic times and of how quickly they fade away. Considering the mournful endings of other lyrical Westerns, Monte Walsh stands out as a sly and beautifully subtle rumination on all themes Western, and for that matter all themes American.