A West and a Western that Works?
Sherman Alexie and Chris Eyre’s Smoke Signals illustrates a different way to view the West—not as empire, but as a partner, a goal that parallels Joni Adamson’s vision of a “garden” and Dan Daggett’s description of its gardeners. Most recent Westerns, however, hark back to traditional narratives that valorize transforming a savage wilderness or desert into a civilized “empire.” Western films after World War II, then, tend to follow one of three patterns: Although these western films primarily draw on more traditional perspectives of the American West, at least a few films highlight mainstream environmentalist approaches to the natural world. The best of these films, however, move beyond the mainstream to valorize Joni Adamson’s garden metaphor and a middle place of environmental justice.
Although they do attempt to address current political and cultural concerns, The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (2007), 3:10 to Yuma (2007) Appaloosa (2008), and There Will Be Blood (2007) all embrace a traditional western narrative, with little reference to the environmental history on which the West was constructed. As if it were anticipating the 2008 devastation of pine forests of the West caused at least partly by relying on one environmental strategy, Riders of the Whistling Pines (1949) foregrounds a mainstream environmentalist message that valorizes the perspective of forest rangers over community members and a lumber magnate. Only films like Smoke Signals and Silver City fulfill Adamson’s goal, reinforcing a “garden” as a metaphor for the values and concerns of multicultural groups that fall outside mainstream American environmentalism and placing multiple voices into discussions about human and nonhuman nature.
In what looks like an anticipation of a 2008 eco-disaster, a lodgepole pine beetle infestation in the high country of New Mexico and Colorado, Riders of the Whistling Pines comes close to fulfilling Joni Adamson’s environmental justice aim but is limited by its reliance on solely mainstream environmentalist views. The film “discusses differently situated human practices and perspectives on nature” (Adamson xv) and arrives at a contingent and localized consensus on how best to protect forests. In Riders of the Whistling Pines Gene Autry illustrates earnest, but potentially deadly, attempts to save a forest by spraying it with DDT. The remedies applied in the film seem effective until assessed, understood, and critiqued in relation to our current context, a context that demonstrates that this use of chemicals serves as one of Dan Daggett’s “failed remedies” with long-term detrimental consequences for water, soil and wildlife in the Pacific Northwest. With its mainstream environmentalist message, Riders of the Whistling Pines falls short because it valorizes only one view—that of the park rangers who act as environmentalists working to save a forest in spite of possible detrimental consequences to both humans and their domesticated animals.
Other films invite viewers to “come together to discuss differently situated human practices and perspectives on nature; and arrive at consensus… about what our role in nature will be” (Adamson 184). Smoke Signals’ attention to multicultural voices is clear. But John Sayles’ Silver City also provides a space for multiple voices, especially those of the illegal migrant workers exploited in the film. Silver City valorizes the multiple voices found in Sayles’ Lone Star but adds nature to the mix by illustrating the continuing conflict between federal control and private ownership of lands and resources. In Silver City, a George W. Bush-like candidate for governor of Colorado, Dickie Pilager (Chris Cooper), advocates for small government and private ownership of government lands but unknowingly uncovers a murder and an environmental catastrophe.
Silver City introduces its focus on environmental concerns, murder, and politics from its opening montage sequence of election-focused sound bites and out-of-focus images of flags and political speakers. Bands of white neon foreground the environmental message presented by Pilager’s campaign with the title, “Richard Pilager cares about Colorado,” and a commercial filming in front of a lake, “the bucolic fishing thing,” Chuck Raven (Richard Dreyfuss), Pilager’s campaign manager, explains.
During the sequence, however, the murder and its eco-disaster foundation are introduced while Pilager voices his concern for the environment in a posed political advertisement and catches a human corpse instead of a fish. When the body smells of apricots, an environmental political message transforms into the site of a murder investigation and a possible environmental disaster. Through a covert murder investigation led by private detective Danny O’Brien (Danny Huston), Silver City foregrounds mainstream environmentalist concerns (toxic waste from silver mining runoff), but it also highlights environmental justice concerns by placing multicultural voices at the center, the voices of migrant workers mistreated and misused almost as virulently as the Earth.
Danny begins his investigation in Mitch Paine’s (Tim Roth), his old newspaper editor’s, web office where the political machine behind Pilager is revealed. Mitch’s website also shows how privatization is (still) constructed as the best solution for lands in the West. The site illustrates the Pilager family’s history of greed, questioning the Pilagers’ claims that their ancestor was a lone wolf prospector and explaining that the family had already diversified its interests after 1893 when the silver bubble burst, all in relation to the Bentel Corporation, run by Wes Benteen (Kris Kristofferson), who wishes to own and control all of the public lands in Colorado.
To ensure private control of public lands and their resources will be maintained, Benteen finances Pilager’s gubernatorial race, since he and Dickie’s father, Senator Judson Pilager (Michael Murphy), realize they can easily manipulate Dickie. When Benteen and Dickie ride out on horses to see the land, for example, Benteen tells him this is a land where “No Americans are allowed” because the bureaucrats own it all. “The Bureau of Land Management, the National Parks, the states” can’t see the big picture, which, for Benteen, means privatization. He asserts, “The land was meant for the citizens, not the pencil pushers in Washington,” claiming that they must “liberate those resources for the American people” and for men of vision like Benteen who know how to use them. Through a patriotic speech foregrounding private ownership, Benteen convinces Dickie to work to privatize public lands.
The film also shows how this view of private ownership has dire environmental consequences. An ex-mining engineer leading a tour of the Silver City mines, Casey Lyle (Ralph Waite), one of Raven’s suspects in the case, reveals some of the eco-disasters perpetrated by Benteen and Pilager, owners of the mine. He says, “You know, we think we can wound this planet. We think we can cut costs and stick the money in our pockets and just walk away with it. But some day the bill comes due.” When Danny tells him that he’s being watched, Casey explains how he took on Benteen and the Silver City Mine, so Casey and his crew would clean up their ecosystem. Casey had found acres and acres of tailings piled up and measured nasty PH ratings from the water around the mine because Benteen and Pilager were using and unsafely disposing of cyanide and pushing containments to one side, so the cyanide was getting in the water system. Casey’s plan to stop Benteen failed when he was fired for misuse of funds. But his story helps Danny begin solving the mystery of both the murder and the eco-disaster associated with it.
The trail of the murder victim, Lazaro Huerta (Donevon Martinez), however, leads Danny to another environmental disaster, one based on environmental injustice for illegal immigrant workers. As Al Gedicks asserts, “Native peoples are under assault on every continent because their lands contain a wide variety of valuable resources needed for industrial and military production” (168). Benteen exploits Mexican migrant workers in two ways: He literally exploits their labor for little compensation and at great cost to their health and welfare. And he exploits what was once their land for unfettered profit.
Sayles adds these multicultural voices to the discussion when Danny hires Tony Guerra (Sal Lopez) to help him find the source of the victim’s injuries and of the illegal migrant worker industry. Tony discovers that Vince Esparza (Luis Saguar) oversees illegal workers, including two, Fito (Aaron Vieyra) and Rafi (Hugo E Carbajal), who witnessed Lazaro’s death. Esparza nearly kills Tony, but he survives to tell Danny about the two workers he had intended to meet. At the mine, Fito and Rafi tell Danny that Lazaro was killed at the slaughterhouse where they were forced to work as part of the cleaning crew after midnight, washing the floors down with water mixed with chloride. In a flashback we see Lazaro fall from a scaffold when an out of control water hose knocks him to his death. According to Lazaro’s co-workers, Fito and Rafi, Esparza forced them to take Lazaro’s body to the mine and dump it in the shaft. When they returned three days later, the body was gone and the mine floor was full of water.
Now that the truth about Lazaro’s death is revealed, the truth about environmental degradation is also unearthed when Danny explores the mine to discover how the body floated from the mineshaft to the lake where it was found. When the police arrive at the mine, Fito and Rafi, migrant workers, run away and Danny grabs onto a timber near the shaft. When the timber breaks, Danny falls into the water-filled shaft and discovers why the body smelled of apricots. In the water around him are countless barrels labeled “toxic waste.” By solving the murder case, then, Danny also reveals an eco-disaster and seeks environmental justice for the migrant workers and for the aquatic life in the nearby lake. Esparza and his employer, Benteen, chose not to clean up toxic waste. They just dumped it into the mineshaft. Danny secretly reports his discovery to radical reporter Mitch Paine’s office staff knowing they will broadcast the news.
Even though the Pilagers and Benteens cover the entrance to the mine with concrete, and Mitch and his reporters can not uncover the waste containers, Danny addresses social injustices in the film. He sends Lazaro’s body home to Mexico and provides money for Lazaro’s family. And at the film’s conclusion, hundreds of dead fish appear on the lake where Dickie is giving another speech, with the patriotic song, “America the Beautiful” ringing in the background, highlighting eco-disaster rather than land acquisition and upsetting Dickie’s political ambitions.
Ultimately, the conflict between public and private ownership plays out against privatization in Silver City, even though the narrative seems to claim victory for Benteen in his quest to control all the land in Colorado. With public support from the governor’s office, public lands seem to become private investments, but the evidence that privatization and eco-disaster go hand in hand is overwhelming. The film’s parting scene of fish floating to the top of the poisoned lake gives us hope because it makes the ecological nightmare transparent and inserts the environment into a discussion that includes a variety of perspectives. When all voices—including that of nature—are in conversation, a middle place may be possible, the film asserts.
Like Adamson, we have attempted here to highlight that middle place and “theorize a way of reading that provides us with the tools we need for building a more satisfying multicultural ecocriticism and a more inclusive, multicultural environmentalism that can be united with other social movements to create a more livable world for humans and nonhumans alike” (184). Our goal is to extend Adamson’s “middle place” to readings of classic and contemporary western films. For us, then, films like Smoke Signals and Silver City best reflect this “middle place” and highlight ways to build a “garden” without destroying the land. These films invite viewers to “come together to discuss differently situated human practices and perspectives on nature; and arrive at consensus… about what our role in nature will be” (Adamson 184).
As Worster explains, "They say that we can live without the old fantasy of a pristine, inviolate, edenic wilderness—it was, after all, never adequate to the reality of the natural world as we found it. But we could never really turn all of nature into artifact. Nor could we live without nature. For all our ingenuity, we sense that we need that independent, self-organizing, resilient biophysical world to sustain it. If nature were ever truly at an end, then we would be finished. It is not however, and we are not." (253-54) Perhaps the continuing popularity of the Western as a genre rests on this same lesson. Western films reflect the continuing debate about what is best for nature, but they also hark back to an American West where life itself depended on our attachment to the natural environment, an environment that may be what those western heroes were fighting about all along, a middle place where all are heard.