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Mainstream Fiction & the Movies

Owen Wister’s The Virginian, set in late 1800s Wyoming cattle country, was the first non-pulp western to capture the eastern imagination. The ranch foreman-hero is known only as The Virginian because that’s where he hails from. The story recounts his conflicts with the villain, Trampas. It is also a love story with the schoolmarm from Vermont, Miss Molly. This novel popularized the gunfight scene with the showdown in the middle of the street and features the immortal western line, “When you call me that – smile!” The Virginian lives by the mythological honor code of the West even if it means losing his girl and lynching his friend. This is a code of manly virtue where the hero only does unpleasant things when forced to do so. Gary Cooper hurtled to instant stardom when he played the Virginian in the 1929 movie.

The cover for The Virginian shows him in the showdown scene. It is set up as the “classic” scene in a western, one we’ve all seen too many times to count. The street has cleared out in town because the hero is going to have to draw against the bad guy. Since this book invented that scene, it’s a good one for its cover.size=4>

The more modern Lonesome Dove by Larry McMurtry, won the Pulitzer Prize, and also contains classic themes of the Old West. This novel was well researched and is considered a more historically accurate and realistic version of the west. It contains the classic western theme of the open range and men against the elements. Cowboys travel through unfettered range land on a cattle drive. This occurs after the Indians have been driven from it and the buffalo is extinct; when it’s become an eerily empty landscape. The two partners are former tough-guy Texas Rangers. They are heading for a “promised land” in Montana. Many lives are lost on the drive and the cowboys have no one to look to but themselves.

There are romantic interests in the novel. One of the two heroes, Gus, has a relationship with a prostitute. He saves her from another cowboy and she falls in love with him. He takes care of her on the cattle drive. Gus also has an old “love of his life,” a woman whom he begged to marry him. She refused because she believed he would never settle down. Gus partly agreed to go on the drive so he could see her again.

Robert Duvall and Tommy Lee Jones played the two partners and are shown on the cover of the video series. Immediately apparent is how much older the heroes are than they are on most other covers. This is necessary though because these men are just as much a vanishing breed as the Indians, the buffalo and the range. The cowboys are pictured beneath them, facing the empty range land. This cover depicts exactly what this story is about and even has a hand-tooled leather frame around the image to reinforce its western theme.size=4>

The greatest impact on the romantic visualization of this mythological western man, however, was made by Clint Eastwood, who played him for roughly four decades. Eastwood brought character traits to this hero that John Wayne never could since Eastwood can be charming, easygoing, humorous and fun. No one ever said that about “the Duke,” who was gruff, resolute, forbidding and awe-inspiring. Eastwood managed to embody those traits too, however. The Eastwood westerns often had a romantic interest as well but that never dominated the story line.

We’re going to look at a few Eastwood “covers.” True, they are covering videos instead of books but Eastwood is the worldwide symbol for the hero under discussion. We also need to remember how very attractive he was in his earlier decades which we may forget now that he’s approaching seventy.

The cover of Two Mules For Sister Sara shows the romantic Eastwood, and this is earlier in his career. You could put him on any romance cover today looking the way he does there except he probably would be clean shaven. size=4> Compare that to the cover for Pale Rider, made decades later when Eastwood decided the western should be more realistic. Artistically, the image is much stronger and more authentic looking. He’s rougher looking than most romance cover heroes but he certainly does not look unappealing. If you like alpha warrior-type men, here’s your guy.size=4>

Finally, we have the cover for his Oscar-winning Unforgiven. The cover solely concerns itself with character. It shows Eastwood with his back to the camera in a long drover coat, like the Marlboro Man wears, with his huge gun clasped in his hands behind him. There are vignettes of him and the other characters over to the side and we see the very best actors who play the major characters. Eastwood’s back is to the camera, emphasizing the enigmatic nature of this mythical character. He is not going to make this man as easy for us to understand as he did the younger western man he played for all of those other decades. He’s telling us that this man is more complicated than that and he’s about to show us just how complicated.

The cover is dark because this is a dark work. Only Eastwood had the clout in show business to bring this mythical man to the screen in all of his contradictory qualities, leaving us with as many questions about him, as answers.


Unforgiven begins when the romance is over. The respectable wife who tamed Eastwood, transforming him into a hog farmer with two children, is dead. His wild, ruthless, outlaw ways have been abandoned, until, needing money for his children, he takes one final job. He is hired by prostitutes to avenge a sister prostitute whose face was slashed. This job brings out every mythological trait this Western hero has embodied in the arts which we’ve discussed so far. He also goes one step further though, to a place where a romance novel never would venture. His best friend is murdered by the law and that brings forth the ferocious blood lust once again in the Eastwood character. Eastwood makes every single trait of this man believable from the Oscar-winning script which was tailored to suit him as the movie’s star, director and producer.

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