by Heather Blanton
Westerns are known for some of the best, most oft-repeated lines in cinema history. But what makes a good line so memorable it makes the transition from book to movie and becomes iconic?
I’ve given this some thought over the years. I think the answer is they are always born of honor, pride (sometimes in the form of bravado), love, and hate/vengeance. They reflect the indomitable—and often flawed—human spirit. They spring from the noble sacrifice—knowing that a character will walk through hell covered in gasoline to save a loved one, and (the part we love) kill anyone who gets in the way.
Nearly always, the line reveals the pure essence of a character—sometimes at their best, sometimes not so much. But, I believe, we want to identify with the character.
Take for example the one iconic Western line that keenly reveals the heart of a mysterious cowboy known forever and only as the Virginian. Say his name and any Western aficionado will immediately respond with, “When you say that, smile.” That one quote says everything you need to know about The Virginian. He was a steady, deliberate man. Peacable, but a soul on a slow burn. Strength under control. If Trampas had only been smart enough to understand him he might have lived
And perhaps just as simply but as clear is this short quote from Will Kane in High Noon. Bandits are on their way to his town for revenge and Will Kane can run or stand his ground alone. Well, we know what a man of honor would do. Stand.
Will: I've got to, that's the whole thing.
It’s that simple. No alternatives. In Kane’s world, a man’s honor is everything.
Sometimes a line is spoken out of a bravado so pure, so undefiled by humility, we have to admire the speaker. Val Kilmer’s portray of Doc Holliday in Tombstone was sheer genius. Who can forget, “I’m your huckleberry.” Doc was fearless, dangerous, and crazily endearing.
However, arrogance wrapped in a sardonic wit was Kilmer’s real gift to the movie. I know you remember this exchange:
Ike Clanton: What is that now? Twelve hands in a row? Holliday, son of a bitch, nobody's that lucky.
Doc Holliday: Why Ike, whatever do you mean? Maybe poker's just not your game, Ike. I know! Let's have a spelling contest!
Don’t tell me you haven’t had moments when you wished you could be so pithy and courageous
Which brings me to another point: the power of humor. Done right, it expresses deadly intentions or relieves tension. Val Kilmer slayed it—pun intended—in Tombstone with exchanges loaded with murderous intent. Remember this light-hearted banter?
Billy Clanton: Why, it's the drunk piano player. You're so drunk, you can't hit nothin'. In fact, you're probably seeing double.
[Billy Clanton draws a knife]
Doc Holliday: [takes out a second gun] I have two guns, one for each of ya.
Only an idiot would doubt Doc wouldn’t use both of them.
But sometimes a line is played for pure humor, while still revealing character. If I say “rat writ,” you know instantly who I’m talkin’ about:
Rooster Cogburn: [cocks his gun] Mr. Rat... I have a writ here says you're to stop eating Chen Lee's cornmeal forthwith. Now it's a rat writ, writ for a rat, and this is lawful service of the same. See? Doesn't pay any attention to me.
And, hence, we learn through a good laugh that Rooster is always willing to pull the trigger if his lawful orders are ignored. Life to him is black-and-white. The rest of us wish it was so simple.
Then there are the lines that deliver a promise of death in jarring clarity. Humor never enters in. The tension is palpable. One of my favorite exchanges is from Big Jake, and every Western fan I know can quote it. The bad guys have made the mistake of kidnapping Big Jake’s grandson and murdering family members.
Jake: And now *you* understand. Anything goes wrong, anything at all... your fault, my fault, nobody's fault... it won't matter - I'm gonna blow your head off.
That line gives me chills. It’s the voice of death. If someone messed with your family, wouldn’t you want to say that line just like the Duke?
You don’t always like the person delivering the line, but you can still adire the line. Of course I’m thinking of Scarlet O’Hara. If you don’t remember anything else about the conniving gal, you remember her tenacity. And when she makes her famous vow, you know it’s a done deal. Take it to the bank:
Scarlet: As God is my witness, as God is my witness they're not going to lick me. … As God is my witness, I'll never be hungry again.
So many good lines, so little space to quote them all. The next time you hear a good line from a Western, ponder the character saying it. It should speak volumes about him. It should cement his traits. Most importantly, though, it should show an unbroken, persevering, fearless, flawed human we can identify with.
All right, back to work. We’re burnin’ daylight.
What's your favorite quote from a Western?
What's your favorite quote from a Western?