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All the Pretty Horses: How a book portraying the loss of the West became a convention Western
Cormac McCarthy’s All the Pretty Horses presents a changing world and a fading way of life, evoked through the character of John Grady Cole, a young boy trying to maintain the identity of a cowboy. Set in post-WWII Texas, the novel follows John Grady from the ranch he grew up on through the beautiful but threatening Mexican landscape. John Grady represents all the virtues of the traditional Western hero: he is honest, brave, steadfast, hard-working, taciturn, and unnaturally good with horses. However, John Grady’s particular brand of heroism no longer has a relevant role in the world in which he lives. The novel begins with the death of his grandfather, marking the loss of both a family member and a lifestyle. John Grady’s mother, more concerned with her acting career and new boyfriend, has no interest in maintaining the family ranch, while John Grady has no interest in doing anything else. The opening scenes of the novel evoke his deep sense of loss, beginning with John Grady standing over his grandfather’s corpse. McCarthy subtly sets the tone for the novel with this scene, repeatedly emphasizing the unfriendly nature of the world in which our hero must now live: the words “cold” and “dark” are used repeatedly. John Grady stands in the “cold hallway” looking into the “dark glass,” holding his hat “like some supplicant to the darkness,” while the phrase “dark and cold and no wind” is repeated twice. The repetition of these two adjectives creates the impression of a barren world where the only sound is the “ticking of the mantel clock,” marking the unstoppable passage of time (3).

This sense of loss permeates much of the novel, extending beyond John Grady’s personal loss to the end of an entire era. The world for which John Grady’s father and grandfather raised him is no longer present, and hasn’t been for a long time. The ranch which John Grady loves so much “has barely paid expenses for twenty years” (15), and his way of life is greeted with surprise and curiosity by most of the people he encounters. His mother’s lawyer tells him, “not everbody thinks that life on a cattle ranch in West Texas is the second best thing to dyin and goin to heaven,” (17) and he, in jeans, cowboy boots, and a hat, gets strange looks from theatre-goers at his mother’s play (21). When he and Rawlins stop for food on their way to Mexico, the woman in the grocery store reacts with surprise when she finds out they have ridden their horses from San Angelo (36). Even the modern landscape itself seems hostile to them. As they meet with fences during their ride, Rawlins questions, “How the hell do they expect a man to ride a horse in this country?” to which John Grady replies, “They don’t” (31). Later, they’re held up by their inability to get across a busy highway in the dark, unable to safely lead their horses across (32). Until they cross the Rio Grande, the two boys seem to be out of place, attempting to live out the masculine ideal of their grandfathers in a modern world. The two boys themselves cannot even live up to the role they’re trying to fill. Their dialogue occasionally sounds like what they believe a hero in Western should sound like, not like a conversation between two teenagers in the fifties. As Susan Kollin points out in her essay, “Genre and the Geographies of Violence: Cormac McCarthy and the Contemporary Western,” the two boys often sound like they’re play-acting:

During their journey to Mexico, the boys act out well-worn scripts of the frontier, "playing cowboy" on the trail but not always doing it well. They call each other "son" and "partner," as if they were imitating their fathers and uncles. At one point, McCarthy gives us a conversation that Rawlins initiates with John Grady: "I'm goin to tell you somethin.... I could get used to this life.... It wouldnt take me no time at all" (35). The dialogue they speak as they perform the roles of the Old West is trite. Rawlins, for instance, tells John Grady: "A goodlookin horse is like a goodlookin woman....They're always more trouble than what they're worth.What a man needs is just one that will get the job done" (89). The comment sounds hackneyed even to John Grady, who responds, "Where'd you hear that at?" Rawlins answers, "I dont know" (89). (572)

John Grady and Rawlins are doing their best to be cowboys in a modern world, but McCarthy manages to convey how overwhelmingly out of place they are while they remain in America. The physical obstacles they face as they traverse the American landscape represent the intrusion of modern society on the traditional Western landscape. The triteness of much of their speech and the discomfort they sometimes express with their inability to fully live out their ideal of the cowboy lifestyle further emphasizes their inability to live in modern American society.

The movie version of All the Pretty Horses, however, falls far short of the bar set by the novel. Directed by Billy Bob Thornton and starring Matt Damon and Penelope Cruz as the starstruck lovers Alejandra and John Grady, the film attempts to tackle many things: create a plausible Western, create a plausible romance, and, overall, create a plausible and entertaining movie. It fails on almost all fronts, but not because of the poor quality of the storyline, which it retains fairly well. Rather, it is in the film-making methods used by Thornton where McCarthy’s themes are lost. For example, the film opens with grand, panoramic shots of the desert and close-ups of wild horses galloping across the land, while the two heroes lie under the night sky, talking about their belief in heaven. Though Billy Bob Thornton eventually gets around to the shot of John Grady’s dead grandfather, it is only after a few minutes of idyllic shots of the Texas landscape. The overwhelming sense of loss and loneliness that opens the novel is completely obliterated; John Grady comes in from the broad daylight to sit with his grandfather’s corpse, accompanied by their family servant. The audience begins the movie more impressed by the stark beauty of the landscape than by any sense of loss, presented with a movie in the tradition of the most overly-done Western film clichés, as opposed to one reflecting the spirit of McCarthy’s novel.

Similarly, the contrast between the end of the book and the end of the movie illustrates how much of the spirit of the original work was lost. In the book, John Grady, after returning to Mexico, delivers Lacey’s horse to him, and his overwhelming sense of being lost and out-of-place is clear in their conversation:

I think I’m going to move on.

This is still good country.

Yeah. I know it is. But it ain’t my country….

Where is your country? He said.

I don’t know, said John Grady. I don’t know where it is. I don’t know what happens to country. (299)

This statement reaffirms the impression given by the beginning of the book; America can no longer provide the lifestyle John Grady is searching for. He is a remnant of a past time, a boy trying to live out an ideal that possibly never existed. Again, McCarthy mirrors John Grady’s mood with his descriptions of the landscape. As the two boys sit in silence, “the dead moon hung in the west and the long flat shapes of the nightclouds passed before it like a phantom fleet” (298). This ghostly landscape supports the impression that, for John Grady, any potential this land had for him is dead. Death appears in the boys’ conversation as well. Lacey tells John Grady that his father has died and that his nurse, Abuela, is dying. The two boys part, and Lacey watches as John Grady “dropped slowly down the skyline” (300).

In the next scene, John Grady watches Abuela’s funeral from across the street, and visits her grave alone after the other guests have left. Weeping, he stands over her grave and thinks of the generations before him, and feels a crushing sense of abandonment and loneliness:

For a moment he held out his hands as if to steady himself or as if to bless the ground there or perhaps as if to slow the world that was rushing away and seemed to care nothing for the old or the young or rich or poor or dark or pale or he or she. Nothing for their struggles, nothing for their names. Nothing for the living or the dead.

John Grady has not only lost his grandfather, father, and nurse (who seems to be a more salient maternal figure than his real mother), but his ties to the world, which the passage of time is taking away. The image of the world “rushing away” from him emphasizes the impression that he is a remainder of an older time, out-of-place and alone. John Grady then sets off alone, riding off into the desert. The novel concludes as it began: with death and with John Grady riding out to discover a new land. The essential difference is that now John Grady rides unaccompanied, aware of how alone he is in the world. He cannot ride off into the sunset with his buddy anymore.

The end of the movie, on the other hand, completely ignores these themes of loss. The movie concludes with John Grady riding up to Lacey’s home with their horses. Lacey exclaims, “Damn, bud!” and laughs as he pets his returned horse. The boys stand against a background of a beautiful blue sky and some happy chickens, not in the stark, phantom landscape of McCarthy’s book. For all intents and purposes, the two boys appear to be happily reunited, an ending that, given the violence and suffering they have undergone, is the best one possible. There could not be a more complete subversion of the book’s message: the boys are fulfilling their cowboy roles, and appear at home on Lacey’s ranch. This impression, that John has “come home,” that he belongs, undermines the entire point of McCarthy’s work.

The film similarly misses the point behind the boys “playacting” at being cowboys, or using phrases heard in a John Wayne film or from someone’s grizzled old grandfather still remains in the film. However, the subtext that facet has in the novel is also completely gone. In the book, the hackneyed lines resonate as the boys imitating a life that is dying out; the reader understands that these are somewhat sympathetic and immature characters that are meant to be cheered on—though the search is futile, it is still noble in its intentions. However, in the movie the search simply seems pointless. The viewer doesn’t understand the “why” of the journey; instead, it seems like two boys wanting to ride horses and talk about things they know nothing about to try and seem brave.  The flatness created by the lack of subtext translates like "a boy's adventure story that has mistaken itself for an epic, and it rattles around in its own ambitions like a child's head in a 10-gallon hat" (Times). Not only is the sense of loss not resonant in the movie, the whole point of the boys’ journey also seems to have been abandoned. However, some of the disconnect between the book and the movie are not entirely the fault of the screenplay and adaptation: there is a formula, of sorts, to the historical creation of the Western. It is important to understand the history of the Western as a film genre in order to understand, truly, how various traditional tactics used in creating All The Pretty Horses also contributed to the film’s inadequacies.

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