The good clear light shines fair and just on the righteous cowboys of Kieth Merrill’s The Great American Cowboy, the 1973 Academy Award winner for best documentary. Ostensibly framed around a rodeo championship battle pitting old salt and 5X champ Larry Mahan against previous year’s young buck champ Phil Lyne, we are provided with the requisite trappings: Gristled hard men with their muscles tautening against heaving (and damn hapless) beasts. The arcanae of what can be done to a simple rope. Banks of relentless sun throwing the rodeo (ro-DAY-oe) hardbacks, clown jerks, and bleachered, yowling devotees and hangers on. We have a 101-year old cowboy patiently lighting cigarettes for what we’d wager is his tenth decade of doing so. Said cowboy poised on a horse with the sort of comfort-beyond-swagger (Swagger is out of place in this world. Think in capitals. Grit. Mettle. Guts.) bespeaking ease in the world, facility with and bedfellow to repeated hardship.
The twitch here is we have a filmmaker, Merrill, who would later become one of the pioneers/main advocates for the IMAX film, slowing the action waaaay down and providing us with a body poetics the rodeo cowboy had not previously seen. The doggy rider and his beast (How can you not root for the animals?) are slowed to the point of turning an eight second ride into a 45 second ride. (Often in split and quarto-screen.) We are liberated from the shoot (where Merrill shoots the beast like a slab of marble) and allowed to watch man-animal fly through and tear at space TOGETHER. They share an artistic SITE together. This is unusual not only for the era but the oeuvre. Your resident cowboy/utilitarian views both his riding beast and his enemy beast as a means to an end; beyond the realm of affection or any type of outward emotionalism. Merrill’s slow-mo is so relentlessly revealing and beautiful as to undermine the rodeo hard man expectation. Man-animal are creating something together. We are used to such a meaner rootedness between the two that the melding juxtaposition is striking; they cooperate beautifully in killing one another slowly.
Merrill so doggedly intersperses the totally dynamite action (it is often at full speed as well, at a level far advanced of anything we know of in sports broadcasting from the era) with good and fair cowboys speaking good and fairly and occasionally candidly ( e.g.: about the great clarifying power of pain) that you’re cowboy quota of Rugged-Consolation-of-the-As-Yet-Untamed-West-in-the-face-of-a-Untameable-and-Increasingly-Non-Comprehendable-World is easily checked off. Toss in the classic American buttermilk, chin-to-chest tough guy with a heart (their soul located just south of the Adam’s apple and north of the neck’s tan line), Joel McCrea doing the voice over and dropping the occasional grandiosity/laying down of gauntlet: “Challenge went public and named it rodeo.” Couple it with a Copeland-esque score that is often a spot too brassy and insistent when a calf is having his head twisted to breaking or cowboy after cowboy (in a particularly awesome-if-painful montage) is being thrown, pounded, kicked, gored or trampled. You are left no doubt you are still swallowing a sweet pill of Americana (not at all a pejorative.)
And it is difficult to not watch (whether Merrill intended this or not) this documentary as a bit of a salvo against the then relentless undermining of the American cowboy. (Think Peckinpaugh’s Wild Bunch et al, and Midnight Cowboy, both 1969). If we are to rethink this last realm of (perceived) purity let us do so in a celebratory, artistically heightened manner. If we must suffer the massive cultural swings of the era (early Watergate, the new post-sixties freedoms, counter-culturalism, the still very polarizing/nihilistic late Vietnam War era) why not also be reminded of something enduring and unambiguously beautiful like good ole cowboy westernism (also not at all pejoratives). It is not necessarily relevant but hopefully interesting to add that Merrill “is also a founding member of Audience Alliance Motion Picture Studios (AAMPS) a production company committed to motion pictures that embrace virtues and values.”1But there is not a whiff of jingo-ism or politics in this film. He seemed far more concerned with sharing something beautiful. Something to be preserved outside of time. A poetics of the body (human-animal). He succeeded.