Lawman is a Western which seems at first to be trite and
predictable, then strays into some unexpected character and plot development.
Burt Lancaster plays a straight-laced sheriff whose town was shot up by
some drunken cowhands just passing through town with their rancher boss. In the melee, an old man was
killed. Lancaster identifies the murderous cowmen, then heads off to their county,
determined to bring them back to stand trial. When he arrives in their
jurisdiction, he finds that their town is "owned" by the powerful rancher.
Up to that point, it's just the usual Western set-up, but it gets
complicated by several unusual details:
* The shooting back in Lancaster's town turns out to have been an accident.
* Everyone in the rancher's town considers the rancher to be their benefactor. Their
town is quiet, prosperous, and crime-free.
* The rancher turns out to be a decent and reasonable man. He's willing
to make more than generous restitution for the property damage and to take
care of the family of the deceased.
* The group of cowhands includes a couple of hotheads, but also includes
a few sensible men who want to reach a conclusion amenable to all.
* Even if Lancaster brings the men back for a trial, the rancher can
easily afford to buy off the local circuit judge, so the cynical Lancaster
knows full well that he's just following the law because it is the law,
and not because anything positive will be accomplished by his actions.
The situation would have worked out better for the rancher if he had been a ruthless
man. Because he tried to approach the situation with reason and compassion
and negotiation, he lost control of his gang, and they panicked or lost
their composure and went out one-by-one after Lancaster. Needless to say,
square-jawed Burt easily bested them in single combat. If they had simply
waited at the ranch for Lancaster to come for them, as he said he would,
they could easily have dispatched him to Boot Hill.
Lancaster finds that he is unpopular not only with the accused men, but
with the entire town, so the film's finale boils down to Lancaster standing
in the street alone, facing down the last members of the gang, while surrounded by
armed townspeople who plan to pick him off if the gang fails.
Just before the showdown, Lancaster thinks the whole mess through and
tells the local sheriff he's walking away and resigning, and he's going to
let the rest of the accused men go free, because there's just been too much
tragedy over too small a cause, but as he tries to leave town, the rancher
and his men and the townsfolk won't let him just walk away. Poor choice. Because the
rancher and his men wouldn't let Lancaster walk away from the violence when
he wanted to, they all ended up dead. All they had to do was shrug their
shoulders, count their blessings for his change of heart, and get on with
When the locals insist on pressing the showdown after his offer of
clemency, Lancaster loses his cool
completely, and eventually even betrays his own code by shooting an unarmed
man in the back, completely unnecessarily. He then rides out of town having
accomplished virtually nothing, leaving behind a bunch of grieving widows,
and all over a matter which could have been resolved peacefully by a man
willing to bend a bit. In addition to the harm Lancaster does to the
rancher's town, he also fails his own town, which could have received some
excellent compensation from the rich cattleman if only Lancaster had been
willing to negotiate and compromise. Because he follows the inflexibly
straight path, his town ends up with nothing.
In other words, there were plenty of chances for the parties on both
sides to compromise and stop the bloodshed, but stubborn machismo ended up
driving them to tragedy.
While Lawman isn't quite a complete reversal of the old-time Hollywood
Western, it certainly has enough revisionist elements to qualify as an
anti-Western alongside the works of Sam Peckinpah. In a sense, it is a
difficult story to watch, because it doesn't give the audience a character
to identify with. Watching this film, one doesn't know whether to pull for
Lancaster or not, because he's nothing but a cold, efficient killer, even
though he does technically have right on his side. Lancaster is honest,
brave and completely incorruptible, and all of that is admirable, but on the
other hand his black-and-white view of the world proves insufficiently
sophisticated to produce the optimal result. The rancher is not sympathetic
either. He could
have simply surrendered himself and gone back to the other town and bribed the local judge.
Then later in the story his men could have let Lancaster ride out
of town, but in both cases the cattlemen chose instead to provoke a conflict. The
townspeople group offered no sympathetic character either.
Perhaps because there's no character to identify with and perhaps because
the film is such an unremitting downer, Lawman has been largely forgotten by
history, but it deserves better based on its complex characters and
situations. It's the kind of film that provokes debate and discussion in apres-cinema deconstruction chats,
the kind of morally complex and
thought-provoking cinema that seems to be disappearing from studio films.