In 1968, Andy Warhol made a Western movie. He traveled to Tucson that January with about a dozen actors, collaborators, and friends. There was no script. There may have been one at some point, a rough treatment that may or may not have been an adaptation of Romeo and Juliet, but by the time the group arrived in Arizona, the script was not there.
There were two filming locations for Lonesome Cowboys. One was Rancho Linda Vista in Oracle, about thirty miles north of Tucson, atop a rolling hill with expansive views of the desert below and mountains in the distance. The ranch included multi-room houses, a barn, stables, some smaller cottages, and a swimming pool. It had recently been purchased by a group of local artists who were outfitting it with studios and other amenities. The Warhol group stayed at Rancho Linda Vista for about a week, occupying one of the larger houses and a few of the single-room guest cottages on the property. (Rancho Linda Vista is still a functioning artists’ community.)
The other filming location was Old Tucson, a Western movie set that was past its prime by 1968 but which still retained its storefronts, dirt roads, mission church, saloon, and hitching posts, mostly for tourism purposes. During the opening sequence of Lonesome Cowboys, the actors ride into town past a souvenir shop called Cactus Creations. Warhol probably liked this, kitsch disrupting Old West “authenticity.”
Very soon after they arrived at Old Tucson, Warhol and his group clashed with the locals and tourists who witnessed the filming. Here is Warhol’s description of shooting Lonesome Cowboys at Old Tucson in his memoir, POPism: The Warhol Sixties (1980):
It was a misty day we started shooting Lonesome Cowboys. The dialogue the boys were coming out with was going along the lines of “You dirty cocksucking motherfucker, what the hell is wrong with you?” and in the middle of this type of thing, we saw that they were bringing a bunch of tourists in, announcing, “You’re about to see a movie in production….” Then the group of sightseers marched in to “You fags! You queers! I’ll show you who’s the real cowboy around here, goddamn it!” They started going nuts, rushing their kids away and everything.
Eventually, the grips, the electricians, and the people who build the sets formed a vigilante committee to run us out of town, just like in a real cowboy movie. We were all standing on the drugstore porch, except for Eric, who was doing his ballet exercises at the hitching post, when a group of them came over and said, “You perverted easterners, go back the hell where you came from.”
Viva told them, “Fuck you.”
Officers from the local sheriff’s department then arrived by helicopter and stood on top of a water tower monitoring the cast’s behavior, ready to arrest anybody who behaved indecently. Warhol’s group decided to cut short their second day of filming at Old Tucson, and they shot the remainder of the film at Rancho Linda Vista.
Warhol’s account mirrors the plot of an actual Western: a group of men playing cowboys invade a small town and disrupt the lawful peace of the area. He and his gang are outlaws—they are the easterners, the queers, the recalcitrant perverts—and the locals comprise a vigilante group, the threatened townsfolk, the morally upright heterosexuals. Warhol’s analogy alludes to what was probably the attitude of the group as a whole: they had come out west not only to shoot a cowboy movie but to experience their own contemporary version of living within a cowboy movie—to inhabit the fantasy of an idyllic west but also to invade and disrupt the actual space of the west, where they were so obviously outsiders.
Summarizing its plot doesn’t really help to understand Lonesome Cowboys, but it does help to understand how most viewers, conditioned to relying on plot for meaning, saw the film: a band of gay cowboy brothers ride into town and encounter Ramona (Warhol superstar Viva), the owner of a brothel. The cowboys have a new addition to their gang: young Tom (Hompertz), whose presence upsets the group’s hierarchy, which is based on the sexual favoritism of the gang’s leader, Mickey (Louis Waldon). After the cowboys sexually assault Ramona, the group’s already tenuous allegiances begin to crumble. Joe (Dallesandro), one of the youngest of the group, begins to cavort with the sheriff (Francis Francine), who moonlights at Ramona’s brothel as a prostitute in Native American drag. Joe’s deviant behavior drives another wedge between the brothers, and eventually the cowboy family dissolves. Ramona performs a ritualistic suicide aided by her nurse, Nellie (Taylor Mead). She entreats Tom to join her, but he refuses. Tom and another cowboy, Eric (Emerson), then ride away together with plans to take up surfing in California.
The actors in Lonesome Cowboys improvised most of their lines, and they sometimes strayed from storylines entirely. But it’s clear just from the plot summary that the film touches on many stereotypical Western plot points: a battle over good versus evil, harsh treatment of a woman and the subsequent defense of her honor, exploitative representation of Native Americans, melodrama. These would have provided signposts for most viewers who, familiar with the genre, expected certain events in Western films. However, these plot devices were also badly executed, absurdly awkward, and deliberately so.
Lonesome Cowboys premiered in New York in May 1969 and subsequently screened in other theaters across the country. Reviewers of the film didn’t seem to know what to make of it. Kevin Thomas of The Los Angeles Times, after noting the film’s flimsy and disjointed plot and the affinity between one of the cowboys and a “Times Square hustler,” sums up the film this way: “Between several notable encounters between Viva! [sic] and the boys there are a number of long-winded extemporized conversations between the fellows, most of whom are handsome in the Warhol street-urchin tradition. Interestingly, they have an easier, non-violent masculinity than the mythic Hollywood cowboys they’re spoofing.” (“‘Cowboy’ on Cinema Screen,” December 19, 1968).
A reviewer in Variety also ascribes a parodic aspect to Lonesome Cowboys and identifies any efforts toward plot and character development as pretexts for the Warhol superstars to engage in exhibitionism: “Anti-director and his friends, including Viva, a scarecrow of indeterminate sexuality, light in Arizona, dress up in cowboy suits, abuse a few saddle horses, goose one another, screech dirty words, have lovers’ quarrels, and strip Viva… ‘Cowboys’ is simply an unedited but in-focus home movie for homosexuals and a ‘drag’ in every play on the word.” (“Lonesome Cowboys,” November 3, 1968).
As quirky as these reviews are, they also miss the point. Parody is in many ways just permission not to take something seriously, and this is how most critics treated Lonesome Cowboys. What if, instead of parsing the film as serious or spoof, coherent or incoherent, successful or unsuccessful, we approach it on its own terms? What does the project of Lonesome Cowboys really tell us?
The Western, ultimately, does not mimic any actual historical truth—nor does it aspire to. The verisimilitude it employs is that defined by other Westerns.
To answer this question, it helps to know a little more about what Westerns might have meant to Warhol and his entourage. Phillip French, in his 1973 book Westerns: Aspects of a Movie Genre, identifies “three cardinal aspects of the western.” First, he points out the Western’s tendency to oversimplify complex political issues for the sake of a clear-cut opposition of good and evil. Second, the Western has a potential for cinematic “virtuosity”: because of its fixed conventions, it becomes a platform for directors to experiment and to expand those conventions creatively. Third, French emphasizes “the problem of anachronism” in Westerns, by which he means that although a wealth of historical knowledge exists about the period during which most Westerns are set (roughly 1870–1890), Western films persist in including visual and historical elements that are of another place and time.
These stylistic tendencies result in a genre that is by definition self-contained and highly artificial. The Western, ultimately, does not mimic any actual historical truth—nor does it aspire to. The verisimilitude it employs is that defined by other Westerns. Its conventions have been achieved by accretion, the gradual building up of character, setting, and plot that have very little analogous relationship to an actual West, either past or present. This characterization, far from being particular only to the Western, is actually true of most highly stylized Hollywood genres (science fiction and the gangster film are two other obvious examples).
Much of the dialogue in Lonesome Cowboys makes use of this slippage between the Western’s typical adherence to and disregard for genre conformity. After her rape by the cowboys, Viva approaches the sheriff and demands that he take action against the gang who raped her. The sheriff attempts repeatedly to give her the brush-off: he has too many other crime concerns like cattle rustling and stagecoach robbing; he is not equipped to investigate a sexual assault; her rape is not a fiscal priority. Viva counters this last with the question, “What’s more important, your money or my hymen?” and stalks off, explaining that she is going to see someone named Dr. Yokahama, since the sheriff won’t help her. In a later scene, when two of the cowboys, Joe Dallesandro and Julian Burroughs, are discussing their own role in Viva’s assault, they fall back repeatedly on 19th-century Western stereotypes to attempt to make sense of their actions. They lament the changes wrought by the Industrial Revolution which are “tearing families apart” and presumably causing an erosion of morals; they acknowledge their own sense of alienation, their desire to quit riding and “raising hell,” and to “raise children, lead decent lives, and settle down into a town and build it into a city, and… be ready for World War One.”
Throughout Lonesome Cowboys, it is clear that the actors are playing out their own versions of what they believe a Western movie is, and their improvised characters are manifestations of their own internalizations of that genre. How, then, did they come to internalize it to such an extent that they were able to enact these stereotypical mannerisms so effortlessly and with such emotional investment? One major reason is that the Western genre is arguably the most recognizable American myth manufactured by Hollywood, comparable perhaps only to the gangster film. And in 1968 when Warhol filmed Lonesome Cowboys, Westerns were still very much alive in Hollywood, even though their production rate in film and television had declined markedly since the 1940s and ’50s. Furthermore, the romantic idea of the Western experienced a backlash beginning in the early 1960s, as cynicism about the United States’ status as a heroic world power began to ebb in the face of the Cold War and with the later onset of the Vietnam conflict.
Warhol’s group went out west to create a world in which their own conceptions of the conventions of the Hollywood Western could actually exist as everyday life—to play heroes in a world in which they were decidedly outcasts.
Although by the late 1960s the sanctity of the Western hero as an allegory for the heroism of an American political agenda was eroding, that hero still manifested itself in the attitudes of a generation of young men who grew up watching Westerns. J. Hoberman, tracing the trajectory of the Western genre in the twentieth century, explains:
As many have observed, the men who fought in Vietnam were raised on Westerns—presented with cap-firing six-guns and Davy Crockett coonskin caps and deposited at Saturday matinees to watch the adventures of Hopalong Cassidy and Gene Autry. The average recruit had entered his teens at a time when eight of the top prime TV shows were Westerns. Small wonder that John Wayne, the greatest of movie cowboys, became a talisman for a substantial number of American soldiers in Vietnam … in the actual Vietnam, where dangerous areas were known as “Indian country,” Vietnamese scouts were termed “Kit Carsons,” and Americans painted the slogan “The Only Good Gook Is a Dead Gook” on their flak jackets. There is a celebrated passage in Michael Herr’s book Dispatches in which a combat reporter is invited out on a search-and-destroy mission against the Viet Cong: “‘Come on,’ the captain said, ‘we’ll take you out to play Cowboys and Indians.’” (“How the Western Was Lost,” in The Western Reader, 1998).
The Western hero functioned as a positive inspiration for soldiers who fought overseas against the North Vietnamese. American soldiers called forth their own understanding of the Western to transform their orders into theatrical and morally sound missions—perhaps even to ascribe a quasi-fictional or playful tone to a job that might otherwise have been unbearable. In a similar but decidedly queerer fashion, the production of Lonesome Cowboys allowed Warhol and his crew to travel out west to play out a fantastical idea of life on a frontier unfettered by social constraints. In short, Warhol’s group went out west to create a world in which their own conceptions of the conventions of the Hollywood Western could actually exist as everyday life—to play heroes in a world in which they were decidedly outcasts.
Is it possible to view Lonesome Cowboys as a film with explicitly political motivations? That might be a stretch. The actors in Lonesome Cowboys do not invoke politics to incite activism; nobody involved in the film operated under the assumption that what they were doing would change the rest of the world. But the film is nevertheless political. As it happens, one of the main cowboys in the film, Julian Burroughs, was a military deserter. His real name was actually Andrew Dungan, and he went AWOL in June 1967, nine months after being drafted. He chose his alias because he admired William Burroughs, and, after taking up with Warhol’s crowd, he claimed to be Burroughs’s son and apparently decided that joining Warhol’s entourage would be the perfect way to hide his actual identity. Julian Burroughs’s own refusal to participate in the Vietnam War, his fashioning of a new identity to avoid legal repercussions, and his entry into a community in which he could express on film his frustration with the state of contemporary American culture in the guise of a disillusioned cowboy are nothing if not political. The dozens of other films Warhol made in the 1960s, of which Lonesome Cowboys is only one example, continually created environments in which people might actually feel momentarily free from the constraints of the world around them, free from their status as deviants, free to feel safe in a world of their own making.