Riding Lonesome – ‘Lonesome Cowboys’

by Caden Mark Gardner

Lonesome Cowboys was shot in the Arizona winter of 1968, a year before Easy Rider became the counterculture crossover hit to polarize America, months before Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy were assassinated, and months before Andy Warhol survived an assassination attempt from the gun of Valerie Solanas. While Warhol did work on San Diego Surf with Paul Morrissey later in the year, production was disrupted due to the attempt on his life (the film was completed posthumously, in the 1990s), meaning Lonesome Cowboys was the penultimate Warhol-directed film released in his lifetime. Warhol called Lonesome Cowboys—a bisexual cowboy film that lifted from Romeo & Juliet and was originally titled Fuck and then The Glory of the Fuck—his “first completely outdoors movie”.  Warhol dropping his queer, avant-garde, anachronistic subversion of the American cowboy into the middle of Barry Goldwater country had disturbed the Arizona locals so much that the FBI was alerted and even surveilled Warhol for the next year. The release of the film in 1969 also caused controversy; the reels were confiscated following a screening in Georgia and the film was derided as “absolute filth” and a work that “would make the ordinary person sick”. 

When Sam Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch exhibited an ultra-violent nihilism formerly found only in Spaghetti Westerns just one year later, it was widely accepted as the necessary recharge for the genre. Reactionaries did not protest the film’s release or question the film’s artistic merit. There was an obvious double-standard as far as censorship. Lonesome Cowboys had sex, cross-dressing, and characters that were clearly gay. Those were the “weapons” that outraged people. Yet there are very few things in Lonesome Cowboys you could calla violent act, and there is not a single moment where a gun is fired (although one is wielded a few times with all the intensity of a group of seven-year-olds playing cops and robbers). But because Warhol put Joe Dallesandro in a stetson and had an unmistakably queer Taylor Mead wish to be taken away on horseback off into the sunset with a male lover—all while playing dress-up in cowboy iconography—Lonesome Cowboys was bound to rile people up, even if most of its sex scenes were heterosexual trysts. 

Lonesome Cowboys’ low budget guerrilla style strangely gives it a much more authentic look than the B-Westerns of that period: it is as muddy and brown as ‘70s revisionist Westerns such as Dirty Little Billy and Bad Company. The film greatly differs from the marathon experiences of Chelsea Girls and Empire. As Village Voice writer and Warhol biographer Gary Indiana put it, Warhol’s films in this era were, “… audaciously, emphatically spellbinding displays of polymorphic sexuality and verbal frankness in film history,” through Warhol’s disregard of continuity or narrative in editing, stuttering zooms, improvisation from the actors, and deliberately amateurish qualities. Warhol was never one for plot, and while the film is more of a time capsule, it is as a free speech and expression cause célèbre, rather than as an avant-garde masterpiece. 

Caden Mark Gardner is a freelance trans film critic and researcher based in upstate New York. He focuses on queer cinema and the history of the trans film image.

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