What Can Buster Keaton Teach Us About Animal Abuse?

This year marks the 90th anniversary of Buster Keaton's pastoral comedy "Go West," which in its own clumsy way explores humanity's domination of animals. The 1925 silent film, that Pauline Kael described as one of Keaton's lesser works, and which I will momentarily spoil, centers on a lonesome ranch hand who befriends a cow. In a bizarrely-triumphant finale, he rescues her from death, while leading the rest of her herd to slaughter. I'm genuinely unsure what one is supposed to make of it.

It should be mentioned the production clearly treated its non-human cast in an egregious manner. Sadly, one doubts Keaton saw anything objectionable in this. After all, much of the abuse was likely standard practice in his era's flesh industry, which has since only grown more brutal. Further, Keaton himself was no stranger to rough treatment, having worked in vaudeville from a young age. As Roger Ebert noted, "by the time he was 3, [Keaton] was being thrown around the stage and into the orchestra pit, and his little suits even had a handle concealed at the waist, so [his father] Joe could sling him like luggage. Today this would be child abuse; then it was showbiz." Given his past and societal speciesism, one can easily imagine how Keaton might rationalize animal abuse for the sake of entertainment.

In "Go West" the ranch hand Keaton plays, called Friendless, removes a troublesome rock from the hoof of a cow he oversees. The animal, named Brown Eyes, subsequently saves him from a charging bull. So their bond begins to form. The movie's laughs are designed to come from Friendless' ineptitude at ranching, with his seeming inability to objectify Brown Eyes as a mere head of livestock perhaps being the prime example. When he sees the cow is slated to be painfully branded, Friendless attempts to hide her behind some shrubbery. After being discovered, he shaves the desired marking into her hair, creating the illusion of scorched tissue, which successfully fools the owner. Eventually, it's time for Brown Eyes to be shipped to slaughter. Keaton's character violently opposes this, drawing his pistol on another ranch hand and shoving his boss out of the way. But it's no use. The owner refuses Friendless' offer to purchase the animal with his remaining wages, saying, "You can't buy her, she'll bring twice that much."

The herd is then loaded onto a train for a Los Angeles stockyard. During the trip, the transport is attacked by bandits, leaving Keaton's character to manage the animals on his own. Upon arrival, he initially moves to escape with Brown Eyes, leaving the rest of the herd in confinement. But remembering his boss' financial insecurities, Friendless decides to bring the herd to the abattoir. When I first saw the film, I initially thought in releasing the animals from their boxcars he intended to bring them to freedom and safety. I was surprised when he ultimately brought them to the stockyard gates, for which the boss granted him ownership of Brown Eyes, something he could not have counted on.

So why did Keaton's character, despite apparently valuing one of their kind, choose to bring the animals to slaughter? Broadly I see three explanations. The first is he valued the entire herd, but saw their deaths as inevitable, and for whatever reason thought bringing them to the stockyards himself was the best option for all. The second is he only valued Brown Eyes, as an exception to his overarching speciesism. And the third is Keaton's character didn't transcend the anthropocentric paradigm at all, and rescued his chosen cow merely for the benefits she could provide him, in this case, companionship. Regardless, the film's cheery ending does not seem to match the facts of the situation.

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By Jon Hochschartner