Marty's Cowboy Values and the American Way in 'Back to the Future'
by Tyler Wantuch
November 3, 2012
In honor of Robert Zemeckis’ newest film Flight, I felt it was time to take a look back at his career defining trilogy Back to the Future. It has been over 12 years since he has directed a fully live-action film and I hope it was well worth the wait (read Jeremy's review here). Zemeckis’ opening film in the trilogy is about values. More specifically, the film is about certain humanistic values that are consistent throughout generations. Values such as ingenuity, loyalty, courage and friendship appear to be timeless (no pun intended). As Marty McFly (Michael J. Fox) transcends time, his strong personality and basic intrinsic American values allow him to maneuver through the past seamlessly. As he evolves, we begin to realize that Marty encompasses nearly every dimension of American culture - not just the positive aspects either.
Marty McFly is the reason that the Back to The Future films touch us all.
Marty is a time cowboy. Instead of a town, he rolls through time. He rides a not-so-dependable steed (the DeLorean), and he is a loner and an outsider. Much like the title character from Shane (1953), he wears funny clothes and carries a big attitude full of rebellion and justice. He is a do-gooder, evidenced by the saving of his own father, George McFly (Crispin Glover), twice: once from the bully Biff Tannen (Thomas F. Wilson) and once again from getting hit by Marty's own grandfather’s car. This incident soon ties him to his parents’ time, much like the Old West in which the hero becomes emotionally invested in the townsfolk under siege by an injustice. Marty was just passing through, but now must help another man find his own masculinity. He is anti-authority in the name of justice and quick to the draw.
Marty's selfish ways of the 1980’s melt away with the time, and he soon learns how to be selfless - a transformation that is rewarded once he rides off into the sunset and returns to his own time. Zemeckis enjoyed the cowboy-esque metaphor so much that he continued to use this formula in each sequel until Marty travels back to 1885 and is literally dressed up as a cowboy (going by the name of one of the most famous American big screen cowboys, Clint Eastwood). The American cowboy encompasses so many of the values Zemeckis wanted to present as timeless that it’s no wonder he would be influenced by the Old West.
Zemeckis juxtaposes these cowboy values with a stark look at his modern world. Although some things may never change, a certain level of degradation has already taken root in modern society and will continue to thrive. We can see this in his vision of the town square. In the 1950’s, the town square is bustling with life. The clock tower is well cared for and rings noisily. The square is brightly-colored and manicured and has a Mayberry feel to it
In the 1980s, though, Zemeckis paints a much bleaker picture. The town square is now empty and highlighted by a boarded up movie theatre and a bum. The empty mall parking lot, where Marty and Doc (Christopher Lloyd) attempt time travel, is a concrete jungle filled with grays and blacks. The appearance of dangerous Libyan terrorists that shoot up our heroes further underscores this feeling of degradation. All of these elements add up to an obvious statement about the loss of small town values. Marty’s town, Hill Valley, has succumbed to materialistic corporate America, where strip malls rule the landscape.
However, Zemeckis is not about to start a petition to save the mom and pop shops of America. He is still a strong proponent of another strong American value: materialism. In fact, Back to the Future is so rooted in the 1980s mindset that wealth equals happiness. The film rewards our young hero with a bump to the upper-middle class upon Marty's return to his own time. The McFly family has become a four-car family instead of a one-car family. In fact, all four cars are detailed and maintained by Biff himself, no longer an overbearing bully, but a goofy pushover.
This reward does not end with the money, though. Marty finally receives the modern yuppie family he feels he deserves. His brother and sister have both shed their pedestrian jobs and have joined the business world. Meanwhile, his parents are enjoying high society, playing tennis in the morning and not seen drinking in excess or laughing at reruns of "The Honeymooners." Still, none of these perks address the emotional status of the family. We are forced to assume that because the McFlys have more money, they must be happier and more emotionally stable. How American of them!
But do the parents seem any more in love than before? And who is to say that George McFly’s new confidence hasn’t turned him into an overbearing father figure? Or that his success has driven him to become emotionally distant? The family didn’t seem too broken before Marty’s adventure. Sure, his father was a coward and his mother drank, but there was love. The biggest issue facing the family was that Marty was embarrassed by them. Now there’s something that transcends time - children being embarrassed by their parents.
We cannot discuss American values without touching on the American Dream. Zemeckis actually gives us two separate stories of rags to riches, all the while undercutting this upward mobility in modern times. It’s as if he’s saying the American dream was once possible but now is not. The first story involves one of the main characters, George McFly. He is an awkward young teenager who happens to enjoy writing science fiction stories. After he gains some confidence in this revised past, we discover that he has pursued this career path and become a successful author in the future. He has risen higher than his upbringing. The other, more powerful vision of the American Dream involves Goldie Wilson (Donald Fullilove), a black janitor at the local diner who has his sights set on politics. When Marty tells him that he could become Mayor (knowing that he’s the mayor of Hill Valley in 1985), Goldie takes it to heart. And sure enough, Goldie achieves the American Dream and becomes mayor of Hill Valley.
The two stories exemplify the American Dream, but for some reason this possibility of growth between classes feels dated in the present time. Marty’s brother, Dave (Marc McClure) is dressed in a fast food uniform early in the film, and Marty doesn’t have high hopes for him. Marty doesn’t have high hopes for anyone else his family either for that matter. He feels that they’re all doomed to a middle class existence. The American Dream is dead; no longer is it possible for his brother and sister to escape their socioeconomic stature. There would need to be a dramatic change in the McFly’s upbringing to ever have any mobility. Luckily for Marty, George McFly dramatically changes and poof, the children are now successful. Not because they worked hard, but because their father has set them up for success.
American dream aside, Zemeckis doesn’t believe that the grass was always greener in the past. In fact, Marty seems to find himself deep in a much seedier 1950s than expected. He witnesses his mother drinking and smoking. She also admits that she has “parked” before - one of many passes she makes at him. His father is a peeping tom. The band smokes reefer, and Biff and his cohorts seem okay with rape. Each tiny dark moment captured by Marty is a test of his cowboy values. His selflessness, although cultivated for fear of losing his own existence, allows him to rise above his teenage thinking and move into the American Cowboy way of thinking. He must show courage in the face of Biff. He must be respectful to women and show a high level of resourcefulness.
Marty McFly represents so many American beliefs in one package it’s no wonder he has become such a beloved hero. He fulfills the good, the bad and the questionable sides of what it means to be American. He allows selfishness, materialism, a quick temper, and the fear of existing as an average middle-class worker get the best of him. However, Marty is loyal, resourceful, confident, and most importantly, a trailblazer. He is the first person to travel through time. For a country that is hell-bent on being the first and the best, this quality may be the one that makes him a true American. Marty follows In the tradition of Frank Capra’s Mr. Smith, a representation of what Capra felt was the greatest thing in the USA - David can stand up to Goliath and win. Robert Zemeckis brings us Marty McFly: a pioneer, a cowboy, a harbinger of the American way.