Sunday, February 24, 2008

HOW THE WEST WAS ONE

The West is a manly place, that's the conclusion I've come to after watching this week several different kinds of Westerns made in different eras -- two by John Ford: My Darling Clementine (1946) and The Searchers (1956), one -- Paris, Texas (1984) -- by the German director Wim Wenders, set in the '80s, and one from last year: made by Andrew Dominick, an Australian director, it's the film of a novel on the relationship between two famous figures of the Old West: The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford. To this list, I'll add Howard Hawks' Big River (1948), which was featured in the first Castle lecture last Monday given by Robert B. Pippin of University of Chicago on that film's theme of male rivalry -- seemingly Oedipal, in this case -- and of the male bonds that constitute the construction of the West, bonds which seem to be the point of the entire conception of the West as cinema gives it to us, with women not so much a prize as an afterthought, nor so much an afterthought as a conceptual reference point -- something implied, even by absence, rather than present; something sought, rather than kept; something valued, if largely avoided.

In Pippin's discussion, the relation between Tom Dunson (John Wayne) and Matt Garth (Monty Clift) in Red River set up a generational struggle which is unusual for the fact that it transpires entirely in a male world -- there is no mother at stake as in the traditional Oedipal story. Matt, a foundling, manages to claim his "birthright" from patriarch Dunson after a struggle that is not to the death, as the film threatens, but is instead broken up by Matt's future wife who threatens them with a gun and sobs "you both love each other, anyone can see that." It's not only that the scene is hokey, badly acted (by Colleen Gray), and a happy Hollywood ending, it's also that it conforms to the Wayne persona of irascible maleness: first hard-hearted, then nearly a half-mad, wrathful Ahab figure, finally a loveable old coot. The story Pippin wants the film to tell is the film before it reverts to Wayne-schtick with Clift as wonderstruck sidekick (he reminded me of Owen Wilson at the end).

John Wayne, as a star, can't be made to conform to what the story requires -- this is again the case in The Searchers, which was screened after the lecture, where Wayne's character, Ethan Edwards, is a driven man with a definite task: to avenge the death of his relatives at the hands of Comanche, but also to kill his niece Debbie (Natalie Wood) when he learns that she has become a Comanche squaw. In other words, the female role -- as in traditional tribal cultures -- is a means of exchange. If a woman is taken forcibly and "converted" to another race's ways, then she doesn't deserve to live. This is the ethical code of Ethan -- but not the code of John Wayne, who embraces the girl at the end after she has agreed to be rescued by Martin Pawley (Jeffrey Hunter), her adopted brother, a halfbreed who antagonizes Ethan by tagging along but who also gets his "birthright" when Ethan bequeaths all his possessions to him.

In both films, the strong male figure, a maverick played by Wayne, softens toward the handsome young ephebe and eventually blesses him. In Red River, he also is impressed by a woman's love for Matt; in The Searchers, his niece is at first vilified then accepted, and much of the humor of the film is the romantic interest of the not-so-patiently waiting Laurie (a young and plucky Vera Miles) who gets to be the object of a brawl between her suitors. But the film's close is the return of Debbie to the homestead, not the successful courtship. The strength of Miles' pioneer woman -- passionate and focused -- is a good foil to the dogged, "aw shucks" persona of Martin, but the film is never really a story of settling down. It's a male movie that treats the fortunes of frontier lovers as comic relief and finds in woman the traditional status of victim, then damsel in distress, then returned prodigal -- only briefly is the possibility of Debbie as a brave new harbinger of an inter-racial America glanced at, and the film's myopia toward the Native Americans is possibly most overt in the comic and then tragic figure of "Look," the Indian squaw who attaches herself to Martin and is eventually killed in a raid by white rangers.

I dislike finding myself in the position of offering those tired standards of "the other" -- race and gender -- as positions from which to condemn the white male ethic of these movies, and I think both movies do more than simply perpetuate assumptions about how people who aren't upstanding white men deserve to be treated (in The Searchers the only other enemy besides the Indians is the Jew Futterman who tries to double-cross Ethan), they also give us a view of the West as the province of a certain kind of male ethic that -- in each film -- has something to learn. But the reason, I feel, that the viewer doesn't learn as well is that both films play the hand dealt by the John Wayne Old West Machine: the necessity of the "let bygones be bygones" ending that both Red River and The Searchers indulge so as to allow Wayne to keep his n'er do wrong persona intact, instead of confronting the viewer with the hard fact of the sins of the fathers in their intransigent claim to authority, racial purity, white right, and freedom from petticoat government.

Enough for now. As Ethan would say, "put an Amen to it!" To be continued...

3 comments:

Daniel Ahearn said...

want about The Misfits?
That movie screams about the western
desolation.

Donald Brown said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Donald Brown said...

I haven't seen that film in awhile, but it would be a good one to think about in terms of what the West became. Interesting to compare Monty Clift in the two films and Gable as the aging patriarch. And that film keeps the woman in play in a way that the Ford film doesn't...