House of Miscegenation

Gilberto Perez

  • Hollywood Westerns and American Myth by Robert Pippin
    Yale, 198 pp, £25.00, May 2010, ISBN 978 0 300 14577 9

The hero of the Toy Story trilogy is a toy cowboy. In Toy Story 3 when the toys belonging to Andy, now about to leave for college, find themselves at a daycare centre, and a kindly bear welcomes them into a community of toys freed from their owners, the cowboy alone stays loyal to Andy; and when the toy bear turns out to be a dictator worse than any owner, the cowboy, who was never persuaded by the rhetoric of toy solidarity, is proved right. This Pixar animation seems to be a political fable. The daycare centre may be taken to represent the public realm, the polity, and Andy the private realm, the family; the cowboy is the hero because he stands for family values. But why make the hero a cowboy? Boys may still play with toy cowboys, but the Western has lost the popularity it enjoyed in the past. The idea must have been that family values are old-fashioned like the cowboy hero – though the cowboy riding off alone into the sunset was never exactly a paragon of family values.

A boy in the 1950s, the heyday of the genre, Robert Pippin grew up steeped in the Western. He watched them both on television (his favourite show was Have Gun, Will Travel) and ‘all day Saturdays at the movies (ten in the morning until six at night) … one Western after another’. Growing up in Havana around the same time, I saw no cowboys on television but plenty on the movie screen, from the Lone Ranger and Tonto to John Wayne, and I still have a picture of myself as a little boy in a cowboy outfit with a hat and chaps and toy pistols. It’s a small indication of how deeply influenced Cubans were by our mighty neighbour to the north, and the way the fiction of the frontier, which was not our fiction, held us in its sway.

What’s special about the Western? The cowboy hero, as Robert Warshow said in his essay on the genre, carries a gun but uses it only when he must: the Western doesn’t just tell violent stories, it tells stories about the meaning, the management of violence, the establishment of social order and political authority.[*] As Toy Story 3 recognises, the cowboy hero is a political figure. Pippin ponders the political dimension of a genre that portrays the move into new territory as the national story of the United States. ‘Being an American is essentially a political identification,’ he maintains: ‘Political ideals are all that hold us together as a nation … without a common long tradition on the same territory.’ A professor of philosophy at Chicago, Pippin looks at films from the perspective of his discipline but understands them in their own right, not merely as illustrations of ideas. He brings three movies under sustained scrutiny – Red River, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance and The Searchers – and combines film criticism and political philosophy to the benefit of both.

Pippin first examines John Ford’s Stagecoach (1939), which he considers – and I agree with him – the first great Western. I agree with him, too, that the central political issue in Stagecoach is equality and that, since the film begins in a frontier town already hardened into hierarchy and intolerance, equality here is not imagined as a given, or something simply achieved in a ‘Jeffersonian idealisation of frontier or yeoman democracy’. A prostitute, Dallas, thrown out of town by the Law and Order League, and an outlaw, Ringo, are the two main characters, the lowest in the social hierarchy and the highest in our esteem. The whore with a heart of gold usually endears herself to us but dies at the end to spare us the embarrassment of her irredeemability. It’s a different story with Dallas, a fallen woman but as good as anyone could ask for. On the other hand, Dallas and Ringo should not be seen as ‘natural aristocrats’: even if they are the best people in the film, the best hope for the future, they are still very much of the common people.

Stagecoach was the director’s own project. David Selznick wouldn’t take it on as producer because he saw it as ‘just another Western’ with no big stars, and Walter Wanger, the eventual producer, would have wanted Marlene Dietrich and Gary Cooper in the leads. But Ford insisted on Claire Trevor and John Wayne (who wasn’t a star until this movie made him one). Dietrich and Cooper would have turned Dallas and Ringo into the natural aristocrats that Ford didn’t want; Trevor and the young Wayne assume no superiority. The aristocrat in the movie is Lucy, a woman from the South who disdains Dallas but whose baby, born at a way station, Dallas takes care of when Lucy is unwell. Lucy is grateful but still keeps her distance from Dallas, and some viewers are disappointed to find no class reconciliation, no personal acknowledgment on Lucy’s part of Dallas as her equal. But Stagecoach does enact a break in hierarchy, an opening towards equality on the frontier. It is not resigned to inequality but knows that equality is difficult to secure.

The frontier has been made to stand for different things socially and politically, from a Jeffersonian natural democracy to a Darwinian struggle for survival and power. Ford’s Westerns are in line with Frederick Jackson Turner’s historical account of the frontier, or rather the successive frontiers in the national movement westward, not as a natural affair but as an encounter between culture and nature, a transaction between civilised order and the loosening, levelling wilderness, a continual new beginning for American society, a continually renewed tendency towards liberty and equality. Pippin seems uneasy with Turner’s thesis and objects to the opposition between civilisation and savagery. But it is enough for Turner’s argument that the encounter with so-called savagery disturbs the order of so-called civilisation and opens it to the prospect of greater liberty and equality.

Howard Hawks’s Red River (1948) is not about equality but authority. It is a tale of two leaders: Tom Dunson (John Wayne) and his adopted son Matt Garth (Montgomery Clift). Dunson is the organiser of a massive cattle drive, starting out in south-west Texas and heading for a railroad in the Midwest. But the kinder and gentler Matt takes over when the cowhands grow unhappy with Dunson’s increasingly tyrannical rule. Dunson vows to kill his disloyal son. He catches up with him in Kansas, pushing through a sea of cattle to confront him. A young gunfighter from the trail pulls out his pistol, but nothing can break Dunson’s stride, his irresistible forward progress, and the camera moves with him as if it, too, is powerless to stop him. But when father and son come face to face Matt refuses to draw his gun. The ensuing fist fight is interrupted by a young woman, Tess Millay (Joanne Dru), who has fallen in love with Matt and who reminds Dunson of his own lost love. ‘Anybody with half a mind would know you two love each other,’ she tells the two men we had thought would fight to the death. Hawks is adept at mixing genres, and here he switches from epic to comedy. Love conquers the conquerors in the comedy happy ending.

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[*] ‘Movie Chronicle: The Westerner’, Partisan Review, March-April 1954.

[†] Romantic Comedy in Hollywood from Lubitsch to Sturges (Knopf,1987).