Wyatt Usurped

Wyatt Usurped

Mini Teaser: It is hard now for any director to have as foursquare a vision of civilization as John Ford did. Many contemporary directors have tried to revive the Western but they tend to get whipsawed by conflicting cultural vectors.

by Author(s): David Brooks

One of the odd features of travel through Russia is that people who dress like Chicago gangsters are perpetually telling you they are actually like Wyoming cowboys. In Smolensk, an oblast official who sported a Homburg, a black shirt and gold teeth once looked at me significantly and uttered the refrain that is constant in the former Soviet Union: "It's just like the Wild West here." He went on to describe the lawlessness of the place, and what he saw as his own rough efforts to tame his oblast, and make it the sort of place in which decent people could live.

It's interesting that so many Russians should associate their condition with that of the American pioneers. It's a long way from the Slav hinterland to Arizona, from Tolstoy to Tombstone. But this is the era of bourgeois triumphalism, and it is the American myths, and the American Western myth in particular, that the aspiring bourgeoisie identifies with. While European myths celebrate aristocratic virtues (King Arthur, Roland), the lawman of Western myth is dedicated to the rule of law, civic order, and peaceful homesteads. He, like the official in Smolensk and like the conscientious officials in troubled places all around the globe, is trying to establish bourgeois tranquillity in the midst of a Hobbesian state of nature.

The quintessential version of the lawman tale is John Ford's 1946 feature film My Darling Clementine. Henry Fonda stars as Wyatt Earp, a man whom fate has cast in the role of civilizer. As the movie opens, Earp is happily driving his heard of cattle to market, stopping at Tombstone just to get a beer and a shave. He's nearly killed by a stray bullet while getting lathered in the barber's chair and rises to find a town given over to drinking, corruption, and killing. He returns to camp to find that his cattle have been rustled and his younger brother killed. "What kind of town is this?" he asks incredulously through the first third of the movie.

"You're not going to deliver us from evil?" Doc Holliday asks Earp after he has taken over as marshal, intending to find his brother's murderers and tame Tombstone. Earp replies that it wouldn't be a bad idea.

Like many of the best Westerns, the movie is tightly focused on a central morality tale, told in real time (not condensed from events over months or years) and much of its power derives from Ford's clear, almost schematic vision of what it takes for a town to become civilized. One of Earp's first acts is to quiet some outlaws so that a traveling actor can recite Shakespeare (one of the movie's oddest moments has Victor Mature as the consumptive (!) Doc Holliday join in and deliver a heartfelt version of Hamlet's soliloquy). Earp also forces Holliday to revive his surgical skills, which he had abandoned when he left his Boston medical practice and became a degraded gambler out West. After Earp pacifies the town a bit, the citizens begin to erect a proper church--not a camp meeting, they emphasize--for proper worship. The movie closes with Earp's sweetheart, Clementine, watching her beau ride out of the now happy town. She's signed on to become the town's first schoolteacher, and to build the first classroom. Thus in short order Ford has presented us with the four horseman of civilization: art, science, religion, and education.

Earp's departure at the end of the movie reminds us of the central ambivalence that runs through many Westerns: the rough customers who build a bourgeois order may not actually be fit to live in it. The talents required to destroy the wicked sit uneasily in a domesticated world. This too is a lesson which may have some application for the official in Smolensk. Many of the raw characters who are trying to make Russia into a civil society--Boris Yeltsin himself being a classic case--are uncomfortable inhabitants of that sort of world.

It is hard now for any director to have as foursquare a vision of civilization as John Ford did. Many contemporary directors have tried to revive the Western over the past few years but they tend to get whipsawed by conflicting cultural vectors--the hero turns into anti-hero, the "civilized" Europeans turn out to be less civilized than the "uncivilized" Indians. Moreover, gender relations have become far more complex, so that the sex roles that were at the heart of Ford movies are treated ambivalently, at best. In My Darling Clementine, men make civilization possible, but women make civilization. It is Clementine who is to bring education to Tombstone. One of the most famous scenes is of a daytime square dance, in which decent women lead the way in introducing wholesome entertainment. The message is that young single men are barbaric; families are the key domesticating force.

The Diffusion of the Myth

Kevin Costner, of course, is one of those who has self-consciously tried to revive the Western. His big release this summer, Wyatt Earp takes on the Tombstone story, revisiting all the Fordian lawman themes, and even quoting directly from My Darling Clementine. For example, Wyatt Earp repeats a scene in which a sheriff is afraid to go into a bar to tame a gun-crazy drunk. "They don't pay me enough to commit suicide," the sheriff says in both movies.

Early in Wyatt Earp, Gene Hackman, who plays Earp's father, delivers a music-swelling speech to his son--the sort of speech that is meant to beat the audience over the head with the message of the three hours of cinema that are to follow. The elder Earp says that next to the family, the law is the most important thing in the world. But, he continues, there are some people who don't respect the law. When you come across such people, the Hackman character says, "You must hit them first, and you must hit to kill."

This, then, is not one of the New Left Westerns in the Little Big Man mode, nor is it even a PC Western like Costner's earlier Dances With Wolves. In this case his intention is to make a classic Western, with law and order at its center. The Hackman speech nicely introduces the movie's lawman themes, and the movie does revisit those themes periodically. There is a dispute, for example, between Wyatt Earp and his deputy over how to handle ruffians. Earp prefers the rough tough way (no Miranda rights), while the deputy tries to be affable (and ends up getting shot in the stomach).

Costner's movie itself, though, is diffuse, and in the end impotent. John Ford's Clementine--like other Western classics such as Shane and High Noon--is concentrated and searing--almost in the manner of a Greek tragedy in its obsessive focus on the civilized/uncivilized theme. The entire movie takes place in Tombstone, this town in the middle of nowhere.

The modern Wyatt Earp, by contrast, degenerates into a sprawling saga. We see Earp as a teenager, and get all sorts of extraneous information about his personal aspirations and emotions, designed to explain his personality. A wife is introduced and then killed off in the space of ten minutes. There are several clichŽ scenes as, emotionally crippled by his wife's death, Earp sinks into dysfunctional patterns of crime and drunkenness. Finally, he bonds with his father, and becomes a recovering alcoholic. A Jewish woman is introduced, who helps him rediscover the feelings that were calloused over by the loss of his wife.

The field of action is no longer the realm of fable, but the realm of feeling. Perhaps they should have called the movie Lawmen Who Love Too Much. In it, the problems of the world don't mean a hill of beans compared to the main character's psychological health, and the lawman theme is quickly overshadowed. We are led to understand that Earp is a tough lawman only because he has repressed his emotions. The difference between the uncivilized Tombstone and the civilized Tombstone is scarcely explored and seems to consist of little more than that in the latter the townsfolk aren't allowed to carry guns. The difference between barbarism and civilization is thus reduced to gun control. The truly important moment comes when Earp once again is able to have sensitive sex.

Go Left, Young Man

In his 1992 book Gunfighter Nation: The Myth of the Frontier in Twentieth Century America (Macmillan, 1992), cultural historian Richard Slotkin called the John Ford movies typical of the "progressive Western" genre. These are the stories of populist heroes fighting against corrupt vested interests for the sake of the common man. Nowadays we think of John Wayne-style Westerns as conservative, but Slotkin demonstrates that most of the people who made these movies self-consciously sought to reinforce liberal and progressive themes. It was not a long way from Henry Fonda in The Grapes of Wrath to Henry Fonda in My Darling Clementine.

What we are seeing in this diffusion of the lawman myth is the weakening of pre-1960s liberal convictions under the assault of New Left cultural interests--gender issues, multicultural concerns, hostility to lawmen, and most importantly, the overlay of personal feelings on the political.

Mr. Slotkin, himself a man of the Left, is not hostile to this trend, but he is sensitive to the way the West has been treated by the Left. If the Oxford History of the American West (Oxford University Press, 1994) is a fair sample, it has been treated shabbily. The essays included in this collection of contemporary scholarship on the subject all share a left-wing perspective. If indeed they represent the current cultural take on the West, it is no surprise that Wyatt Earp was unable to retell the lawman tale with conviction.

The contents of the Oxford History will be drearily predictable to anyone who has been reading academic horror stories, one of the surprising aspects of much academic writing being that it so often lives down to the stereotypes created by its fiercest critics. The current historians are not much interested in the establishment of law and order, which is of so much concern to John Ford and to the Smolensk official. As depicted in the Oxford History, the Western experience is a multicultural affair. No longer is the emphasis on the individuals who won the West, or on the process of creating a civic society in pioneer towns. Now only cultures move, only cultures clash.

When a wagon train crosses the plains in today's literature, there are no drivers, just cultural cargo: "patriarchal attitudes" in wagon one, "the myth of the individual," in wagon two, "the urge to dominate Nature" leaking out of a barrel in wagon four. Western history is predetermined by cultural baggage.

Western movies are famous for their white hats/black hats dichotomies, but a few of the historians here are even more Manichean. Cheap Western novels and movies at least often contained a hero who, though a white man, knew Indian ways and drew from Indian culture, even in his efforts to defend European settlements from Indian assault (James Fennimore Cooper's Hawkeye is the prototype). In the Oxford History, even this level of friction is often absent. In the first essay of the book, for example, Peter Iverson's description of Indian society suspiciously resembles utopia, as conceived by the consultants who conduct diversity training seminars.

Even a small string of quotations from the Iverson essay conveys its tone and content:

"Absorbing new influences--whatever their source--did not signal the decay or diminution of any culture. On the contrary, additions kept [Indian] cultures viable and eventually seemed as much a part of their traditions as the older ways did...They did not feel compelled to make the land more fruitful, for they did not seek to dominate nature. Proper living and respectful attitudes preserved this harmonious way of life by ensuring the rains came...Most often the food tasted good, for it was gathered and prepared according to long tradition...

The Oxford History shows no interest in such everyday concerns as how Indians dealt with lawbreakers, and after several hundred pages one is left feeling that the historians' version is almost as driven by preconceptions as is that of the Hollywood myth-makers. In one essay, for example, Elliot West points out that both Indians and European settlers drank a great deal. But, he maintains, "frontier drunkenness among whites and natives told of different tensions. One habit expressed the trials of conquest, the other the despair and dependence of the conquered." Mr. Elliot does not reveal how many settlers and Indians he interviewed in order to provide factual support for this sweeping conclusion.

There are, scattered through the book, many pages that are interesting, all of them off the main cultural stomping ground. (There is a fascinating passage on why cattle generally prevailed over hogs as the livestock of choice. Hogs more efficiently turn corn into meat, and their meat is more easily preserved, but they cannot survive eating grass and require more water and shade. So hogs were confined to the margins of the West-- the Arkansans' loyalty to the Razorback--while the great open spaces switched over to beef, with Texans remaining loyal to their longhorns.) But more often one feels in the grip of the imperatives of politicization or career-building. Attention-grabbing revisionist theories are wielded with uncritical abandon, and authors strain clumsily to introduce new jargon into the lexicon. In an essay on animal life, Richard White maintains that when white men came, the West was transformed from a "biological republic" to a "biological monarchy," whatever that means. Richard Maxwell Brown argues that violence in the West was part of a single struggle that he clumsily labels "the Western Civil War of Incorporation," an infelicitous phrase he drills into the reader by relentless repetition.

Mr. Brown's essay on violence does address the issues of My Darling Clementine and Wyatt Earp. His argument is that the gunfights of the era were in fact battles in a single war between possessors of capital (the "mercantile clique") who attempted to incorporate the new lands and to "control the far-flung workplaces," and the dispossessed locals who resisted. Mr. Brown is persuasive in arguing that there was this struggle between well financed-entrepreneurs and the small stake-holders, but he strains credulity in bringing the categories of E.J. Hobsbawm into the argument, and in organizing every gunfight under the rubric of a single class conflict. At the O.K. Corral, Mr. Brown argues, the Earps represented the side of urban capitalist values and the Clantons stood for rural values, kin and friendship loyalties. "When the Earps fired away at the Clantons and McLaurys in their famous gunfight of that day, they were fighting for their entrepreneurial, Republican, incorporating values, as well as their lives." It would be nice to think that at least some of those who settled the West had played a role in determining their own destinies, rather than having been thrust into inevitable clashes predetermined by their cultural baggage.

Judging by the Oxford History, our historians have either lost interest in the theme of establishing civic order, or they have come to see the process as mere domination. Judging by the evolution of the Wyatt Earp story, our myth makers have lost the ability to bring moral conviction to the myth of the lawman. The former has probably played some role in undermining the latter.

Get it in Black and White

The deterioration of the Western is to be lamented but it's not necessarily to be taken as a sign of the decline of civilization. It was Vico who argued that as civilizations mature they lose the ability to tell heroic stories with fundamental themes. Violent ages, dominated by authoritarian hierarchies and swift and cruel justice, produced geniuses like Homer. But the price of a calm and pleasant civilization is a loss of heroic convictions. It may be that as we have become sensitized to the horrors perpetrated on the American Indians, we lose the ability to dramatize and believe in classic cowboy and Indian warfare, based as it is on presumptions of innate superiority. In My Darling Clementine, Wyatt Earp's first act is to drag a drunk Indian out of town by his heels, and castigate the barkeeper for being stupid enough to serve alcohol to Indians. Few contemporary viewers would be comfortable with that scene.
If the price of a fairer society is that we no longer can produce John Ford Westerns, then so be it. But of course that is not the end of the story, for not all the tradeoffs have been profitable. We haven't lost the ability to relate to or to retell the lawman theme because we have become a calm and peaceful society. America is now more violent than it was during the era of Dodge City, let alone of John Ford. The world needs people who can establish civic order, not only in Smolensk and the rest of the former Soviet Union, but across great swathes of the earth, ranging from Rwanda to Bosnia to parts of China--and of course to crime-ridden America. The lawman myth is being abandoned just at the moment when it could have most utility. If the fellow in Smolensk--or for that matter Detroit-- is going to find inspiring models for how to establish civic order, he's going to have to get his lessons through the VCR, and the best models will be provided by the black and white movies of early and middle Hollywood.

Essay Types: Book Review