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A Ford, not a Lincoln

by James Bowman

Posted: May 05, 2009 05:07 PM

David Brooks in today’s New York Times may or may not be right about the need for the Republican party to re-think not only its policies but its favorite myths and its iconography. But the example he holds up for the party’s emulation is misconceived:

Republicans generally like Westerns [he writes]. They generally admire John Wayne-style heroes who are rugged, individualistic and brave. They like leaders — from Goldwater to Reagan to Bush to Palin — who play up their Western heritage. Republicans like the way Westerns seem to celebrate their core themes — freedom, individualism, opportunity and moral clarity. But the greatest of all Western directors, John Ford, actually used Westerns to tell a different story. Ford’s movies didn’t really celebrate the rugged individual. They celebrated civic order. For example, in Ford’s 1946 movie, My Darling Clementine, Henry Fonda plays Wyatt Earp, the marshal who tamed Tombstone. But the movie isn’t really about the gunfight and the lone bravery of a heroic man. It’s about how decent people build a town. Much of the movie is about how the townsfolk put up a church, hire a teacher, enjoy Shakespeare, get a surgeon and work to improve their manners. The movie, in other words, is really about religion, education, science, culture, etiquette and rule of law — the pillars of community. In Ford’s movie, as in real life, the story of Western settlement is the story of community-building. Instead of celebrating untrammeled freedom and the lone pioneer, Ford’s movies dwell affectionately on the social customs that Americans cherish — the gatherings at the local barbershop and the church social, the gossip with the cop and the bartender and the hotel clerk.

The lack of understanding appears in the use of a series of false disjunctions: "a different story"; "didn’t really celebrate" ;"isn’t really about the gunfight" ; "is really about religion etc."; "instead of celebrating untrammeled freedom and the lone pioneer." In this movie as in others by Ford, particularly The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962), we see both things: both the community and civilization that people, left in peace, will spontaneously create for themselves and the lone man with the gun, free and solitary, whom the community, often without knowing it, depends on to be left in peace. Without the one, there would not be the other. Ford’s point in both movies is that the community will happily discard and exile and finally forget about the hero, once his work is done. Mr Brooks himself unwittingly illustrates it by forgetting about him, or regarding him as incidental material.

In both movies, too, the hero is complict in his own marginalization by the community he saves. He prefers to live apart from it, partly because, in order to do what he does, he belongs more to the savage, honor-bound, heroic world that he helps to supplant. In Liberty Valance, John Wayne’s forgotten hero, Tom Doniphon has far more in common with Lee Marvin’s Liberty (significant name) than he does with Jimmy Stewart’s Ransom Stoddard. Stoddard even marries the woman he, Doniphon, loves, which makes his rescue both of Stoddard and of the world of law and civic order he represents even more of a noble renunciation than it would be in any case. Tellingly, Ford also shows how the town wants to tell itself a false story about Doniphon’s act of murder, in order to bring it under the umbrella of law and civic order which that act has made possible. And those who know the true story — that in the end civilization itself depends on the man with the gun — allow the false one to stand. Ford must have foreseen even in 1964 the time nearly half a century on when people like David Brooks would have forgotten that primal act of heroism that makes everything else possible and so come to believe, like the townsfolk of Shinbone in Ford’s movie, that civilization can bring itself to birth and sustain itself without the need for honor and courage.

Mr Brooks continues:

Today, if Republicans had learned the right lessons from the Westerns, or at least John Ford Westerns, they would not be the party of untrammeled freedom and maximum individual choice. They would once again be the party of community and civic order. They would begin every day by reminding themselves of the concrete ways people build orderly neighborhoods, and how those neighborhoods bind a nation. They would ask: What threatens Americans’ efforts to build orderly places to raise their kids?

But the answer to that last question is not just — if at all — "the disruption caused by a boom and bust economy; the fragility of the American family; the explosion of public and private debt; the wild swings in energy costs; the fraying of the health care system; the segmentation of society and the way the ladders of social mobility seem to be dissolving." Do these things really threaten Americans’ efforts to build orderly communities? I don’t see it myself. But what does threaten those efforts — and much else besides — is the belief that you can have order and community merely by wishing for these things and passing laws about them: the belief, in short, that they don’t have to be fought for. I think Mr Brooks is wrong about the Republicans’ needing to change in the ways that he demands, but even if he’s right, the movies of John Ford make a different point, and in some ways an opposite one from that which he supposes.

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