October 2010

Jacob Mikanowski


Hollywood Westerns and American Myth: The Importance of Howard Hawks and John Ford for Political Philosophy by Robert B. Pippin

There’s a strange moment near the end of John Ford’s The Searchers, which, if you believe the argument of Robert Pippin’s new study of the mythic narratives in classic Westerns, has much to say not just about the meaning of the film, but about the very nature of our political life. John Wayne, as Ethan Edwards, has just scalped Scar, the Comanche chieftain he has been tracking for the better part of seven years in search of his kidnapped niece. As Wayne exits the tent holding his trophy, Ford focuses on his face in close-up. His expression is a puzzle; it’s supposed to be the punctuation mark on the scene, but instead it’s an open door. This is how Pippin describes it:

Does he believe that some score has now been settled? Does this bloody, brutal act strike his conscience, move him back away from his violent intention? Is he confused that after achieving what he had wanted all these years, he does not feel satisfied, that he feels only empty and is puzzled at his lack of satisfaction?

Pippin, a philosopher who has previously written books on Hegel, Nietzsche, and the history of the philosophical engagement with modernism, is at his best in places like this, when he is able to open up the implications of a frame or a gesture while raising the stakes until it seems to matter to far more than its immediate context. Unfortunately, these moments are rare. Most of the time Pippin keeps the movies at a distance, discussing them in terms of archetypes and symbolic resonance, instead of allowing their particularity and strangeness become his topic.

Hollywood Westerns and American Myth: The Importance of Howard Hawks and John Ford for Political Philosophy, which began life as a series of lectures given at Yale, centers on three classic mid-century Westerns: Red River (1948) by Howard Hawks, and The Searchers (1956) and The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962), by John Ford. In the past few years there has been a mini-revival of writing about these films, from Jonathan Lethem’s essay on his conflicted love for The Searchers in The Disappointment Artist to David Thomson’s moving recollection of seeing Red River for the first time in Try to Tell the Story.

Hollywood Westerns and American Myth is at once more detailed and less personal. Pippin is most concerned with what these films have to say to political philosophy. In particular, he is concerned with the question of political psychology, the “experiential or first-personal dimension of political experience.” This, if I understand correctly, is a way of asking how the abstract principles that underpin a political order become guiding values for the men and women living under it. With reference to American democracy and the Western, it becomes a question of “how the bourgeois virtues, especially the domestic virtues, can be said to get a psychological grip in an environment where the heroic and martial virtues are so important,” or, how do you get bloodthirsty gunslingers to act like responsible citizens, especially when being a gunslinger is so goddamn much fun?  

It’s a worthwhile question, especially given the current disjunction between the rationalist assumptions behind most present political philosophy and science and the crazy people actually running (and voting for) the government. John Wayne’s face, the very image of self-anointed authority, is as likely a place as any for answers.

It’s disappointing then, that such a promising marriage of question and method didn’t result in a more scintillating book. Pippin delivers readings of the films which are detailed, attentive, wide-ranging, occasionally probing -- and generally quite tame. Part of this comes from his need to see the movies as myths. This approach makes each protagonist into an archetype and every ensemble of actors into a microcosm of American society.

Pippin finds plenty of convincing things to say about the way in which the films encapsulate a certain version of American modernization, in which the frontier is always a promise and settling down a compromise. But it leaves him blind to other things, like subtext. In Red River, the “soft,” “effeminate” Matt Garth (Montgomery Clift, playing John Wayne’s adopted son) and the hired gunfighter Cherry Valance (John Ireland) engage in a brief orgy of mutual gun fondling. Pippin mentions this, and says that it has “provoked quite a lot of discussion.” Well, thanks. I wonder what he’d say about Billy Budd.

A bigger problem is that in making these films speak to fundamental questions about the basis of social organization and legal order, Pippin tends to lose sight of their connection to American culture. The Searchers, with Ethan Edwards at its heart, is a perversely grim story of race hatred and the madness that can inspire genocide. At the end of his chapter on it, Pippin pauses to contemplate Edwards’s place in the “American imaginary”: “I am sure that the character of Ethan, as the inheritor of the legacy of Natty Bumppo, Ahab, Sutpen and the like, is meant to raise that issue, but those questions are quite complicated.” And that’s it, not even a footnote more. There is an abyss here, which could have opened up in any direction, beginning with D.H. Lawrence’s hair-raising suggestion in Studies in Classic American Literature that the ghosts of dead Indians have long acted on the American unconscious, producing the “Orestes-like frenzy of restlessness in the Yankee soul, the inner malaise which amounts almost to madness.”

Maybe philosophy and madness don’t mix. It would have been nice though, if Pippin had reached for an outside perspective before saddling up with the Duke, and asked just what is it about these cowboy stories that makes them so appealing? Long ago, Leslie Fiedler pointed out that there’s always something childish in great works of American literature, where running from civilization is a way of fleeing the dominion of women and dodging the burdens of responsibility, maturity, and marriage. In his selection of films, Pippin does something similar: by choosing to see Westerns as American epics, which “capture the core drama in a particular form of political life” in a tone of “elevated seriousness,” he comes awfully close to equating myth with men and politics with war. I would have loved it if he had spent a little more time on those “domestic values” he claims are so hard to establish, maybe by looking at a few Westerns, like Johnny Guitar, Rio Bravo, or Run of the Arrow, where romantic love figures as part of the plot, whether it is across races, among equals, or to Joan Crawford.

The Searchers ends with John Wayne standing outside the Jorgensen farm, unable to enter, caught as something between hero and outcast. But philosophy doesn’t have to stop at the cabin door. Maybe in his next book Robert Pippin will step inside and report back on what he finds there.

Hollywood Westerns and American Myth: The Importance of Howard Hawks and John Ford for Political Philosophy by Robert B. Pippin
Yale University Press
ISBN: 0300145772
208 Pages