COWBOYS AS COLD WARRIORS: THE WESTERN AND U.S. HISTORY
By Stanley Corkin
Temple University Press, $69.50, 23.95 paper, 272 pages
REVIEWED BY LYN NOFZIGER
There are in this world people who will not leave well enough alone. Among them are those persons who forever are seeking deeper meaning in works of literature. and art, including the movies, meanings, I suggest, that the artist, writer or filmmaker himself had no idea were there.
One of those persons is Stanley Corkin, a professor of English at the University of Cincinnati. Mr. Corkin has written a book that pretty much verifies what I have suggested. Published by Temple University Press, it is titled, for reasons that will become obvious, “Cowboys as Cold Warriors” with the subtitle, “The Western and U.S. History.”
Here is a sample sentence in 65 well-chosen words, of what Mr. Corkin has sought and, in the case of the John Wayne movie, “The Alamo,” seemingly found: “Arguably, in 1960 John Wayne, in light of the launching of Sputnik, the Berlin crisis, and the looming crisis in Southeast Asia, saw his film ‘The Alamo’ as a direct intervention in the national culture, an intervention that found it’s full voice in the Goldwater campaign of 1963-64 and the subsequent rise of the right wing as the major policy voice of the Republican Party.” Who’d have thunk it?
Note the word “arguably.” That means that Mr. Corkin really has no idea what Wayne was thinking; he is just guessing. He is wishing, for the sake of his thesis, that Wayne was that involved in current and “looming” world happenings and that the fact that “The Alamo” was filmed in l960 showed just how prescient Wayne was.
It may sound cynical, but if I had to bet I’d bet that when Wayne made “The Alamo,” he — arguably — wasn’t paying a whole heck of a lot of attention to Sputnik, problems in Southeast Asia or the Berlin crisis. Instead, he was primarily interested in making a box office hit.
In fact, I’d wager that is the case with most of the 16 A-quality Western movies Mr. Corkin dissects in his effort to show how they “metaphorically narrate the relationship between the United States and the world.”
This doesn’t mean that the movies. though set for the most part in frontier America, don’t reflect to some extent the cultural mores and geopolitical times in which they were made. It would be hard for them not to.
But the inference that this generally is the result of conscious effort on the part of the producers and directors is difficult to agree with.
This is not to say either that Hollywood has not made and does not make overtly propaganda movies because it most certainly has and does. But it is difficult to agree that so many major Western films of the Cold War era had purposes other than to draw audiences and provide amusement to America’s moviegoers.
In a way, though, one must admire Mr. Corkin for his years-long struggle to show otherwise, to show that there is more to these movies than meets the eye of the casual viewer.
The movies he chose were made between l946 and l962, the year in which America became heavily involved in Vietnam and coincidentally at a time which Mr. Corkin says, “marks the end of the full-flowering of the Western.” The Cold War, however, continued through the l980s, although it’s conceivable that in the professor’s mind no really good Westerns with subtle propaganda undertones were made after l962.
Regardless, it would be hard to improve on Mr. Corkin’s selection, at least when it comes to entertainment value, although I personally preferred some later ones such as “Pale Rider,” “Butch Cassidy and The Sundance Kid,” “Cat Ballou” and Wayne’s last movie. “The Shootist.” While it seems to me that none of these had any particular sociological message I suppose that “Cat Ballou,” or any other movie starring Jane Fonda, might with effort be linked to the war in Vietnam.
To make his points, however, Mr. Corkin, chose more serious movies, including “Shane,” “High Noon,” “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance,” “The Alamo” “My Darling Clementine” and “The Gunfight at the OK Corral.” Serious, that is, in that they are not comedies. But movies that carry a serious message? Maybe, if you’re Prof. Corkin and look hard enough, but hardly if you go to the movies for amusement.
Just what is it the professor finds in these Cold War-period westerns? Well, let us see. Broadly he discovers that “the repressed dimension of Westerns is their relationship to imperialism.”
Additionally “they appeal powerfully to incipient nationalism in U.S. audiences” and they also “look back upon the glory days of western settlement as they look ahead to the expression of U.S. Centrality in the postwar world.”
Westerns, Mr. Corkin concludes. are at least partly responsible for the cultural shift in America from the isolationism of the ‘30s to the acceptance of imperialism by the l950s.
All of this and entertainment, too.
The book is broken down into six chapters, each one featuring two or three of the films Mr. Corkin has selected to analyze for their social and cultural impact as well as for their relationship to the times in which they were produced.
There is not space enough here to delve into all six chapters and show how the particular Westerns Mr. Corkin has selected relate to the Cold War and the social and economic mores of those times. A sentence from “Cowboys, Free Markets, Wyatt Earp, and Thomas Dunson,” aka Chapter One, will suffice to illustrate just what it is in the way of meaning and ideology he is trying to extract from the Westerns he had chosen.
Here in his own words are the kinds of things he is trying to get at: “Through my discussion of these films I show how the Western was well suited to convey important ideological rationales for postwar U.S. foreign policy, including the inevitability of U.S. expansion and the strategies for hegemony that guided the Truman administration’s foreign policy in the years immediately following World War II.”
The two films that Mr. Corkin says do all of this are “My Darling Clementine” and “Red River.”
Two questions that come to mind after reading this chapter and the ensuing five are these: Did the people who made and produced the films — the writers, directors and actors — really understand the significance of what they were doing? And does anyone, aside from a few sociologists, one or two geopolitical scientists and a lone English professor from Cincinnati, really care?
Lyn Nofziger, a Washington writer, was an adviser to President Ronald Reagan and is the author of “Tackett and the Indian” and three other Western novels.