HOLLYWOOD WESTERNS AND AMERICAN MYTH: THE IMPORTANCE OF HOWARD HAWKS AND JOHN FORD FOR POLITICAL PHILOSOPHY
By Robert B. Pippin
Yale University Press, $35 188 pages
REVIEWED BY LAUREN WEINER
In the 1957 movie “Decision at Sundown,” Randolph Scott’s amiable sidekick, Noah Beery Jr., says of the bad guy:”He’s got that town in his fist, and he’s squeezin’ it hard.” You could say the same of Robert B. Pippin and his subject matter. The professor of social thought at the University of Chicago runs classic cowboy movies through his interpretive wringer and, well, the results ain’t pretty.
“Hollywood Westerns and American Myth: The Importance of Howard Hawks and John Ford for Political Philosophy” derives from lectures Mr. Pippin gave to an academic audience. Not much was done to clear away the obscurities, so we are left with a discussion that sounds like this:
“To say all at once the point I am trying to make: The mythic struggle we have been watching is itself the result of a kind of self-mythologization (exactly like the Tales of Early Texas myth ‘inside’ the film’s own mythic narration), a fantasy narrative frame that is also demythologizing itself in front of us.”
Don’t get me wrong; what the late, great critic Robert Warshow called “the deeper seriousness of the good Western films” does rate the attention of intellectuals. We even can learn from what they say about the frontier horseman and his lonely code of honor. Warshow - who was not a postmodernist academic like Mr. Pippin - wrote that when the hero of “The Virginian” has to decide whether to hang his best friend for stealing cattle, he is faced with conflicting moral absolutes “and the choice of either must leave a moral stain.”
Warshow is cited in this book. That is to Mr. Pippin’s credit. But whether his postmodern musings add much - either to what Warshow said or to moviegoers’ instinctive awareness that the Westerns most dear to their hearts are highly nuanced stories and not gung-ho celebrations of America - is unclear. When I say unclear, I mean as murky as what is poured into the trough to feed the livestock. The text reads like a rough draft, full of repetitions, run-on sentences and inartful skippings-around.
Mr. Pippin will take the reader inside the plot of a movie but then suddenly veer, midsentence, to refer to how parts of the movie were received by critics. Moreover, in a book that is mainly about John Ford, the elevation of Howard Hawks to the subtitle seems arbitrary. Not much more is said of Hawks than is said of Fred Zinnemann, Nicholas Ray, King Vidor, Budd Boetticher and Anthony Mann, all of whom directed famous and/or worthy films about the frontier or the post-frontier world of the rodeo rider.
Nor does the author wear his erudition lightly. As frequent as the scholarly references are, they are seldom developed, which keeps them from seeming relevant. Mr. Pippin tries, for example, to get us to accept more readily his assertion that the role played by Montgomery Clift in “Red River” is a mythic one (that of the foundling) by directing us, in a footnote, to Carl Jung and somebody called Kerenyi on “the special phenomenology of the child archetype.” (No call for that, pard’ner; your word is good in this-here establishment.)
One can find some relief in spots - for example, his disarming confession that, as a boy, he cherished his Daniel Boone coonskin cap and Davy Crockett bowie knife. Nothing too startling in this - it simply marks Mr. Pippin as the baby boomer he is - but at least it shows that once upon a time he had an immediate and direct response to Westerns. Now that he’s all grow’d up and writing political philosophy, he watches a movie scene in which it takes several people to restrain willful John Wayne (“Red River” again) and calls it “a remarkable demonstration of the ‘distributed’ and so nonheroic but very effective character of bourgeois subjectivity.”
Pippin tends to accentuate the elements of irony in these movies and to turn John Ford, in particular, into an honorary postmodernist bent on “making use of the John Wayne Type to ‘set up’ the viewer, inducing an identification that Ford will completely undermine by relying on our understanding of that type, as if we know who ‘John Wayne’ is, or for that matter as if we know what America is.”
All is “Foucauldian” and unstable - reality, that is to say, and movies that purport to capture reality. Except that, for some reason, the final paragraph reflects a traditionalist’s view of movie Westerns and our country.
The last work covered at length is 1952’s “The Lusty Men,” a Nicholas Ray melodrama in which Susan Hayward persuades Arthur Kennedy to give up the wild and dissolute bronco-busting life into which he has been drawn by Robert Mitchum. Mitchum helps her make her case for a settled life of domesticity, even giving his own life in the effort. Mr. Pippin wraps up the analysis, and his book, by applauding not only Ray’s work, but John Ford’s, for affirming the bourgeois republic that the United States became when the West was won, and the tough and brave men who paid the price to make this republic possible.
He writes that “there is a kind of affirmation by Ray” that the rodeo rider’s sacrifice “was worth it, that there is nothing petty or small-minded or cowardly about what [the wife] wants.” This interpretation - which is swell by me, by the way - is a return to conventionality that is a little like impulsively fetching your trusty old bowie knife and coonskin cap from the attic.
Well, why not? It doesn’t make for consistency, but thanks for “step[ping] down off your high horse, mister” (as John Wayne said in “The Alamo”).
Lauren Weiner is a freelance writer in Baltimore.