15. The Great American Screenplays Part II: Manifest Destiny and the Mythology of the Western Cowboy

This blog is focused on making the casual movie-watcher a competent film-connoisseur.  One of the most difficult facts of film competency is that the whole thing is very erratic.  What we see as “great” often depends on the time in which we live; Citizen Kane, for example, did not make Sight and Sound’s first ever list of the greatest films in 1942, but it topped that list in 1952.  Ten years ago, it seemed like Fight Club was going to be the most remembered David Fincher film, but it is becoming increasingly obvious with every passing day that his truest masterpiece is Seven.  In today’s world, where we are bombarded with Mickey Mouse children’s shows and Disneyland promotionals, we are far more appreciative of Fantasia, a movie that saved the Mickey Mouse character, than viewers perhaps were when the film was initially released in 1940.  Who knows how much of this blog I will regret writing in 20 years, or how much we will all laugh together when we’re 60 years old at the fact that Frances Ha made my list of the 555 best movies.  Or, maybe we’ll find out I was right all along.

One such example of the role of time and the changing tastes of the generations occurred in the 1950s.  For about 45 years—beginning with The Great Train Robbery in 1903—a certain genre had begun to take hold on American cinema.  However, it never garnered the respect that it truly deserved until one great French critic, André Bazin, wrote in his famous book (the most important book on film ever written), What is Cinema?, that the genre should be considered “the American par excellence.”  What was this genre?  It was the American Western. 

Bazin held the American Western in such high regard because, as he said, it held a profound secret that “identifie[d] it with the essence of cinema.”  In its simplest form, movies are moving pictures; the thing that differentiates cinema from photography is movement.  To view movement as the ultimate ingredient to film is to grant the Western the highest of praises, since the Western embodies movement like none other.  Its romance is made manifest in migration, chases, herds, and exoduses across an unconquered landscape.  It’s a genre about the unknown, and the conquering of it.  In order to conquer it, one must enter it.  In order to enter it, one must move.

But, Bazin took it a step further.  For him, to cite the nature of movement in the Western as its greatest strength was to deny that there was one greater.  For example, one could certainly see these principles of movement against a landscape-backdrop in other genres across the world.  In particular, Bazin cited the Swedish silent films and Australia’s The Overlanders.  No, for Bazin, there was something even deeper, even more significant to the success of the Western world-wide (the Western has long been beloved by practically every nation to consume it).  For Bazin, this special ingredient was the formula of myth.

The greatest myths in Western literature are remembered even today.  You have the Trojan War and the Odyssey.  You have the Knights of the Round Table.  Lancelot and Guinevere.  Hercules.  The Titans.  That the Western borrows primarily from the Greeks and Arthurian legend is quite evident when you replace the Trojan War for the Civil War, and the Odyssey for Westward migration, or the quest of trials to prove worthiness for a virgin love.  You have the creed of the Cowboys marching their cattle across the plains in place of the Knights of the Round Table.  You have the woman-now-married, who must stand alongside her husband for honor’s sake, while the warrior rushes to his death to save her.  (You never thought of “Shane” as Lancelot, did you?)  You have the demigod-like anti-hero who must overcome a series of tests on his search for reconciliation (The Searchers as the Labours of Hercules).  You have the Indians, an unclaimed and hostile race that always lingers in the rocks above; much like the Titans from the rocks below.

These myths contributed to the elevation of the American ego, and the creation of an American psyche that no only evoked nationalism in the ranks, but envy from overseas.  The Western truly was the most popular of all American genres.  This is why the Western is truly one of the three types of “Great American Screenplays” that came to prominence in the 1930s.  In the case of the Western, this prominence actually climaxed in the 1950s, where in the case of the screwball comedy and the film noir, the climax was somewhere around 1940, as World War II seemed to make in irreversible impact on those two genres.

While this series on the “Great American Screenplays” is designed to point the reader to the movies’ scripts first and foremost, I cannot help but make an appeal to the direction of the American Western, at least for a moment.  See, the script does a superb job of telling an American myth, and it is because of the telling and re-telling of these myths that the Western survives, but the inevitable necessity of landscape leads us to recognize that the myth would be dead without a land whereon the myth can dwell.  In their purest sense, myths are stories of man overcoming nature, whether through a battle with some sort of personification of nature or through the creation of an empire.  In a lot of ways, the American myth of cowboys vs. Indians, which stands in for the Grecian cosmic wars between the gods and the Titans, redefines the Indian as a personification of the land to which the Indian was aboriginal.  To conquer them was, in a lot of ways, to conquer nature.

This leads a lot of people to decry the Western as “unenlightened.”  It’s not inaccurate to say that.  But, I think it distracts us politically from what the Western does well.  The films are not about the external forces, be they the climate, terrain, or native peoples, but rather about the main character’s attempts to overcome them in his own way.  For Jimmy Stewart in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, that “way” is to find a rule of law in a land of violence.  For John Wayne in The Searchers, it is to tame the land through taming the natives of it, and therefore prove his mastery.  For Montgomery Clift in Red River, it is simply to get his cattle across the country.  In all of these, place is of supreme importance.  It is all about the backdrop, the land which they travail, and all the elements of that new earth, natives included.  When this is fully realized, the unenlightened approach to the cowboys and Indians dynamic becomes a mythological symbol that can be properly understood as romantic if not overly-simple.  We often laud the Golden Ages of Greece and Rome while ignoring the debaucheries and Diocletians.  Much like early Greece and Rome, the American West was—at least in film—a land of mythology, where you always knew who was good and who was bad, and where you could always count on the romantic hero to overcome the land that stood before him.

This is what differentiated the screenplays of the Western from those of the screwball comedy and the film noir.  The latter genres were about people dealing with people, and location was, consequently, less of an issue.  But in the Western, the screenplays depended on the director’s ability to place the earth within the frame, to consistently demonstrate this starkness and opposition between the infinite land and its finite conqueror.  To film a good Western required a great cinematic director, and that is why men like John Ford and Howard Hawks remain, to this day, two of the most revered American directors of all time.

As a result, the Western often followed a cookie-cutter formula.  In a footnote to his article, “What is a Western?: Politics and Self-Knowledge in John Ford’s The Searchers”, Robert B. Pippin gave us a list of the formulas that Bazin would qualify as “mythical”:

“There are various ways of counting such plots. The most prevalent plots are probably (i) the gunfighter trying to find a way to quit, which is in tension with the town’s need for his violent skills, or the general travails of ex-gunfighters who have simply become irrelevant; (ii) the empire-ranch story, where a kind of feudal lord holds power threatened by the coming of civilization and the dissolution of the next generation; (iii) episodes in the Indian wars, especially journeys across hostile territory; (iv) captivity narratives; (v) free-range ranchers trying to stop homesteaders and farmers from putting up fences and establishing claims to land; (vi) revenge quests; and (vii) wagon train movies, colonizers out to stake claims further west.”

The use of mythological archetypes to formulate a standard or streamlined plot was the reason for the Western’s success.  To deviate was problematic.  For example, take the issue of the Native American’s role in the Western.  Some may say that directors and screenwriters should have tried to break free of the mold of unenlightenment and reshape the dynamic of race.  It would have been bold and progressive.  After all, Disney just did that with gender in Frozen.  The problem with such deviation from the formula was that the abandonment of the myth was the death of the genre, because the genre was the myth.  For Bazin, the characters were not supposed to tell us how to behave, they acted as types of a certain sort of behavior.  It took, in his words, “the white Christian (to be the true) conqueror of a new world.  The grass sprouts where his horse has passed. He imposes simultaneously his moral and his technical order, the one linked to the other and the former guaranteeing the latter. The physical safety of the stagecoaches, the protection given by the federal troops, the building of the great railroads are less important perhaps than the establishment of justice and respect for the law. The relations between morality and law, which in our ancient civilization are just a subject for an undergraduate paper, were half a century ago the most vital thing confronting the youthful United States. Only strong, rough, and courageous men could tame these virgin lands.”  It was a new mythology, non-pagan, non-European, and non-urban.

Now, this leads us full circle, back to the key ingredient of movement.  For Bazin, this was the second-most important ingredient for the Western.  But for me, it is the most important; this is likely because I have an American historical perspective that Bazin didn’t have.  The American Western is America’s genre because it tells of a group of people that tried to create America; not through a Constitutional Convention or Revolution, but through an ideological appeal to a new culture and a new literature.  This was done through the most profound of geographical symbols: a separation from European tradition through a literal exodus away from Europe.  The American West meant more than just a money grab (though that was certainly part of it).  It was a physical manifestation of the spiritual desire to get as far away as possible from the European influence and create a distinctively new America in a decidedly new world.  For me, the FilmSage, movement is everything when it comes to this, the greatest of all American genres.

The pursuit of liberty from the authoritarian bonds of an empire upon which the sun never set was not to be realized in American by merely signing a declaration of grievances, as was done on July 4, 1776. Nor would that quest come to fruition at Yorktown, where General Washington and the Continental Army tactically won the final battle of the war they waged with Britain. That mission of freedom would continue, but certainly not end, at the signing of the Treaty of Paris in September of 1783. The ensuing debates and reforms of Confederation, Convention, and Constitution may have brought to pass the official birth of a new and legally autonomous nation, but sovereignty was still not full-grown. Throughout the following years, policies shifted and wars were fought, but the dependency fostered by this infantile union on its more mature counterparts within the global stage still maintained its own chokehold; independency had not yet been fully obtained, though a declaration for said independence had been signed decades earlier.

The true nativity of the United States of America as an autonomous and independent country would have to be realized through the establishment of its culture. To establish this universal culture and still maintain the exceptionality of the individual was the delicate line that had to be defined, and as the political struggle of the young government hurdled ever-faster to a nationwide immersion in blood and carnage that would later be remembered as the American Civil War, many great thinkers had begun to argue that the solution lay westward. As the United States and its entrepreneurs spurred on growth towards the frontier on the other side of the Mississippi they would split away from the institutions of Europe and instead embrace the inherent qualities that defined the American dream and private enterprise—the qualities that were indubitably inalienable endowments from a Supreme Creator for his providential heirs to the promised land. In his article, “Walt Whitman and Manifest Destiny”, Henry Nash Smith wrote that for people like Whitman, there was a “demand for a new American culture created by, and in turn finding expression in, a native literature”, one that would be found in the beauty of the frontier. Whitman wrote in his famous poem, A Passage to India:

Greater than stars or suns

Bounding, O soul, thou journeyest forth

What love, than thine and ours could wider amplify?

What aspirations, wishes, outvie thine and ours, O soul?

What dreams of the ideal? what plans of purity, perfection, strength?

What cheerful willingness, for others’ sake, to give up all?

For others’ sake to suffer all?

Surely, this appeal to the free spirit of the American Dream was exactly the petition that needed to be recited. This philosophy of growth and freedom was not only personified symbolically, but exhibited literally in the Manifest Destiny protocol.  American foreign policy had been limited by the Monroe Doctrine, which had been put forward by John Quincy Adams, officially declaring “that the American continents, by the free and independent condition which they have assumed and maintain, are henceforth not to be considered as subjects for future colonization by any European powers.” This was the essence of American foreign policy, to provide for American separation from governmental imperialism and the ideals of European tyranny. This creed was heightened by the ideals of Manifest Destiny, which was, in essence, an appeal to greater distancing from European tradition and sphere of influence.  According to Alexis de Tocqueville, it was this very diversion from European pursuits which “concurred to fix the mind of the American upon purely practical objects” that kept the nation from “relapsing into barbarism,” and therefore made the American position “quite exceptional.”

There was yet another element to this need that the “virtuous” American had to embrace his “manifest”—or obvious—destiny, and it had to do with this notion of fixing “the mind of the American upon purely practical objects.”  The most practical and pragmatic of lives was the purely humble life of the most democratic of citizens: the agrarian.  The notion of agrarianism and the American is most frequently associated with Thomas Jefferson.

In a letter to John Jay, Thomas Jefferson explained his ideals of agrarianism and their place in American progress by saying, “Cultivators of the earth are the most valuable citizens.” Really, according to Richard Hofstadter, there was nothing “more natural than to find in the western rural democracy of Jefferson and Jackson a set of doctrines erected for the rationalization of an agrarian interest.” Such pursuit was distinctly non-European, at least in the modern sense.  By appealing to Jeffersonian agrarianism and continually moving Westward, the American was, in essence, “restarting” the American dream with every homestead.  Instead of falling victim to the problems of urbanity, where civil unrest leads often to an appeal to oligarchy (do we not see this in such metropolises as Chicago and New York today?), the American experiment in republican virtue would renew itself with each stride towards the West.

This was the romance of the American Western.  It was an appeal to a new literature, a literature that seemed to be born around the same time that photographs started to be taken and movies were beginning to be born.  The capital of America’s movie industry owed its very existence to this romantic dream of Westward expansion.  What the American saw in the Western was a mythological adaptation of the American psyche, and the rest of the world were given a case study in the American experiment (along with all its flaws).

Now, I do not mean to use this article as a justification for Jacksonian violence towards Indians or the white man’s seizure of the West.  I, like many others, have serious issue with the way that Manifest Destiny played out in certain incidences.  However, I hope to instill in the reader what was good, artistic, and romantic about westward expansion and why such a prominent mythology could be born from it.  The American Western film is the literature through which this mythology is told, and that is what makes it so great.

There is an American mythology.  It is born of real-life men and women who gave birth to the nation.  Historical embellishments about George Washington, Paul Revere, Molly Pitcher, and Davy Crockett contribute to the American ego, and highlight the legend that these characters created.  The American Western tells such stories, creating a legendary historical embellishment that brings an honesty to romanticism.

My previous essay on screwball comedies was followed by four reviews of great screwballs from the ’30s and ’40s.  This second installment in my “The Great American Screenplays” series will be no different.  In the upcoming reviews, we will see some of the great Westerns of the ’30s and ’40s (no ’50s yet, sorry), and, in the process, familiarize ourselves with such mammoth personalities as John Ford, John Wayne, Roy Rodgers, Henry Fonda, and Gary Cooper.  These are names that still invoke respect and awe today, and I hope that this essay helped you to realize why.  Because they are the American Lancelots.

12 thoughts on “15. The Great American Screenplays Part II: Manifest Destiny and the Mythology of the Western Cowboy

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