New Book: Hollywood Westerns and American Myth

by Robert Pippin

There’s a new book about guns and gunplay hitting the shelves: Hollywood Westerns and American Myth: The Importance of Howard Hawks and John Ford for Political Philosophy. Author Robert Pippin invokes a comparison between westerns and the Tea Party movement on a guest blog at the Washington Post’s Political Bookworm . . .

Almost all the great American Western movies are intensely political films within a distinctly American framework. In effect they all adopt in one way or another the mythological fiction that so fascinated political philosophers in the 17th and 18th centuries: the problem of the transition from a state of lawlessness, ruthless self-interest, and terrifying uncertainty, the “state of nature,” to a political order, the rule of law and the surrender of one’s right to decide everything in one’s own case.

They represent to us our own beliefs and passions about our founding; that is, about what was founded, and why the transition from the supremacy of virtues like honor, courage, and self-reliance to the now more important virtues of civility, trustworthiness, and prudence, were, all in all, “worth it.”

A guest writer from Baltimore reviews the book for the Washington Times, and finds it academic, but not disagreeable:

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.

The Post-Tribune also offers a timely review:

Pippin’s book began as a lecture series titled “Political Psychology and American Myth: Violence and Order in Hollywood Westerns” that he originally delivered at Yale University in 2008. In “close readings” of three films he ponders: “The Right to Rule in Howard Hawks’ Red River,” “Who Cares Who Shot Liberty Valance?” and “Politics and Self-Knowledge in John Ford’s ‘The Searchers.’ ” John Wayne appears in all three films. Pippin is especially struck by his performance as Ethan in “The Searchers” and writes, “What we and he discover is that he did not know his own mind.”

“This battle of images about the real America with Sarah Palin is an appeal to independent, rural, anti-city, anti-East Coast feelings,” suggests Pippin. “And you see that all over the place in Westerns, that people from the East Coast are weak and incapable of doing the hard stuff that needs to be done to sustain a body politic.

“That’s the question always raised by the Tea Party — is Obama one of us?” continues Pippin. “That’s not really about his birth certificate. It’s a deep question about whether effete Harvard-educated intellectuals really have a place in the real America.”

Pippin relates “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance” to the president: “He’s like the Jimmy Stewart character. He really has faith in the law and making a law-abiding community, and there are some who doubt he can do that without a character like John Wayne backing him up.

I’ve ordered the book because it seems to address the root of the debate over guns.

In short, many people assume that our country was founded by people with guns. For them,  guns represent, inform and protect the values that make America great. So we should always keep our guns. Others believe that our violent past was a precursor to a civilized present. At this point in American history, ordinary citizens don’t need guns. They are an unnecessary danger to life and liberty.

My own feeling: we enjoyed a brief period of largely gun-free civilization, in certain localities and mostly on television. We are now headed backwards into a period of more law and less order. We may well need our guns again to protect ourselves from immediate threats.

Write a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

button to share on facebook
button to tweet
button to share via email