Telling America’s Story

We have often talked about the role of the western in how America sees itself, and indeed in how the world sees America. In fact in one her very first posts here, Jessica started the topic, saying…

My father was fifty when I was born, and his tastes in movies became mine. When other teenage girls were swooning about Kevin Costner (really???), I was dismissive. John Wayne was my hero – and remains so. He summed up America for me. Strong, but never boastful about it. I remember crying when I saw ‘The Man who shot Liberty Vallance’ – it was so unfair – it was Tom Donovan, not Ransom Stoddard who shot Liberty Vallance, so why did the latter end up with the girl? Huh, I remember thinking, if I had been ‘the girl’ there was no way I’d have chosen Jimmy Stewart over John Wayne – what was she thinking?  But, as Tom Donovan might have said: “Whoa, take ‘er easy there, Pilgrim”.

The film’s message, which passed me by in my indignation, was about the passing of the old West, and the place of myth in the making of a nation. America is a nation build around myths and legends. That is not to say they are wrong, it is to say that those movies told a bigger story about the making of a great nation and what made it that. All nations need myths, and the point about the American one seemed to be encapsulated in my second favourite John Wayne film – ‘She wore a Yellow ribbon.’ Captain Nathan Brittles was the quintessential quiet American. A man who, having lost his family, was married to army, and who did his duty, no matter what. My teenage heart went out to him, and I was very sniffy about the heroine going off with those ‘boys’ rather than a ‘real man’.

I really can’t see how ‘the girl’ was going to lose, having to choose between John Wayne and Jimmy Stewart, but Jess’ later reflection is dead on point, I think. Very good insight for a young British err Welsh lass, I think.Building a civilization is one time (and not the only one) when the only thing that will stop a bad man with a gun is a good man with a gun.

In fact, a few days later, in a music post that summed up the week, called True Grit, I said this.

My background is Scandinavian  our myths had to do with gods and goddesses. But, we have something else as well, we have our sagas from the time when we went out into the world, and settled Iceland and Greenland, many say we founded both Moscow and Dublin, and the Eastern Emperor’s Varangian Guard were Swedish as well. A little boastful perhaps but, it’s well to remember that the Viking age ended in a resounding clash of arms as the Danish King of England defeated the King of Norway and two weeks later lost to the Duke of Normandy.

That’s what these films are: The Saga of America.

Jess asked her Mummy a very valid question back when she was 10 when she asked “What is America for, Mummy?” But she got it a little wrong, the real question is, “Who is America for, Mummy?”

Because it’s the Saga of ordinary men and women, who dreamed of living free, and were willing to do the hard, dangerous, and often dirty work of making that dream happen. Even if they were a one-eyed fat man or a Texian whore. America has never been about class or social standing. That’s what I think America is, the new start of western civilization and of the people with True Grit.

And you know, we’re not the only ones. Last week in The Federalist,  Inez Feltscher Stepman, told us about her favorite top ten westerns (and ten extras). Her ranking are somewhat different than mine, but not all that different. I think she might have seen more of them than I have, which is a low bar. One thing stood out for me. Did you know that one of the most effective posters made and used by Solidarity, in the eighties featured Gary Cooper, in his role in High Noon? I didn’t, but the character shown by one man standing alone against evil, is a central part of most of the westerns, and of the American character. It’s also why the collectivists all over the world hate us. Here’s a bit from Inez…

No film genre is more quintessential to the American soul than the Western. The virtues Westerns champion—courage, moral clarity, self-reliance, individualism—are American virtues; their vices—excessive or hokey moral simplicity, caricatures of the enemy—are American too. Westerns are so synonymous with the legend that is America that it’s little wonder that from their heyday in the 1950s until today, they’ve played a key role in shaping our perception of ourselves, as well as the world’s opinion of us.

The white-hatted cowboy standing firm against long odds is iconic, and not only within our borders. Western imagery has had such a powerful impact across the globe that Gary Cooper’s character in “High Noon” (No. 3) was used by the anti-Communist Polish party Solidarity in a poster campaign urging people to overcome their fear of tyrannical system and show their true colors at the polls.

She expanded on that in a podcast with Mary Katharine Ham this week. it’s good listening.

Only one hint, though. Her number one, is in my top three, and the exact ranking depends on the day.

Inez also gives the outstanding advice that if you are not enthused with current movies, and who is, why not watch some of these twenty movies. I certainly am going to! 🙂

 

 

 

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About NEO
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7 Responses to Telling America’s Story

  1. Nicholas says:

    Personally, I’m a Clint Eastwood fan. I like the distinction he often draws in his films between the rough application of the law and complete vigilantism. This is best seen in Magnum Force, which is not a Western per se, but can be understood as a Western transposed into modern times. Indeed, big cities can be seen as lawless frontiers at times, be it the rise of druglords and gangs in the 70s or the formation of no-go zones in our own times. Either way, civilisation must step in.

    Like

    • NEO says:

      In many ways, Clint, whom we all like, is the successor to the Duke. It’s been said that Wayne turned down the Dirty Harry role, clearing the way for Clint.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. the unit says:

    According to Wiki some Scandinavians were some of the original Texians. Didn’t say if they were the whore ones. “It happened that way … movin’ west.” 🙂

    Like

    • NEO says:

      Likely they were. Never heard about the white portion of the Yellow Rose, don’t think it was important to them, or the Mexican, black, whatever part, for that matter. 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  3. the unit says:

    Yeah, who but me, especially in the U.S., remembers Bekim Fehmiu? 🙂

    Like

    • NEO says:

      Google is my friend, which is a good thing, or I wouldn’t have had a clue on that one! 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

      • the unit says:

        He was suppose to be Hollywood’s new star. Movie was a flop. 1970 ‘The Adventurers’. I thought it was pretty good. So much for my opinion! Name change might’ve helped the fellow.
        For some reason I’ve not forgotten it. Maybe it’s just habit, like i.e. how my usual election choice fairs. 🙂

        Liked by 1 person

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