PRINT May 1988


American Myths

THERE'S A CERTAIN IRONY that those youngsters growing up under Ronnie le Cowboy will be the first American kids of the 20th century to reach adolescence without receiving a thorough indoctrination in the ethos of the frontier, the spectacle of marshals and rustlers, the drama of cowboys and Indians—and in this the quality of American-ness will have changed. For the now-defunct western was typically the way that, however honestly or meretriciously (and always refracting the past through the lens of the present), America used to explain itself to itself. Who makes the law? What is the order? How do you know when a man’s gotta do what a man’s gotta do?

It used to be that each western, no matter how banal, was a little Fourth of July. There were years between 1940 and 1960 when westerns consumed as much as 25 percent of Hollywood’s total output. All of these movies wound up on television, plus more— on the eve of the New Frontier, the genre owned TV. Thus the teenagers sent to Vietnam in the late ’60s were weaned on Gunsmoke and educated by the Marlboro man. (The Mickey Mouse-club anthem that ends Stanley Kubrick’s Vietnam-located movie Full Metal Jacket really should have been “The Ballad of Davy Crockett.”) By all accounts, the war was steeped in western imagery: dangerous areas were “Indian country,” a South Vietnamese scout was a “Kit Carson,” cutting the ears off dead enemies was equated with taking scalps, and more than a few grunts emblazoned their flak jackets with the slogan “The only good gook is a dead gook.”

Although John Wayne’s The Green Berets, 1968, was the only Viet-set combat movie produced during the war itself, the imagery and issues of Vietnam were displaced onto the western: the ultra-violent The Wild Bunch, 1969, the Native American-centered Little Big Man, 1970, the My Lai-comment Soldier Blue, 1970, and the vengeful High Plains Drifter, 1973, were the closest Hollywood came to addressing Vietnam while the war was still being waged. But Wayne exerted an influence on the conduct of the war that went beyond The Green Berets. The star most associated in his movies with both World War II and the old West, he figured prominently in the fantasies of American soldiers, as oral histories of the war demonstrate. (In Full Metal Jacket, Kubrick uses his protagonist’s sardonic Wayne imitation to suggest that the whole war was something like a bloody impersonation act.)

Vietnam was Wayne’s last hurrah, just as it proved to be America’s last frontier (so far). The decline of the western after the war effectively redefined the screen image of the masculine hero. The ’70s saw a whole generation of stars who have never donned stetsons— Robert De Niro, Sylvester Stallone, Al Pacino, Richard Dreyfuss, Harrison Ford. (When the more ’60s-tinged Dustin Hoffman did, in Little Big Man, he played a character whose identity swung back and forth between cowboy and Indian.) On TV, too, Westerns were anathema. Kung Fu, 1972–75, the most successful example of the early ’70s, lasted three seasons and achieved a high rating of 32nd-most-popular. Significantly, it was a cult-oriented show with a strong infusion of countercultural mysticism and an Asian protagonist. And so the genre that had enjoyed its golden age during the quarter-century Pax Americana that followed World War II, and then had turned weird, in terms of its own history, around 1968, faded out altogether less than a decade later with the ultimate desecration of Blazing Saddles, 1974, which capped the assorted anti-, post-, spaghetti, revisionist, psychedelic, and burlesque westerns of the early ’70s. By that time, as presaged by Coogan’s Bluff, 1968, in which Arizona sheriff Clint Eastwood tracks a suspect to New York, the inner city had become the new frontier.

Eastwood, who had been a TV cowboy and spaghetti-western superstar, was the icon who presided over the end of the western and the birth of the anti-Miranda-decision urban policier, enjoying an unprecedented two-decade reign as a top male attraction. But while John Wayne never wasted a moment pondering what was this thing “John Wayne,” Eastwood’s self-consciousness became apparent as early as his Fatal Attraction precursor Play Misty for Me, 1971. Eastwood’s election to public office two years ago only certified his political career. Such Eastwood tropes as the demonic underclass and the establishment loner have dominated American political discourse for the last 15 years or more— his allegorical High Plains Drifter is the ideological forerunner of Rambo.

The premise of this lowdown oater is more or less taken from High Noon, 1952 —a degenerate town hires Eastwood to protect them from three monstrous killers. But what gives the movie its special flavor is that virtually everyone in it is such slime, and, with the exception of Eastwood, a coward as well. He is the ultimate violent and misappreciated Viet vet as described in the ’70s stereotype—before the veterans’ relatively recent humanization in the media. On the one hand, he derives a certain grim satisfaction from looting, burning, and debauching women (a man’s gotta do what a man’s gotta do). On the other, he’s a victim of the pusillanimity that has struck the town like a plague. There’s nothing left for him to do but paint the place red (literally) and burn it down.

High Plains Drifter was the last convincing western to come out of Hollywood. (A later attempt to revive the genre, in 1980–81, went down in flames with Heaven’s Gate; the few stragglers since were no more successful.) Although western motifs have been dispersed among a number of popular modes, the whole elaborate mythology—its codes, rituals, and ancillary merchandise—has become obsolete. History is an anachronism. That the western has been more or less defunct since the fall of Saigon suggests that the spectacle by which America came to be America has proved resistant to the widespread process of reillusionment that characterized the Age of Reagan. Fantasizing about Star Wars is one thing, but reflecting on the national past is a form of thinking about the unthinkable.

J. Hoberman writes on film for The Village Voice. He contributes this column regularly to Artforum.