One is a world of civilized men using a deliberative, legislative process to resolve volatile social issues. The other, a world of brave men using firearms (and a few sticks of dynamite) to resolve a volatile personal issue. Which world do you want to live in? Stephen Spielberg's Lincoln, or Quentin Tarantino's Django Unchained? Movies, of course, often make for poor history. Guns and bribery backed up Lincoln's negotiations. And even though Django's wife swings that rifle into position pretty sharply as they ride away from the decimated Candie Land, I don't really like either's chances of making it out of Mississippi alive. Maybe someday, cultural historians will draw some conclusions from these two big-time movies competing for awards and box office at the end of 2012. In the light of the ongoing battle over the role of guns in our society, I suspect we are currently closer to Django than Lincoln.

I started out to write about gun control. Halfway through, I realized I know little about the issue. I should probably read more on it before I write on it. So instead, this is about Westerns. Django comes from a deep American tradition. Even though it is nominally based on the Italian form of that American tradition, the Italians like Sergio Leone and Sergio Corbucci (who directed the original Django in 1966), were just borrowers. The classic American Western is built on classic American ideas: That the individual, and not the collective, is the most important component of a society, and that violence, especially gun violence, is the most legitimate way to settle both societal and personal grievances. Anyone wishing to have a meaningful dialogue with those who support gun ownership in this country had better understand that fundamental ethos.

I have often told my students that a great paper could be written tracing the last century of American culture by examining seminal Western films. From Stagecoach (1939) to The Searchers (1956); from The Wild Bunch (1969) to Unforgiven (1993), each says something profound about the way we see ourselves. John Ford's Stagecoach was the first fully mature Western of the talking era, and its message is clear. The banker is evil, the bourgeois ineffectual. As the heroic couple (outlaw and prostitute) ride off at the end, they are said to be "free from the blessings of civilization," perhaps the most succinct statement of the Western philosophy.

Seventeen years later, as the seeds of the civil rights movement were being planted, Ford would make The Searchers, violent and vengeful to be sure, and very conscious of how residual racism has an uneasy place in modern society. When Sam Peckinpah made The Wild Bunch at the end of the '60s, America was in cultural turmoil. The good guys and bad guys were indistinguishable from each other and filmmakers' new-found adoration of graphic violence seemed to suggest that all of the old rules were out of fashion. Clint Eastwood's Unforgiven was about a once formidable gunfighter, now a picture of abject humiliation, who still has enough facility with his weaponry to slaughter anyone seeking to impose an unwelcome brand of civilization upon him. A message from America to the rest of the world?

We don't make as many Westerns today as we used to. Probably the two most successful ones in recent years have been James Mangold's 3:10 to Yuma (2007) and the Coen Brothers' True Grit (2010). Do either of these movies say anything profound about our culture? On one level, they say a great deal, though more in their form than in their content. Both recent movies are remakes. We live in an era of startling technological advancement and recycled artistic ideas.

But the more I think about True Grit, the more I suspect there is in fact something much more important going on in it. The 2010 version of True Grit does offer the same essential message that violence is necessary to right personal wrongs, but its overall attitude is different. Mattie Ross derives no pleasure from her revenge. Indeed, there is no honor whatsoever in the killing. The only honor comes in Rooster Cogburn's attempt to save Mattie's life. The life she leads after her revenge appears void of all joy. She followed the rules of the West and was nominally successful, but there appeared to be little if any spiritual profit in it. Just because we have always done things one way, that doesn't mean we can't evolve to a higher state. I wonder if that may be the clearest message a Western has ever relayed to us. I think Lincoln, who disavowed the old maxim the "might makes right" would have agreed.
categories Movies