Friday, June 5, 2015

we made this country, we found it and we made it.

Two movies today--The Naked Spur and Shane.

Twenty minutes into The Naked Spur, I'm wondering why Wright (1975) categorizes it under the vengeance plot. Howard Kemp (Jimmy Stewart) is a bounty hunter... and he did rip off the bottom of the wanted poster where it mentioned the reward, so maybe he's got a personal stake in this. I tend to like writing during the movies for this blog, but reading about a Western that, yes, I've probably seen, but no, don't remember, can spoil what's coming.

There's some interesting gender commentary going on in this film. The wanted man, Ben Vandergroat (Robert Ryan) claims he took in Lina Patch (Janet Leigh) because her pa was his best friend. And, the old prospector Jesse Tate, asked if he ever married one of the good women he's known, says he never had to with his good looks. Thing is, the male/female opposition is like a footnote at the edge of the main story. The real story here is Ben trying to put wedge between Kemp and Tate and Roy Anderson (Ralph Meeker), thinking they will fight over him and the reward and he will be able to get away in the midst of whatever chaos he can create...

One of those attempted wedges is Ben telling Lina, in front of Roy, that he's worried about Kemp because he's seen him with women and he figures Kemp will start in on her soon. On the one hand, if this is true, this is an interesting turn as to who our hero is. If it's not, which I assume it's not, it offers up a more important detail than just whatever trouble Ben is trying to stir up; it tells us--and should tell Roy--that Ben and Kemp know one another. In the very first scene of the movie, Jesse pointed out how he'd never seen a peace officer come so far for a wanted man. Let's pretend Wrights' categories hadn't already spoiled the personal angle here; there is something being hidden by Kemp. Similarly, it turns out the Blackfoot hunting party that just showed up in Act Two are following Roy. Actually, that comes back to the male/female thing; apparently, they're after Roy because he was with the chief's daughter.

Meanwhile, after falling off his horse in a daze--he was wounded in the fight with the Blackfeet--Kemp wakes screaming about a missing Mary. Ben explains to everyone that Kemp left his ranch to Mary when he went off to fight in the Civil War--of course, that's got to come up; also Roy wears a union uniform with its decorations removed. When Kemp returned from the war, Mary had sold the ranch and run off with another fella.

There are other oppositions at play, of course, beyond male/female. Wright (1975) employs a lot of these; for example, he writes:

In the classical Western, a typical cast would include a wandering gunfighter, a group of homesteaders, and a rancher. Instead of representing equally valid, conflicting life-styles, these characters would be presented as pairs of oppositions with each pair having a different meaning. The gunfighter is opposed to the homesteaders, a contrast representing individual independence versus social domesticity. The rancher, who is settled and domestic like the farmers, is opposed to them, but on another level or axis: the farmers represent progress and communal values in opposition to the rancher's selfish, monetary values--a contrast between good and bad. In this way, the generality of the binary structure is maintained, while the possibility for rather complicated symbolic action is created. Each two characters are identified on one axis and contrasted on another... (p. 23-24)

Here in The Naked Spur, we have five characters. Before we get to binaries, there's an interesting trinary formed by Kemp, Jesse, and Roy. First, by age, Kemp falls somewhere in between the old Jesse and the much younger Roy.

(By the actor's ages, Jesse is only 5 years older than Kemp, but his gray beard and his treatment by the others characters suggests a bigger difference. Roy would be 11 years younger than Kemp. Ben, on the other hand, is about the same age as Kemp. And Lina is 7 years younger than Roy, so she's the youngest of the group, and a couple decades younger than Kemp, but that doesn't stop him from kissing her.)

Structurally, he's an ex-soldier-turned-bounty hunter so he used to be part of society but is currently outside of it. This is function #1 of Wright's vengeance plot. It seems notable here that none of the five characters are part of society in their present situation. Jesse has gone in search of gold, ostensibly to get money and be part of society, but his disheveled appearance and long beard suggest he's been out in the wild for a good while. Roy, on the other hand, arrives looking fairly clean. He wears a uniform, but without decoration, so it's plain blue but for a yellow stripe down the leg. There's a clear opposition between these two men in appearance alone. Kemp sits somewhere in the middle, drawn to the wild on his hunt for Ben but still tied to where he came from; his dazed cries about Mary serve then as a direct link backward. Roy seems stuck in the present--his apparent womanizing with the Blackfoot chief's daughter, for example, does not suggest a future-oriented character. Jesse, the oldest of the bunch, seems intent on the future, looking for gold even in a small stream near which they all stop.

There's a structural opposition between Kemp and Ben as law man and outlaw, between Jesse and Ben as robber (allegedly) and prospector, between Kemp and Roy as weary ex-soldier and more lively... well, also an ex-soldier, but he was discharged for being mentally unstable. Aside from his dazed screams in one scene, Kemp seems to be quite stable. There is also a binary of binaries in the interactions between Ben and Lina and the interactions between Kemp and Lina. Lina seems quite stuck on Ben from the start, but he turns out to be a bit of an abusive bastard who has been lying to her about who he really is. With Kemp, on the other hand, she has a relationship that starts with antagonism and turns to something more positive.

Wright takes this binarism from Levi-Strauss, by the way, but I don't own any Levi-Strauss, so I will turn to Henderson (1985) for a reasonable explanation of Levi-Strauss' binarism. Henderson writes,

From Levi-Strauss we take the notion that muths (and other public narratives) have an unconscious component, formed by public conflicts rather than private ones. These are contradictions either in social life or in knowledge; they explain why listeners are stirred by myths and why myths are told again and again. When these conflict fade in social life, the power of the myth is lessened until it "dies." The myth operates by transposing the terms of the actual conflict into other sets of terms, usually in the form of binary oppositions. It is the resolution of the transposed oppositions, substituted for the real conflict, that gives the myth a palliative effect. (p. 433).

Wright (1975) explains further:

...this structure permits interaction between social types and resolutions of conflict between social principles but prohibits the more realistic and tragic situation of all three characters being equally good, equally domestic, and equally opposed. (p. 24)

What we can take from both of these is that the stories that stick around substitute for real conflicts that shape our society. As Shane gets going now, we can see one of Wright's previous examples of conflicts--between a cattle baron (i.e a rancher) and a homesteader. That homesteader--Joe Starrett (Van Heflin) also demonstrates another axis Wright uses--strong/weak--in contrast to Alan Ladd's titular character. Shane dresses in frilled leathers, like a native, and he comes in on horseback like a man who knows who he is and what he's doing. Starrett, on the other hand, while he seems to think he's sure of himself, comes across a little... maybe weaker isn't the right term, but he's domesticated while Shane is wild. (This is quite evident when they work together to remove the tree stump; Starrett retains his shirt while Shane goes topless.) And, Starrett's son Joey's obvious attraction to this new arrival at their home echoes our own fascination with the Western--Shane came out in 1953, when Westerns were about as popular as they would ever be.

The domestication of the Starrett homestead is easily represented by Joey's rifle; while the opening of the film shows him hunting a deer, we learn later that he is never allowed to go around with a loaded gun. He's just playing at hunter, just as, perhaps his father is playing at man. Or, is that not fair? After all, it is Shane's masculinity that is specifically challenged by Calloway (Ben Johnson) in the saloon. He tells Shane, who orders a soda pop, to "smell like a man" and he throws his shot of whiskey on Shane's shirt.

(Interesting musical note (pun unintended): The guy with the harmonica at the homesteaders meeting plays "Beautiful Dreamer." That song kept repeating in the score of The Naked Spur. That song was published in 1864 originally. The Naked Spur is set in 1868 and Shane is set, well, sometime after the Homestead Act of 1862. So, the song is contemporary to both settings; still, the coincidence is interesting. There were plenty of other songs in the 1860s.)

The physical setup of the mercantile/saloon makes for an interesting exemplar when I'm talking about binaries and oppositions today. Just now, when Shane was fighting Calloway in the saloon, the homesteaders were all crowded in the mercantile, staying out of the way. The mercantile is indicative of civilized society, the world of the homesteaders, but the saloon is a place for the rancher's men.

Coming back to masculinity, though, Starrett comes to Shane's defense when more men attack him. While Shane's presences suggests something from outside society, he and Starrett make a good team (just as they did with the stump).

Thinking ahead--I've seen this movie enough times to remember where it's going--I'm seeing the same thing in Shane that I was seeing yesterday. Shane is a man capable of violence, and his presence and his intervention is necessary to allow the homesteaders to survive. Within the world of the film, soon after (or maybe during) the Civil War, the will to violence of men like Shane invokes soldiers fighting for, alternatively, the reconsolidation of the union or the independence of the confederacy. ("Stonewall" Torrey, one of the homesteaders, does drink to "the sovereign state of Alabama.") Outside of this film, that invocation carries outward to real American GIs who went to war in Europe or the Pacific only a decade earlier.

(Jimmy Stewart and Alan Ladd both served in World War II, by the way. Gregory Peck did not because of a back injury (from dance lessons, but the studio claimed it was a rowing injury from university). John Wayne, whose career was just taking off, used an old football injury to avoid service, but may have used that as an excuse because of an affair with Marlene Dietrich.)

It's not just casual inclusion that puts the big discussion about who made this country into this film. It's actually integral to understanding the role of the conflict within the film in the larger context of American history and the timing of this particular Western after World War II. When Cattleman Ryker (whose name is literally German for "rich") claims that men like him "found" this country and "made it with blood and empty bellies," he's building onto the ongoing myth of America--that it was built on the backs of hardworking immigrants. When Starrett later claims, "God didn't make all this country just for one man like Ryker," he is essentializing the same myth. There may be a fundamental opposition between the rancher and the homesteader, but the myth of America relies on them both. Frontier America could never become what it has become without a transition from open country to sectioned off plots of land, cities, towns. Duel in the Sun dealt with the railroad as the intrusion of the East. Ultimately, that railroad is accepted, but its acceptance is not actually important to the story. Here, we are on the side of the intruders. The homesteaders are taking land the ranchers could use just as the ranchers took land that the natives could have used. Homesteaders, of course, bring civilization. And, without civilization, we could not be watching these movies at all.

...

One final note for today (I was about to finish up even though Shane wasn't over): that the fight between Shane and Starrett over who gets to go battle the cattlemen excites and enrages the horses and the cows and the dog suggests something primal, like forces of nature have been stirred up to defend the homestead.

References

Henderson, B. (1985). The Searchers: An American dilemma. In B. Nichols (Ed.), Movies and Methods: An Anthology Volume 2. London: University of California Press.

Howe, C. (2014, November 2). EXCLUSIVE: John Wayne DID dodge the draft so he could continue his torrid affair with sexy German actress Marlene Dietrich, 'the best lay I've ever had,' new book reveals. Daily Mail Retrieved from http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2819281/John-Wayne-DID-dodge-draft-continue-torrid-affair-sexy-German-actress-Marlene-Dietrich-best-lay-ve-new-book-reveals.html

Wright, W. (1975). Sixguns & Society: A Structural Study of the Western. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.

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