Don’t go thinkin’ I take a hostile attitude towards Westerns. I was born in 1939 -- I keep reminding people -- so I grew up with WWII, the movie combat and Western films, and then the network Western series, all of which I see as continuous. In those years I was thoroughly invested in the heroism, the patriotism, the romantic understanding of the land, and all the other leathery equipage wrapped around the steel of pistols and bayonets. But then in college I saw “The Seventh Seal” and recognized the same morality play of the knight, his sidekick, the vulnerable women and children, the terrible aftermath of violence whether war, disease or inquisition, to any human context. My new idea was universality instead of exceptionalism, that only Americans have this pattern.
Still, I went to teach in Montana in the Sixties which I semi-consciously understood was really the last of the 19th century. The white men were just pulling out of the Blackfeet rez, by surrendering the BIA to Indian preference, closing down businesses started in 1945, and beginning new housing and Headstart. When the changes came, I bought into them but Bob Scriver did not, so that was the end of the relationship with him and I had to leave. But I did not leave the situation, the puzzle, the Braveheart, Robin Hood, Rawhide dilemmas of this kind of change.
That was before all the fancy theory about deconstruction and post-colonial thought, which I’ve never really been able to grasp anyway, so I moved towards psychology and theology in a story kind of way. I was full of Greek mythology and even Greek theatre, so I found that archetypal psychology was a natural language. Coming back around now through Netflix and the vids of Cinematheque, I reach out again to archetypal psychology in order to match Tim Barrus’ Fritz Perls Gestalt psychology.
The cases at hand are a trail that starts with Asa Carter, a racist sunnavabitch who gave up speech-writing for George Wallace and produced two template-driven Westerns: one of almost unbelievable sweetness called “The Education of Little Tree” (book 1976, movie 1997) and the other called “The Outlaw Josey Wales” (1976). At that point Carter dies in his fifties and Clint Eastwood (once that green and impetuous Rowdy Yates in “Rawhide”) picks up the template and puts it to work again with an astringent Italian twist. He makes the movie of “Josey Wales” and moves on in his thinking through “Unforgiven” (1992) to “Gran Torino” (2008). Wry humor and outright irony abound.
There are a few different things you can do with a narrative template. One is to fulfill it, maybe in a Procrustean way by making the action fit the pattern exactly. One is to break the template entirely or partly, and one is to play with it -- move in and out so it teases the people who really know it, even live it out. My guess is that Carter had this inner template so deep in his flesh that he didn’t know that’s what it was, which is why he was able to go from being a racist defending white rights to a former Confederate raider operating as an outlaw. All he had to change was the names: the attitudes remained. Eastwood is a little more sophisticated. And smarter.
A certain demographic theory holds that the Scots and Irish of Britain were as tribal as any Indians and when they emigrated to America (because they were oppressed and starving) they took with them their red hair, berzerker guerrilla fighting skills, and implacable vengeance for wrongdoing. Also, their acceptance of hardship. These advantages may have won the Revolutionary War. In fact, George Washington was a great big dude with red hair and the same contemptuous attitude towards kings and landed gentry. Today these guys (no matter their racial or ethnic origins) gravitate towards outfits like Blackwater. Some say the original Irish immigrants, once they got pushed on over the Appalachian mountains, just continued west, pausing only to fight the Civil War and the Indian Wars, then crossed the prairie and the Rockies until they hit the Pacific Ocean, could go no farther and became the Hell’s Angels.
How are nice civilized grade-earning grad school students supposed to understand this? Thomas Moore suggests -- you ready for this? De Sade. “Dark Eros” is an archetypal psychological theory base that can cope with the darkest stuff you’ve got. The basic idea is simple: that light and dark, good and evil, innocence and cruelty, young and old, male and female, are best understood as interplaying, interpenetrating, reciprocating qualities and that getting too far over into one will call the other complementary force into being, maybe below the surface until it erupts. Don’t think the cool Marxist theories of some coffee house philosopher -- think William T. Vollman living with corruption and death, then trying to describe it. The Eastwood character comes out in reaction to the smug townspeople who want order and cleanliness, however it’s necessary to get it.
So in “Gran Torino” the Eastwood character knows he has an abcess in his heart because of what he did in Korea, but he has coped by marrying a woman who is a moral compass and by keeping busy doing “man things.” This is the American Way. (We’re discovering that it’s also the American Way to wake up screaming with PTSD, trying to strangle that wife). It is not righteousness that calls out his violence, though it has kept him from confessing so that he could heal. Instead it is vulnerability of women, the old, the young, that forces him to turn back to violence. There is no choice, so now he is a hero like Josey Wales. (The Indians this time are Hmong.)
The template is the hero capable of violence, who has to use it to protect the vulnerable, but gets no real benefit himself. The justification is not personal satisfaction, but political righteousness, which is no different than the Gene Hackman version of the sheriff who is sadistic but is made legitimate by his badge as well as his dominance.
My favorite character in “Rawhide,” aside from Monty Wooley who could sing “One-eyed, One-armed Flying Purple People Eater”, was not Rowdy. It was Mr. Favor, that calm, thoughtful leader who worked the angles to bring about peace. (I’m having to bite my tongue to keep from saying Obama.) Eastwood, the actual person, has moved a long way in that direction. But the template is still there. John Ford was Freudian -- Clint Eastwood is Jungian. But that's another blog post.