by Victor Davis Hanson
NRO’s The Corner
There has been lots of discussion about David Brooks’s suggestion that the John Ford Western was about community and order — and that this serves as a timely message for the out-in-the-wilderness Republicans to put less emphasis on rugged individualism and more on a sort of community organizing.
But most of Ford’s pictures were more tragic than therapeutic, with no easy answers among lots of bad choices — and they often concentrate on the essential role of the misfit, the hyper-individualist who does not fit into society (cf. e.g., The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance and The Searchers), for a variety of understandable reasons.
When confronted by real evil, often polite society — even established community and order — proves tardy, or even unwilling, to act for the public good. At those times, this particular sort of John Wayne character steps forward, eliminates the no-good, but in the process reaffirms why he cannot (and should not?) be part of polite society.
It’s a tragic theme as old as Homer’s Achilles and Sophocles’ Ajax, and perfectly fits the end of the 19th-century Western genre. You can see themes of the go-it-alone outsider in Westerns as diverse as Shane, The Magnificent Seven, and even the controversial High Noon, where the existing order and community break down, and certain stubborn individualists step forward to confront evil, succeed, but in the process either relearn why they cannot fit into the civilized order — or want no part of its temporizing. Society goes on with minimal thanks; and the hero (who proved more interested in the community welfare than many of its established elders) rides off to a solitary end in the sunset.
The message of the tragic hero is not temporizing or more community organizing, but raises far more subtle, existential questions.
Why do so-called civilized societies not galvanize in times of crisis to make common sacrifices to confront evil? Why do they require the timely appearances of certain heroic characters whom we know, when the crisis has past, society will be done with? And why are the characteristics that bother us about an Ethan Edwards, Tom Donipon, Chris Adams and Vin, or Shane precisely those that are on occasion necessary to save us, even if we be good and noble characters like Ransom Stoddard, Hillario, and Joe Starrett that are the stuff of civilization?
The tragedian, whether a Ford or Sophocles, has no easy answers, but leaves us with a contradiction that just as we cannot craft a society of eccentric, rugged, and often unpredictably dangerous Tom Donipons and Ethan Edwardses — or for that matter Shermans, Pattons, and LeMays — so too we sometimes don’t have it in our collective civilized selves to do without their timely reappearance.
In short, John Ford was far too brilliant to offer an easy uplifting message about community in the Old West. My own hunch is that we may need an Ethan Edwards in the not-so-distant future — given the notion of community that now characterizes much of the world abroad.
©2009 Victor Davis Hanson