Monday, January 02, 2006

The Good Old Days of Politically Correct Westerns

Watching and loving Budd Boetticher's Seven Men From Now, one little scene stood out for me as a scene that couldn't be done in a movie today -- not, at least, quite in the way it was done in 1956.

It's a short scene between Randolph Scott, as the grizzled hero, Stride, and Stuart Whitman, as a young Cavalry officer. The officer advises Scott to turn back, as the Chiracahua Apaches are in the area:

LIEUTENANT: We've been dispatched from Fort Crittenden to make a wide sweep south in an attempt to contact any and all Chiracahua in the area. Reports indicate they may be massing along the border.

STRIDE: Can't be more than fifty of 'em left in the whole territory.

LIEUTENANT: Oh? According to our scouts, there's well over a hundred.

STRIDE: That including the squaws, Lieutenant?

LIEUTENANT: I take it you don't think the Indians are dangerous.

STRIDE: They're worse than that -- they're hungry. Nothing as deadly as a half-starved Chiracahua.

LIEUTENANT: Well, then, we agree.

STRIDE: Do we?

The scene is short, brusque and elliptical, like most of the scenes in the movie, but the dialogue -- and Scott's sardonic attitude toward the Lieutenant -- conveys the clear point that Scott is a Western hero who doesn't think much of the military or their treatment of the Indians.

The reason I say you couldn't do this scene this way is that if you did it today, it would come off as a "politicized" scene, or something that has a particular point of view on history or the military or various other things. People would wonder what its agenda is. But Boetticher and the writer, Burt Kennedy, don't seem to attach that kind of meaning to the scene; they're just matter-of-factly using some points about the military and American Indians to make a larger point about their lead character.

A lot of Westerns from the golden age of Westerns -- which I date roughly from My Darling Clementine in 1946 to The Wild Bunch in 1969 -- have this quality, of matter-of-factly making negative points about America's history without ever seeming to become politicized. Look at Fort Apache (if it ever comes out on DVD, I mean). The producer, Merian Cooper, and the director, John Ford, made the movie as a patriotic tribute to America that would act as a counterweight to Communist propaganda, and indeed, it's a stirringly patriotic movie. It's also a movie that deals bluntly and forcefully with the mistreatment of Indians, the fact that complete nuts like the Henry Fonda character can be appointed to positions of leadership, and, at the end, the fact that a country's history and self-image is often based on lies (the John Wayne character lies about the Fonda character to create a better story). We sometimes think of patriotism as interchangeable with jingoism -- the difference between them being the difference between "my country right or wrong" and "my country is never wrong" -- but Fort Apache isn't at all jingoistic; it's as though Ford is so secure in his love of the Cavalry, and of the Western genre, that he can afford to show us the bad stuff too.

Now, it would certainly be possible to do a movie like that today, but it would be severely complicated by the fact that points like the ones I've described above would mark a movie as having an agenda, in a way that it didn't in 1948 or 1956.

Look again at the scene from Seven Men From Now and try to imagine how a director would approach a similar scene several decades later. It would be longer, for one thing. But for another thing, in an era when audiences are more conditioned to look for ideological messages in movies, the director would inevitably be conscious that the scene would be interpreted ideologically. If a movie did this scene in the early '90s, when one kind of political correctness was ascendant, it would inevitably take the anti-military subtext and turn it into text. Today, when a different kind of political correctness is more potent, such a scene would come under fire as an example of Hollywood's anti-military bias. No matter what kind of political correctness is in play, the filmmakers would have to worry about the scene offending someone, and walk on eggshells to avoid giving offense.

Could you go back to making movies the way Boetticher and Ford did, that is, just being matter-of-fact and concentrating on character without worrying about ideology? It's possible, but to a certain extent it's now inevitable that we will view movies, especially historical movies, through an ideological lens; I think we're more vigilant about trying to spot "preachy" messages and to resent anything that smacks of preaching. When media discussion of a Spielberg movie mostly revolves around whether he's sending the right message, I don't think a John Ford -- who offends political correctness on both sides of the aisle -- would have much chance of escaping without a big discussion of whether he's got an unacceptable slant on the topics he deals with.

An example of how things have changed: The original stage play and film of Annie Get Your Gun has a character saying, after finding out how smart the character of Sitting Bull is, "How'd we ever get the country away from those guys?" The line is a good exit punchline that simply uses a known fact (we took the country away from someone else) as grist for the mill. In the '90s, a rewritten, '90s-politically-correct Annie Get Your Gun played Broadway; much of the dialogue had been rewritten to make it more ethnically sensitive, but the "how'd we ever get the country away from them?" line remained. An acquaintance who saw the show -- to my left politically, but very resentful of all forms of political correctness -- complained about that line and how PC and hyper-sensitive it was. I explained that the line was in fact lifted from the original show. In 1946 that line was a symbol of how unpleasant facts about a country's history were more or less acknowledged and accepted as facts of life; fifty years later, the same line came off as an attempt to pander to the PC police. For all I know, maybe ten more years later it now comes off as a taboo-breaking piece of bad taste (un-PC is the new PC, as I never tire of pointing out). But one way or another, lines like that, and scenes like the Seven Men From Now scene, will probably never again come off as non-ideological. Maybe we are all benign Zhdanovites now.

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