The Colonialist Western and Putting an End to Realism

by zunguzungu

As you may have noticed, I’ve been watching John Ford movies lately. I like them, a lot. But as tight and symbolically rich as his films can be at his best, at his worst his characters become cut-out figures, signifiers for larger issues without any real presence themselves. When there is ambiguity, it gets evoked so it can be resolved: everything depends on who shot Liberty Valance, for example, but there’s no doubt that he was shot, and whatever troublesome problems that it might cause for Ransom Stoddard to have not actually shot him himself is foreclosed by that happenstance (I think of this, by the way, as the Pioneers maneuver: after toying with the idea of miscegenation for the entire book, Cooper reveals that the male lead is not, after all, of mixed blood at all, and never was. Sort of like ending a book with “And suddenly she woke up and realized it was all a dream.”)
When Ford is messing around with myth, his heavy symbolism is both a blessing and a curse. At his best, he makes it into a virtue: in How Green Was My Valley, for example, the characters are so ludicrously flat and impossible that it becomes a film about the kind of fantasy-work necessary to render memory in such terms. Welsh coal miners speaking in a sort of accentless (neither American nor English, and certainly not Welsh) fairy tale dialect and living in the most bougie of middle class houses is one example, but only one of many in a film entirely about the impossibility of the very events it narrates.

In The Young Mr. Lincoln, I’m still not sure. Since the civil war is sort of a precondition for the movie itself, everything that happens is already predetermined, and because we already know that the young Abe will acquit himself well and unite the town around him (as an allegorical rehearsal for a civil war which, as myth itself, can only be perfect), the character itself becomes something of a cipher. Henry Fonda is a great cipher, but his personal charisma makes up for a real aporia in the script. Maybe its an interesting aporia; I’m still not sure.

But in The Prisoner of Shark Island, I’m more certain. The opening shot tells us that Mudd will be pardoned and his reputation restored. But unless you come to it with an overwhelming Gone-with-the-Wind love for Dixie, Mudd has to rank as one of the least interesting of all Ford protagonists: as a Christ figure, he ultimately “redeems” the south through his trials and tribulations, but it’s a passion play that gets performed on a stage bare of anything but really questionable race politics. And don’t get me started on the The Lost Patrol: one of the worst movies I’ve ever seen, especially because the ending is so clearly telegraphed by the film’s first half.

Where it’s working, in other words, it works because his films become anti-realism, expressions of the impossibility of realism. That’s a fascinating thing for a filmmaker to do with a medium for whom the camera-doesn’t-lie is still a watchword, especially given his fascination with historical memory and how it gets created. When it doesn’t work, it’s because we can look back and see Ford’s own fantasies for what they were: confederate nostalgia (and where Ford, an Irishman born, came up with this crap, I’d love to know) and reflexive anti-Arab racism. That’s the trick, right? Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, for example, works very hard to mask its own racism by foregrounding race as, itself, a mask and a blindness, and a lot of what the novel does and says can be excused by Conrad’s efforts to displace it all onto Marlowe, making it all about Marlowe’s blindness. But there are still moments when it falls into the conventions of realism; for me, the simple fact that Conrad imagines a white man could simply show up in the “deep jungle” with a rifle and a dream, and assemble a fiefdom of adoring Africans to do his bidding (which is something that happens and is represented through realist conventions independent of Marlowe’s perceptions) is an example of an early twentieth century racist perspective we still cling to (as the “open arms and flowers” fantasies of the neo-cons illustrates).

I have an axiom that I don’t get to use nearly often enough: plots are a novel’s way of asking really hard and interesting questions, but endings are a novel’s way of provide uninteresting answers. Part of the problem for these works (though not an unsolvable problem) is that the ending is a place where realism always seems to re-assert itself, where ambiguities and anti-formalism run up against the chips down question of: how does the film end? And lots of novels and films get betrayed by their endings; Defoe, for example, tells us that the message of Moll Flanders is that women should be good Christian wives and save their money. But the plot of the book (which you have to ignore for this “moral” to be taken seriously) illustrates that a woman can make a lot of money by commodifying her sexuality, and do at least as well as she could by being a good wife, especially when she ends up in the same place in the end. Defoe is a good example because Moll Flanders is one of the “classic” examples of the novel genre, but I think this dynamic is at the heart of at least most narrative literature: endings close down ambiguities that the work has spent all of the rest of its time opening up. Some works have ambiguous endings, of course, but all novels and films do end, and in a formal sense, that fact means that something ultimately gets said, even if, a la Heart of Darkness, that something is simply that Africa is a scary, nasty place. But when Marlowe is still sailing up the river to find Kurtz, when Kurtz is still just a voice in his imagination, anything can still happen because it’s just about his imagination. Meaning has not yet been foreclosed.

Kafka had a hard time finishing his novels, and I wonder if this had something to do with a desire not to fall into exactly this trap. Perhaps metameat knows? In any case, an overly holistic kind of narrative theory will always miss this dynamic: the way the most interesting stuff in a movie is the questions it asks, and the least interesting thing is the ending that answers them. She Wore a Yellow Ribbon, for example, has the most ridiculous ending it could possibly have: after an elegiac “passing of the West” story of failure and the remorseless passage of time, a retired John Wayne rides out into the empty desert towards an impossible California of the soul, only to be called back by the machina of deux: appointment by both northern and southern generals to be captain of the frontier scouts, or something. It goes against everything the film has done up until that point to append a happy ending to it (and an almost unforgivably bizarre cotillion at the cavalry base): poignancy over inevitably lost possibility is the thing that the film does well, and (for once) the unreconstructed confederate thing has actually worked well for the film (I particularly like the scene where they bury an aged private with the honors due to the rank he had in the confederate army, a redemption of sorts, but only to be found in death). To appreciate what the film has done up to that point, in other words, you sort of have to ignore the ending, a little. Even in films like Chinatown or McCabe and Mrs. Miller, whose endings are so powerful and are so well integrated into the rest of the film, the neatness of a gunshot is strikingly superficial when placed next to the unbelievable richness of the rest of the plot. After all, the whole point of Chinatown is that things are just too complicated for a detective to figure out or resolve (and in this sense it wants to be anti-noir), so why should the ending come along and resolve it? Maybe that’s why Chinatown had to spawn a god-awful (yet fascinating) sequel.

Back to Ford, one of his virtues is the tightness of his plots, and this tightness makes him really, really good at self-parody (or, if you like, ironic detachment and critique of the form). And so his best films begin at the end: just as the West is defined by “the closing of the frontier,” so too are his “America” movies defined by a history that is already written. And in doing so, they call attention to the process of writing, of how historical memory is created. By the same token, the virtue of his “genre” films isn’t that they invent the generic conventions, but that they work so hard to make otherwise scattered symbols into conventions, playing so hard on this generic conventionality that the movies become more about genre more than anything else. How postmodern, eh?

I haven’t yet figured out what I think of Mogambo, a 1954 Ford remake of an earlier film (1932’s Red Dust), but it seems to me that Ford is at least playing on the conventionality of the questions the film asks as he is interested in the questions themselves. Casting a noticeably too-old and too-shaggy Clark Gable to reprise the same role as he played the earlier film, too, seems like a highly self-conscious gesture.

But what is it self-conscious of? Beyond Red Dust, which I haven’t seen, I want to put forward a strikingly large and interesting genre of European writing under the moniker colonialist western. Not that the American Western isn’t itself colonialist, of course (and there’s a “postcolonial John Ford” essay that needs to be written out there), but it’s amazing how many novels and texts about colonialism are post-colonial in the sense of being, like a John Ford movie, written from the ending. The bad-wrong way to approach the “imperialism” of Victorians and early modernists is to imagine that they thought colonialism had a future, that they really believed in the imperial visions of the British Empire or France’s civilizing mission and so forth. Some did, of course, but you’ll find that those aren’t the people we read, because those people simply aren’t interesting: their blunt (and now counterfactual) realism makes their texts as valuable and as desirable as a betting stub for a race that’s already been run. And I’ll wager they weren’t even the texts about empire people were that interested in then. Rudyard Kipling, for example, is obsessed with race and cultural racism, but his obsession is driven by fear and anxiety: the fear that the Empire is failing (and his work, if you take the biographical long view, reads like one long jeremiad against the dying of the light).

In this sense, a text like Out of Africa (book or film) is not so much about proclaiming that imperialist fantasies are true (or real) as they are about wishing they were, and even about lamenting that they’re not. And in this, I find it to be quite typical of imperialist Victorianism like Conrads, which makes the fantasy into the focus. The extent it escapes from realism is the extent you stop calling it racist: it’s about racist fantasies, which it recognizes as such. And while an unforgivable piece of text-crement like Out of Africa obsesses over a lost vision of innocent racial domination, the book is hard to dismiss because, even in in 1938, years before the Mau Mau revolt, imperialism could only be represented by her as a lost possibility. To the extent that the book is anything more than an offensive collection of racist fantasies, then, it’s a collection of racist fantasies that knows itself as such; by dreaming of Africa, it refuses to live in the real world, but it does at least understand (like Conrad) that it’s a dream. Where is the status of realism for such a test? More complicated, I think, than any formal analysis can acknowledge.

This vexed relationship to realism is what makes a category like “colonialist western” stick for me. Just as The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance remarks on how myth-making precedes the “reality” of the “West” (“when the legend becomes fact, print the legend”), colonialist Westerns like Out of Africa are obsessed with the failure of the colonialist enterprise, unable even to to imagine what it is except in terms of the imagined traditional Eden it disrupts and the impossible utopia it fails to achieve. Those disruptions and failures are the central narrative (as the torn-from-a-dream nostalgia of an Out of Africa illustrates), far more than the out of focus utopias or edens. And just to bring us full circle, I offer you the ultimate (and most obvious) colonial Western of all: Peter Hewitt’s Kenya Cowboy.

But since no one actually reads that one, let me toss out two more texts that such a category helps illuminate. When telling a friend about an attack on a Turkish troop train, T.E. Lawrence wrote, “I hope this sounds the fun it is … It’s the most amateurishly Buffalo-Billy sort of performance.” As the article I found this in elaborates: “at times, he was even oppressed by the sense that he was a kind of vaudeville cowboy, and Arabia a ‘foreign stage on which one plays day and night, in fancy dress, in a strange language…. The whole thing is such a play, and one cannot put conviction into one’s daydreams.’ I want to read the Seven Pillars and re-watch the film with that in mind. And, thirdly, this image from The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt (and T.R. Was the ultimate maker of the American cowboy legend): when he met a bunch of Boer settlers in south Africa, he sang them a Dutch song his grandmother had sung for him, and mused on how their ancestors had left Netherlands the same time his ancestors did, a narrative in which “American” and “South Africa” as expressions of frontier colonialism are explicitly rendered analogous. Also, the first book he ever read was an account of Livingstone’s travels in Africa, and though he understood only the pictures, I can’t help but feel that his lifelong practice of reading Africa through cowboy mythology might have the opposite derivation: a lifelong reading (and writing) of the western as colonial.

Sound good? Still thinking it through. But I think it’s got legs.