John Ford vs. Laura Ingalls Wilder

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If I went through every point in Ryan McMaken's bourgeois critique of the Western, listing which ideas I agree with and which ones I don't, this blog entry could balloon to the size of a book. Instead I'll just link to the piece, and invite your comments.

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  1. I loved the “Little House” books as a little girl, and I’ll still re-read them once in awhile. (Don’t blame the late Mrs. Wilder for that execrable 70s TV show.) When I first saw this posting, I thought it would be a link to one of those overly PC sites criticizing the Little House books for being sexist and racist.

  2. He’s obviously seen a different Man Who Shot Liberty Valence than I did.

    In the one I saw, John Wayne’s character, Tom Doniphon, is not the town lawman-Andy Devine’ character (that would be Marshall Link Appleyard) is, and he refuses to deal with Liberty Valence out of fear (though he rationalizes things by saying that Valence is committing crimes outside of his jurisdticion).

  3. Jennifer, you might want to give a look at the book The Discovery of Freedom: Man’s Struggle Against Authority by Rose Wilder Lane — daughter of Laura Ingalls Wilder and, some say, the person who did most of the actual writing of the “Little House” books.

    Nonfiction, but entertaining, very anecdotal — stories of the authoress’s living in France, Albania, etc. as well as a lot of history. Written during WW2.

  4. I’m starting to wonder if he’s seen Red River, or if he just read about it.

    They have a bit in that movie which would fit nicely in his argument that Westerns are hostile to property rights. John Wayne’s character squats on land belonging to a Mexican landowner and, when confronted by one of the landowner’s agents, he kills the man after remarking that his boss has too much land.

  5. No mention of Blazing Saddles???

    Once the conventions of a genre have been so thoroughly made fun of, if new conventions aren’t found the genre dies.

  6. So characters that oppose dishonest businessmen are anti-capitalistic? That’s a new one.

  7. (I know I said I wasn’t going to list everything I think is good and bad about the piece — but Sarnath has just hit on my biggest problem with it. You could argue, I suppose, that the decision to make the villains businessmen in the first place reflects an anti-market bias, but I don’t buy that.)

  8. That piece made me want to go watch The Professionals (Woody Strode rocks) and the Jonah Hex episode of the Batman cartoon (which is the Wild Wild West movie done right).
    There’s a new Brian Azzarello western comic called Loveless that hit the stands yesterday, and a new Jonah Hex book out next month.

  9. “Classic” Westerns are black-and-white affairs; great Westerns (Unforgiven) are anything but.
    Similarly, “Classic” war movies are pro-war; great war movies (Paths of Glory) are anti-war.

  10. Excuse me, Mr. NoStar, sir, but I sure do hate to see you like this. What if me and the boys was to shoot that columnist dead? Would that pep you up some?

  11. Stevo–

    Yes, I’ve read quite a bit of RWL’s stuff, both libertarian pieces and some historical novels which are, basically, dark versions of her mother’s books about life in Dakota. You’ll actually find the same anecdotes in Rose’s and Laura’s books, but Laura’s will focus on pretty things like how beautiful the sunset looked that night, while Rose would focus on the hunger pains in her character’s empty belly.

    Reading Rose’s work is part of what drove me to re-read the Little House books a year or so ago, and it’s interesting, in light of Rose’s libertarian leanings, to read the Little House books, which seem to be almost “libertarian populism.” (I know that’s an oxymoron, but no matter.)

    I also think Charles Ingalls was a really cool guy, and it’s a damned shame America knows him only as “Michael Landon.”

  12. “libertarian populism.”…I know that’s an oxymoron

    Jennifer, was that a sarcastic poke in our ribs, or are you serious?

  13. Ugh. Mostly superficial insights, which wouldn’t stand up to real analysis. As a term paper I’d give it a B+. It would have been better if he had randomly chopped half of it away.

    A good example of why I stopped reading the LewRockwell website.

  14. Fyodor–

    I am quite serious. If you read all nine Little House books, and become especially familiar with the ones focusing on life in the Dakotas, and then you read Rose’s historical novels of life in the Dakotas, featuring many of the exact same anecdotes only with wildly differing points of view (I wasn’t exaggerating about the hunger-pain-versus-pretty-sunset disconnect). . .it’s very strange. Maybe especially so if you grew up as a kid who loved the pretty-sunset versions of the stories, and then read the I’m-so-hungry-it-hurts versions once you’d already become a cynical adult.

    Charles Ingalls, Laura’s Pa, would have considered himself a populist, and advocate for the “little man,” yet at the same time many of his attitudes were advanced for his time and heavy on personal responsibility. And he and his family kept getting slapped down by the kinds of disasters and bad luck that make people like me call for things like social safety nets in the first place. And yet everything the government did made matters worse. And yet. . . . well, it just keeps flipping around.

  15. A three-legged dog walks into an old west saloon and says “I’m lookin’ for the man who shot my paw.”

  16. “You could argue, I suppose, that the decision to make the villains businessmen in the first place reflects an anti-market bias”

    Yeah not to mention that Lew Rockwell, Murray Rothbard and company have attacked protectionism, “crony capitalism,” “corporate capitalism,” “fascism” and have ridiculed Rand’s pronouncement that “big business is the most persecuted minority” countless times and have praised films for showing crooked businessman so I don’t see how this attitude is inherently wrong.
    Not to mention his attack on national unity scenes is a bit much. Yes it shows that the North and South are getting back to gather and that the reunified US is not libertarian but what does he expect? The Southerner to literally still keep fighting the war? The Yankee to be very unforgiving of his former enemies?

  17. Jenniffer – I loked your comment about Charles Ingalls. I’ve been reading the Little House books to my daughter, and I keep thinking – “Now this is a REAL man”. He’s imperfect , but has a perfect balance of Rugged Individualism versus faith, family, and self-sacrifice. He seems to bridge the gap between the Victorian male and Classic Western male.

    Re: libertarian populism – I don’t think your off your rocker. The books are not explicitly advancing any agenda, and parts of the books definitely support both positions. I know that is unsettling for many with extremely ideological world views.

  18. Speaking of Little House, my cousin’s neighbor, who became a rock drummer and moved to Los Angeles, once got picked up by Melissa Sue Anderson and had sex in her Porsche, allegedly. I believe the story, personally. This guy used to be able to sleep around with anybody he wanted. My cousin’s wife says it’s because he has “enormous charisma.” (“Charisma” is Greek for “giant penis.”)

    Kind of OT, I guess, but I don’t get to tell that story very often, so I took my shot.

  19. Marty, you must have missed this line: “although he acquires the land by killing a rider of the Mexican Don who already owns it”

  20. This article has no mention of Maverick, the Kenny Rogers Gambler movie which featured just about every Western TV star ever, Alias Smith & Jones, or Brisco County. Hence, it invalidates itself as a serious discussion.

    Can’t forget SCTV’s Six Gun Justice.

  21. All discussions of great Westerns begin and end with a few movies

    The Searchers
    Red River
    Outlaw Josie Wales
    Fort Apache

  22. Z–

    No, the characters in the Little House books don’t fit into any neat ideological molds. Ma Ingalls was a very nice and honest lady who also feared Indians enough to be a dreadful bigot who wanted every last one of them either locked away or dead. Have you and your daughter read The Long Winter yet? The scene at the end where they break into the railroad car and steal the food therein violates a few dozen libertarian pro-business principles, yet Pa’s speech to the men about Mr. Loftus’ profiteering in the middle of the book sounds like an 80-page Ayn Rand speech boiled down to one succinct paragraph.

  23. When I saw last Shane, admittedly a while back, I perceived the conflict between Ryker and the homesteaders as this: he had a large cattle herd that he ran on open range – that is, it belonged to no one. Nowadays, it would be called BLM land and you could lease it but not then.

    The homesteaders were setting up farms/ranches (and fencing them with barbed wire to keep the cattle out) that interfered with movement of the cattle between pastures and, of course, were taking the best grass land. I believe that once the land had been farmed for a certain period of time, the farmer could claim it for free or a minimal fee. The cattle could be kept out forever and would have to move.

    In any case, the land was not Ryker?s, nor was he considered the prime user as he made no improvements. I understood that this farming of land to be able to claim ownership is the very definition of ?homesteading? and was encouraged by the government after the Civil War to drive western expansion.

    If this is the case, it shoots down (sorry, too many westerns as a kid) McMaken?s premise, under Capitalism in the Western that ?The film?s central assumption is that the farmers have a right to Ryker?s land for some reason, and when Ryker objects to the farmers? squatting, he is portrayed as a villain.?

    Anyone have more info on this? Personally, I?ve always believed that westerns are idealized versions of a time that may not have actually existed. The lack of guns worn on belts in actual photos of the ?Old West? was a clue.

  24. The scene at the end where they break into the railroad car

    Sloppy pronoun–“they” refers to Charles Ingalls and other men in the town.

  25. Hollywood made Westerns that failed to realisticly portray everyday life on the frontier? What a shocker. I mean, look how realistic the current adventure movies are. Laura Croft, Indiana Jones, National Treasure, etc.

    This guy needs to go see Ol’ Yeller.

    Western-type literature never found a large audience among Americans of the 19th century,

    Huh? Dime novels? Annie Oakley? Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show and its clones? James Fenimore Cooper’s Last of the Mohicans, The Deerslayer, Oh Pioneers, and more? Mark Twain? Bret Harte’s The Luck of Roaring Camp and more?

    <Stop self. This could go on and on.>

  26. I couldn’t finish this garbage. There’s a limit to how much even unintentionally hilarious guff anyone caqn be expected to read.

  27. A day without blood is like a day without sunshine.

  28. Ah, no site can match Lew Rockwell for pure, unabashed, self-serving wonkery. I stopped reading the site when I couldn’t take it nearly as seriously as it takes itself.

  29. Jennifer,

    I meant were you joking about libertarian populism being an oxymoron? (Like military intelligence, etc.) I’m guessing now not. Personally I take populism to be more of an attitude than a coherent political philosophy, unless you literally think that in any conflict the person with less money and/or power is inherently in the right. Anyway, I really don’t think libertarianism is anti-populist per se, and in fact I think many libertarians see them as perfectly consistent, especially those who see themselves as being in opposition to a liberal/statist/bureucratic/academic/media elite. While it’s clear the two isms are distinct and libertarians don’t automatically take the side of the “little guy” no matter what, I still don’t think combining the two would necessarily be an oxymoron at all!

  30. How can any discussion of the American Western be complete without a mention of the “Spectre of the Gun” episode of the orginal Star Trek? You’ll recall that in this episode, aliens set up a virtual reality in which they force Kirk, Spock, McCoy and Chekov to assume the identities of the Clanton gang so they can be shot by Wyatt Earp. (I forget why.)

    Its Kaskaesque surreality was steeped in themes of solipsism, determinism vs. free will, the meaning of justice when framed by the perspective of “the other,” and existential angst. It’s also obvious they needed to cobble together a cheap episode in a hurry.

  31. It’s also obvious they needed to cobble together a cheap episode in a hurry.

    If anyone remembers the gunfighter episode in The Prisoner they probably know it has roughly the same history.

    Patrick McGoohan only wanted to make something like six episodes and wrap the story up (sort of a miniseries before its time) but he was told that for it to be saleable to US networks it needed to be a full season (26 episodes?) They ended up making 17 and most are pure filler.

  32. Lew Rockwell being Lew Rockwell, the bad guy of his thesis has to be identified with the Eeevyill Gummint. Me, I think of the Gunfighter as a free agent, pretty amoral, and with a suspiciously queer fashion sense….

    However, I think his general point of the Western as “masculine protest” is correct; like barbarian fiction, it posits an inevitable conflict between civilisation and freedom—not so hard to imagine if you really believe in the Lockean Fable, but suspect if you believe that our rights are in fact a technology made possible by our social organisation, as in Franklin’s “Property is a Creature [creation] of Society….”

  33. I think the greatest western of all time is The Wild Bunch.

    The second greatest is Blazing Saddles for obviously different reasons.

    Then you’ve got a whole shitload of really, really good westerns, but still not as good as the previous two that I mentioned.

    Then you’ve got a lot of mediocre ones and then a bunch of bad ones.

    What this has to do with the article or libertarianism, or anything else, I have no idea.

  34. Lowdog,

    You are right about the number of bad westerns. Its amazing how many of them their are. I never could get into the Wild Bunch. It just has too much mindless violence.

  35. I never could get into the Wild Bunch. It just has too much mindless violence.

    That’s exactly the point of the film – the violence is explicitly mindless. Unlike the “classic” Westerns it critiques, there’s no veneer of justification.

  36. They have a bit in that movie which would fit nicely in his argument that Westerns are hostile to property rights. John Wayne’s character squats on land belonging to a Mexican landowner and, when confronted by one of the landowner’s agents, he kills the man after remarking that his boss has too much land.

    John Wayne is also shown explicitly stealing other ranchers’ cattle, but threatening to kill anybody who makes off with his own cows. He’s also shown killing people for minor offenses, then praying over their bodies; repeatedly rejecting the sound advice of his underlings; reneging on his commitment to the original wagon train he joined (then executing people later for trying to do the same thing to him on his cattle drive); abandoning his fiancee and then not bothering to try and rescue her when her wagon train gets attacked; and committing himself to a crazed vendetta against Monty Clift, his de facto son. McMaken treats much of this behavior in his essay. The simple answer: The Duke in Red River is not supposed to be an admirable figure. Some of his behavior is there to set up parallels and pretexts for Monty Clift’s eventual rebellion against him; some of his behavior is also there to demonstrate the principle that civilization is founded to some extent on giving bad men opportunities to do bad things. (I get the idea that McMaken is driving at this conclusion.)

    I haven’t read McMaken’s piece, and I’d like to at some point, but 32,000 words is pretty damn long for a think piece about a faded genre. However, one of the keys to understanding Red River and many other classic westerns is to understand that the “revisionist” westerns of the sixties, seventies, and eighties were not revising anything that hadn’t been revised many times before. Most of the classic non-revisionist westerns allow for far more ambiguous readings than people give them credit for, Red River more than any of them. Nobody in his right mind would look at Red River and conclude that it’s an uncomplicated celebration of the gunfighter or the settling of the west. About the only way I can think that it does fit the classic model of the western is that it shows the triumph of civilization on the frontier, as Joanne Dru forces the heroes to straighten up and get along at the end.

    This is why the true revisionist western is the zombie film, because it shows civilization turning back into a state of Hobbesian chaos. Land of the Dead, the most explicitly Hawksian and western-patterned of all the zombie pictures, makes this very clear, but this is a topic for another 32,000-word think piece.

  37. My all-time favorite Western is probably The Road Warrior.

  38. Now, place this piece side by side with a screeching left liberal critique of the western (how biased it is against native americans yada yada) and your head might explode.

    Typical Lew though, not only is the bad guy evil gubmint …. but it gets worse … much worse … the bad guy is also anti-christian, in face atheist! … and worse … worse than that even … they might even be Darwinists or other assorted believers in evolution! … and worse, worse even that that … they might be willing to forgive the northern part of the u.s. for a 150 year old war … and even consider Bush a more relavant target for criticism than Lincoln, this being the year 2005 and all that! Horrors!!

    Ok, so I parody.

  39. I’d be interested to see the same analysis applied to the Japanese adaptation of the Western (Seven Samurai, for example).

  40. What? No love for Evil Roy Slade?

  41. I perceived the conflict between Ryker and the homesteaders as this: he had a large cattle herd that he ran on open range – that is, it belonged to no one.

    That’s right. And it’s all laid out in the first reel of the movie. The author’s confusion might stem from mention that Ryker has a beef contract. The same allergy to nuance is evident with just a skim of the essay (see his takes on FORT APACHE, LIBERTY VALANCE), marking someone with no real sympathy for his topic, even thus abridged to six filmmakers.

    Saying simply that the Western hero “is a distinct reaction against the urban bourgeois life” (and all attendant 19th century values) is a little like saying that Melville offers a distinct reaction against living on land in the 19th century. Everything turns on a wound-up rubber band, i.e. that “the Western would have to reflect the values of bourgeois liberalism” if it’s to be correctly valued by conservatives and libertarians. That’s a good way to spur yourself to blog, but is this initial formulation a sensible way to probe the Western formula and its partisans?

    At the risk of repeating others, his discovery that the Western conventions were “created…to represent a world that might have existed in the 19th century, but did not” may sadden him as he rummages the mythology for a non-mythological treatment of the social order, but it is not a bold or startling pronouncement to most people who would read his tract.

  42. None of my favorite horse-operas are mentioned: Butch Cassidy And The Sundance Kid, Support Your Local Sheriff, and Jesse James Meets Frankenstein’s Daughter…

  43. My favorite western is Little Big Man. I think it attempts to de-mythologize, is that a real word?, the Hollywood West by being the opposite of, say, any Roy Rogers Saturday kid’s matinee. Plus, I find it very funny.

    The sad part is that, from my reading in the histories about the era, the depiction of Custer is not that far from the truth. All the info I had on him when I was a kid was of the heroic type. I was, therefore, surprised to read that They Died With Their Boots On, made in 1946 with Errol Flynn is the last cinematic effort made about Custer that was sympathetic toward him. It’s good that even that long ago, people were starting to catch on.

    Hope that didn’t go too far off-thread.

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