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The Accidentally Libertarian Western

Friday A/V Club: Harpoon battles six-gun in Terror in a Texas Town.

Seltzer FilmsSeltzer FilmsWhen Communists wrote movies in Old Hollywood, the results sometimes were straight-up Soviet propaganda. The most infamous example is Mission to Moscow (1943), a drama so committed to the Stalinist worldview that it includes an extended defense of the purge trials. But that was made during World War II, when both studio and state were eager to praise Washington's ally in Moscow. Under other circumstances, red writers trying to translate their politics into an American idiom sometimes found themselves in less Leninist territories.

That was one theme of my recent article about the Hollywood blacklist, which noted one peculiar picture in particular:

As the independent historian Bill Kauffman once commented, when communist filmmakers had to work "within studio straightjackets," they often "channeled their work into 'populist' avenues (the small banker fighting the big banks, the lone man against the crowd) and wound up sounding libertarian."

Take 1958's Terror in a Texas Town, a Western best known today for a gloriously weird showdown that pits a gunman against a man armed with a whaling harpoon. Here the blacklisted [Dalton] Trumbo (working behind a front) wrote a story in which a wealthy businessman used both private violence and a corrupt government to seize property from independent farmers. I can see why a Marxist would like the movie, but a Randian might appreciate it too. Who exactly was subverting whom?

Terror in a Texas Town came out near the end of the blacklist era, when the rules were starting to unravel. Trumbo still had to work behind a front, but another blacklistee—Ned Young, who plays the villainous gunfighter Johnny Crale—appears onscreen with full credit. I'm glad he's there, because his performance is the best thing about the movie. (Yes, even better than the harpoon.) The worst thing about the movie is how Trumbo wrote the Mexican characters. They're patronizing caricatures: the sorts of roles that no doubt felt like a liberal gesture at the time (they're sympathetic victims!) but now feel cringe-inducingly condescending.

It's a good film overall: taut and entertaining, with a stark noir look. I've embedded it below so you can check it out for yourself. (If you're looking at this on Chrome, you may see the sort of grey placeholder thumbnail that shows up when a video is missing. But if you click on it, the movie should still play.)

(For past editions of the Friday A/V Club, go here.)

Photo Credit: Seltzer Films

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  • Ken Shultz||

    "The worst thing about the movie is how Trumbo wrote the Mexican characters. They're patronizing caricatures: the sorts of roles that no doubt felt like a liberal gesture at the time (they're sympathetic victims!) but now feel cringe-inducingly condescending."

    How much did the end of the studio system have to do with the same red scare stuff that brought about the black list?

    My understanding is that the studios made noir about troubled vets becoming detectives and dealing with the dark underside of the American dream if they owned a lot of theaters in the urban northeast.

    Those films "wouldn't play in Peoria", so the studios that owned a lot of theaters in the Midwest were making westerns for that audience, people who might not know anything about Mexicans except for what they saw in the movies.

  • Ken Shultz||

    P.S. Saving the theater business might require letting the studios buy into or merge with theater chains again. The suggestion that theaters have insufficient competition these days is ridiculous.

  • Bubba Jones||

    They keep building new theaters in Houston.

    I think they have discovered a new business model of the high end experience. The cheap matinees can't compete with Netflix.

  • Ken Shultz||

    Disney did a theater with a chain in Hollywood that has been wildly successful to hold their premiers in. They renovated one of the old run down class theaters--the ones that look like the inside of an opera house. It draws tourists like crazy.

    There was a run down art house theater in Hollywood that Quentin Tarantino was curating. It was basically like all cheap matinees all the time--but they're not first run movies and they only play for one night.

    It's like passive TV watching in a way--you go to the movies to see what's on and you watch whatever is playing.

    I've been to the high end theaters, too, with upgraded food, plush chairs, active security that shushes people and throws them out if they talk, etc.

    There are all sorts of innovative models that can work in an entertainment venue. I go to watch operas from the Met. I've watched plays simulcast.

    Universal, Warner Brothers, Fox, and other studios own their own TV networks and distribution channels now. The red scare is over. The era of monopolizing movie distribution through local theater ownership is over. Time to get the government and the law out of the way.

  • Chipper Morning Baculum||

    I once saw a movie in Houston. You could have landed a 747 in the theater lobby. Things really are bigger in Texas.

  • Rich||

    people who might not know anything about Mexicans except for what they saw in the movies.

    How quaint! Today, people might not know anything about Mexicans except for what they see on Twitter!

  • Brandybuck||

    Growing up in California (which believe it or not used to be a part of... Mexico!), even as a kid I thought the portrayals of Mexicans to be stupid. Everyone knew that real Mexicans wore chinos, suspenders, and wife beaters, with an excess of pomade in their hair (hence the epithet of "greaser"). Who the hell were these guys on screen wearing silly sombreros?

  • Bubba Jones||

    Sounds like George Clooney in O Brother...

  • General_Tso||

    He was a Dapper Dan man

  • Ken Shultz||

    As recently as the early 1980s, there was only one Mexican restaurant in Washington D.C. to speak of.

    La Plata Grande.

    Think about that.

    I'd lived in California during the summers. I had to describe to my classmates what a burrito was like.

    There was a Latino kid in our class, but nobody really thought of that as a different group. DC was still very much a southern town, so culturally people thought of you as either black or white. If you were Japanese, you weren't black--so you were white. If you were middle eastern, you were either white or black.

    It was like the first episode of King of the Hill, where in response to Hank's question of where his neighbor is from, the neighbor says, "I'm Laotian". Hank replies, "Is that Chinese or Japanese?".

    The world has changed.

  • Chipper Morning Baculum||

    I thought the quote was:
    "I am Laotian."
    "You are from the ocean?"

  • Brandybuck||

    My home town was about 40% Latino, 10% Japanese, and 50% various brands of Whites. A single black family and one old guy who was Jewish. Population of about 6000, but had a dozen Mexican restaurants. A few operating out of the front porch of the owner's home.

    It was part of the old time Californio culture that 70s style liberalism has destroyed. The Chicano movement were just the first taste of the end.

  • El Oso||

    Sounds like a good title for a book: The Accidental Libertarian....

  • Alan Vanneman||

    For a commie pic with sympathetic portrayals of both Mexicans and women (Katy Jurado as a twofer) and libertarian overtones, see Carl Foreman's classic "High Noon". I provide a review and backstory at the Bright Lights Film Journal and you can access the review by clicking the link given at the end of the brief announcement at my own website

    http://avanneman.tumblr.com/tagged/High Noon

  • Alan Vanneman||

    Sorry, the link won't work. If you're desperate (you probably aren't), search for Alan Vanneman High Noon

  • Darth Soros||

    Another example of a leftist turning out a movie that gave a message probably not intended by the creator was HIGH NOON. It was supposed to be a parable about McCarthyism but these days the message comes across more like "Support Your Local Police." An even better example is the Trumbo-written SPARTACUS, which to me is one of the great libertarian movies of all time, whether or not intended as such..

  • loveconstitution1789||

    With Jesse's view of Libertarianism, anyone can be one. Even a Communist.

  • ||

    1. I didn't find the MX characters condescending. I found them human and more developed than any of the other characters except for the 3 main ones. 2. I was struck by the remarkable similarity of performances by Cabot and Sydney Greenstreet in '41 (T.M.F.). Cabot seems to have mimicked Greenstreet. I can't help wondering if Trumbo wrote it that way or Sydney went off script.
    The ending is unclear to me. We are led to believe the ranchers/farmers finally unite behind a leader to fight for their property. But how is this manifested? They go unarmed to watch a fight to the death? Is moral support enough? Does it trump action? I think not. But that seems to be the belief of all the "good guys" except the Swede. Is this movie touting pacifism? It's hard to say because it has mixed messages, e.g., why bring a harpoon to a gun fight and not even get a toss off? He seemed more to be bluffing, i.e., his heart wasn't in it. And his son, the same, in the beginning. Only after getting ganged up on and beaten, then have his friend murdered, does he start to really fight.

  • ||

    Damn it! I meant to say: "...or Cabot went off script." This format pisses me off. Once submitted it can't be edited.

  • Crazyotto||

    Considering so-called Libertarians like the Koch Bros. are pushing hard for open borders and globalist one world government I hardly doubt I would call this movie a modern day libertarian saga. I am pretty disillusioned with modern libertarians. The author didn't mention that Sterling Hayden was likewise a big time commie on the black-list.

  • Crazyotto||

    Correction Hayden was not blacklisted but was a member of the communist party

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