Hollywood Westerns and American Myth: The Importance of Howard Hawks and John Ford for Political Philosopy

By Cohen, Paul | Film & History, Fall 2012 | Go to article overview

Hollywood Westerns and American Myth: The Importance of Howard Hawks and John Ford for Political Philosopy


Cohen, Paul, Film & History


Hollywood Westerns and American Myth: The Importance of Howard Hawks and John Ford for Political Philosopy Robert B. Pippin Yale University Press: New Haven, 2010. 155 pages. Paperback. $23.00

Occasionally, I find myself questioning one of Robert Pippin's film readings in Hollywood Westerns and American Myth. Is Tom Dunson's "epic heroic" stature any less epic in Red River (Howard Hawks, 1948) because it begins as a "commercial enterprise" (29)? Does not the film intentionally marginalize Dunson's profit motive in favor of the grand adventure of his thousand-mile cattle drive? But if Pippin's book raises such reservations, that is because it always makes us think; indeed, this splendid work accomplishes nothing more effectively than to pose serious questions about a Hollywood genre, which, Pippin argues convincingly, should itself be treated less as a commercial enterprise than a source of the modern American foundation myth.

A political philosopher and Chair of the Committee on Social Thought at the University of Chicago, Pippin has written books on Kant, Hegel, and Nietzsche. Here, he takes the bold and singular step of placing Howard Hawks and John Ford on a par with the likes of Plato, Rousseau, and Foucault (how many books about westerns twice deploy the descriptor "Foucauldean"?) and treating their films - specifically, Red River and two Ford classics, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962) and The Searchers (1956) - as a means of exploring "the problem of political psychology, the problem of mythic narration, and the relevance of great Westerns to the distinctly American imaginary" (11). The core question these films pose for Pippin (especially the first two) is: what is gained and what is lost in the American political psyche when one parts ways with a "mythic and largely feudal" world defined by "honor, glory, and aristocratic independence" in favor of a commercial domestic society that requires "security, cooperation, and peace" (24-25)?

For Pippin, the great virtue of these films - indeed what makes them great - is their refusal to resolve this question in favor of one side or the other. Thus Red River offers us a choice between the "autocratic, charismatic, largely premodem" authority of Dunson (John Wayne) and the "consensus-oriented, prudent, more recognizably modern" (40) authority of his surrogate son, Matthew Garth (Montgomery Clift). While the film would seem to sanction the "genuinely progressive" ascendance of the latter, it also conveys something "vaguely unsatisfying or dispiriting," something "antiheroic and prosaic," about the bourgeois civilization to come. Likewise, Red River treats Dunson's "fantasy about rule, empire, independence, and strength of will," his "self-mythologization," as the mirror image of "a deeply held American fantasy" that Pippin finds both "troubling and heroic" (53, 67 Pippin's italics).

The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance poses an equally ambiguous dichotomy for Pippin, this time between Jimmy Stewart's Ransom Stoddard, who stands in for "bourgeois civility and law" (89), and Tom Doniphon (again played by John Wayne), who embodies the heroic code of the Old West: "selfsufficiency, honor, chivalry, pride in a 'good job of work'" (90). Once more, the film would seem ultimately to favor Stoddard and the "commercial republic" for which he stands (97). Yet it is Doniphon, Pippin suggests, who is its tragic figure, for it is he who sacrifices his code of honor by secretly ambushing Liberty Valance, the criminal incarnation of "anarchistic violence" (89), and allowing Stoddard to take credit for the deed. "Violence," Pippin writes, "must be killed by a representative of a new order" (81), and, based on a lie that became legend, Stoddard literally becomes that representative: the senator of a newly formed state and the husband of Hallie, the woman whom Doniphon loved and who perhaps loved him. …

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