Bright Lights Film Journal

America by America for European Immigrants!


A severe flu’s got me stateside, watching lots of John Ford and Sam Peckinpah and trying to soak up a little American patriotism. Over on my acidemic blog I’m bitching about my feeble attempt to get through even 15 minutes of REVENGE OF THE SITH, praising HITMAN and doing god knows what. But here we should keep it nice and talk about Peckinpah and John Ford, especially as that big Ford at Fox box set is coming out.

I could never stand Ford all that much as a kid because all that old-fashioned civilization vs. old west hokum got on my nerves. The efforts to bring civilization on horseback are what I mean, sir: the collapsible silver cup that John Carradine carries in STAGECOACH, the books and legal jargon of Jimmy Stewart in THE MAN WHO SHOT LIBERTY VALANCE.. oh man, you know what I mean. Then there’s all that eating, like the sickeningly large portions of food being served in THE MAN WHO SHOT LIBERTY VALANCE, the drinking: the vast sea of whiskey consumed by Victor MacLagen, Lee Marvin and most of all, Thomas Mitchell. All the fussing over law and order and your rights and such rhetoric as one can’t find east of the Capra-Corny state line.

And yet, the best movie about the power of American rhetoric, ladies and gentlemen, lies un-transferred to DVD by these so-called illustrious statesmen. Sirs, I refer you to Leo McCarey’s RUGGLES OF RED GAP!

Set in the early days of the 20th century or whenever, this has Charles Laughton, magnificence itself as the shy butler who winds up in the wild west after his pleasingly debauched lord (Roland Young) loses him in a Paris poker game. Charlie Ruggles (no relation to the Ruggles of the title) is the cowboy who teaches him to relax and enjoy some beer. No matter how blue your state you will shed some genuine tears and be proud again when you hear Laughton recite the Gettysburg address to a bar full of rowdy revellers. To watch Laughton work his character from butlerish timidity through to the spiritual awakening of opening his own restaurant and getting a nice Zasu Pitts in the bargain, and then to see them blue oyster snobs get the what’s what? Priceless.

What I’m advocating here is a healing across the blue-red divide. We’re handcuffed step-by-step forever so why don’t we stop calling each other names and learn to appreciate? We need Johns Ford and Wayne to come back and remind us democrats that this nation wasn’t founded on no fancy talk, it was men like the ones in the red states what won it; they get spooked when they feel they aint wanted, when we try and shut em out like at the end of the SEARCHERS. It’s time we asked maw to open the cabin door and invite old Fred back to the table, even if he do smell a mite. After all, if a cowboy can teach Charles Laughton self-respect, why can’t Laughton teach ’em groomin? Together we fall, and so forth.

But back to Ford, what hit home this time was the punishment, the whippings Lee Marvin gives out in VALANCE; you can feel the sting on your back; the lit-up sadism of his spineless yella lackeys (including Lee Van Cleef barely out of britches). And the weird feeling that this just didn’t happen in the real old west too often, that homesteaders just idly let themselves be picked off like a bunch of eloi in the morlock stockyards. What my own red state brother Fred taught me was that in Arizona, where he hails from, people just can’t get away with that stuff for long as concealed weapon permits are practically handed out with your driver’s license. Aint no difficulty sniping off a drunken cowpoke in a time before CSI, no matter how fast on the legit draw he is. My brother loves to regail me with stories of out-of-towners trying to pull liquor store robberies and finding every customer in the place with their pistols out aimed right at ’em. That’s the root behind the right bear arms, and to me it makes sense… in Arizona. Now I understand Ford’s desire to create American drama, with Stewart always caught in the pacifist role thinking he can fight his own battles by raising his voice and invoking the constitution, but the thing is, we don’t remember the real America, we here in the blue states, we remember Ford’s America.

What we need to do is start rememberin’ Leo McCarey’s America. For that I would point you towards the excellent secion on RALLY ROUND THE FLAG BOYS in Robin Wood’s indispensible Sexual Politics in Narrative Film.