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Spinning a Popular American Image

John Wayne, the New Economy and the American Male Worker

 
The essential American soul is hard, isolate, stoic, and a killer. It has never yet melted.
- D.H. Lawrence

 
The moderate conservative New York Times columnist David Brooks recently wrote a column titled “Men on the Threshold” employing a famous image of John Wayne in the 1956 film The Searchers as a symbol of the American male worker facing a growing crisis of unemployment.

Brooks certainly has the right to do what he likes with such mythic imagery. And he writes, “Classics can be interpreted in different ways.” But in this instance, in the name of truth and justice, he should be brought up on charges of premeditated and aggravated misuse of myth.

David Brooks and Ethan Edwards "on the threshold"David Brooks and Ethan Edwards "on the threshold"

Ethan Edwards is considered Wayne’s best acting role. There’s none of the usual John Wayne swaggering big-man nonsense with sidekicks like Dean Martin or Fabian. Here, he’s a mean and cruel sonuvabitch who sets out with a younger man across the barren Texas plains to find a girl kidnapped by Indians whose family they had massacred. The search lasts seven years. We learn he intends to kill the girl (Natalie Wood) once he finds her, since she has been ruined by becoming the sexual mate of an Indian.

In the end, Edwards softens enough to return the girl to her family. In the famous scene at the end, Edwards stands silhouetted in the doorway of a rough home with the dusty Texas plains behind him. While the family is rejoicing and welcoming its lost daughter back into the fold of civilization, Edwards stands alone, apparently unable to enter. As the popular interpretation goes, his hard cold-bloodedness was what brought the girl back to civilization, but that same violent temperament won’t permit him to fit into the domestic scene inside. He turns and walks off, presumably to find other frontiers.

No argument, this is a powerful image of American history and Manifest Destiny from a truly magnificent classic film. But, let’s not kid ourselves and New York Times readers, it has nothing to do with the plight of American male workers in 2013. It’s a case of expropriating a classic, tough masculine image from popular culture to represent a theme Brooks wants to emphasize. At best, it’s facile; at worst, cynically opportunistic.

First off, Brooks passes over, or willfully ignores, the unpleasant historic reality that no one disputes is symbolized by what he calls the Ethan Edwards character’s “pre-political virtues.” Those virtues include violent cruelty and the capacity “to mete out justice on his own” -- plus a considerable dose of racism.

What Brooks and many glorifiers of Manifest Destiny and the “taming of the west” conveniently leave out is the fact Ethan Edwards’ cruelty and violence were needed to pacify and, too often, massacre the human beings who had lived on those Texas plains for thousands of years -- ie. the savages in the movie who massacred Natalie Wood’s family and soiled her womanhood.

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