Last week New York Times columnist David Brooks invoked the Westerns of director John Ford to criticize putative Republican orthodoxy. The column understandably had to simplify both sides of the equation, but Brooks didn’t get near the heart of either one. I particularly appreciate his advice that, before they can begin to rebound, Republicans “will have to to find a leader who is calm, prudent, reassuring and reasonable.” No scary people need apply.
At the September 2007 annual convention of the American Polical Science Association, the Claremont Institute devoted a panel to John Ford. Included among the presenters were Professor David Livingstone (Professor Livingstone presented his paper “John Ford’s Socratic Argument: Reason, Spiritedness, and the Rule of Law in ‘The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance'”) and Professor Sam Ratcliffe (Professor Ratcliffe presented his paper “John Ford on Government and Society”).
Finally, Professor John Marini gave a brilliant presentation of his paper “Saving the West: John Ford and the Epic Western.” Professor Marini is a Claremont Institute senior fellow and professor of political science at the University of Nevada-Reno. He provided a biographical sketch of Ford together with a thematic overview of Ford’s films. (The best overview of Ford I have found on the Web is this one by screenwriter Richard Frankin.)
Ford was a profound student of American history in general and the Civil War in particular. Professor Marini highlighted Ford’s love of America and his distinguished military service. On a related note, he mentioned the documentary footage Ford shot for “The Battle of Midway” (a film I had not heard of) and Ford’s World War II film “They Were Expendable.”
Professor Marini credited Ford with the creation of the genre of the serious or epic Western as we have come to know it (as well as with the creation of the character “John Wayne”). Ford was, I think by agreement of all three panelists as well, the greatest director in the history of film and particularly important to us as Americans. Marini’s valuable overview of the Western portrays it as a response to the Progressive critique of American history. Here is Marini on the thematic premises of the Western:
The implicit premise of the western…is that our fathers were in some respects better than we are: whatever they may have left us to live down, they also gave us something to live up to. The western restores our connection to the past by acknowledging the fullness or moral wholeness of the past. This could only be done by recognizing the possibility of true greatness of heroes in the past, and, of course, there cannot be heroes without villains. The greatest directors of western movies portrayed a world in which genuine heroes and therefore genuine villains were possible, where human and American virtues and vices contended in all seriousness and the heights and depths of human behavior–like the American Revolution and the legacy of slavery–came into view in a way that was and is meaningful to the moral imagination.
Brooks limits his consideration of Ford to “My Darling Clementine.” By the evidence of his column, Brooks seems not to understand Ford. He disparages, for example, the role of the hero in Ford’s films. In responding to Brooks’s column, James Bowman draws on “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance,” the one film that receives individual attention in Marini’s essay on the Western.
Brooks counsels Republicans to focus on communitarian themes. Bowman argues that, rightly understood, Ford undermines “the belief that you can have order and community merely by wishing for these things and passing laws about them: the belief, in short, that they don’t have to be fought for.” He finds that, Brooks to the contrary notwithstanding, “the movies of John Ford make a different point, and in some ways an opposite one from that which he supposes.”
Via Todd Zywicki.