IN 1954, THE FILM CRITIC Robert Warshow wrote that "[the] two most successful creations of American movies are the gangster and the Westerner," noting, succinctly, that they are both genres based on "men with guns." The gangster — especially in his later and introspective modes — can be hard to tell from the detectives who chase him, just as he's somewhat hard to tell from the "good guy" gunslingers that populate the average Western. All three belong to the distinctively modern character type that the sociologist Georg Simmel analyzed in his 1908 essay "The Stranger." According to Simmel, the stranger differs from the older figure of the nomadic wanderer, who "comes today and goes tomorrow"; the stranger, in Simmel's formulation,
comes today and stays tomorrow. He is, so to speak, the potential wanderer: although he has not moved on, he has not quite overcome the freedom of coming and going. He is fixed within a particular spatial group, or within a group whose boundaries are similar to spatial boundaries. But his position in this group is determined, essentially, by the fact that he has not belonged to it from the beginning, that he imports qualities into it, which do not and cannot stem from the group itself.
This negative and lonely freedom allows the stranger to move through social groups while remaining free from their constraints. In Westerns, the stranger seems to be played most of the time by John Wayne.
The philosopher and literary critic Robert B. Pippin has written extensively on Hegel, Kant, and Henry James; his new book, Hollywood Westerns and American Myth, treats four Westerns, all starring Wayne — three directed by John Ford (Stagecoach, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, and The Searchers) and one by Howard Hawks (Red River) — at some length. All four of the Westerns he examines are about the relation of Wayne's character to the towns and civilizations that he helps define through his ultimate and irremediable status as an outsider.
Pippin is deeply interested in the question of human subjectivity, including its relation to political life; and, in the Western, political life turns out to be a subjectively precarious proposition. Wayne's characters in these films — who are all intentionally disturbing challenges to what Pippin calls "the John Wayne Type," the generous and self-sacrificing good guy — cannot assimilate themselves either to the civilized life they help to destroy (that of the native Americans who tend to be Wayne's antagonists) or to the civilized life they make possible (the westward moving European culture).
Like Humphrey Bogart, Wayne has the outsider's self-reliant charisma. His absolute self-reliance means that he is someone whose experience we cannot fully imagine — and that's the point. Of Wayne's charisma, Pippin notes: "Hawks said that he always worried about Wayne as a leading man, that he had such screen presence that he could 'blow away' the other actors." Red River (1948) was the first movie Hawks made after The Big Sleep (1946), and Hawks's line sounds like Chandler's description of Bogart in that movie: "all he has to do to dominate a scene is to enter it." That kind of dominating charisma makes of its bearer an exception to ordinary political life, even if in the Western he...read more