What Congress can learn from a 1930’s Western
I will now attempt to set an inspirational example for the members of Congress. On public record, I am going to reject moral purity and compromise my principles.
While our national leaders were standing by their principles and thereby perfecting their genius for the production of gridlock, I was trying to get out of a similar internal gridlock of my own.
My very smart friend Dan Boord, a filmmaker and a professor in the University of Colorado Film Studies Department, had asked me to visit his big lecture class and join him in a discussion of John Ford’s 1939 movie “Stagecoach,” the movie that made John Wayne a star.
Since my old campaign to invite Westerners to take a more realistic view of their region’s history did not always coincide with admiration for Western movies, I watched “Stagecoach” more closely than I ever had before. With Boord’s guidance, I contemplated elements of the movie that I would never have noticed on my own.
Note the dangerous process under way here: I was learning something new. And, in the unforeseeable outcome that learning will often produce, my comfortable assumptions and familiar principles were about to get rattled.
In this movie, Ford placed a bunch of difficult and peculiar people in the confined space of a stagecoach. The people who got into this tiny traveling vehicle did not like one another. But then they got bounced around in the stagecoach and in their relationships with one another. Out of all this jiggling on rough roads, reconciliations and alliances emerged and persisted. Like any normal human being, I found the journey of this group, from hostility to a version of community, to be inspirational and moving.
But another scene provided me with a lot more irritation than inspiration. In a cliché-saturated, standard-issue scene, featuring stereotypes deeply embedded in the Western film genre, the Apaches attacked. There is not a hint in the film as to what might have provided the context or motivation for this attack. Instead, in a movie that is otherwise stunning in its complexity, the Indians are simply portrayed as people who are brutal and violent by nature.
Some readers will be quick on the draw with the assertion that, with this scene, Ford simply reflected the universal thinking of his time.
In the 1930s, the nation took important steps toward reckoning with the dispossession of Indian people. The change in federal policy called the Indian New Deal reversed the loss of tribal lands and made a start toward restoring tribal self-government. Thus, a defense of Ford as “a man of his times” does a double disservice in over-simplifying both the man and those times.
In the main plot of this movie, Ford triumphed over what one of his characters calls the “foul disease” of “social prejudice.” In the episode of the Indian attack, he relapsed.
Taking all this in sent me into internal gridlock. I alternated between admiring “Stagecoach” and wincing over its portrayal of Indian people.
And then, thank heavens, I settled down and, in the terms of our times, got a grip.
I remembered the aphorism “The perfect is the enemy of the good.” Sticking to the kind of principle that requires us to reject inspiration, when it does not come safely packaged in 100 percent moral purity, is not a rewarding way to live on this complicated planet. And Ford’s career backs me up in this conviction: In his last Western movie, “Cheyenne Autumn,” he finally included Indian people in the space of the American community.
Imagine the benefit to the nation if a patriotic, humanitarian filmmaker drew on the inspiration of “Stagecoach.” The goal would be to pack groups of Republicans and Democratic members of Congress into stagecoaches and jiggle them until the rigidity of their ideologies loosened up.
The time has come for the John Ford Stagecoach Initiative.
Patty Limerick is chair of the Center of the American West at the University of Colorado and writes monthly for The Post.