“This is the most unfriendly country I’ve ever been in. Why is everybody so touchy?”

As the sands in the upper glass run low, and I recognise the imminence of mortality, I run through all the sins of omission in my life.

Originally, it was Ovid, addressing Eos/Aurora/Dawn. He asked her to imagine she was with her paramour, Cephalus. She should rein back her horses, that the poet may spend longer with his beloved:

at si, quem mavis, Cephalum conplexa teneres,
clamares: “lente currite, noctis equi!”

Then, in one of the most astonishing eros-et-thanatos twists of Elizabethan literature, Marlow grabbed hold of it and put it into the mouth of Faustus, contemplating the imminent arrival of Mephistopheles, to collect the debt of his soul:

faustus1624Ah, Faustus,
Now hast thou but one bare hour to live,
And then thou must be damn’d perpetually!
Stand still, you ever-moving spheres of Heaven,
That time may cease, and midnight never come;
Fair Nature’s eye, rise, rise again and make
Perpetual day; or let this hour be but
A year, a month, a week, a natural day,
That Faustus may repent and save his soul!
O lente, lente, curite noctis equi.
The stars move still, time runs, the clock will strike,
The Devil will come, and Faustus must be damn’d.

Faustus must have been on the A-level syllabus, the summer I started grammar school. Fakenham Grammar had an old marl-pit out in the farther reaches of the playing-fields. This had, imaginatively, been transformed into an open-air theatre-arena. And the sixth-form did Faustus.  I don’t ever expect much from student drama, so I’ve rarely been disappointed. Something happened that summer afternoon we were crocodiled out for a performance: and I hope it was more than the squibs and smoke contributed by the science teachers as special effects.

I know those lines slid effortlessly into my semi-conscious. Which was just as well, because I was later able to recover them for my TCD Finals.

Jump cut

poster227x227What with this pot on my left wrist, aches and pains, and general lethargy, for Sunday afternoon I’d turned up a copy of The Man from Laramie. With all due respect, sixty years on, iTunes are gold-bricking it to expect a tenner to view this one. That, in itself, has to be a testimony to how well the film has aged.

This was the last of four horse-operas Jimmy Stewart and Anthony Mann made together — allegedly it’s Mann’s attempt at King Lear. You may see the connection: I’m not convinced myself.

What I see is a Cold War Western, a natural stand-along for the Stewart/Mann outing, Strategic Air Command, earlier that same year.

The first thought is: why? Why did the Western become the staple commodity of Hollywood in the post-war period? In 1947-50, a third of the output was made up of Westerns. The tension is always between the cult of expansion (power) and the survival of the individual — the iconic hero is always the idealised man-alone. Nor can we ignore the economic systems being presented in Westerns, almost always in terms of cattle, and at a time when the United States was monopolising the world’s food supplies.

Then there’s the House Committee on UnAmerican Activities. What could be more “American”, more unCommunist, than a Western theme? With Hollywood already traumatised by the break-up of the big studios by Anti-Trust, the audiences being seduced by television, thank heaven for big skies on bigger and better screens, and lots of Technicolor.

There has to be that element of “conquest”. After 1945 the United States bestode most of the world as a super-power: it had its only rival — the Soviets surrounded. There is a simplistic comparison there with the final “closing” of the Wild West. Frederick Jackson Turner marked that:

In a recent bulletin of the Superintendent of the Census for 1890 appear these significant words: “Up to and including 1880 the country had a frontier of settlement, but at present the unsettled area has been so broken into by isolated bodies of settlement that there can hardly be said to be a frontier line. In the discussion of its extent, its westward movement, etc., it can not, therefore, any longer have a place in the census reports.” This brief official statement marks the closing of a great historic movement. Up to our own day American history has been in a large degree the history of the colonization of the Great West. The existence of an area of free land, its continuous recession, and the advance of American settlement westward, explain American development.

Melvin Lasky, the CIA’s all-purpose culture-vulture, features prominently at the start of Frances Stonor Saunders’ Who Paid the Piper? Lasky went to the East German Writers’ Conference and excelled himself:9781862073272

Appalled by the timidity of his superiors, he compared Berlin to ‘what a frontier-town must have been like in the States in the middle of the 19th century — Indians on the horizon,and you’ve got to have that rifle handy or not your scalp is gone. But in those days a frontier-town was full of Indian fighters … here very few people have any guts, and if they do they usually don’t know in which direction to point their rifle’. [page 28]

The Man from Laramie is set at a moment when the West is almost wholly settled. At Coronado (definitely not the glossy SoCal resort but a place that repeats, like cucumber, in fantasy Westerns), the Apaches are a constant threat — more on the sound-track than actively so, except for the necessary end at which “Vic Hansbro” (the Arthur Kennedy character) necessarily wishes on himself. So we are some moment before Skeleton Canyon (1886).

Specifically, The Man from Laramie comes just after the very acme of Westerns:

  • 1952: High Noon (anti-HUAC?)
  • 1953: Shane (the Man alone)
  • 1955: The Man from Laramie
  • 1956: The Searchers
  • 1957: Gunfight at the O.K. Corral
  • 1958: The Big Country (water-rights=nuclear standoff?)

I’m looking, though, for an added ingredient in The Man from Laramie. I see it in the McGuffin, the mystery — who sold the Apaches the rifles? We think we finger the arch-villain, the psychopath “Dave Waggoman” early on … except. And in this respect, The Man from Laramie is anticipatory. The early Cold War spies — Alger Hiss, the Rosenbergs — had been ideologically driven. Their successors would be mercenaries, just as Vic Hansbro.

Meanwhile, those horses are damn quick.

1 Comment

Filed under films, History, Literature

One response to ““This is the most unfriendly country I’ve ever been in. Why is everybody so touchy?”

  1. yourcousin

    Now I’m going to have to go back through and rematch those old westerns. I suppose there are worse fates. I always took a very pessimistic view from High Noon. Everyman dies alone sort of thing. I also have a hankering read Cormac McCarthy’s work. Maybe after I finish my hunting camp books.

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