Page Two: Winning the West

Cowboys, Indians, and the irresolvable contradictions between freedom and order

Page Two

I

"Hello, my name is Sacheen Littlefeather. I'm Apache, and I am president of the National Native American Affirmative Image Committee. I'm representing Marlon Brando this evening, and he has asked me to tell you ... that he very regretfully cannot accept this very generous award. And the [reason] for this being ... the treatment of American Indians today by the film industry." – From the 1972 Academy Awards show

Let us now praise famous men and famous women; let us praise as well men and women not famous, and even some of those infamous. The theme of all this is best summed up in a line from John Ford's The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance: "When the legend becomes the fact, print the legend."

Brando gave Littlefeather a three-page statement to read at the Academy Awards if he won the best actor category for his performance in The Godfather. Alerted to this, the event's organizer searched Littlefeather out to tell her she could only make a brief statement. Brando won. Littlefeather came out in a 1903 white buckskin ceremonial gown.

As she came onstage, even before she began to speak, there was considerable audience noise; everyone was wondering what was up. Then she made the statement above. Well before she finished, the audience began booing loudly.

Obviously, this proved to be one of the Oscars' all-time most controversial moments. It was a typical later-Brando gesture: all theatrics and misdirection, lacking substance but still exciting the desired dialogue. Charles Champlin offered one of the most reasoned views on it, writing, "The question is whether the gesture, in all its arrogant sincerity, succeeds in dramatizing or trivializing the problem." He followed with, "Say what you will about him, he's an electrifying non-presence as well as an electrifying presence."

The nonappearance added to the Brando mystique and myth. On the other hand, it ended up causing Littlefeather enormous, life-changing problems. Unfortunately, the first investigations into her life turned up inaccurate information indicating she was not an American Indian – that her father was Filipino and her mother was white. This was wrong, but although there was more accurate later reporting, it was never really corrected in the public's mind. Instead, that she was a phony became accepted as fact and is still regularly reported as such.

She was an American Indian and had long been involved in related activists' causes, which is how she met Brando. The truth in this kind of context was nearly meaningless. It won't be surprising if we receive letters arguing she was not an American Indian, citing the early reporting. People often want to believe the worst about others; many find pure joy in the accusation.


II

"How can I hate John Wayne upholding Goldwater and yet love him tenderly when he sweeps Natalie Wood into his arms in the last reel of The Searchers?" – Jean-Luc Godard

There are artists – the creative talents – and then there is their art, their work. Obviously, anyone can respond to creative work in any way he or she wants, as the very purpose of such work is to elicit exactly those kinds of individual reactions. It is unnerving and troubling when there is an organized effort to attack art or speech because the viewpoint represented runs counter to the beliefs of one group or another. This is even more alarming when this assault is based not on the content of the work but is a reaction to the personal beliefs of the creative talent.

A terrible – and, to a real extent, terrifying – example of this was the Dixie Chicks incident, when Natalie Maines' relatively tame slight of President George W. Bush inspired pundits and country deejays to launch an all-out assault on the band. Compared to the weight of the comment, the intensity of these attacks was astonishing, as more blood was poured in the water to intensify the frenzy of the many sharks gathered. In the name of patriotism, there was this organized assault on the Dixie Chicks in an effort to punish them for what had been said.

In this context, it is always especially interesting to consider John Wayne. A dominant, totemic American figure, he personifies to many everything great about this country; many others regard him as a hardcore-American, right-wing reactionary.


III

The many ways in which creative work makes meaning for those who experience it are rarely as direct or specific as both supporters and critics often argue. When a film or novel or TV show gets inside your head, the way it resonates, and the ideological seeds thus planted, is really not dependent on the creators' intentions. In some cases, those may be richer and more insidious; in others, they are surprisingly direct.

The John Ford-directed Westerns, frequently starring Wayne, that I watched growing up proved to be powerful influences on my moral education and my understanding of this country. I care not a whit for Wayne's personal politics, but the actions and dignity of Wayne onscreen still strongly inform my sensibility.

The American film Western has proven one of the richest areas in the culture for metaphoric evocations of the classic American philosophical conflict between the freedoms of individuals and their responsibilities to the greater community.


IV

"I don't know if I should present this award on behalf of all the cowboys shot in John Ford Westerns over the years." – Clint Eastwood's comment at the 1972 Academy Awards show as he followed Littlefeather

In any number of ways, Clint Eastwood's response was unfortunate, from its awkward construction to its rather silly point. Undeniably, many Ford films participate in the standard, stereotypical presentation of the American Indian. In one of his masterpieces, the above-mentioned The Searchers (1956), there is a truly offensive bit that is supposed to be humorous, wherein a squaw is kicked so that she rolls down a small hill.

Films like Fort Apache, however, were crucial steps toward presenting a fairer version of Western history, especially in regard to American Indians. Ford personally befriended and helped support the native tribes in the areas where he shot. He knew civilization was a step forward and necessary, but he didn't trust it. In many of his later Westerns, he explored the irony that those who tamed the West were inherently so psychotic that there was no place for them in the world they helped create.

Unfortunately, the aura of Wayne has always been so great that subtlety regarding his performances has been lost: Broad acceptance or derisive dismal have been the dominant reactions. The intensity of those who hate Wayne has often unfairly stained many of those who worked with him, no one more than Ford. Certainly, Ford was a fan of the military, but this never impaired his sophisticated understanding of the irresolvable contradictions in the conflict between freedom and order.

Currently, those who make the most regular and extreme moral judgments about others are all too often not actors in ongoing political and social dramas. They are rocking-chair moralists, so comfortable with their own correctness that they feel justified criticizing the opinions and beliefs of others. Since many have rarely been in the kinds of extreme situations in which one's ideals are actually put to the test, their certainty as to how pure and uncompromising they would be has never been vetted.

Stereotyping Ford in any way, but especially as a reactionary, is a complete misunderstanding of the man and the artist. The effects of McCarthyism on the Hollywood film industry were horrifying in that so many were compromised by their own cowardice. Standing firm for honor and ideals in that environment was far more risky than being thought a witch in Salem.

The director Cecil B. DeMille led a group that wanted to force every member of the of the Directors Guild of America to sign a loyalty oath. Joseph Mankiewicz was the president of the DGA. Hand-in-glove with the push for the oath was a campaign of innuendo suggesting that Mankiewicz was a communist sympathizer. At the climactic meeting where the membership was to finally vote on the oath, DeMille and his supporters spoke for hours about patriotic loyalty. All those attending were well aware that the vote would also be about Mankiewicz's tenure.

After those hours of speechifying, Ford stood up and spoke: "My name's John Ford. I make Westerns. I don't think there's anyone in this room who knows more about what the American public wants than Cecil B. DeMille – and he certainly knows how to give it to them. ... But I don't like you, C.B. I don't like what you stand for, and I don't like what you've been saying here tonight." The vote that followed was overwhelmingly against the loyalty oath.  

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KEYWORDS FOR THIS STORY

Westerns, John Wayne, John Ford, McCarthyism, Directors Guild of America, Joseph Mankiewicz, Cecil B. DeMille

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