GOLDEN AGE WESTERNS–THE CANON (A Handy Ten, Times Two)

There is no way to limit Hollywood’s Golden Age westerns to a mere ten, or, as you’ll see, twenty, without seeming silly. You can do it with every other genre, even war films, even noir. The western is deeper at the high end, low end and every level in between, so I won’t be stopping here. A similar list of movies that aren’t as well known, will follow at some point.

But what with civilization crumbling faster every day, this seems like a good time to ruminate on the 1939-1962 period that defined what we thought of ourselves then and what troubles us now, as the thrashing about that was bound to follow the breakup of the Frozen Silence (1980-2016) proceeds apace and the past threatens to repeat its well-established pattern of eternal return to the anti-utopian verities. It won’t be long now before any discarded lessons contained herein will become valuable again.

Stagecoach (1939)
D. John Ford

There were other good westerns made in the late 30s, but John Ford’s return to the form–his first since his great silent Three Bad Men in 1926–is rightly regarded as lifting the game for his favorite genre. It wasn’t the first or last time he managed the trick, but it may have been the most influential. Rightly so. It made the western’s definitive star, John Wayne, solid box office, won Thomas Mitchell a well-deserved Oscar, and set Claire Trevor on a path to winning one later, some year when Vivien Leigh wasn’t making Gone With the Wind. They headed a deep, faultless cast, and the story, a series of intertwined character studies, grows like a fresh flower from the oldest dirt in the hills (or anyway Guy de Maupassant by way of Ernest Haycox).

After this, perhaps Ford’s most purely exciting and entertaining film, with action informing character, and character action, at lightning speed, the cliches that had propped up thousands of dime novels, silents, and serials for half a century were at last so well-defined the western–and the western alone–could go anywhere.

Destry Rides Again (1939)
D. George Marshall

And one of the first places it went, in the very same year, was a wiseacre spoof of itself. It’s prevented from stooping to parody by being a full-blooded western first, with a strong, well-developed, town-taming story that was pure Hollywood, owing little more than its title to Max Brand’s fine source novel. Highlights: Marlene Dietrich’s loose, unmannered performance, proof she should have done more westerns; Samuel S. Hinds’ tobacco-chawing judge, dispensing Boss Brian Donlevy’s mayhem with a firm, laconic hand; Mischa Auer’s seriously whipped “deputy”; and, the big screen’s greatest catfight, courtesy of Dietrich, the priceless Una Merkel, and “eight gallons of water.” Jimmy Stewart? Well, that’s a given, but it’s high even on his endless list of indelible performances.

The Ox-Bow Incident (1943)
D, William Wellman

Wellman made better westerns (my later list will feature at least a couple of them), but none quite so iconic. Matching Walter Van Tilburg Clark’s superb source novel scene-for-scene, it’s not an easy watch. Henry Fonda and Harry Morgan (neither ever better) are a couple of cowhands caught up in a lynch mob. Jane Darwell, two years after her salt-of-the-earth Oscar turn in The Grapes of Wrath, plays the Spirit of the Mob, a kind of Rocky Mountain Madame LeFarge, with such conviction you might never see her the same way again. Here and there it’s a touch heavy-handed, but given the subject matter, that’s almost unavoidable and easy to bear. Certainly easier than the final scenes which put a noose around the neck of anyone who has studied enough history to know how often man’s gift for folly, from which God has not made him exempt, is the real source of horror in the universe.

My Darling Clementine (1946)
D. John Ford

Returning after a seven-year break, Ford remakes the Western again and sets the stage for everything it would become. Henry Fonda and Victor Mature play a Wyatt Earp and Doc Holiday who are sufficiently removed from history that Ford asked studio head Darryl Zanuck for permission to change the names. Zanuck had a studio to run. No way was he going to give up those names. Ford, typically, doubled-down and vouchsafed the historical accuracy of the obligatory gunfight, claiming Earp had told him all about it in their silent-era bull sessions. But Ford the tall tale-spinner never got in the way of Ford the Artist. Ford the Artist knew the real story was about the epic Loneliness of the Gunfighter and how thin the line between lawman and outlaw was in a lawless land. In other words, the tall tales were what mattered, not the tawdry facts, which would have held nobody’s interest for more than thirty seconds. A century-and-a-half later, the Earp story is still being told and retold. No one has come close to giving it the significance it acquired here, as a cautionary fable.

Canyon Passage (1946)
D. Jacques Tourneur

This isn’t a town-tamer epic so much as a town-being-born Narrative, with all the nuances and complexities that implies. Susan Hayward was on her way up, and you can already see why she will make it to the top. Playing friends who are growing apart and beginning to compete for the same woman, Dana Andrews and Brian Donlevy are at their respective peaks as are the arts of cinematography (courtesy of Edward Kronjager) and Technicolor. Not even Ford’s westerns ever looked more spectacular. Ward Bond shows yet again why he was Hollywood’s supreme character actor, this time portraying a terrifying, animalistic thug who would have been at home in Deadwood…or Deadwood. As usual, the second romantic subplot is a little weak, but not fatally so–once Susan Hayward’s on the screen, it’s not likely the hero will end up with anyone else. As with Stagecoach, the story is from Ernest Haycox, another fine western writer who has been neglected by our urgent need to forget. The fate of Andy Devine’s family is all the more devastating for being handled with gravitas but no fuss. Not as famous as most of the films here, but like all the rest, it grows with time and distance.

Red River (1946–Released 1948)
D. Howard Hawks

Proof that Howard Hawks could conjure an “all is now right with the world” ending out of any scenario. But don’t let that deter you. According to Joanne Dru, Hawks needed editing advice from Ford. That seems to have been the principal reason for the film’s release being delayed for two years. We have Hawks’ own word–every bit as reliable as Ford’s–that this is where Ford saw Wayne’s performance and said, “I never knew the big sunnava-bitch could act!” The discovery would alter the course of the western for decades to come. As for Red River itself, it has more than enough going for it to justify its place in the pantheon: It made Montgomery Clift’s reputation, there’s stellar work from Dru, John Ireland, Walter Brennan and a host of sidekicks. The story, about the first trail-drive from Texas to Kansas after the Civil War, is epic and intimate in equal measure. And, yes, as only the very stupid or the very misinformed would doubt going forward, the big sunnava-bitch could act.

THE CAVALRY TRILOGY (1948–1950)
D. John Ford

Fort Apache (1948)

She Wore a Yellow Ribbon (1949)

RIo Grande (1950)

John Ford’s three late-40s cavalry films have been considered a loose, informal trilogy almost since they were made. Themes certainly unite them, as does a keen eye for the details of cavalry life as men and women actually lived it in the post-Civil War generation during the conquest of what became the American Southwest. I’m treating them as one entry because there’s nothing else here I could leave off in good conscience–and certainly, none of these three could be left off!

What’s interesting narratively, is that each story stands alone at least as well as the three hang together. Ford viewed cavalry life as a continuum in three distinct modes, first as Tragedy (Fort Apache) then as a Comedy of Manners (She Wore a Yellow Ribbon) and finally as Elegy (Rio Grande). Anyone who thinks Ford glossed the men in “dirty shirt blue” should give his subsequent takes on the subject a gander (Sergeant Rutledge, Two Rode Together, even The Searchers) for a stark, sometimes corrosive contrast.

Most of Ford’s stock company features throughout this cycle of Tragedy-Comedy-Elegy, keeping things lively in one, two or all three pictures. Beyond that, look for a teenage Shirley Temple, luminous in Fort Apache, John Wayne at his most moving and eloquent in She Wore a Yellow Ribbon, Maureen O’Hara’s twirling parasol in Rio Grande (If Ford had given it to Phil Sheridan it would have been yet another historical touch he was accused of manufacturing). Those and a thousand other things. (Stanley Crouch, lifetime Crit-Illuminati member paid in full, once described Shirley Temple in Fort Apache as “somewhat monstrous.” Has any actress ever done a more valuable service than making Stanley Crouch look under the bed?)

And keep going back to them. There’s always more to learn.

Where they rode, that place became the United States of America.

Colorado Territory (1949)
D. Raoul Walsh

Perhaps the greatest western heist flick. It’s a train robbery this time (as opposed to a bank or stage), and a redemption story to boot. Walsh remade his own High Sierra, setting the modern gangster story that had made Humphrey Bogart a star back three-quarters of a century and mining even more gold from it. Joel McCrea didn’t know how to give a bad performance but this time, as “nothing but a big Kansas Jay,” he had a script that allowed him to be far better than good. Same for Virginia Mayo as a girl who’s been run out of all the best saloons in the territory and proves more honorable than either the thieves McCrea’s character has fallen back in with or the good girl (Dorothy Malone, always a welcome sight even in a stodgy role) he has fallen for. A strong story, a sterling character study of a man trying to escape his past, and nobody, but nobody, ever said Raoul Walsh was anything less than an action master of the highest order. The climax stings, no matter how often I watch it.

The Gunfighter (1950)
D. Henry King

The pinnacle of the gunfighter-tries-to-lay-down-his-guns narratives. Gregory Peck proved one of many western leading men who were more convincing playing an older man than a younger one. He’s not grizzled exactly, but there’s an old soul watching every single thing from behind those eyes. This is one where the bullets hit the bone. You can feel the weight of the lives, and souls, at stake, including eternal sidekick Millard Mitchell in the role of a well-spent lifetime. Peck’s aging gunfighter keeps looking for answers and the film doesn’t let you believe he’ll find them–but it lets you believe he believes.

Leads to killing in the end. One of those films where you know where it’s going but you can’t stop watching just the same.

WInchester ’73 (1950)
D. Anthony Mann

Outside of John Ford’s very best, perhaps the greatest and most influential western of the era. It remade Jimmy Stewart’s career, allowing him to keep all the associations of his past everyman roles while he re-invented himself as a western hero who, while still on the side of the angels, serves them with a touch of warrior madness in his soul. It also vaulted Anthony Mann, who had already made several fine noirs and historicals, to the top shelf of Hollywood directors, where he was to remain for more than a decade. It’s great enough that, except for Rock Hudson, who didn’t make a very convincing Indian, everyone associated with it would be remembered even if they had never done anything else.

Just on a side note, it was seeing Winchester ’73 on a big screen (after a dozen viewings on video), that made me realize no great film can be appreciated on a television set. When the bullets hit the rocks in the famous final shootout between Stewart and Stephen McNally, I felt like the shards were knicking my cheek.

High Noon (1952)
D. Fred Zinnemann

Of the many good things that can be said for High Noon, the best thing is that it troubles hidebound souls straight across the political divide. No ideology you bring to it can survive its scrutiny, which is why so many feign boredom or derision or simply run out of the room to keep from confronting it. Its primal power has rarely been matched even in this most primal of genres.

The constant repetition of the theme song, the ticking of the endless  array of clocks, Gary Cooper’s stone face, all work to set the audience on edge (or drive them batty), as the plot keeps us invested in that most nerve-wracking of existential questions: What happens under the pressure of time that doesn’t happen any other way?

It’s the question that drove Howard Hawks, John Wayne, Louis L’Amour and other giants of the genre to distraction when they came to assess the film as Realism. That is, they, and others felt compelled to demand strictures from High Noon they rarely paid the least attention elsewhere, including much of their own best work.

I love it myself, for all those reasons and more. But it really doesn’t matter. Like the next film here (which seems to elicit similar discomfort from the tepid and the passionate alike), it needs to be confronted. Be careful, though. Like the next film on the list, If you pay too much attention it might start to work you over. You might start finding a lot of elements, like Katy Jurado’s face, that won’t let you run and hide.

Priceless exchange overheard in the men’s room by the director following the not-very-promising debut of his only western: “What does an Austrian Jew know about making a western anyway?”

Shane (1953)
D. George Stevens

Jack Shaefer’s source novel has a gem-like purity. George Stevens, with memories of Dachau still playing in his head, both toughened and expanded it without losing the story’s central iconic force. Among the more famous exchanges, including the last one between Alan Ladd’s Shane and Jack Palance’s Jack Wilson so oft-quoted elsewhere, I like this one best:

Shane: What’s your offer, Ryker?
Rufus Ryker: To you, not a thing!
Shane: That’s too bad.
Ryker: Too bad?
Shane: Yeah, you’ve lived too long. Your kind of days are over.
Ryker: My days! What about yours, gunfighter?
Shane: The difference is I know it.

The tragedy is that Ryker’s “kind of days” are never over.

Except in the valley Shane rides out of, slumped in his saddle, the dreamland where he has obliterated himself and there is no more need for his guns…or any guns at all.

The man who filmed the ashes and bones at Dachau, another man who made only one western, must have wished it could be so–and must have known it could never be.

The Man From Laramie (1955)
D. Anthony Mann

Anthony Man and Jimmy Stewart again. Each of the five westerns they made together is a masterpiece and ranking them by quality is a fool’s errand. But, after Winchester ’73, this is the one that seems to carry the most canonical weight. Stewart ratchets up his a-man-against-himself-is-a-man-against-the-world persona to Shakespearean proportions. The story and cast (exceptional: Donald Crisp, Arthur Kennedy, Aline MacMahon, Alex Nicol and the great Cathy O’Donnell who makes even the obligatory ingenue role sing) are up to the task. It’s a stranger-in-town saga (Stewart, with a secret and a purpose of course), crossed with a family drama of an aging cattle king (Crisp) reaching the time of life when he must choose between the son he has (Nicol) and the son he wishes he had (Kennedy).

Anyway, he thinks Kennedy is the son he wishes he had.

Like I said, Shakesperean. At least.

The Searchers (1956)
D. John Ford

The apex, a narrative so densely layered it can no more be plumbed than Hamlet or the Illiad or War and Peace. It’s also a hellishly entertaining Saturday Matinee western. John Wayne’s performance was one of the handful that makes awards irrelevant. The greatest American director’s greatest film. If Ford had made noirs or musicals or horror films, one of those would be the defining American genre.

He made westerns.

7 Men From Now (1956)
D. Budd Boetticher

The first of the Ranown western cycle made by Boetticher, producer Harry Joe Brown, writer Burt Kennedy, and star Randolph Scott. They are all endlessly rewatchable. At least four, including this one, Comanche Station, The Tall T, and Ride Lonesome, are masterpieces. People debate endlessly about which is best but the four are on a level where rankings are silly. I’m choosing this one because it’s first, it has an astounding performance by Gail Russell which has grown with time (and which, according to the great critic Blake Lucas, who had a good bit to do with restoring 7 Men From Now, Boetticher’s favorite of his western leading ladies, all of whom were excellent), and it’s Lee Marvin’s definitive bad guy turn.

If there had been Oscar justice, Marvin would have won for his supporting role in the same year John Wayne won for his lead in The Searchers.

Oscar ain’t about justice.

3:10 to Yuma (1958)
D. Delmer Daves

A morality/mystery/miracle play all in one, which I wrote about at length here.

I said most of what I had to say there, so I won’t pontificate. This about sums it up:

However, he got there, Daves must have recognized that 3:10 to Yuma was a chance to merge the presumably old-fashioned prestige genre with the just-about-to-be-cool one (noir) he had helped pioneer in a way that was rare, if not unique.

I say “must have” because films that are better on the eighteenth viewing than on the first don’t happen by accident.

It’s a lot more than eighteen now. And it’s better still. Glenn Ford and Van Heflin, each at their very best, give one of the top ten “dual-performances” in any Hollywood film and I doubt I need to restrict that to Hollywood.

The film’s prestige has grown sufficiently to have a Criterion release in recent years. Any list of a hundred American films that fails to include it doesn’t have my serious attention.

Avoid the pointless remake.

Rio Bravo (1959)
D. Howard Hawks

The story has been told, again and again, that Howard Hawks and John Wayne were disgusted by films like High Noon and 3:10 to Yuma, where professional lawmen seek help from amateurs. It was the seeking that disturbed them, not whether Gary Cooper failed to find a Van Heflin in his particular town. It’s our good fortune that by the time they actually made  Rio Bravo, their “answer” film, all that preaching was conveniently tabled and they just went out and made one of the all-time pure entertainments (one where it should be said Wayne’s John T. Chance is helped by amateurs whether he likes it or not–it’s okay, apparently, as long as he didn’t ask for it!). Everyone’s great, with special kudos to Angie Dickinson, Walter Brennan in what might be his defining comic role, and Claude Akins, playing that rarest of men–one with no redeeming virtues whatsoever.

The story doesn’t bear too much scrutiny measured against history or common sense. Just as a for-instance, drunks don’t dry out after a two-year bender and start shooting like Annie Oakley the next day, as Dean Martin’s Dude does here. But it works within its own miracle play assumptions and achieves its own kind of perfection.

The reason I know is that except for The Searchers, I’ve watched it more than any film here.

The Magnificent Seven (1960)
D. John Sturges

John Sturges made better westerns (more on that later)..but this is by far his most iconic and well worthy of the canon. It’s a remake of Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai. You can fall short of that standard and still be damn good. The Magnificent Seven falls a bit short of that standard–and is still damn good. (Sturges said no less than Kurosawa told him so.) The story has professionals putting their lives on the line for Mexican villagers who are plagued by a band of outlaws. No doubt Howard Hawks and John Wayne approved!

Truth be told, the village scenes drag a bit and Horst Bucholz, a good actor, was a bit miscast, not so much because he doesn’t seem Mexican as because he seems urban and modern, which might just be a way of saying too European (a problem that did not extend to Yul Brynner, who according to Bucholz, was the only cast member to extend him either courtesy or respect).

But Sturges was an action master and there’s a raft of career-making performances by Steve McQueen, Charles Bronson, James Coburn, Robert Vaughn. That plus the great presences of Brynner and Eli Wallach as the outlaws’ leader make this an easy watch.

The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962)
D. John Ford

The direction of the country since its release–beginning with John Kennedy’s assassination a year later–has lifted this into competition with The Searchers as John Ford’s greatest, most prescient work. It would be great in any case. There’s definitive work from James Stewart, John Wayne, Lee Marvin, Woody Strode, Edmond O’Brien. Vera Miles gave one of the finest performances in American film. It’s also one of the great language films, the source of “Well, Pilgrim,” “Print the legend,” “You don’t own me” and much more.

And it contains the greatest line in American fiction, and the greatest line reading in American film, spoken by Miles’ Hallie Stoddard near the end:

Look at it. It was a wilderness. Now it’s a garden. Aren’t you proud?

Well, aren’t we?

Ride the High Country (1962)
D. Sam Peckinpah

Well, aren’t we?

There is almost no way to reconcile this film with Bloody Sam’s later, more famous exercises in style. It’s laconic, elegaic, sure-footed, unhurried, character-oriented, without a single false note. Here, he seems all but fated to pick up John Ford’s torch and carry it forward.

Fate, as it often does, had other plans. Peckinpah’s most famous film, The Wild Bunch, made a mere seven years later, is a lynchpin of another age, one that sought to extinguish not only all assurances but the traditions upon which they were based.

His later approach met with considerable short term success.

Whoever replaces us will get to decide what that’s worth. I don’t short The Wild Bunch‘s considerable virtues and I understand its reputation even if I don’t agree with it.

But for me, this film is worth far more.

Joel McCrea’s aging sheriff would have heard Hallie Stoddard’s question and answered: “Hell yes, I’m proud!”

But whoever was listening might have noted–might still note–that he was dying.

[NOTE: As I mentioned above, I’ll be doing another list of less well-known westerns from the same era. Give or take The Searchers, I think I can come up with a list of twenty that are just as good as what’s here, if not as iconic. Heck, I already have, and it wasn’t even hard.]

Til then….

WHY IT MATTERS…THE CASE OF TARANTINO V. FORD

Okay…Why I think it matters. Let’s stay classy here (also introducing a new category which I’m calling John Ford, John Ford and John Ford):

First, two images:

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From Pulp Fiction (1994) (Director, Quentin Tarantino)

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From Wagonmaster (1950) (Director, John Ford)

Obvious similarities, of course:

In each case a man is casually shooting another man, who is helpless, prone and unarmed.

Enough similarities that it might be a visual quote but I don’t think that’s provable or even germane. John Ford gets “visually quoted” so much it could be a visual quote that arrived in Quentin Tarantino’s brain seven times removed or just by osmosis.

And, in any case, the similarities don’t matter nearly as much as the differences.

In the first picture the man doing the shooting is loquacious to a fault, in the second the shooter hasn’t said a word in the entire film.

In the first picture we’re supposed to identify with the shooter because he’s cool, hip, post-modern and clearly a figment of the imagination–also because we have nothing invested in his victim. And just oh-by-the-way, we’re supposed to keep identifying with him, no matter how many other unarmed men he shoots…or how many moronic psychopaths he lets go free.

In the second picture, we’re supposed to identify with the victim, who is paying for the “crime” of having–on orders–delivered lashes to the bare back of the shooter’s brother (or cousin, it’s never made entirely clear, but in any case he’s family) for assaulting a Navajo woman. And we’re supposed to identify with him even though he’s a minor character who hasn’t been particularly likable and would have been unlikely to become any more so had he lived. Beyond that, we’re also supposed to identify with him because he’s a fictional character–one rooted in the possibilities of human history and behavior–as opposed to a philosophical construct (i.e., the hit man as the thing he never is in life–the coolest cat in the room).

That is, unlike the “character” (i.e., construct) we’re supposed to identify with in the first picture, the man on the ground in the second picture–who we identify with only in this very brief instant–is someone who might have actually existed in something like real time and space and someone we might have known–and quite probably disliked despite his having never done anyone any particular harm–somewhere along the way in the journey through our own  time and space.

There are plenty of other differences–like the scene from Wagonmaster taking place among realistically portrayed hard men (some good, some bad, all recognizable) who barely bat an eye at the sight of a cold-blooded murder while the scene from Pulp Fiction features one highly unrealistic hard man terrorizing boys made, miraculously, out of screaming cardboard–but those will do for now.

*  *  *  *

To be blunt, I’ve never cared much what artists are “really” like.

In the first place, outside of being on intimate terms with them personally, what they are really like is generally unknowable.

And the first place pales next to the significance of the second place, which is that the thing which is most unknowable about any artist is their precise relationship to their art–that is, the extent to which what they are “really like” has any bearing on what we find in their finished products.

Oh, we can know a few things in a vague and generalizing way, and it’s sometimes pleasing or even instructive to know those things. And, yes, the “real” person might even be showing through sometimes.

It’s just that we’re extremely unlikely to know precisely when or how and not knowing precisely means we really don’t know at all.

The only thing more unlikely–if we ever got that that far and still somehow found ourselves standing on solid ground–would be knowing what the when and the how “really” mean.

I mean, the real person we think we’ve just glimpsed could be fooling us. He is an artist after all.

So we might be able to judge whether something is bearing down on him. What effect war or displacement or drug addiction or a nasty divorce or a happy childhood or a too close association with the Angel of Death might have had. Something along those lines might even become obvious.

But that’s not the same as reading the soul–or the soul’s intent when it’s dipped in the process of creating artifice.

For that, I think it’s best to start with the art–if we’re going to start at all–and work backwards to the point that interests us.

Bearing in mind that this point will be different for each person who does make the effort. And that the relationship between the soul and the soul’s intent will still be best measured by what we know of the art, not what we know of the artist.

*  *  *  *

Which is to say I don’t care much about what Quentin Tarantino or John Ford are/were really like.

I know I wouldn’t care to have lunch with QT and I doubt I would have wanted to spend much time with Ford either. (I called Tarantino a liar the other day and that was only based on his tendency to lie, but, being fair I should have mentioned Ford was no better. There are distinctions I could make–the propriety of lying about oneself versus lying about someone else, for instance–but for the purposes of the argument at hand they don’t really matter. For the purposes of this argument, call them two SOB’s of decidedly different stripes…and then call them, for the moment, equal.)

Either way, I do not pine for their company.

I do get suspicious, though, whenever an artist, posing as critic, goes after another artist’s character when it would presumably be at least as easy to go after their art.

In such cases, I tend to suspect–without knowing of course (I’m not that much of a hypocrite!)–that the attacker might be covering for something. It doesn’t matter what that something is. What matters is that the attacker has called both his own trustworthiness and the value of his motives into question.

Maybe in this case it doesn’t really matter. Maybe Ford is secure enough in the pantheon that what Quentin Tarantino has to say about him makes no difference.

Maybe we don’t need to do any more than what a number of bloggers and their commenters have done in spades on other sites–that is, throwing up some variation of the “Quentin Tarantino is a pimple on Ford’s ass!” defense.

Maybe that’s all that’s required.

I think we should be careful, though.

It’s not like we haven’t seen this kind of thing engaged in before.

*  *  *  *

The most famous case of one important American artist attacking another is almost certainly Mark Twain’s 1895 essay “Fenimore Cooper’s Literary Offenses,” which Twain wrote as a combination literary critique and character assassination.

The essay had no more justification than Tarantino’s recent attacks on Ford, and was just about as ham-handed.

And–in keeping with the main theme here–who knows what Twain’s real motivations were? We can speculate that he was writing out of jealousy of Cooper’s fame or reputation. That he really did hate Cooper’s books to such a degree that he lost his own hold on rationality. (Lost it entirely, incidentally, as his opinions were his opinions, but not a single one of his numerous factual assertions about Cooper’s “offenses” was true). That his own considerable debt to Cooper was stuck in his subconscious, lying uneasy in the very place that was bound to raise the most terrible bile, unreleasable by any means but public vitriol.

Or that he was just having a bad day.

It could have been any or all of these things or something else entirely.

But the “why” of it is neither here nor there.

What should trouble us about Twain’s essay is not its fundamental silliness or dishonesty (or his similar, but less famous, opinions regarding Jane Austen, George Eliot, Henry James or pretty much anyone whose reputation threatened to eclipse his own), or the emotions that may have driven him to write it.

No, what’s troubling about the essay is its effect.

I wouldn’t personally rate Cooper as highly as Ford but that his reputation has suffered severely–and unfairly–at the hands of a fellow artist’s petty assault, delivered long after he himself was beyond offering up a defense, is almost undeniable.

*  *  *  *

How undeniable?

Well, we can study a few bits of anecdotal evidence (the only kind that’s ever really available in these rather abstract debates, so I’m afraid it will have to do).

TAKE 1935.

That’s the year (forty years after Twain’s essay) when Ernest Hemingway published Green Hills of Africa, his account of a safari he and his wife took, where he somehow found the occasion to include this famous-ever-after aside:

“All modern American literature comes from one book by Mark Twain called Huckleberry Finn. If you read it you must stop where the Nigger Jim is stolen from the boys. That is the real end. The rest is just cheating. But it’s the best book we’ve had. All American writing comes from that. There was nothing before. There has been nothing as good since.”

Notice: Up Mark Twain

Notice: Down anything that preceded him (Cooper included)…or anything that happened along between him and, well, Hemingway.

Hold that thought….

Then…TAKE 1981:

I was taking an English class at Florida State titled something like “Popular Literature in American History.” The teacher was excellent at his profession and, so far as I know, a perfectly decent human being. The gist of the class was to study books which had been enormously popular in their own time, but which had no particular lasting literary merit. At one point during the course, he happened to mention how fortunate we were that he had decided to take a break from Cooper’s The Last of the Mohicans that semester. (At which point the brown nosers which no English class can do without and who always–always!–pose as contrarians, spoke up long and loud. As such types are ever mindful of the value of getting on the teacher’s good side in any class where the memorization of mere facts is of next to no value, you can imagine the bashing old Fenimore received from their tender mercies. Twain’s essay, of course, had a prominent place among the name-dropping portion of the show–and was accepted as representing an unassailable truth somewhere along the order of the higher laws of mathematics.)

My response to this was rather strange.

I had been raised to the notion (mostly passed along by my father) that Cooper was a great, important writer, and I had read The Pathfinder in high school (on my own–it wasn’t the sort of thing that got assigned in the sort of high school I attended, which ran more to field trip movie versions of Shakespeare and dialogue-only abridgments of Dickens for “serious” literature assignments) and very much liked it.

I’m not sure I had ever actually heard Cooper’s name in any sort of English lit context since then.

But I knew how to act and what I should believe. I knew I wouldn’t have spoken up in his defense, even if I had been used to speaking up at all (which I wasn’t).

The feeling against him was strong enough and pervasive enough that I had grokked his fundamental uncoolness–his absence of pure “literary” value and, thus, any value at all–with no word having need been spoken.

So it was in English class in 1981.

Now…TAKE ANY NUMBER OF RECENT YEARS:

…Where I’ve come across several cases, right across the political spectrum, suggesting all you ever need to know about Cooper in general, and the Leatherstocking Tales in particular, can be found in….you guessed it, an essay by Mark Twain called “Fenimore Cooper’s Literary Offenses.”

Then…TAKE 2012 (oh God, please do take it):

The Library of Congress publishes a list of 88 “Books that Shaped America.”

The fact that the list came out to “88”–rather than some round figure–strongly suggests that those responsible for its compilation meant to arrive at an exact idea of everything which could not be reasonably excluded (a risk if the round figure were too small–say fifty), but also without padding (a risk if the round figure were too large–say a hundred).

Cooper did not place a book on the list, leading to two important and obvious questions:

Is he someone who could be reasonably excluded from such a list?

If not, why was he?

The answer to the first one is simple.

No, he’s not.

Cooper wasn’t just the first really important American novelist–a distinction that should have earned him a place on any such list all by itself. He’s also a genuine titan. A flawed titan to be sure…but, when it comes to American literature, only Henry James even comes close to being any other kind.

Now James is not on the list either, but that actually makes some sense. He spent most of his adult life in England and most of his personal and professional time becoming the epitome of that old saw “more English than the English.” And even if he had not, you could make a fair claim–without resorting to reverse snobbery–that he did not write in such a way that his books, by the sheer inimitability of their brilliance, ever had much chance of “shaping” America.

But Cooper is a very different thing. The Library of Congress itself made a point of noting that the list was not based on literary merit (easy to see when you peruse the list itself) but was meant to be just what it said.

Namely, books that shaped us.

To be honest, when I heard the list had been published but hadn’t yet seen it, I assumed Cooper was the only writer (or at least the only fiction writer) who was guaranteed a spot!

Call me crazy, But I figured if we were going to have an official list from the national library celebrating not the “greatest” books but the most influential–the ones that helped make us who we are–then the man who, in the space of about five years in the early 1820’s, invented the spy novel, the sea novel, and the western (and not the “American” versions, which he eventually did for the novel of manners and the murder mystery, but the things themselves) might just have a place.

Especially if some number of his novels did indeed have substantial literary merit.

More especially if his shadow was hanging over nearly every novel that did make the list and hanging with particular heaviness on the most highly regarded of the “literary” entries.

Sometimes this shadow is obvious.

Herman Melville (on the list with Moby Dick) knew where the sea novel came from even if the Library of Congress doesn’t. We don’t have to guess, because he told us so and this is one case where we can probably take an artist at his word.

Twain himself is on the list with a novel we didn’t really need Leslie Fiedler–or even D.H. Lawrence–to tell us had taken its gestalt straight out of Cooper. (Though we evidently did need Ernest Hemingway to tell us it was the source of all modern literary good.)

Sometimes the shadow is not so obvious.

But that doesn’t mean it is any less present, or any less real.

Hemingway himself–the exalter of Twain–is on the list with For Whom the Bell Tolls,  his own last, mighty swing at greatness. The novel, that is, where he set out after Cooper (not Twain) and burned himself to figurative ashes trying to do once what Cooper had done repeatedly, all while getting no closer than shouting range–though he did get closer than Twain, who had set out after Cooper a time or two himself.

Hemingway’s great contemporaries are there, too.

There’s Faulkner with The Sound and the Fury (that’s the one where he copped Cooper’s ending from The Deerslayer for his revised edition).

There’s Fitzgerald, inevitably, with The Great Gatsby, which ends with what may be the most famous passage in American literature. You know, the one where his narrator imagines the Dutch sailors reaching the shores of Cooper’s wilderness (though Cooper was never glassy-eyed enough to pretend this arrival was “the last time man came face to face with something commensurate to his capacity for wonder.” For that level of delusion, you needed a modernist).

I could keep going. What’s On the Road, but Cooper’s frontier refracted? What’s Red Harvest but Cooper’s spiritual wilderness made modern and urban? What’s The Grapes of Wrath but Cooper’s abiding concerns about the rape of the land turned scatological?

Okay, all of those books are about other things, too. But they–along with most of the others acknowledged by the L of C–each have Cooper’s DNA deeply embedded.

And that’s not even getting into Cooper’s wider influence, nowhere felt more deeply than the visual narrative arts–you know, film, television, whatever is coming next. (It’s not like John Ford or Quentin Tarantino themselves are untouched…and, given how much he likes to pair a white man with a dark-skinned blood brother, I’d say Tarantino more than Ford.)

So if Cooper’s all that…Well, why isn’t he on the list?

And why isn’t he on any number of other similar lists I’ve seen in recent years?

Is it a question of “literary merit?”

Well, sticking to this particular list, let’s just say that Zane Grey is on it. Not to mention Edgar Rice Burroughs.

I happen to love Riders of the Purple Sage and Tarzan of the Apes for what they are.

But come on.

Is it a question of being too early–of being on the other side of some invisible wall built by time and progress?

Then how to account for Washington Irving? Not to mention Benjamin Franklin?

So it must be some version of political correctness then.

Right?

Isn’t that the last, worst explanation for every screwball thrown in screwball land, yea, verily these many years?

Well, that could be it.

But then how to explain the presence of Gone With the Wind (you know, the one where headstrong Judith and spiritually pure Hetty from The Deerslayer are re-imagined as Scarlett and Melanie–even down to their abiding fates as, respectively, jilted lover and corpse)?

Has all suddenly been forgiven?

Surely not.

So you can see where we might be running out of options here.

How there might only be one explanation left.

And how that explanation might well be summed up in the headline, “Mark Twain Once Wrote an Essay Called ‘Fenimore Cooper’s Literary Offenses.’..and the World Listened.”

Yeah. That could be it.

Unprovable again. But in this case, it almost has to be the truth. Maybe Sherlock Holmes could think of some other explanation that accounts for all the available facts, but I sure can’t.

So now we go back to those two images at the top there (come on now, admit it…you thought I forgot!)

And we ask ourselves…does it really matter what Quentin Tarantino says about John Ford?

Let me first say what I think doesn’t matter.

It doesn’t matter–in the least–why QT said what he said.

It doesn’t matter if the real reason is the son’s need to kill the father, or the white boy’s need to bond with the Other, or the simple man’s confusion when confronted with complexity and ambivalence, or the amoral artist’s discomfort with the moral (as opposed to moralistic) one, or the straight-line jealousy of a deeply ambitious filmmaker who, for all his ducking and hiding and peeping out from behind his genre obsessions, desperately wants to be thought of as great, as auteurist even (and maybe has got far enough down his own road to glimpse just how hard it would be to ever begin that other journey, let alone finish it) lashing out at someone who made masterpieces the way most of us pour milk on cereal, routinely, calmly, not caring much if a little splashes over the side.

That’s what I think doesn’t matter. The undiscernible “why” of it.

What does matter–what matters a lot–is what we make of it.

If Ford is greater than Cooper (and he is), and Tarantino is nowhere near being Mark Twain (and he isn’t), that’s all the more reason to push back.

Because what matters–okay, staying classy here–what I think matters, is doing what we can to prevent a scenario whereby some future version of Hemingway writes something along the lines of, “All modern cinema comes from a single film by Quentin Tarantino called Pulp Fiction,” and has his twaddle taken seriously.

Lest we think this is far-fetched, we should probably note that Tarantino (and what he represents) are taken at least as seriously today as Twain (and what he represented) was in 1895. And while the present is always impressed with itself, it may never have been so impressed as it is today, in part because the past has never been caught receding quite so rapidly.

So history is moving Tarantino’s way–the way of homage over creation, of sensation over memory, of the feel-good cult of the individual over the prickly annoyances that attend the preservation of community–and will likely accelerate.

Throw in that Ford, even more than Cooper, was/is cantankerous in both his person and his art–and that ever-impressed-with-itself-modernity is ready to accept virtually anything in an artist except his being a threat to easy assumptions about its own validity–and I don’t think a version of Hemingway-exalting-Twain-all-out-of-proportion-to-reality popping up forty years or forty days from now is even a little far-fetched.

All that’s before we even get to the final problem.

Cooper and Twain (and Hemingway for that matter…though not so much my eighties-era English teacher or the present representatives of the Library of Congress) were part of the same universe. It was/is possible to love all three of those writers (as I do) without practicing some kind of cognitive dissonance.

The split between Ford and Tarantino (and what they each represent) is much deeper. That split is a new kind of challenge. The challenge of choosing.

Truly choosing.

When it comes to Tarantino v. Ford, there really is a good deal more at stake because it’s possible to care about one, the other, or neither…But I’ll submit (while staying as classy as I can) that it is not possible to truly care about both–at least not without.seriously misunderstanding (and thus distorting beyond any comprehension that is rooted in their “finished product”) one or the other.

And when, in what I suspect is a rather near future, it really does come time to choose, my ever-classy self thinks we should be very, very careful which fork in the road we decide to follow.

UPDATE: I meant to highlight this link somewhere above but forgot. It’s academic and therefore may not be everyone’s cup of tea, but it should probably be required reading next to the Twain essay in question.