Bush-Era Frontier Epics Express Timely Doubts About American Imperialism


With a gunslinging arbiter of frontier justice in the White House, it’s no wonder that the Bush II years have proved a fruitful era at the movies for the combat western. On April 9, the former Texas governor might be excited to learn, theaters nationwide will welcome The Alamo, an epic retelling of the celebrated 1836 siege that, as the definitive rallying point in the war for Texas independence, became the eternal locus of state pride. Arriving 44 years after John Wayne’s flag-waving film of the same name, The Alamo—directed by John Lee Hancock, with Billy Bob Thornton filling Wayne’s boots as Davy Crockett—is the latest in a recent crop of films and TV series that fit under the big-tent western genre, including The Last Samurai, Cold Mountain, The Missing, Open Range, Hidalgo, and HBO’s Deadwood.

“Even more than Barry Goldwater,” historian Michael Coyne writes in The Crowded Prairie, “[John] Wayne was a monument of Manichean certitude in an age of ambiguity.” In the midst of the most Manichean presidential administration in living memory, and nearly a year after the so-called “Mission Accomplished” in Iraq, the 21st-century western can perform a timely inversion of the Wayne paradigm by expressing monumental uncertainty about American racial, colonial, and military history—just as the allegorical “Vietnam westerns” of the ’70s did. Notably, The Last Samurai and The Missing both exhibit severe queasiness about the competence and good intentions of an imperialist military, while Cold Mountain is an overtly anti-war epic in which the hero is an army deserter and the greatest threat to civilian well-being comes from the Home Guard.

Any implicit critique of our resident cowboy’s shoot-first-don’t-bother-with-questions-later approach to foreign policy sharply contrasts with the tone of 2001-02, when Hollywood studios were hurrying a spate of red-blooded combat films like Black Hawk Down and We Were Soldiers into theaters and Michael Eisner was giving the Alamo script full-steam ahead. The Disney boss stated that a new Alamo could “capture the post-September 11 surge in patriotism.”

Lone Star heroes won’t be the only determined partisans given consideration in Hancock’s Alamo, since the film reportedly acknowledges the checkered pasts of its central heroic trio—Crockett, William Barret Travis, and Jim Bowie—and makes time for the perspectives of Mexican and Cherokee conscripts as well as the iron-fisted generalissimo himself, Santa Anna. According to Internet movie-rep broker Harry Knowles, test audiences expressed disappointment with the multi-thread approach, hurling the deadly epithet “politically correct” at The Alamo, whose cushy Christmas Day opening date was subsequently pushed back.

Similar accusations have flown at recent oaters, laden as they are with conflicted antiheroes and polyethnic sensitivities. Just as advance viewers of The Alamo concluded that the story had fallen captive to special interests, captivity tales The Last Samurai and The Missing evince so much empathy and esteem for the ostensible enemy that their lead males “go native.” Samurai features Tom Cruise as Nathan Algren, an embittered, alcoholic Civil War vet and former cavalryman under Custer who embraces Bushido while in Japanese custody. The Missing, starring Tommy Lee Jones as an Apache convert who helps recover his granddaughter from an interracial kidnap ring, carefully divides its whites and Indians into roughly equal numbers of good guys and bad guys. Wayne once worried aloud that his fellow Americans might be “going soft, taking freedom for granted.” Would the Duke now think the same of the genre that made him a star?

In The Last Samurai, Algren receives word of what would become America’s other martyrdom legend: 211 members of Custer’s Seventh Cavalry killed by some 2,000 Indians at the Battle of Little Bighorn in 1876. Like the Alamo fight, this debacle turned into an unlikely rallying point for military pride. In the spring of 1942, in a measure intended to boost morale, the War Department printed thousands of copies of the famous Anheuser-Busch lithograph Custer’s Last Fight for worldwide distribution to army posts; that same year marked Raoul Walsh’s They Died With Their Boots On, starring the debonair swashbuckler Errol Flynn as Custer.

The cavalry doesn’t make out so well in recent westerns. In The Missing, set in 1885, Apache former army guides and white deserters band together to abduct girls for sale into sex slavery in Mexico—a lucrative trade, but also a form of revenge, since the Fourth Cavalry has recently made the mistake of hanging the Apache chief. The mounted militia in The Missing is worse than useless: riding north when the kidnappers are headed south, lazy, trigger-happy, led by Val Kilmer. Viewers’ hearts are meant to sink when they hear, “The army is handling the situation.” In The Last Samurai, dissolute boozer Algren is sent to Japan to help modernize their army, thereby conveniently gifting America with a fresh arms market; Algren seems broken by his time in the cavalry, haunted by visions of an Indian village massacre he protested but couldn’t prevent. Could Davy Crockett relate? In 1813, as a Tennessee volunteer mounted rifleman, Crockett participated in a daybreak raid on a sleeping Creek village that left 186 Indians dead—virtually the same number of defenders who died at the Alamo.

Wayne’s Alamo hardly grappled with the moral conflicts of the revisionist western, but the movie sure didn’t have its facts straight. The producer-director-star ageographically set the action on the banks of the Rio Grande, pointlessly shuffled crucial dates, and depicted the predawn final assault in broad daylight. Admittedly, some of the confusion might have been ideologically purposeful: In 1996, South Carolina senator Strom Thurmond hailed Travis as the man who defended the Alamo “with 3,000 Russians threatening to attack.” Wayne would have been tickled, since he envisioned his film as a star-spangled showcase that could “sell America to countries threatened with Communist domination.”

One of the stickiest points of Alamo studies lies in the exact circumstances of the death of the man-myth Crockett, cracker-barrel philosopher and U.S. congressman. Wayne took florid heroic license, of course, but Hancock reportedly depicts the king of the wild frontier surrendering to Mexican forces and then being executed. “I don’t like that word ‘surrender,’ ” intoned Kathleen Milam Carter of the Daughters of the Republic of Texas, the group that oversees the Alamo site. In other words, don’t mess with Texas lore.

The devotee needs to be able to say of her hero, “He died a good death”—the appraisal of Custer delivered in The Last Samurai by the warrior lord Katsumoto (Ken Watanabe). The samurai later demonstrates his respect for the hapless colonel when he leads a suicidal attack against a lineup of new howitzers. Is it in the nature of brave, honorable warriors to die horribly outnumbered, as at Little Bighorn or the Alamo? (And can such martyrdoms double as advertisements for the Defense Department’s Econo-Save approach to troop deployment?) Algren tries to burst the bubble: “[Custer] was a murderer who fell in love with his own legend,” he says. The western always prints the legend of an era long past, but lately they’re as messy, murky, and disillusioned as the times we’re living in.