I sometimes wonder what American cinema would have been like if the film industry had stayed in New York City. Would John Ford, the greatest American director, have still made westerns? Or would he have made films about Irish immigrants struggling to make a living in South Boston and Hell’s Kitchen? Perhaps there would have been no American cinema worth discussing, and the French and Italians would have ruled the big screen with little or no competition from the United States.
When John Ford moved to California in 1914 from Cape Elizabeth, Maine at the age of 20, the old west had only recently been “civilized.” Los Angeles in the 1910s and 1920s was almost a frontier town. Hollywood, a diverse community made up of East European Jewish and Irish Catholic immigrants, native born WASPS, Mexicans, and Italians was still trying to come to terms with recent American history, to confront what had happened between the end of the United States Civil War and the beginning of World War I. There was evil, the genocide of the Plains Indians and the destruction of the buffalo, the construction of what would eventually become a gigantic megalopolis of in the middle of a desert built on stolen land over the graves of its rightful owners. There was also good. Rotten old Europe, which lingered on in New York and Boston, become the egalitarian democracy of the American frontier, the unforgiving landscape of the Southwest forcing American individualists to pull together or die.
Wagon Train, released a few years after the end of the Second World War, is John Ford boiled down to its essentials. There are no big stars, no Henry Fonda or John Wayne, just up and coming young actors like Ben Johnson and long-time Ford stock players like Ward Bond. A group of Mormons – Mormons reimagined as pacifists and egalitarians – led by “Elder Wiggs” want to build a new city along the San Juan River in the Four Corners area of Utah. At the same time, the Clegg family, a sociopathic gang of outlaws led by their patriarch Shiloh Clegg, is on the run from the law after having murdered a shopkeeper in cold blood. As the Mormon wagon train makes it way through the untamed wilderness, Ford asks a question. What does a community of good guys without guns do when they’re taken hostage by a group of bad guys with guns?
In the end, they hire a couple of good guys with guns, two young horse traders played by Ben Johnson and Harry Carey Jr. who guide them through the mountains, and very reluctantly shoot it out with the Clegg family. It’s part cop out, but part genuinely confrontation with history. Pacifists rarely make it on their own. Along the way, however, Ford dramatizes the creation of a genuinely democratic community. Elder Wiggs, a religious but also a very tolerant man, takes on a group of travelling players, a “medicine show” made up of A. Locksley Hall, a lovable scam artist played by Alan Mowbray, an older women who pretends to be his wife, and a “Denver,” a former prostitute played by Joanne Dru. John Ford had no problem with sex worker. Being a prostitute, he seems to think, was something you did before you settled down and got married. Elder Wiggs is a religious man, but not a sanctimonious hypocrite. “Don’t just stand there,” he barks at Travis, the horse trader and wagon master played by Ben Johnson, when he realizes that Denver is thirsty, “get the lady some water.”
Wagon Master also has a remarkably progressive attitude towards Native Americans. When Travis sees a group of Navajo, he takes off like a shot – Johnson was a former stunt rider and it hows – but the Indians turn out to friendly towards Mormons, who they consider their “brothers,” inviting them to a gathering and a dance. The real menace is from the Clegg family, especially Reese Clegg, a violent, and rather dim young man played by Fred Libby, who tries to rape an Indian woman played by the Mexican America actress Movita Castaneda. Elder Wiggs is faced with a decision. Do they turn Reese Clegg over to the Indians, who, unlike the Mormons are heavily armed and more than willing to administer the death penalty against one of the Clegg family? Wiggs decides on a compromise. He will have one of his men tie Reese Clegg to a wagon wheel and flog him, a sentence that Ford very subtly suggests is far too lenient for an attempted rape. It also impinges on Navajo jurisdiction. The Cleggs remain a menace up until the very last few minutes of the film. They threaten to destroy the colony’s seed corn, take their food and water, and finally murder one of the Mormons before Travis, who’s had enough, grabs a pistol and shoots them all dead.
“I thought you never drew on men,” Wiggs says.
“I don’t,” Travis answers as he throws the gun away in disgust, “only on snakes.”
If Wagon Master is the essential John Ford, The Good, The Bad and the Ugly by Italian director Sergio Leone is John Ford’s negation. Leone has little or no patience for the elaborate mythology Hollywood has constructed around the settling of the old west. White men in North America, he argues, are nothing but scorpions in a bottle, thieves who can’t even cooperate long enough to get away with what they steal. It’s a landscape of genocide and relentless violence, nothing more.
It’s also hilarious.
Blondie, played by the young Clinton Eastwood, and Tuco, a wanted criminal with a price on his head played by Eli Wallach, have an arrangement. Blondie, a crack shot, captures Tuco and hands him over to the authorities. He waits around for the hanging. Inevitably the sheriff puts a rope around Tuco’s neck and sits him down on a horse. Just before the executioner smacks the horse on the ass – no sheriff in Leone’s old west has the common sense to realize that he should probably use a firing squad or at least conduct the hanging indoors — Blondie shoots the rope in half. Tuco rides off. They meet later and split the money. The problem is they never seem to figure out a way to split the money, not necessarily because either man is greedy, but simply because its not in their nature to cooperate. The world of The Good, the Bad and the Ugly is the endgame of capitalism. It’s a Hobbesian world where everybody fights everybody, all the time, over anything and everything.
The final scene, where Tuco, Blondie, and “Angel Eyes,” a terrifying bounty hunter played by New Jersey native Lee Van Cleef, have a three way shootout over a fortune in gold they could easily split three ways, might just be the best dramatization of imperialist diplomacy ever filmed. Three great powers stand in the graveyard of the new world, facing each other down on a pile of bones that has been getting bigger and bigger ever since Hernan Cortez and his conquistadors invaded Mexico. The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly, which was filmed in Spain — say what you want about Spanish fascism, Francisco Franco was great for American cinema – features plenty of dirty, mangy, downtrodden Spaniards as extras, men who probably don’t look much different from the men Cortez recruited all the way back in 1518 to help him rape the Aztecs. The scene goes on for over five minutes, and on, and on, three devils, each waiting for the other two to make the first move, the fires of hell rising in their eyes as the tension building to an almost unbearable crescendo until Blondie, the Anglo Saxon, Aryan superman with no name, the dead-eyed killer of few words, finally shoots the dark, Satanic Angel Eyes from the hip as the clownish, garrulous Tuco pulls the trigger again and again until he realizes his business partner unloaded his gun while he slept. It should be a happy ending. Tuco and Blondie are rich beyond their wildest dreams, but no, it’s not in their nature to enjoy their good fortune. As The Good, the Bad and the Ugly closes, Sergio Leone sums up what capitalism is all about, telling us in only one sentence he tells us what it took Karl Marx three long volumes to explain, and what it took John Ford a long and distinguished career in film to deny.
“You see, in this world there’s two kinds of people, my friend,” Blondie says as he tosses Tuco a shovel, “those with loaded guns, and those who dig. You dig.”