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Review: Douglas Brode’s Dream West: Politics and Religion in Cowboy Movies

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Review: Douglas Brode’s Dream West: Politics and Religion in Cowboy Movies

Douglas Brode’s newest book, Dream West: Politics and Religion in Cowboy Movies, isn’t just an impressive panoply of discussions across a breadth of westerns from the entirety of the genre’s cinematic existence, but also a fascinating political inquiry, meant to question precisely “the belief that bygone Western texts offer a ’red-state’ vision.” Unlike many an academic survey monograph that gets bogged down by reveling in hundreds of film titles without providing any substantive examinations to excuse the unchecked cinephilia, Brode deftly allows his text to double as both an introduction to the genre and a rigorous explanation for numerous westerns as progressive or, at least, ambivalent texts. He specifically questions why Tea Party members seek “the charming fabrications of the 20th century in which artists and entertainers of varied creative gifts rewrote the American experience from the nineteenth century in romanticized terms” and why they believe this “ought to be the source of our daily political and religious lifestyles in the twenty-first.” Viewed in tandem with Russell Meeuf’s recent John Wayne’s World, these texts provide the means to begin understanding the classical Hollywood western less as a conservative genre and more as one actively seeking to understand and define contemporary American life.

Unlike Meeuf, Brode begins his study in the twenty-first century, with Hillary Clinton’s 2008 proclamation that “the era of cowboy politics is over!” which leads into Brode’s trepidation at such a claim for the ascendance of liberal social mores, since “the essence of cowboy politics has less to do with geography and more to do with attitudes on small rather than large government, local rather than central problem solving, the issue of lower taxation, and an almost spiritual belief in the benefits of free-market capitalism.” What’s peculiar here is that Clinton has been misquoted, as her actual proclamation was “the era of cowboy diplomacy is over!” This seems less an isolated mess-up than a strategic move on Brode’s part, as he claims “cowboy politics” is a term that’s been used for roughly the last 60 years, though he provides no evidence for its cultural legitimacy and usage. Such a flagrant disregard for accuracy is highly problematic, and since Clinton didn’t actually say this, the integrity of the entire book must be called into question. Fortunately for Brode, the bulk of his subsequent analysis is lucid and historically accurate, even provocative.

Brode structures the book into two parts, one dealing with politics, the other religion, with each section addressing smaller issues within brief, five-to-six-page chapters. Outwardly, the brevity suggests an introductory book meant to be conducive in an undergraduate classroom setting. Nevertheless, once one begins parsing through each chapter, unusual topics are given intensive attention; gun control, environmentalism, radical politics are all considered within the classical western, and Brode calls upon lesser-known genre entries such as Wichita, where Joel McCrea’s Wyatt ends the film by saying, “If men don’t have guns, they can’t shoot each other.” Clearly, this stands in contrast to the NRA’s slogan that “Guns don’t kill people; people kill people,” which speaks to Brode’s overarching project to seek examples from individual films as refutation of a comprehensive ethos produced by Hollywood westerns, particularly in the 1940s and ’50s. These insights appeal to what Fredric Jameson has called “selective tradition,” but from Brode’s examination of westerns within the context of contemporary political debates, it becomes clear that selective tradition can also operate from within the dominant tradition itself, and not simply oppositional traditions.

Thus, a film such as Wichita is excluded from cultural memory as a means to avoid ideological cognitive dissonance, so that “cowboy politics” can remain unfettered as a propagation of a very specific set of beliefs that, in actuality, don’t exist or emanate from the original source. These heavily example-based discussions prove revelatory not just with regard to Brode’s contentions, but also the academic monograph, which generally approaches its given topic over the course of five or six lengthy chapters. Brode’s briefs read like a sustained, cumulative discussion rather than short bursts of information. By the time he reaches the chapter entitled “The World According to John Wayne,” in which Wayne is convincingly labeled a “progressive traditionalist,” Brode has so emphatically refuted common notions of “cowboy politics,” that the quality and insight of the following section on religion seemingly has nowhere to go but down.

Yet, Brode brings a similar degree of rigor to quickly but closely discussing religiosity within many westerns as containing “shades of gray” with regard to religious belief as an operative component in nation-formation. Particularly in the films of John Ford, Brode coveys these developments exquisitely by contrasting My Darling Clementine and The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, demonstrating the latter film as a “corrective to the mythology present in his earlier Westerns.” Nevertheless, even the function of the church in May Darling Clementine is less a centripetal than centrifugal force, a “spiritual center” as a reminder for “the process by which the West was won,” but not its guiding principle. Brode parses through explicit biblical references and allusions throughout many westerns with the acute eye of a city-planner, mapping trajectories and making connections between numerous films with a fluidity that can, at times, become overwhelming in both the films being referenced and the complexity (or lack thereof, in some cases) with which each film addresses its themes.

Finally, Brode concludes with a chapter-long discussion of No Country for Old Men as the truest sort of revisionist western imaginable, since it not only takes revisionist westerns to task, but seeks to crumble the false mythology colloquially defined as “cowboy politics.” For Brode, if the revisionist westerns of the 1960s and ’70s sought to refute the glamour and romanticism of classical Hollywood westerns, then No Country for Old Men goes even further, in that it “initiates a new form of cowboy film in which the Dream West is not only reconsidered but, along with any still-extant genre elements, more or less demolished.” That demolition comes via the diegesis, where Ed Tom’s (Tommy Lee Jones) notions of a “different” (read: traditional) West are reliant on his “having seen it in the movies.” As such, the “codes and clichés” of classical westerns exists only in the “memory of these old movies.” As Ed Tom explains his dream at the end of the film, so, too, is he explaining “our shared dream as encountered in Hollywood movies.” Like Ford with The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, there’s an admission that, while Ed Tom prefers the old myths, they never actually existed. He concludes the explanation of his dream by saying “I woke up.” With Dream West, Brode’s thorough explanations ensure that anyone willing to read his argument will do the same.

Douglas Brode’s Dream West: Politics and Religion in Cowboy Movies is available now from University of Texas Press; to purchase it, click here.