Riding Off into the Sunset

[This is an atypically long post for the Virtual Stoa, for which, apologies in advance. You may want to stop reading now, and go and have a drink, or something.]

One of the many valuable things I learned from Bonnie Honig when I was a graduate student was that the reasons why Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s lawgiver must leave the city he helps to found in Book Two Chapter Seven of the Social Contract are the same as the reasons why the cowboy rides off into the sunset at the end of a Western.

Roughly speaking, the key claim is that, having solved the most pressing problem of a newly-established, somewhat precarious frontier community — bandits, Indians, the imminent return of Frank Miller, corruption, the problems that emerge when the farmer and the cowman aren’t friends (whoops: wrong genre), whatever: it varies from flick to flick — it’s important for the hero to Go Away if that community is ever going to be genuinely self-sufficient and able to solve its own problems with its own resources, rather than perpetually remaining dependent on (as Honig puts it) the”sheer power” of the hero’s “exemplary if flawed personality, innate sense of justice, and … mighty prowess with firearms” (see her excellent Democracy and the Foreigner, p.22 and, for the full argument, pp.18-25). (And my apologies for the overlong sentence there).

Since a typical UK undergraduate finds making sense of Rousseau’s political thought to be a slightly harder enterprise than enjoying classic Western films, it is a very useful analogy on which to draw when trying to teach eighteenth-century political philosophy. And the conversations to which it gives rise always remind me that I spend too much time reading (boring) academic literature, and not enough time watching (fun) Westerns.

The figure of the foreign founder — the stranger who comes in from outside, shakes things up quite a lot, mostly for the better, and then departs — is at the centre of that particular part of Honig’s argument. And in the context of the Western, the most interesting foreigner of all is the great Italian director Sergio Leone, who did not (of course) found the genre, but whose four Westerns (plus, I suppose, the superb Duck, You Sucker / A Fistful of Dynamite / Once Upon a Time in the Revolution [delete according to taste], which is set during the Mexican revolution but is still, basically, a spaghetti Western) exploited all of its conventions, turned them inside out and left the story of the American West just as epic as it had been before, but altogether more cynical, more violent (yes: more violent) and not a little bleak. (To continue the political-theoretical analogies, think of what Roman political thought looks like once Augustine of Hippo has gone to work on it in City of God: Augustine lacks Leone’s subversive piety towards his material, but the effects are much the same).

All of which is just a long and pretentious build-up to saying that I enjoyed watching Leone’s 1968 film Once Upon A Time in the West last night on BBC2 — the first time I’d seen the film in a decade — very much indeed. Oh yes, and that reports of the death of Charles Bronson, who played Harmonica in the film, were published this morning (a not-so-different kind of riding off into the sunset, after all).

And, as we might expect, then, the closing scene of Once Upon a Time in the West both repeats and avoids the classic conventions. Insofar as there is a hero — Charles Bronson / Harmonica wears lighter coloured clothes than the other leads, is not a crook, survives to the final scene, and is motivated by the non-mercenary consideration of blood revenge — he does ride away alone at the end of the film. But this departure is simply for the sake of narrative form. Were Harmonica to stay in the new town being built up around the railroad, it’s not clear that he’d destabilise it at all; there just wouldn’t be anything for him to do — though this may be a reflection of the wider fact that, having shot Henry Fonda’s Frank dead in the extraordinary gunfight at the end of the film, he doesn’t really have anything left to do with himself anyway or anywhere. But the genre still demands that he rides off stage right (the trains, which will replace his kind, enter from the left), and so that’s what he does.

Bronson faithfully follows the conventions of his genre in form, but in substance his exit more closely maps onto the departure – literally into the shadows – of that other hero of 1960s epic Italian cinema, the Prince of Salina (Burt Lancaster) in Visconti’s Gattopardo (see last week’s post below, and which also stars Claudia Cardinale). For by the end of their respective films both the Prince and Harmonica are anachronistic figures whose work is done, individual patriarchs who represent an older order (the Sicilian aristocracy, the Western gunfighters), and who, through the drama of the film, have successfully exploited the turbulent present to create a possible and – crucially – materially prosperous future not for themselves but for the representatives of a younger generation: Jill (Once Upon a Time…) and Tancredi (Gattopardo).

Significantly, however, neither the Prince nor Harmonica are the founder-figures in these films. There are Rousseauesque legislator figures in both movies, who, following in the footsteps of the Ur-founder Moses, never come to take possession of the land of milk and honey which they call into being. But despite this formal similarity, however, the founders which Visconti and Leone show us (or not, as the case may be) are quite different figures. In Gattopardo, on the one hand, the heroic founder figure is Giuseppe Garibaldi himself (as featured in Wind in the Willows, no less!), an absent presence throughout the film, who brings to birth the new world from the ashes of the old but who is never reconciled to the new regime — and is finally shot and wounded at Aspramonte on the orders of the repulsive Colonel, who is lionised during the stupendous ball scene that fills up most of the second half of the film.

In Once Upon a Time in the West, on the other hand, the Moses-figure is the generally unheroic (and, not coincidentally and in a rather unPC kind of way also physically disabled) Mr Morton, the caricature capitalist who dies staring not at the Pacific Ocean — his life’s ambition has been to see his railway extend from the Atlantic to the Pacific — but face to face with a muddy puddle, having been shot (one assumes) by Cheyenne / Jason Robards and his gang in a massacre which — unlike the massacre at the McBains’ farm — takes place off-camera.

So there we are: Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Bonnie Honig and the Old Testament as the crucial texts with which to decipher the classics of 1960s Italian cinema, as it works through Italy’s own fantasies of national founding and political consolidation through projections onto its own periphery (Sicily / Gattopardo) or its transatlantic other (Arizona / Once Upon a Time…). And that’s enough rambling on a variation on a theme for now.

Finally: if anyone thinks they understand all the twists and turns in the plot, do get in touch. I have a number of questions about what goes on in the middle of Once Upon a Time…, though offhand I’m not sure that those questions really have answers.

Final, final Rousseau – Spag. Western question: can anyone tell me whether the Christopher Frayling who published the book which people tell me is very good about Sergio Leone the same Christopher Frayling who wrote his Ph.D. on Rousseau’s La Nouvelle H�lo�se? (There can’t be too many Christopher Fraylings in the world). If so then the pathway from eighteenth-century France to nineteenth-century Arizona (or wherever) is happily well-trodden indeed.

UPDATE [8/9/2003]: There’s some further comments on this kind of thing over at Walloworld.

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