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.

(Sort of) Life Imitates (So-called) Art

In the three-and-a-bit hours since the previous post, I’ve just finished watching The Godfather, Part Three, with a handful of friends — with a fine shot of Calvi hanging from Blackfriars Bridge in one of the final frames — and when I return to my computer I find that Giulio Andreotti has been convicted of murder. A certain debased variety of (sort of) life imitating (so-called) art…

Film of the Week

There are only a few films which get better and better with repeated viewings: High Noon is one of them, and I was very pleased to see it for the third time earlier this evening. The excellent theme song, the action shot in almost-real time; the film’s reticence about just what did happen in the town when Frank Miller was around and before Amy had arrived in Will Kane’s life; the almost complete lack of dialogue after the clock finally does strike noon; and, above all, the complex moralities presented by the drama, lurking behind the simple good guy – bad guys opposition. (To scratch the surface of these matters, when the gang leaves the station, Frank Miller is in possession of a legal pardon, and Kane admits that he can’t do anything about the rest of his posse, since they haven’t broken the law. Yet Kane is the first to shoot, when he kills Ben Miller, with only the barest warning.)

But here’s a thing: the music is clearly the greatest Hollywood theme tune of all time — but why are there two separate versions floating around? In the film, the first verse contains the lines, “The noon day train will bring Frank Miller / If I’m a man I must be brave / And I must face that deadly killer…”, whereas the version I learned once upon a time goes, “I do not know what fate awaits me / I only know I must be brave / and I must face a man who hates me…”. Similarly, in a later verse, what I first knew as “You made that promise as a bride / Do not forsake me, oh, my darling, / Although you’re grieving / Don’t think of leaving / Now that I need you by my side.” is sung in the film with “… when we wed” rhymed with “until I shoot Frank Miller dead”. Clearly a song can be published in one version and performed in another – but in this case, why the changes?Incidentally but unsurprisingly, I see that High Noon references are already being incorporated into the discourse surrounding the War On Terror. Alastair Cooke — still alive, apparently — discussed the film in a recent of his past-their-sell-by-dates “Letters from America”.

Dan writes [7.10.2002]: Finally you address pop trivia. I believe the difference between the two versions is that a “single version” was recorded for commercial release, which sought to omit the film specific references. Certainly this is the suggestion here, which notes, “The “single” version of the song was rewritten as a more generic, and certainly less dramatic, western-pop ditty.” Doubtless this is not the only time such a thing as happened, although I can’t think of any other examples. Fans of (either of) Tex Ritter’s versions of the song may enjoy this page. Fans of the film itself are possibly best advised to avoid this one, certainly if Dr Henry S. Itkin’s analysis is correct…

Chris replies [7.10.2002]: I didn’t realise Dan’s domination of the Oxford pub quiz pop trivia scene would extended to movie soundtracks. This is splendid stuff. Since one of Dan’s other consuming passions is Kantian moral theory, I now have an exuse to mention something I remembered this morning, which is Christine Korsgaard’s wonderful essay, “Taking the Law into Our Own Hands: Kant on the Right to Revolution”, which was published in Reclaiming the History of Ethics: Essays for John Rawls, edited by Reath, Herman and Korsgaard (Cambridge, 1997). For people who like their cowboy films washed down with a dose of sophisticated moral theory, this is the place to look for a splendid attempt to show that Immanuel Kant really does defend a right to revolution (even though he consistently said that he didn�t in his published writings), by reference to the thrill we experience in the cinema when the hero in the Western picks up the gun in order to, er, take the law into his own hands. It�s improbable, imaginative, exhilarating, important stuff, and a very powerful argument — even if she didn’t quite convince me that it’s one of Kant’s.


Josephine has just broken the shocking news (to me, at least) that the Italian word gattopardo, famous from di Lampedusa’s novel of the same name, does not, in fact, mean “leopard”. Hmm. And she’s quite right. Gattopardo means “serval” or”ocelot”, and the Italian word for “leopard” is, perhaps unsurprisingly, leopardo. Knowing this makes it easier to understand why the novel and the film were wilfully mistranslated as The Leopard: it’s a wonderful book (and a wonderful Visconti film, with Burt Lancaster, Alain Delon and Claudia Cardinale in the lead roles, with ravishing shots of the Sicilian landscape), but it’s hard to imagine crowds flocking to buy / read / see The Ocelot in quite the same way.

Attempting to come to terms with servals and ocelots is to learn that, splendidly, Buffon has much to answer for. (“Is it Aristotle? Is it Pliny? Is it Buffon? No, it is Robinson Crusoe“, wrote Rousseau, in �mile). The OED tells us that an ocelot is “a leopard-like feline quadruped (Felis pardalis) of Central and South America, about three feet in length; the prevailing colour is grey, beautifully marked with numerous elongated fawn spots edged with black; the under parts are white or whitish with black markings; also called tiger-cat, leopard-cat”, and the first citation offered is even better than the definition, “1774 GOLDSM. Nat. Hist. II. 148 The catamountain which is the Ocelot of Mr. Buffon”, encouraging us to turn straight to the splendid word “catamountain” on an earlier page. And the serval, relatedly, is “A name applied (after Buffon) to some Asiatic wild cat or lynx; also to an American animal resembling this. Obs.“, or, alternatively, “A carnivorous quadruped, Felis serval, native of S. Africa, having a tawny coat spotted with black, a short tail and large ears; the bush-cat.”

What excellent words. “Lozenge” is a good word, too, and I spent a happy few minutes in a class the other week looking up its etymology — but on this occasion, at least, I will keep you in suspense.

Life Imitates Art, Again

A couple of days ago I went to see The Battle of Algiers at a local cinema, and posted a snippet from the script in the paragraphs below, from the press conference where Colonel Mathieu discusses the death in captivity of Lardi Ben M’Hidi, one of the leaders of the Algerian resistance to the French occupation. And now the news from Paris (reported, for example, in the Independent) reminds us that, as ever, life imitates art, not only Battle of Algiers but also Dario Fo’s wonderful play, Accidental Death of an Anarchist:

SUSPECT: And why do they always demonstrate here at police headquarters? Right here, under the main window

SERGEANT: It’s always the same story. We’re always caught in-between. It’s only one week since that anarchist we were interrogating jumped out the window.

SUSPECT: That window? But it’s only two stories up.

SERGEANT: Another window – upstairs. On the fourth floor. (He walks away from the window.)


Needless to say, poor Richard Durn fell to his death from the fourth floor, too.


I haven’t seen the film, and I doubt I’m going to see it, but I rather liked this comment from the Independent:

It’s a shame. Ali G is essentially a Great British fabulist, like Just William or Billy Liar; but those characters work because you believe in the domestic clutter – the too-solid reality – they’re trying to escape. A feature film was the perfect place to pin Ali down; instead, it becomes a showcase for his delusions…

Thinking of films, I saw The Battle of Algiers again last night: the Phoenix here in Oxford only managed to get hold of a DVD (they let the audience in free by way of compensation), and they played the soundtrack far too quietly: even so, it is still a smashing piece of cinema.

Journalist: Colonel Mathieu … the spokesman for the residing minister, Mr. Gorlin, has stated that “Larbi Ben M’Hidi committed suicide in his own cell, hanging himself with pieces of his shirt, that he had used to make a rope, and then attached to the bars of his cell window.” In a preceding statement, the same spokesman had specified that: “… due to the intention already expressed by the prisoner Ben M’Hidi to escape at the first opportunity, it has been necessary to keep his hands and feet bound continually.” In your opinion, colonel, in such conditions, is a man capable of tearing his shirt, making a rope from it, and attaching it to a bar of the window to hang himself?

Mathieu: You should address that question to the minister’s spokesman. I’m not the one who made those statements … On my part, I will say that I had the opportunity to admire the moral strength, intelligence, and unwavering idealism demonstrated by Ben M’Hidi. For these reasons, although remembering the danger he represented, I do not hesitate to pay homage to his memory.

The rest of the script is here.

Right-Wing Politicians Seek the Hobbit Vote

From Reuters (with thanks to Naunihal for passing this my way):

ROME (Reuters) – The rest of the world may see box office smash The Lord of the Rings as a mythical tale of hobbits and goblins but some young members of Italy’s far right hope to use the film to promote their political ideals.

“We want to use the event as an incredible volcano to help people understand our view of the world,” said Basilio Catanoso, youth wing leader of the far-right National Alliance party.

Right-wing thinkers and publishers, who introduced the Italian public to the fantasy classic in the 1970s, see the 1,000-page tome by Britain’s J.R.R. Tolkien as a celebration of their own values of physical strength, leadership and integrity.

The National Alliance youth wing is looking back to the 1970s when Italian rightists spun its own interpretation of Tolkien’s mythical world to bolster their image, already imbued with Celtic legends, knights and a cult of personal strength.

“There is a deep significance to this work. The Lord of the Rings is the battle between community and individuality,” Catanoso said.

But the tale can be seen supporting either end of the political spectrum. ”The destruction of the ring of power, the multiracial aspect — hobbits, elves, men and dwarfs united against evil are all leftist ideals,” said Francesco Alo’, editor of Italian film Web site www.caltanet.it.

Tolkien always denied any political intent in the book.

The story follows the struggle of a young hobbit named Frodo Baggins, played by Elijah Wood in the film, to destroy a ring of power which holds the key to the future of civilization.

The cult book evokes a fantasy world peopled by goblins, hobbits and elves.

“Only in Italy is The Lord of the Rings seen as right wing, no other country in the world has a similar reading of Tolkien,” said Valerio Evangelisti, an Italian fantasy writer.

In the 1970s, neo-fascist summer training centers nicknamed ”Hobbit Camps” were set up by the National Alliance’s predecessor, the neo-Fascist Italian Social Movement (MSI).

The National Alliance split from the MSI in the mid-1990s. Its current leader, Gianfranco Fini, who is also deputy prime minister, has tried to give the party a new image.

The National Alliance has five ministers in the center-right government of Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi.

But tradition still echoes in the party’s ranks.

National Alliance’s youth wing plans a campaign to boost membership, inviting students to “enter the fellowship,” an allusion to The Fellowship of the Ring, the first book of the Tolkien trilogy.

The film opened on Friday in 700 cinemas in Italy. So far it has grossed more than $500 million worldwide.

I’ll stop posting tonight soon, I promise.


Welcome back.

Here’s some breaking news, from reuters.com:

BERLIN (Reuters) – Film-maker Leni Riefenstahl plans to release a new movie this year in time for her 100th birthday, half a century after her Nazi-era links ended a brilliant film career, a report said Sunday.

“The film will have its premier in August exactly in time for my 100th birthday,” Die Welt newspaper quoted Riefenstahl as saying in its Monday editions.

The last feature film Riefenstahl released was Tiefland in 1954. Since then she has found herself blacklisted because of her work during the Third Reich.

Triumph of the Will, a powerful documentary of the 1934 Nazi party rally in Nuremberg, helped cement Adolf Hitler’s image as the all-powerful leader. It also forever linked Riefenstahl with Hitler in the minds of many critics.

Her 1938 film Olympia, a documentary on the 1936 Berlin Olympic Games, is considered one of the great and most innovative films of the 20th century.

The film-maker’s new 45-minute movie, Underwater Impressions, will be a compilation of footage from the more than 2,000 scuba dives she made in the Indian Ocean between 1974 and 2000, the report said.

There’s an informative Riefenstahl site here, and a pair of faintly peculiar fan sites here and here. Susan Sontag’s classic essay, “Fascinating Fascism” from the New York Review of Books has been reprinted here, and there’s an interesting, hostile article about Riefenstahl’s postwar photography in Africa by James C. Faris here.