No Country for Bold Men
In the face of capricious violence, what kinds of heroes should we seek?
This is the rich question being debated over the internet by two unlikely interlocutors: Stanley Fish, a humanities professor and heady New York Times blogger, and Dan Gagliasso, a screenwriter, director, and enthusiast of western films.
The conversation began with Gagliasso’s review of the Coen brothers’ remake of True Grit—he found it disappointing in comparison to the original—for which John Wayne won an Academy Award for Best Actor in 1969.
When John Wayne puts the reins to his horse in his teeth, levers that big looped Winchester carbine, pulls his Colt’s revolver and hollars “Fill your hand you son-of-a-bitch!” Well, it’s one of my favorite scenes in any film ever made, beautifully summing up Wayne’s legendary status as the most American of icons. Unfortunately, despite the considerable talents of Jeff Bridges, the Coen Brothers and others the new film literally throws that great cinematic moment away.
Fish agrees that the new movie avoids portraying Rooster Cogburn as a classic hero—and that’s precisely the point.
In the movie Gagliasso wanted to see—in fact the original “True Grit”—we are told something about the nature of heroism and virtue and the relationship between the two. In the movie we have just been gifted with, there is no relationship between the two; heroism, of a physical kind, is displayed by almost everyone, “good” and “bad” alike, and the universe seems at best indifferent, and at worst hostile, to its exercise.
In the novel [on which both films are based] and in the Coens’ film it is always like that: things happen, usually bad things (people are hanged, robbed, cheated, shot, knifed, bashed over the head and bitten by snakes), but they don’t have any meaning, except the meaning that you had better not expect much in this life because the brute irrationality of it all is always waiting to smack you in the face.
Gagliasso has since written a reply which, although it strikes some shrill tones, responds in an honest and interesting way to Fish.
The professor didn’t in the least misunderstand my desire to instead see the kind of heroics John Wayne displayed in the original film. […]
Justifiable violent responses to real life threats are often not random. America has always had common men heroes and well trained professionals who can reach down deep into themselves and find the kind of inner courage needed to risk life and limb to save the life of another or stand up to the evil and power hungry. The elitist left who for the time being control most of the public debate on popular culture would have us believe that all is relative.
The interesting thing about Fish’s review, however, is that he appreciates the new True Grit not as a parable of moral relativism, but as “that rare thing—a truly religious movie.” In the theology of the film, Fish writes,
there are two registers of existence: the worldly one in which rewards and punishment are meted out on the basis of what people visibly do; and another one, inaccessible to mortal vision, in which damnation and/or salvation are distributed, as far as we can see, randomly and even capriciously.
There are no easy homiletics here, no direct line drawing from the way things seem to have turned out to the way they ultimately are. While worldly outcomes and the universe’s moral structure no doubt come together in the perspective of eternity, in the eyes of mortals they are entirely disjunct.
The real heroism in True Grit, Fish says, comes from the young girl Mattie—a character who is secondary to John Wayne in the original film, whom the Coens recast as their protagonist. She “maintains the confidence of her convictions even when the world continues to provide no support for them.” In the older film, by contrast, John Wayne’s heroism merely glosses over the meaningless violence of the world.
Gagliasso understands what the Coens are aiming to do, and doesn’t dispute that they’re hitting their mark. His complaint is with the goal itself. He asks, “Why do the liberal elitists and academics deny a healthy society’s need for the kind of physical courage John Wayne best represents in our popular culture?”
I saw a similar sentiment expressed today in another corner of the internet, in the comments section beneath a copy of President Obama’s speech in response to the Arizona shootings. The commenter complains:
I LOVE how he fails to mention the young man who ran TOWARD the gunfire from a nearby Walgreens and helped subdue Loughner. He didn’t get mentioned or even invited from the way it appears to the “rally” because of Obama’s anti gun agenda in conjunction with the fact that this kid concealed and carried a firearm. The kid is a national hero and doesn’t even get mentioned? How disgraceful, and disgusting.
Obama’s speech, of course, was remarkable precisely because it resisted seeking the kind of easy meaning and comfort that such heroic iconography can supply. He told the stories of the victims, not the heroes. And when the president sought wisdom from scripture, he found it in Job: “when I looked for light, then came darkness.”