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Mt. Holz Science Fiction Society
09/06/02 -- Vol. 21, No. 10
Table of Contents
Some Observations on the Western Film (comments by Mark R. Leeper):
Last week I was discussing the Western genre in literature and film. In specific I was talking about how one of the characteristics of the earlier Westerns was a clear delineation between good and evil. Heroes were brave, tall, strong, and always stood up for the common people. Frequently they would be based on real people. Wyatt Earp or Buffalo Bill Cody were heroes of the popular magazines and later films and television. The negative part of these people's history was conveniently ignored. It was a long time before moral ambiguity was introduced to the Western film and when it was it was not without some resistance.
An example of the resistance to the moral ambiguity was the reaction to Fred Zinneman's HIGH NOON. This was a film that said that it took more than one strong man to fight evil, it takes the entire community. (Or perhaps it takes a village?). It suggested that if the common people were not willing to stand up to evil, maybe they were not worth the hero's efforts on their behalf. If the community is unwilling to cooperate and take risks, it is unworthy of being saved. Howard Hawks rejected that pessimistic viewpoint and responded with RIO BRAVO. That film recreates the situation of HIGH NOON, but then it says no, if a man is strong enough in his principles he can oppose evil by himself. Hawks's stalwart hero is, of course, John Wayne. The John Wayne character in RIO BRAVO refuses the help of the community and showing no sign of fear he defeats the villain all by himself. Okay, with the help of a drunk and a kid. But they are not the reason he wins. He is successful because that is how the script is written. It is always good to have the scriptwriter on your side. In their films together Hawks styles John Wayne as the American Siegfried, able to accomplish miracles because he knows no fear.
The "strong men forged in a hostile and tough environment" theme is common in many cultures. In Russian literature one might find it in Gogol's THE COSSACK CHIEF (a.k.a. TARAS BULBA). Germany had its "Mountain Films" made between the wars and which gave a start to the career of Leni Riefenstall. It even shows up in Edgar Rice Burroughs's Tarzan books. In China it is THE WATER MARGIN with its 104 righteous outlaws. But few of these have gained much international acceptance. With the power of the American film industry the Western film has gone all over the world.
Europe has sometimes resented this power, but it should be remembered that in the years when the Western film became popular internationally, in large part the 1940s and 1950s, the American film industry really was an international film industry due to the tireless efforts of one Mr. A. Hitler. Much of the American film industry in those years was the European film industry. Are Westerns directed by Fritz Lang really products of a film industry that is just American?
The Western has gone a long way to form the European perception of the American people. In spite of the fact that the US was founded by and in large part constituted of Europeans it is seen as the young culture of the Western. Coming from older cultures and using that to fuel a chauvinistic impulse they have perhaps exaggerated the influence of the Western on American thinking. How often in their editorials and political cartoons concerning the United States does the imagery of Westerns come up? American Presidents are represented as Western law men. Our policy has been perceived as taken from the morally unambiguous black and white Westerns. In spite of the decline of the Western film in production numbers, the Western is still very much with us.
Next week I will list my particular choice of the best five Western films. [-mrl]
A Heap o' History (book reviews by Evelyn C. Leeper):
Continuing with short reviews, I here talk about books with some basis in history. Three are fiction, the rest non-fiction.
The more approachable (and perhaps more relevant) of the fiction books is Bao Ninh's "The Sorrow of War". This is the story of the Vietnam War from the point of view of a North Vietnamese soldier (who would have called it the American War). Ironically, this book is on the one hand banned in Vietnam, and on the other available in English translation in bootleg editions from every bookseller on the streets (though not in the bookstores). Just as the great World War I novel, "All Quiet on the Western Front", was written by someone on the other side (Erich Maria Remarque), so this is considered by many to be the great Vietnam War novel. Of course, one major difference is that the first was written by someone on the losing side, and the second was not. But both can be considered "anti-war" novels--and indeed, it is rare to find a pro-war novel, no matter what the politics. In any case, both are worth reading by Americans, if only to remind the reader that the enemy is also human. (The work that achieves this for World War II is "Das Boot", oddly enough. I suspect that a book written from the German point of view would give the reader too much time to stop and pause and overlay external knowledge of the Nazis onto it.)
Another novel oddly connected with war, or at least revolution, is Tom Petsinis's "The French Mathematician", a novel about the unlikely main character of Evariste Galois. Galois was killed at age twenty in a duel over a woman which may or may not have been set up as a way to assassinate him for his political views. As might be expected, however, Petsinis spends more time on the politics than on the mathematics.
I also read a couple of real biographies, David McCullough's "John Adams" and Elizabeth Gaskell's "Life of Charlotte Bronte". The former is probably more accurate, but not as interesting. Gaskell apparently went to great lengths to avoid offending any one--even a negative description of one of Bronte's early employers was toned down in a later edition. But maybe because I've heard a lot about Adams everywhere, and less about Charlotte Bronte.
We went to the Dakotas, Wyoming, Montana, and Idaho this past June. Reading on this trip included Lewis & Clark's journals (the three-volume set from Dover, which I think is Coues's work based on Biddle), "Lewis and Clark and the Image of the American Northwest" by John Logan Allen, "Out West" by Dayton Duncan, and "Great Plains" by Ian Frazier. "Out West" is Duncan's recounting of his following the trail of Lewis and Clark in the 1980s (though in a Volkswagen bus rather than a boat), so I read that in parallel with the journals. I bought the Allen in Cody, Wyoming, so had to read a bunch in that to catch up to where I was in the first two. When we returned I also read Stephen Ambrose's book about Lewis, "Undaunted Courage". If you're not going to bury yourself in all of these, I'd suggest Duncan's "Out West" as a good mix of historical and modern.
I also read George Armstrong Custer's "My Life on the Plains" and Douglas D. Scott et al's "They Died with Custer" (a forensic analysis of Custer's troops. Ancient sites were covered in Url Lanham's "The Bone Hunters". Stephen G. Bloom's "Postville" and the documentary from it were why we visited Postville in the first place. See my log for details, but briefly: Postville was a small, 100% white, 100% Christian town until the 1980s, when a large group of Hasidic Jews from New York bought the abandoned abattoir and turned it into the country's largest kosher slaughterhouse. As if the Postvillians weren't taken aback by the Hasidim, the Hasidim also brought in a lot of immigrant (Eastern European and Mexican) labor to work there. Difficulties ensued.
And finally, I read the fictional "American Gods" by Neil Gaiman, a fantasy novel taking place largely in the Midwest (The House on the Rock; Cairo, Illinois; and so on, including Mount Rushmore), which is part of what we drove through.
Having been to a panel on Nevil Shute at a convention last year, I read his "Slide Rule". This is the autobiographical story of his work in the early British aeronautics industry, and is fascinating. I would certainly recommend it to science fiction fans and/or techies.
Of more current political interest would be Karen Armstrong's "Holy War" (a history of the holy wars and crusades in the Middle East and Europe through the years. Though she seems to have a slight pro-Palestinian bias regarding the current state of affairs, I thought on the whole she did a reasonable job of laying out the views of both sides and the historical events that shaped those views. Her other book I read was "The Battle for God", about religious fundamentalism, and is also relevant.
Howard Jacobson's "Roots Schmoots" is about his search for his Jewish roots, though he seems to have taken a very long time to actually get to them. I found the sections on Lithuania and Tombstone (I told you it was roundabout!) the most interesting, probably because we had visited those places.
And finally, of interest to book lovers would be John Maxwell Hamilton's "Casanova Was a Book Lover". It is not, however, primarily about the love of books (which might be considered to be the topic of the first 55 pages), but of the marketing and selling of them (which is pretty much the topic of the remaining 224). Along the way Hamilton analyzes the Presidents' writing skills, how to deal with book theft, and etiquette at book signings. At this point a recommendation is superfluous: either the description wants to make you read this, in which case you'll probably enjoy it, or it doesn't, in which case you probably wouldn't. [-ecl]
Mark Leeper firstname.lastname@example.org Quote of the Week: There is nothing more agreeable in life than to make peace with the establishment and nothing more corrupting. -- Alan John Percivale Taylor
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