Heroes and Hoopleheads

Deadwood” begins its third season tonight, a cause for division in our household. I love the show, with all its profanity and violence; for the same reasons, Kate can’t tolerate it.

It has become commonplace to equate the show’s fine scriptwriting with the work of Shakespeare (just Google shakespeare deadwood and you’ll see what I mean). We create cliches because there’s some truth in them, and that one’s no exception. I’ve been tempted to stop episodes and transcribe characters’ speeches just for the language. There’s more to the show than the writing, though: It’s beautifully acted. It’s beautifully filmed. It’s violent and tense as hell.

It’s also conventional wisdom to think of “Deadwood” and the post-modern westerns dating back to “The Wild Bunch” as a new and better breed of drama: More frank about the blood and injustice and cynicism that older westerns soft-peddled. If you think so — and I incline to that way of thinking myself — check out A.O. Scott’s long, long piece in today’s New York Times on the DVD re-release of some of the John Wayne/John Ford westerns. He touches on how thoroughly Ford’s visual sense, especially in “The Searchers,” affected later filmmakers and films. But the heart of Scott’s essay has to do with Ford’s vision of the West and its settlement:

“The Indian wars of the post-Civil War era form a tragic backdrop in most of Ford’s post-World War II westerns, much as the earlier conflicts between settlers and natives did in the novels of James Fenimore Cooper. That the Indians are defending their land, and enacting their own vengeance for earlier attacks, is widely acknowledged, even insisted upon. The real subject, though, is not how the West was conquered, but how — according to what codes, values and customs — it will be governed. The real battles are internal, and they turn on the character of the society being forged, in violence, by the settlers. Where, in this new society, will the frontier be drawn between vengeance and justice? Between loyalty to one’s kind and the more abstract obligations of human decency? Between the rule of law and the law of the jungle? Between virtue and power? Between — to paraphrase one of Ford’s best-known and most controversial formulations — truth and legend?

“Ford’s way of posing these questions seems more urgent — and more subtle — now than it may have at the time, precisely because his films are so overtly concerned with the kind of moral argument that is, or should be, at the center of American political discourse at a time of war and terrorism. He is concerned not as much with the conflict between good and evil as with contradictory notions of right, with the contradictory tensions that bedevil people who are, in the larger scheme, on the same side. When should we fight? How should we conduct ourselves when we must? In ‘Fort Apache,’ for example, the elaborate codes of military duty, without which the intricate and closely observed society of the isolated fort would fall apart, are exactly what lead it toward catastrophe. Wayne, as a savvy and moderate-tempered officer, has no choice but to obey his headstrong and vainglorious commander, played by Henry Fonda, who provokes an unnecessary and disastrous confrontation with the Apaches. In the end, Wayne, smiling mysteriously, tells a group of eager journalists that Fonda’s character was a brave and brilliant military tactician. It’s a lie, but apparently the public does not require — or can’t handle — the truth.

“In telling it, Wayne is writing himself out of history, which is also his fate in ‘The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance’ (not, unfortunately, one of the discs in the Warner box). That film — which contains the famous line ‘When legend becomes fact, print the legend!’ —throws Wayne’s man of action and James Stewart’s man of principle into a wary, rivalrous alliance. Their common enemy is an almost cartoonish thug played by Lee Marvin, but the real conflict is between Stewart’s lawyer and Wayne’s mysterious gunman, one of whom will be remembered as the man who shot Liberty Valance.

“What we learn, in the course of the film’s long flashbacks, is that the triumph of civilization over barbarism is founded on a necessary lie, and that underneath its polished procedures and high-minded institutions is a buried legacy of bloodshed. The idea that virtue can exist without violence is as untenable, as unrealistic, as the belief — central to the revisionist tradition, and advanced with particular fervor in HBO’s ‘Deadwood’ — that human society is defined by gradations of brutality, raw power, cynicism and greed.

“If only things were that simple. But everywhere you look in Ford’s world — certainly in ‘Fort Apache,’ in ‘The Searchers,’ in ‘The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance’ — you see truth shading into lie, righteousness into brutality, high honor into blind obedience. You also see, in the boisterous emoting of the secondary characters, the society that these confused ideals and complicated heroes exist to preserve: a place where people can dance (frequently), drink (constantly), flirt (occasionally) and act silly.

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