"Our Nation Has a Mission"
Though the United States no longer uses Western films to discuss national issues, the films' relationship to American history, or their place in national mythologies, occasionally a Western is released that reminds us of their power. Director James Mangold's 3:10 to Yuma (2007) is such a Western. It is, I want to argue, an Iraq War Western. And since it is a remake of the 1957 3:10 to Yuma, it is able to place the mission in Iraq in the context of two other American missions—the settling of the West and the Cold War.
In 2003 the United States undertook the liberation of Iraq under the banner of the most deeply held belief of American patriotism, that "Americans are a people set apart, a people with a providential mission" (McKenna 6). America needs missions in order to affirm its sense of itself as exceptional, alone among the nations of the world favored by God. In film, which so often displaces the political with the personal, the idea of America's exceptional mission is often conveyed through stories of exceptional Americans. It is the heroic individuals of our art who often carry the meaning of our national destiny. In the willingness of these characters to act courageously, we see a model for national action. And we see in their virtue and triumphs the promise that a virtuous America will be successful.
A number of anti-Iraq War films focused specifically on the nature of heroism in that conflict in order to deny that war the legitimacy that heroism can bestow. In the Valley of Elah (2007) and Redacted (2007) dealt with soldiers who lost their humanity fighting in Iraq, and Hurt Locker (2009), more ambiguously, reduced heroism to an adrenaline addiction. As a character says in In the Valley of Elah, "you shouldn't send heroes to places like Iraq, [where] everything is fucked up."
No genre is more famous for creating heroes and incorporating grand, national themes in the personal stories of Americans than the Western. Mangold has said that "Westerns are about our great mythical landscape, our Mt. Olympus, in which all of the great American themes are played out in this kind of fever dream" ("James Mangold" A15). And although the Western returns again and again to the same myths, it does so, according to Mangold, to place the events of the day in that mythic landscape. "Westerns have a tradition," he noted in an interview, "of being able to gracefully and easily fold into their subtext ideas about the moment" (Esther 28).
The continued influence of the cowboy narrative was integral to the way George W. Bush presented himself, the war on terror, and his war in Iraq. It was immediately after 9/11 that he likened Osama Bin Laden to a Western outlaw whom he "wanted dead or alive." More significant was his "mission accomplished" [End Page 40] announcement. In a culture used to the updating of the Western hero to fighter pilots in Star Wars (1977), Top Gun (1986), and Space Cowboys (2000), for example, the link between Bush stepping out of the jet in full fighter uniform and the symbolism of the Western hero could not be missed. His speech on the aircraft carrier that first day of May in 2003 continued the Western theme his visual presence tried to establish. He called Iraq an "outlaw regime," invoked the cavalry goal of "bringing order to parts of the country that remain dangerous," used the language of Manifest Destiny to announce to the world that "our nation has a mission," and at the end tied America's mission to God (as well as to the Western captivity narrative)—"To the captives, come out," he said, quoting from Isaiah 49:9.
But just as Western films have long provided mythic examples of courageous men who subdue vicious outlaws, as in the original 3:10 to Yuma, which could be used to support American policies such as the Cold War, they also have a history that dates at least to the Vietnam...