- The Fractured Eye: Myth and History in the Westerns of John Ford and Sam Peckinpah
- Film & History: An Interdisciplinary Journal of Film and Television Studies
- Center for the Study of Film and History
- Volume 7, Number 4, December 1977
- pp. 47-55
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- Additional Information
The Fractured Eye: Myth and History in the Westerns of John Ford and Sam Peckinpah By Ralph Brauer Ralph Brauer teaches in the Depl. ofPopular Culture at Bowling Green State University. He has written about the western and its relation on to American culture in Thejjorse, The Gun and The Piece ofProperty: changing Images ofthe TV Westerns and Focus on the Western. As much as any other figures who have been involved in the making of Westerns, John Ford and Sam Peckinpah have concerned themselves with the mythic West and the relationship ofthat myth to American history. History for them is not so much a collection of faces and events as an evolution in consciousness, and the Western is not so much a form as a vehicle for expressing the visions ofthat consciousness. Both Ford and Peckinpah take as their mythic focus that time when the West was evolving from the wide-open frontier into the settled world of small towns and fenced-in farms and ranches. They stand balanced on that thin line of the frontier—the line between wilderness and civilization that is the quintessential American mythic moment-and look at the generations that lived in that moment. In their Westerns that time and those people and the myths that have grown around them become two-sided mirrors looking forward and backward through which we all have passed like Alice through the looking glass. Watching any of their Westerns is like walking through that glass, taking us through the level of history into the realm of myth. It is a heady journey—the American magical mystery tour-this fusion ofmyth and history. In no other national consciousness has the fusion of myth and history been so strong because in no other consciousness have they been so closely linked. Think of Ned Buntline writing the myth ofthe West at the same time Wyatt Earp was living it and John Ford meeting the real Earp in Hollywood and making a movie about the Gunfight at the O.K. Corral (which we capitalize like some great battle). Ford and Peckinpah stand balanced on the edge of what Frederickjackson Turner called the moving frontier and use that edge to slice deeply into our national consciousness. 1 imagine Ford and Peckinpah standing there back to back—one looking to the past, the other to the future-Ford focusing on the time when law and order were first being brought to the frontier while Peckinpah focuses on the time when the new order has begun to establish itself. Ford looks at the individuals bringing about those changes while Peckinpah looks at the effects changes cause on individuals. You might say that Ford is a poet of sunrises and Peckinpah a poet of sunsets. The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962) is perhaps most emblematic ofFord as a poet of sunrises. It is one of Ford's last Westerns, an older man's vision of the world he has created. The youthful optimism of films like She Wore A Yellow Ribbon ( 1 949) and Mv Darling Clementine ( 1 946) has become tempered with a nostalgic ambiguity. It is significant that it is at night that the most significant conflicts of the film reach their climax: the killing of Liberty Valance and the realization by Tom Doniphan that Hallie will many Ranse Stoddard. The dawn of the new order follows with the selection of 47 Stoddard as a delegate to Washington and the coming of statehood to the once wide-open territory. The old West-the West of Tom Doniphan and Liberty Valance-is gone and what comes is civilization in the form of laws, a school, and a railroad. In Liberty Valance this evolution is viewed with some ambiguity, for the older Ford realizes that some things must be given up and are lost forever in order for civilization to come. In his earlier films this was accepted as a matter of course—a part of the linear march of history-now it is accepted with a nostalgic tear in the eye, and an unsettled feeling about the world it has brought. Tom Doniphan, the real hero of Liberty Valance dies an anonymous pauper's...