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CR: The New Centennial Review 1.3 (2001) 117-154

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Multicultural Masculinities and the Border Romance in John Sayles's Lone Star and Cormac McCarthy's Border Trilogy

Katherine Sugg
University of California-Davis

UNDER THE RUBRIC OF "GLOBALISM" OR "MULTICULTURALISM" IN THE Americas, understandings of the United States as deeply tied to Mexico in cultural, economic, and affective ways are increasingly visible in contemporary popular culture, particularly movies and best-selling novels. For example, two recent films, Traffic and All the Pretty Horses, illustrate a heightened awareness of "Mexico" in the popular imagination, and they follow a long history of Hollywood's representations of Anglos and Mexicans in contact on the border. A number of these films have been called "revisionist Westerns," such as The Wild Bunch (1969), Giant (1956),and Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948), while others appropriate this southwestern locale into noir-style police pictures (Touch of Evil [1958], The Border [1982], and Traffic [2000], for example). 1 In both instances, the landscape and national iconography of Mexico and/or the social significance of Mexicans create a useful backdrop for dramas concerned with the dilemmas of men and the state on the northern side of the border. Which is to say that in these popular narratives, the invocation of Mexico works to generate a field of difference that [End Page 117] produces and recuperates U.S. national mythologies of American culture, manhood, and national identity. 2

Last year's film version of All the Pretty Horses (2000)illustrates the persistence of Hollywood's Mexican stereotype, both of men and of the nation. Adapted from Cormac McCarthy's National Book Award-winning novel (1992), the film relies on long-held conceptions of Mexican men as brutal and enigmatic figures located in a desolate and poverty-stricken, though beautiful, landscape. For McCarthy's Anglo characters, this Mexican landscape figures opportunities that had been shut down in the United States by the 1950s, specifically World War II: open pastures and freewheeling cowboys working outside the constraints of corporate and urban culture. But this freedom comes at a cost; as Barclay Owen says: "McCarthy's vision of Mexico embodies the violence of the Old West. Mexico is the glittering night dream of adventure and a gray land of death." 3 This mythic role of dark doppelgänger for the United States also emerges in the portrayal of the Mexican justice system as corrupt and arbitrary, establishing another convenient contrast between forms of nationhood and manhood in the United States and Mexico. Though All the Pretty Horses was a critical and box office disappointment, the popularity of last year's Traffic and earlier border dramas such as John Sayles's Lone Star (1996) indicates an ongoing interest in the landscape of the border as well as in certain law and order themes of the Western.

Lone Star was an instant hit with many film critics and academics, though, like Traffic, it has generated a polarized discussion of the movie's political goals and effects, showing how both films engage with controversial political questions that resonate with their targeted, mostly white liberal audiences. 4 In Lone Star's case, the question is not U.S. drug policy but the 1990s debates around "multiculturalism," with the film's viewers, or reviewers at least, embracing the picture as a corrective to the distortions of dominant Anglo versions of monocultural history.Most reviews echoed Galvin Smith's in Film Comment, which heralded the film's "acute post-Bell Curve commentary on the racial stratification and cultural conflicts of contemporary American society," although some disagree. Linda Chavez, the prominent conservative Hispanic politician and failed Cabinet nominee, [End Page 118] derides the film as a "boring, politically correct saga about prejudice and murder in a small Texas town." 5 Such polarized reactions speak to a general worry about the kinds of stories that are being told by white liberal revisionists like Sayles and Soderbergh. However, the many popular media responses to Lone Star did not question...


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