David Brooks meditation today on filmmaker, John Ford, is worth a read. As he rightly notes, Ford’s “westerns” are not about the rugged individualism that has captured the Ayn-Randish imaginations of the Republican party. As Brooks comments,
the greatest of all Western directors, John Ford, actually used Westerns to tell a different story. Ford’s movies didn’t really celebrate the rugged individual. They celebrated civic order.
For example, in Ford’s 1946 movie, “My Darling Clementine,” Henry Fonda plays Wyatt Earp, the marshal who tamed Tombstone. But the movie isn’t really about the gunfight and the lone bravery of a heroic man. It’s about how decent people build a town. Much of the movie is about how the townsfolk put up a church, hire a teacher, enjoy Shakespeare, get a surgeon and work to improve their manners.
The movie, in other words, is really about religion, education, science, culture, etiquette and rule of law — the pillars of community. In Ford’s movie, as in real life, the story of Western settlement is the story of community-building.
There’s an important explanation of this that Brooks doesn’t cite: Ford was a Catholic. The lone cowboy that characterizes most other westerns is a distinctly Protestant, and therefore deeply American, phenomenon. Ford’s western cinematic imagination stands out, I would suggest, because it is implicitly informed by the communitarianism of the the Catholic tradition. For a lucid and insightful exploration of this thesis, see Richard Blake’s marvelous book, Afterimage: The Indelible Catholic Imagination of Six American Filmmakers (chapter 5).