John Wayne Can’t Save You

POSTED: September 10, 2008 18:41 | By: Carol Borden

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After the midnight screening of The Burrowers, director J.T. Petty (S&Man) told us one of the things he liked about the movie was that the John Wayne character doesn’t save everyone. It’s up to the ?immigrants and the Black people?(and the Lakota and the Ute).

I like that, too. (And Coffey the protagonist’s bowler hat felt like a little fuck you to the drowning, snakebit Irish in Lonesome Dove)

The film’s been compared to The Searchers, a film about an ex-Confederate soldier leading a party to recover a woman from the Comanche, a woman who it turns out is happy where she is. The soldier is played by John Wayne, who gives a lot of depth to a racist and increasingly unreliable character. But The Burrowers presentation of racism, prejudice, blindness and cruelty hits me harder. I remember having a similar response to Ravenous, a movie as much about Manifest Destiny as it was about cannibalism. The white man’s burden becomes the burden of eating other people. In a contemporary setting, Ravenous would probably come off as a criticism of consumption, maybe just another twist on a zombie movie.

The Burrowers and Ravenous hit me hard because horror and Westerns have some common elements. J.T. Petty himself mentioned that he finds the Old West terrifying, the chaos, the violence, the isolation. It makes a good ground. Westerns and horror are also usually morality tales. Both are often criticized for working with simplistic moral systems. But there’s nothing simple about morality in The Burrowers. Everything is ambiguous and the horror elements (monsters!) might help deepen allegory without making it annoyingly apparent.

The Burrowers seems at the same time more desolate and forgiving than a film like The Searchers. I like that it’s clear that the young Lakota man trying to pull his wounded friend out of Coffey and his friends’ line of fire clearly feels exactly what Coffey and his friends do. Their fears reflect and amplify each others’, driving them to kill as well as to try to talk. It’s apparent in the film that everyone short of Clancy Brown‘s Clay kills out of terror and panic. Well, all except one hateful character. I like that in a seemingly misanthropic film behind all the cruelty and blinding prejudice, the terror and inability to communicate, there is still a desire to communicate and even friendship. It might not be enough to save everyone, but it’s something.

John Wayne can’t save any of us. It’s up to us. Is there much more terrifying than that?

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