The year is 1586, Toyotomi Hideyoshi is as close to ruling Japan as anybody has been in centuries. As the various alliances of military aristocrats prepare for the next series of wars, villagers are starving & falling prey to bandits. The ugly truth about Japan is revealed in the shepherding notions of the bandits: They have a ruler who tells them to wait until harvest before they loot & rape again. That ruler is dressed in a general’s armor.
Next we see the peasants in their desperation. One suggests fighting against the bandits; the others reject the notion, which is itself the proof that they shouldn’t even try. One sees them kneeling like children–only those who speak stand up, suggesting authority & obedience. But the man who’s for fighting reminds them they murder samurai on the run if they catch them after battles. This is part of the way the distinction between samurai & peasants is maintained.
The peasants resolve to go to their old man–outside the village, across the river, at the water mill–for counsel. The old man says what they should have learned by themselves. He does not advise they arm, but instead that they hire samurai. The difference has to be maintained. The psychological basis of that difference is the pride of the samurai. The new basis on which peasants & samurai could come to an agreement is necessity. In their poverty, the peasants have one resource, hungry samurai.
The old man gives two images to persuade them. With regard to fear of predatory samurai, he says, why worry about the beard when you’re about to lose your head? Are daughters really like beards? The matter of hair will return to show what the old man is saying: The noble should be discounted. With regard to samurai, he says, hungry bears will leave the forest. This of course is precisely what the villagers fear–the samurai are inhuman. They therefore cannot disagree with him! So a few of them go in search of nice, approachable bears!
Akira Kurosawa’s most famous story about politics. Worth seeing again.
The narration of events starts with a young woman who has returned to the West. She’s told Arizona has changed. The change, of course, is the Civil War. It’s the Stars & stripes forever now. Civilization should be coming & a future a woman could like! Indeed, a young cavalry officer makes love to her. As soon as she gets off the train, however, it’s fear & murder staring her in the face.
Ford uses the incredibly powerful image of a black man dominating a young white girl first chance he gets. The movie in a sense depends on that; later, there is another image of him ordering around a young girl, the self-same paternal, protective authority. This is Lincoln’s America. She learns quickly he’s trying to save her life. They fight together against the Indians–a common enemy is the only common good they actually have. She tends to his wounds.
Why does everyone believe him guilty? What is the psychology I’ve suggested, underlying racism & justice both? The racist mob waving rope in the court-room is one thing. The young officer who fought & fought well alongside the Sergeant is another. Well, people equate laws & world unwittingly. It takes nobility to distinguish virtue & success, failure & guilt. This comes naturally to a man of superior nature held to inferior service…
The savagery of the Indians & the savagery of the land can both be conquered. It is the concealed savagery that sets this story in motion that is truly difficult. Ford is not trying to say that people are evil because the world is evil; he’s not saying the opposite either. He’s saying that they have to be balanced. He comes close to saying that the only chance for blacks to attain the dignity of free men–soldiers–is the Civil War & the Indian wars.
Had whites been more prosperous & peaceful, would they have been more gallant & ultimately more just than the military & the young woman, or worse? Had Lincoln tried to stand on principle with his countrymen in absence of any danger like civil war, would his success in acting on the Declaration’s principles of natural equality in his Gettysburg Address been greater or less? Would ‘self-evident truth’ have simply won out over ‘proposition’?
The difficulty of understanding destiny shows up again & again in this story. Justice is tied up to people telling their stories–recounting their past–trying to make sense of their lives. The two young people who save Sergeant Rutledge are his inferiors morally. In one sense, this story is their education. She stands for immoral prudence, he for imprudent principle. Their coming together is infinitely questionable. The resolution of the plot suggests this may be necessary for their humanity.
This story ends with a sordid sex murder which shows the difficulty of laying the dead to rest. What we think makes us human seems questionable–family, law, faith. The courts of law seem unable to do justice; maybe preventing some injustices is all they can do–maybe bearing witness to the truth, if it can be revealed. There is no triumph of law over savagery here, unless it is the savagery that conceals itself in law.
This cannot be be the story I have outlined, because the man accused of murder, Sergeant Rutledge, is black. The ugly accusation is only made once, near the end of the trial, by a military attorney who is only too faithful to the punitive core of justice. But by the end it turns out that it’s what this always was going to be about. The race problem seems to be a cover-up for the truth of Solzhenitsyn: The line separating good & evil cuts across every human heart.
Let’s look at the American races then: White, black, & red. They show up like Tocqueville said: Blacks are somehow caught in-between: Like the Indians, they are not the white man’s equal; like the whites, they prefer law to freedom. The war between the US & the Indians seems inevitable; it is beyond tragedy; the injustices on both sides sicken, but one cannot find any common arrangement for any common good. This is an American story, so only the crimes of the Indians are on display.
Some of the blacks call this the white man’s war. Should they be fighting? Rutledge says they’re fighting for their dignity. The honor of being a sergeant & being called top soldier by his men. He is named for the master who freed him, believes the freedom of the black man lies in the future. That is of course true in the sense that freedom depends on possibilities as yet undetermined.
But the actual situations of the blacks is different. The minute the crisis hits, Rutledge abandons his hopes for the future & desperately puts his hope in Indian freedom. He knows white men would rather kill him than face the ugly truth he bears; he tries to escape his destiny.
The story unfolds in such a way that we first learn of the great, troubled nobility of this man. He has aristocratic qualities; he has a stoic mindset; he ennobles his military service rather than receive his self-respect from it. His jailer & attorney, Mr. America, says it right: I’d commend him for gallantry above & beyond the call of duty had he not been my prisoner. We should not hold it against a man that he does not know what he’s saying…
One of John Ford’s rare store is about American justice & race. It’s hard to improve upon.
A girl from Ireland is sent to America to make a living for herself there. Sister & mother are heart-broken at the separation, even ignoring the risks of the enterprise, but are resigned: There is no future for her in Ireland. In America, she finds it difficult to learn anything but docility, trying to stay out of the way of a world she cannot understand & finds unlovely, the condition of her homelessness. She is remarkably disinclined to look to the future, that most American pastime.
She works in a clothing store, but finds it difficult to mix that effortless intrusiveness of the American race with European mannered talk about things of mild concern or relating to taste. She can no more endear than flatter. Whether her earnest inability conceals principle or what is unclear. We learn she is as smart as her sister–she learns book-keeping in night school.
Work as a combination of diligence & intellect, mysteriously productive & productive of a future, is the American way to make a dignified life. The Catholic Church opens this possibility for her & helps her along the way. Whether this would make of America a home for her is unclear. She meets a similarly earnest young Italian who loves her in a way she does not quite understand & can only bring herself to learn slowly.
Love changes her: The confidence of the beloved, not least on account of the lack of confidence of the lover; the pleasure an educated woman takes in the bashfulness of a young man without an education; the chance to enjoy the American pleasures of post-war prosperity with a willing & decent guide; & the future-looking gaiety of youth all conspire to make her a happy young wife–not unaware of her responsibilities or the difficulties lying ahead, but safe in the knowledge that she has church & family to offer some support in hard times.
But then she learns her sister died quietly, secretly of her sickness; her mother will be alone & uncared for now. She must return to her home. The young man, all too aware of his limitations, knows that this homelessness typical of love is no match for the revelation of family in death. He has recourse to the laws: She agrees to marry him.
Then the young woman sees Ireland with new eyes. She will have to choose between old world & new, between the parochial hustle & bustle of Brooklyn, so full of good-nature rudeness, & the quiet parochialism of her small Irish town, where manners are observed while people forget there is any future. Love & family force her to judge about the possible meaning of happiness, its relation to home, & in what way it may be available to her.
The one Hollywood film I’ve seen this year that seems entirely free of the sordid.
God & idol Some notes on the ugliness of our bodies
As you will see, men do not obey gods concerning justice. Murder is required to get the fighters who will make a nation. Lawrence’s army now includes too many unholy people. There could be no other success–everyone they encounter they must overwhelm. Their destiny is their cruelty. There is no other way to keep moving from success to success.
Ali throws away his nobility & submits–he participates in the slaughter. No man can hold himself too holy when the tribe requires that it be avenged. The justice of this conquest requires all these injustices. Arabs now have conceived or have had conceived in them a desire to rule themselves, or at least to be ruled by one from among themselves. In their freedom, they find great resources of terror.
You can see what an element of chance is part of destiny. The divinity of Lawrence does not impress Abu Tayi–it is perishable. His manliness is not his shield. But Lawrence enjoys towering over people who chant his name while showing off what they have acquired by his designs. Lawrence becomes visible–his secrets become their deeds. In some way, they are his slaves now. He is poor, but his poverty makes them rich. He is like Abu Tayi in that respect, but he is a designer of deeds, which the other one is not.
The reporter is cynical. He has never seen savages before, but he is not impressed. Always on the road, he takes his city with him in his heart, but does not know it. He will bring Lawrence into that city & it is a question which of them will win more by it. Far from the savage opinion about deeds–Lawrence is also a master of speeches–he is also a maker of images & knows their influence.
Lawrence has just proved untouchable to bullets & is nevertheless bleeding. He is making himself more untouchable by making himself more visible.
Rule in the desert Some notes on turning science against those who own it
The Arabs are as incapable of making weapons as they are of making cities. But they can conquer them. The user is the true master of something, not the maker. Lawrence teaches them how to rob at an entirely new level: They should use machine guns, rifles, & explosives against those who brought forth such artifacts. But the Arabs understand the principle: The train is an invader in the desert, of enormous power, but also weak, because it cannot conceal itself & its motions are too regular. The Arabs are taking back the desert. Like the desert, they take everything from a man, & leave not even his humanity behind.
Notice the weakness of Lawrence’s authority. He is the author of deeds that escape his control. He cannot get people to stop by shouting or flares. He is their ideal.
Conquest Some notes on the emergence from the desert
Moses led his people through the desert to conquest in order to make a people of them. That was the minimum requirement of divine justice. Lawrence is doing the same. The conquest of Arabia is now underway, for the first time since first Mohammed accomplished it. The Arabs have another prophet, it would seem.
The Turk knows what the Arab knew: The desert is death. It is against all nature for the death in the desert to come out of the desert & fall upon him. So that all his weapons are pointing the wrong way: They are now the weapons of Lawrence. The strategic use of miracles lies in this, in blinding people by their strengths & turning them into weaknesses. This only faith can accomplish.
The god among men Some notes on how rule takes rule of life
Ali gives Lawrence water a second time. This time he is really giving water. This time he has met a man whose generosity far outstretches his own. The first time, Ali murdered one man & spared another. This time, Lawrence spares another–preserves him. Now, Lawrence owns their lives. He has not only for himself surpassed the difference between stranger & familiar–he has taken over the duties of family protection from Ali.
In their souls, they know they are slaves, because they are slaves to necessity. The motion of the desert is such that the motion of man is such that a man who has fallen must be left to die. No one can move out of his way–no one is more free to give or take life than the stars are free in their motions. Something beyond this necessity has reached the Arabs.
The crossing of the desert is the change from faithlessness to faith. They were always ready to be believers–but only now are they believers, when they see someone who not only proved to be as harsh as they are, but also to be gentle in a way they cannot be.
Jesus Christ is said to have said that he came to bring not peace, but a sword. This is what Lawrence thinks he is doing. These men do not know that the miracle he has shown them is not life, but death. They will learn.
The miracle Some notes on the angel of the lord of hosts
This is the experience of a miracle on screen. We see heaven & earth & they are clearly separated, very homogeneous, & limited by a horizon. The world surrounds man. There he lives & knows who he is. But there is something beyond this world: This man hopes in a sign from God: He looks at the horizon. The world, although it is deadly, now looks beautiful. Perhaps we should say that it looks sublime. The simplicity of the scene tells us that what we call morality & religion is a faith embedded in us in our most primary awareness of the world.
The miracle happens. A man brings another man to life. We now see what we should have seen before: The man who lives in this simple world knows that the world is hell. The desert is the truth of this world. A man brought back out of the desert is a man brought back to life. If the simple goodness of life is granted, then we have seen something like resurrection.
Look at the long shot of the meeting. The music does not change. It alternates between a Western triumph & an Eastern mystery. But something changes when the divine being & the faithful are on screen. The world is still heaven & earth separated starkly by an horizon, but now they are possibly united. The relation is depicted simply: One is attracted toward the other. The motion shows the excitement–the faithful one moves right to left & back across the entire screen almost. But Lawrence only moves left to right, at the pace of the camel, unmoved by this devotion.
They meet twice, about halfway to & past the center of the screen. Lawrence not only attracts & turns around the souls of the Arabs, but he controls them–he gets them to follow. This is the truth of the crossing of the merciless desert, now recapitulated with a view not to daring, but something close to piety.