It would be easy to view the recent spate of movies and documentaries that side with Amerindians against the white man as no more than a long-delayed surge of racial revenge, and of course that emotion is openly expressed in all of them. I refer to the cycle, begun by Dances with Wolves, that includes Hollywood’s Geronimo as well as the Discovery Channel’s documentary series How the West Was Lost, the Arts & Entertainment’s series The Real West, the Turner Network Television productions The Native Americans, Geronimo, The Broken Chain, Lakota Woman: Siege at Wounded Knee, Tecumseh: The Last Warrior, and Michael Mann’s 1992 remake of The Last of the Mohicans. If we confine our view to the revisionist “Native American” epics, the denunciation of aggressive, imperialist white American culture is virtually all that is noticeable; broaden the view, however, to include the revisionist Scottish-nationalist sagas Rob Roy and Braveheart, and a different message is revealed.
The two most recent epics—Mel Gibson’s Braveheart and Turner’s Tecumseh —are so similarly plotted as to be the same movie set five centuries and an ocean apart. (In particular, the scenes of the clans/tribes reveling in the night by torchlight bring home how very much like “redskins” our European ancestors lived, well into the Christian era.) William Wallace’s father is butchered in battle by his hereditary enemies, the English, in the 13th century, and the grieving boy sees his body laid out, then interred. Ever afterward, William is visited by his father (and later his murdered wife Marion) in inspirational dreams. Tecumseh’s father is killed in battle by his hereditary enemies, the whites (perhaps by William Henry Harrison himself), in the 18th century, an event Tecumseh sees in a premonitory dream, and the body is sorrowfully returned and interred.
Both heroes are prone to dreaming, which signifies their reliance on preconscious, “irrational” ways of knowing, but while Wallace’s dreams are conscience-like goads that keep him true to his quarrel with the English, Tecumseh’s (like Geronimo‘s) often serve as practical guides from the spirit world to what is fated to happen or what to do next. As Julian Jaynes observed in The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind, once modern subjective consciousness evolved, only severe crises could again call forth in certain susceptible individuals the inner voice of the “gods,” or “spirit possession,” such as is found so serenely and routinely dictating the heroes’ acts in an archaic trance-epic like The Iliad.
Wallace and Tecumseh are both reviled by their civilized contemporaries as wild men, sauvages who exist in a (free) state of nature. Yet each startles his opponents with sophistication: Tecumseh knows English and has been taught to read and write, while Wallace’s Uncle Argyll has had him made literate in English, French, and Latin. But their core unity is each man’s obsession with his people and its traditional way of life, which is seen, simply, as freedom. In passionate speeches to the enemy as well as to sellouts among their own kind, Wallace and Tecumseh declare that any suffering endured under conditions of freedom is preferable to the most seductive prosperity and security granted by giving up the struggle: “We starve, but we are still free.” “No surrender!” is the war cry of both. Wallace strives to resolve the warring clans into a united strike force, just as Tecumseh belatedly sees the need for the warring tribes to join together in driving out the whites.
The parallel “sellouts” are those Scottish nobles and native chiefs who bargain away the people’s birthright and land while enriching themselves. The parallel enemy is seen torching humble villages and harassing women and children. He is above all treacherous, sure to break whatever parole or treaty he coerces or cajoles clan or tribe into signing; unbounded in arrogance and imperial rapacity; but of course so superior in number, mounts, and weaponry that only lightning raids and daring ambushes avail against him. The betrayal and rout of Wallace and his men at Falkirk resembles the tribes’ entrapment and betrayal at Fallen Timbers. The scenes of bluedaubed, kilt-swathed Scottish Highlanders charging massed English horse with bloodcurdling yells correspond frame for frame to the warpainted, breechclouted, screeching Shawnees charging the bluecoat cavalry.
In the end, Wallace is seized and will not beg the King for a merciful death, so his body is desecrated: hanged, racked, drawn, beheaded, and quartered as a warning to all traitors. Tecumseh, too, is slain, but his body (like that of Crazy Horse of the Lakota) is spirited away to avert the sickening fate that befell Sitting Bull’s corpse. The martyred spirit of Wallace is reborn in Robert the Bruce, while Tecumseh’s waits like Frederick Barbarossa, sleeping king of the Germanic tribes, for the day when it may awake and lead its people back to freedom.
The central theme in this broader parallelism, then, is the yearning for lost liberty, a yearning which subsumes and transcends the racial content. Similarly, one of the most powerful recent evocations of the smoldering “Don’t Tread on Me” attitude that was to ignite our own long-ago revolt against tyranny is achieved by The Last of the Mohicans. Hawkeye is a New World hybrid, not only an emissary from the vanishing world of les sauvages but a spokesman for the poor, hardy colonists who have chosen to endure the hardships of frontier life rather than “live by anyone’s leave.” The heroine’s rejection of her father’s Old World view of the individual’s duty in favor of the proto-revolutionary vision of Hawkeye and his companions is drama that electrifies every American zone of the body.
Rob Roy and Braveheart are also virtually the same movie, set four centuries and a few glens apart. The director of Rob Roy has been at pains to disparage Sir Walter Scott’s Waverley novel as a Romantic distortion of the facts, yet there is more historical subtlety and clear-eyed ambivalence about our hero/villain in Scott’s Introduction to Rob Roy than in the new film, which takes much docudramatic license while transposing key elements of the story. Scott astutely explains Rob’s lasting appeal: “He owed his fame in a great measure to his residing on the very verge of the Highlands, and playing such pranks in the beginning of the eighteenth century as are usually ascribed to Robin Hood in the Middle Ages, and that within forty miles of Glasgow, a great commercial city. . . . Thus a character like his, blending the wild virtues, the subtle policy, and unrestrained licence of an American Indian, was flourishing in Scotland during the Augustan age of Queen Anne and George I.”
Of course the true parallels between a Wallace and a Tecumseh are not cinematic but historical. Historian John Prebble might have been describing the violent ruin of Amerindian ways of life when he said that his book The Highland Clearances “is the story of how the Highlanders were deserted and then betrayed. It concerns itself with people, how sheep were preferred to them, and how bayonet, truncheon and fire were used to drive them from their homes. It has been said that the Clearances are now far enough away from us to be decently forgotten. But the hills are still empty. In all of Britain only among them can one find real solitude, and if their history is known there is no satisfaction to be got from the experience.”
None of the films discussed here was made solely to flog the obsessions of Amerindian activists or Scottish Nationalists, however; their makers are responding to a terrible hunger for human freedom in an increasingly nightmarish world. The horrors they recreate on film are the history, this time written by the victims, of how the world got to be the prison within a prison it is today.
Frederick Jackson Turner’s “frontier hypothesis” of American history can also be understood as the “anarchic freedom” hypothesis: the national character has been formed by the pull of vast unpeopled spaces that gave birth, according to an expedition chronicler writing in 1819, to an unquenchable craving for life “wherein the artificial wants and the uneasy restraints inseparable from a crowded population are not known, wherein we feel ourselves dependent immediately and solely on the bounty of nature, and the strength of our own arm” (quoted in Henry Nash Smith’s Virgin Land: The American West as Symbol and Myth). The frontier is the best of both worlds: savage freedom embraced by a civilized sensibility. As such it is inherently unstable, a fragile and fleeting moment, then tragedy. The closing of “the last frontier” has been announced so many times the words seem meaningless, but with each announcement it becomes more dismally true. Apologists for progress are fond of clucking that, after all, such absolute freedom has never actually existed, so there is nothing to long for, nothing to mourn. But anyone with sense knows that an ideal does not have to be actual to be real.
Henry Nash Smith believed that Turner’s thesis was inadequate, in the end, because for some reason it failed to locate any “basis for democracy” in America other than the independent yeomanry that began to wither with the closure of the frontier. More recently, Victor Davis Hanson’s The Other Greeks: The Family Farm and the Agrarian Roots of Western Civilization argues that “Agrarian populism, not intellectual contemplation, farmers, not philosophers, ‘other Greeks,’ not the small cadre of refined minds who have always comprised the stuff of Classics, were responsible for the creation” of western democracy. In other words, freedom is not a theoretical construct inherited by reading the right books but a way of life backed up by genuine material independence and self-reliance. With the death of anything resembling economic autonomy for the mass of modern individuals, “democracy” too is a corpse, much thumped but impossible to reanimate. Our “basis for democracy” is gone, but its mystique staggers on, muttering arcane formulae.
In the real Westerns that were made until about 1960, the North’s destruction of the agrarian South was often added to the theme of the vanishing frontier, with embittered Johnny Rebs heading westward at war’s end for one last taste of unregulated living. Outlawry itself, in the form of the Dalton, James, Younger, and other gangs of dispossessed Confederates, was often likened to Indian “renegadism” a la Geronimo—a natural response to being marginalized and persecuted by the relentless forces of progress. Many chronicles of white captivity made the point, expressed by Zane Grey in his first novel published almost a century ago, that “the free picturesque life of the Indians would have appealed to any white man; that it had a wonderful charm . . . how easily white boys became Indianized, so attached to the wild life of freedom of the redmen that it was impossible to get the captives to return to civilized life.”
Such important insights, like so many others once the common intellectual property of Americans, have of course been extinguished in recent years. Yet we are fortunate that art is still capable of restoking these buried embers. We are all, German, Brit, Scot, and Lakota alike, the pitiable relicts of free ancestors. And as the forces of progress accelerate their final roundup for the One World Reservation, we are all redskins now.
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