Tuesday, 31 January 2023

Baumann: What I learned growing up on John Wayne movies

Deb Baumann enjoying a “Chisum moment” overlooking Clear Lake in Lake County, Calif. Courtesy photo.

Some dismiss “Chisum” (1970) as a run-of-the-mill Hollywood horse opera, but when I saw it as a kid during its initial release, it made a lasting impact. (To this day, whenever I pause my horse on a high spot with beautiful landscape spreading out far below, I think of the iconic image of John Wayne atop his horse at the beginning of this movie... I call these "Chisum moments.")

“Chisum” was written and produced by John Wayne's own company, and encapsulates the classic JW western themes – tapping into a mythology deeply rooted in the American psyche.

Wayne plays a tough rancher overseeing a cattle empire he "carved out of the wilderness" 25 years before. The old days that relied on guns are over, and now civilization, law and order are taking root.

Along with civilization comes vulture capitalism, as personified by L.J. Murphy, an Eastern dude with lots of money and no morals. He starts buying everything in town, crassly putting his name in giant signs atop every business, "throwing a wide loop" as westerners say. He buys the sheriff, too. He is a greedy and corrupt bully, intent on monopolizing the town's commerce and destroying all competition.

John Wayne/Chisum walks into the saloon as an old vaquero, Juan, is being told he can no longer water his cattle at Muddy Creek, according to the land's new owner, Murphy. As Juan dejectedly begins to leave, Chisum says "Juan, you and your compadres can water your herds at my creek" (community sticks together and shares resources, regardless of race or economic status).

Through devious legalities, Murphy obtains the only general store and doubles the prices (monopoly capitalism exploiting the community). The poorer ranchers cannot afford the high prices, so Murphy says his bank will provide loans in return for mortgages on their ranches (mortgage-fraud banksters robbing people of their land). To counter this vulture capitalism, Chisum starts a bank and store of his own, with lower prices and better rates than Murphy's ("in the spirit of healthy competition" he says to Murphy, who is no longer smiling).

Murphy bribes the captain of the nearby fort to buy cattle from him instead of from Chisum, promising that when the captain retires from the Army there is a position waiting for him on Murphy's bank board (corrupt revolving door between private corporation and military industrial complex).

All the while, Chisum is trying to be civilized and counter Murphy's evil moves with legal responses, instead of resorting to the "old ways" of frontier violence. Finally, however, Murphy takes things too far, good people are murdered, and Chisum does what he "would’ve done 25 years ago."

The movie culminates in a giant fisticuff brawl (of course!), between Chisum and Murphy. John Wayne wins, the bad guys are run out of town, and peace and justice are restored to the community. The End.

Lessons I learned growing up on John Wayne movies:

– Live honorably – never lie, cheat or steal. Keep your word, or you are nothing.
– Work hard to earn what you have, don't freeload, but neither be a greed-hog.
– Protect the weak and to be generous to those in need.
– Defend justice and the rule of law. No one is above the law.
– Don't pick fights, but don't back down, either, when right is on your side.
– Although most people are good, there are also bad people in this world, and those bad people must be resisted and not allowed to trample the rights or lives of others. Heading the list of bad people: Nazis. Also bad: braggarts, bigots, bullies and anyone who discriminates against a race or religion. Most JW movies have villains who are bullies, braggarts, bigots or racists, and the Duke puts them in their proper place (usually prone and unconscious).
– Always do the right thing, because it's the right thing to do.
– True worth is an internal quality, one that cannot be bought or measured in dollars. It is shared by all people of good will and good character who work hard and live honorably, regardless of social status, gender, race or religion.
– Take care of your horse before you take care of yourself.

Core values developed in my childhood have not changed. I still aspire for the USA to be a nation that is honorable, fair, just and prosperous, with equality of opportunity for all. These values belong to neither the left nor the right, but to all of us.

Republicans, Democrats and the majority who are neither … We should celebrate what joins us together as one people, one nation, indivisible. A nation of immigrants. A melting pot of many cultures. This is who we are.

We, the people, have far more in common with each other, regardless of race, creed, religion or political party, than any of us have with the wealthy power-abusers who have co-opted our government.

We, the people, can prevail when we work together. The power-abusers know this, and they are afraid of our numbers. To keep their stranglehold on power, they divide us, Red against Blue.

I know where JW/Chisum would stand, in this struggle. He'd be with us, the people, against the power-abusers. He'd be ready to charge hell itself with nothing but a bucket of water, if that's what it takes to restore democracy to the USA.

In “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance” (1962), John Wayne is the only person the outlaw Liberty Valance fears enough to back down from. James Stewart is the greenhorn lawyer who is robbed and beaten by the sadistic Valence.

Wayne's character can be viewed as the Conservative, Stewart's as the Progressive. Two different points of view, but they are both good people. They are both against lawlessness, against the powerful exploiting the powerless. They both believe in liberty, freedom and fairness. One carries a gun and will not hesitate to use it when necessary. The other rejects violence and believes legal jurisprudence must prevail, even in the wild west.

But again – and this cannot be emphasized enough – they are both good people, and they are on the same side. America's side.

Our nation was like that once, and not that long ago. In my lifetime. We were not divided the same way we are today, wherein power-abusers convince both Democratic and Republican voters to regard each other as enemies, each side believing that "our party" represents Good and "the other party" represents Evil.

Again, We the People have far more in common with each other, than any of us has with the power-abusers.

The power-abusers know that, which is why they invest so much in media propaganda designed to focus our energies against each other. Lost your home? Lost your job? "Blame the others!"

Blame immigrants, blame other religions, blame other races, blame the poor. Blame the powerless. Blame the other party. But whatever you do … Don't. Look. Up.

Don’t blame the corrupt people at the top, the ones who have all the power, and ones who are robbing us blind, sucking the life-blood out of the American economy and stashing it in offshore tax havens. Don't look up!


That's how we got into this mess.

To fix this corrupt, rigged system, to restore democracy and take back our government, We the People must come together, and start a better dialogue with each other.

I wish more of my Democrat friends knew how to enjoy a good John Wayne movie, and I wish my Republican friends could acknowledge how far the Grand Old Party has strayed from what it used to be, back in the day when Republicans like John Wayne made movies like “Chisum,” which show Americans of different races, genders, religions, languages, nations of birth, educations and social class – white collar and blue collar – coming together to fight the Real Enemy: corruption and abuse by wealthy powermongers that believe they can buy anything, including the law itself.

Deb Baumann lives in Upper Lake, Calif.

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