Decency and the Classic Western

June 9, 2011 on 12:34 pm | In daily life, entertainment, ethics, family, internet, morality, politics, Uncategorized | 1 Comment

Last night, Youngest Son watched his first classic western movie. Up until  now, it’s been all science fiction and action adventure in his world. A trip to the local library (DVD rentals are 25 cents a day there) opened his eyes to another genre, and we chose The Magnificent Seven as his introduction. Not the stupid politically correct 1998 TV series, the original Magnificent Seven.

The Magnificent Seven was based on a Japanese film, Seven Samurai. Both movies involve a simple village routinely preyed upon by a band of thieves. In an effort to free themselves from the fear and desperate poverty brought on by the repeated thieving, the villagers seek the help of a band of mercenaries (Samurai in the Japanese version, gunslingers in the American version).

In so many ways, this movie shows what a change America has undergone in the half century since it was made. If our entertainment is at all reflective of our society, this movie gives us much to reflect upon.

There was no mistaking the greed and arrogance of the band of thieves in The Magnificent Seven. Their leader was cheerful, outgoing, riding into town with a smile and a big hello for the locals, who tellingly did not smile back, though they quickly met his every request. He insisted he was merely being a good “father” to his band of men, taking food and supplies from the village for his own people. The idea of working for what they needed was  clearly unthinkable; the village existed, in his mind at least, to provide him and his men what they needed and wanted, be it water or cigars. He expected the villagers to work hard all year and then to hand over the results of their efforts, and they in turn had come to expect and meet his demands (even though they and their families would go hungry).

Talk about being resonant today…

Then there were the “good guys.” They were men who drifted alone across the American west, making a living by gambling and by killing other men. They clearly were not “heroic” in any sense. One of the seven was haunted by his past and had lost his nerve (having nightmares and an inability to shoot even under duress). Another idealized their lifestyle, not realizing the cost it levied on those who pursued it. A third was always looking for the gold mine, the jewels, the big payout that he believed must be ahead. Each had his own flaws, marked ones at that. They came together to answer the request of the villagers for help. There was little money in it ($20 a man) but they all seemed to recognize on some level that helping the village was the right thing to do, regardless of the little reward or the great potential cost (their own lives).

The movie had other noteworthy plot points, including an elderly man who was the villagers’ source of wisdom (do we still think our elderly have wisdom younger generations need)? And best of all, a scene where three village boys bemoan what cowards their farmer fathers are, only to be roundly scolded by their particularly idolized gunslinger. He tells them that courage is shouldering and carrying the “huge boulder” of responsibility for others. Their fathers have done this, and continue to do it. That, he says, is true courage, something he says he will never have.

Do we ever see commitment to one’s family as “courage” any more? Or rather the contrary: Commitment to self is now trumpeted as the goal for our children.

Certainly our entertainment, fifty years later, has lost all of the ethics expressed in The Magnificent Seven. Nobility of character and the heroism of sacrificing self for others is hardly ever seen in modern films, and then only in young adult fare such as the Harry Potter series. When it comes to movies aimed at adults, instead of Yul Brynner and Steve McQueen facing down bandits, refusing an offer to split the assets of the village and willingly risking their own lives to drive out the predators, we have…what? Brokeback Mountain?

God help us.

Is there any wonder that our politicians are given a poster boy in Congressman Weiner, texting photos of his genitals to other women? And far too many people aren’t upset by that behavior? Never mind how it will affect his pregnant wife of one year, the rest of his family,  the staffers working for him,  the people he was elected to represent. He’s just doing what he wants to liven up those boring workdays, and it’s not illegal, is it? Unless one of the recipients was underage, or complains of sexual harassment, but hey, it’s not like he claimed to be perfect, right? He’s never said he was a champion for family values, or even all that monogamous (and we know that being married doesn’t mean anyone has to be faithful to those silly “vows”). Weiner is not a hypocrite, he’s just stupid. And a liar, but hey, everyone lies, right?

Intellectually, I understand this kind of thinking. I understand that we have an entire segment of society–the liberal left–that holds amorality as their standard. Everyone is just doing what is right in their own eyes. There’s a compelling logical analysis of this thought process over on Pajamas Media; the crux of it is that one must have a moral code to begin with in order to behave in a hypocritical manner:

For conservatives to be hypocrites when they do something immoral, then that means they must profess a moral ideology in the first place. And — here’s the key — for the liberals to be let off the hook when they do something immoral, then that means they must profess an ideology with no moral claims whatsoever.

But when you sit back, and you see decency and self sacrifice played out on the screen in a way that makes it clear you don’t have to be a saint to have some moral standards, nor do you need to be a hero to behave heroically, you realize what we are losing. We are losing the ability to put other people’s well being before our own desires. We are losing the sense of responsibility that used to define us as decent individuals. We need that. We need it badly. We need it in our homes, and in our public leaders.

The alternative we are now seeing quite clearly as well, and it’s sickening.

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  1. Dude! Bro (the other one) and I caught a little of that movie on tv several years back! Heheh. I remember thinking it was kind a strange seeing Yul Brynner in cowboy getup.

    And it’s kinda sad that one comes to expect this kind of behaviour from officials.

    Reply

    Comment by RTsFirst — June 9, 2011 #

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