A western that parallels events today

  • November 2, 2003
{mosimage}Contrary to rumours carried by the better class of newspaper, western movies are not dead and will not die. The west, the frontier, the endless sky, the open plain, the man on horseback, the pistol, the rifle, the Indian, the settler, the rancher and the farmer have a claim on the American imagination because they're there in American history.

Or, never mind the history. Director Ron Howard's new movie demonstrates that the beautiful landscape of mountains and plains is still beautiful - still the best backdrop a movie could ever hope for.
John Wayne, however, is dead. And westerns will never be so sweet, so uncomplicated, as they were before the Vietnam War ended, President Nixon declared he wasn't a crook, President Reagan used his office to bust unions, President Clinton argued with lawyers about the meaning of 'is,- and President Bush went chasing evil in the desert at the urging of semi-literate, quasi-Christian shamans.

Howard has produced a western for his country today - one that confronts American evil in the American west. The Missing is a splendid, beautiful movie about brutal violence and a spiritual war for the American soul.
Two hours of churning, taut drama are built on the simple structure of a chase. Maggie Gilkeson's (Cate Blanchett) teenage daughter is kidnapped by a band of politically desperate, spiritually perverted Apache. The girl will be sold into sexual slavery in Mexico.

The mother's only hope is her irresponsible, long missing father, Samuel Jones (Tommy Lee Jones). Jones was unable to cope with the responsibilities of fatherhood as a young man, so abandoned his family to live a marginal, uncertain life as a trapper and fur trader among the Apache. He learned to speak the language and pray with the Apache, but he could not become an Indian. Caught between cultures (or without a culture), Jones has irrevocably turned his back on the obligations and hopes of white settlers.

The U.S. government and its army are no help to the frantic mother. They are a bureaucratic and brutish occupying force artificially plunked down on the western landscape.

Gilkeson is a Christian crusader with a giant silver cross dangling from her neck in every scene, carrying a Bible in her saddle pack. She is teamed up with a father who has abandoned every outward sign of Christianity.

They are chasing a man of iron will, immense spiritual power and absolute faith. Pesh-Chidin (Canadian Eric Schweig) is called a brujo, Spanish for witch. He is a former United States Army scout who saw his employer massacre his own people and murder his chief.

We know his motivation, but the spiritual face of his plan to exact revenge and visit havoc on white America is portrayed as incomprehensible. Kidnapping girls doesn't really constitute a war, and cannot result in victory. It's just terrorism. Meanwhile, Pesh-Chidin�s people are being forced marched in chains across the continent to a concentration camp in Florida.

{amazon id='B00005JMPT' align='right'}In The Missing, the west is a place of extraordinary violence which threatens constantly to overwhelm every inclination toward peace, healing, transcendence and civilization. Gilkeson is a self-made doctor and Christian rancher whose husband is dead, was raped as a teenager and sleeps with a hired hand she refuses to marry. Her father resorts to violence at every slight or imagined threat. Guns are everywhere, and part of every conversation.

In this environment, both the Indians and the settlers cling to religion and its symbols for protection. Gilkeson's Christianity gets no further than an elemental cry for God's protection. Pesh-Chidin's prayers are the pleading of the powerless for power in the face of overwhelming oppression.

The war between these two basic religious impulses takes place in one of The Missing's few scenes without weapons. Pesh-Chidin puts a hex on Gilkeson, who is felled by a fever. Apache and Christian prayers are marshaled against Pesh-Chidin's incantations over a strand of Gilkeson's hair. The war of prayers at the heart of the movie is a template for the shooting war which follows.

The west is, for America, a mythic place. In The Missing, it is the background for a political parable. Here we have America as a colonial, occupying power that is blind to its own violence and denies it even is the colonizer. It is opposed by an enemy which has been robbed of all hope, and who cannot - at first - be understood.

Out in the desert these two forces clash blindly.

Some popcorn munchers may fail to see the parallels with the United States in the Middle East, and particularly in Iraq. The same Americans who wondered after Sept. 11 why these people hated them may see only a grand, romantic adventure movie. But others may ask themselves what is missing as America goes to war.
What is missing from American ideals, its history, its understanding and culture which has landed them in a world of violence, chasing phantoms?

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