The Coen Brothers and the Swarthy Hordes

Comments on The Gal Who Got Rattled, in The Ballad of Buster Scruggs
directed by the Joel and Ethan Coen, 2018

In The Ballad of Buster Scruggs (Netflix, 2018), the Coen Brothers have produced a collection of six short stories that pay homage to the genre of classic Western fiction that entertained young boys in the early 20th century and later inspired the Hollywood Western in mid-century. In one story, The Gal Who Got Rattled (based on a story published in 1901), there seems to be a deliberate modern interpretation of the paradigm of “the wagon train versus the swarthy hordes.” It is a theme analyzed by Michael Parenti which he claims is a grotesque reversal of the historical roles of usurper and usurped. I found it curious and outrageous that the Coen Brothers used their prestigious talents to rehash a genre that we should have been glad to see buried in the past. Before further discussion, let’s go over the first few minutes of Michael Parenti’s lecture:

Michael Parenti: Rambo and the Swarthy Hordes (1989) Introduction (12 minutes)    Full lecture (54 minutes)
Entertainment media as a propaganda vehicle for American ruling class interests and attitudes

Michael Parenti is an author and political analyst. Among his books are The Sword and the Dollar, Inventing Reality, History As Mystery, and his latest The Terrorism Trap. This talk was given in 1989 in North Hollywood, California during the administration of George Bush the First, an administration consisting of most of the same players that occupy positions in the present Bush administration. (Introduction to the lecture written in 2002)

Michael Parenti:

I wanted today to give attention to the other side of the media—not the news media but the entertainment media because the entertainment media consumes a much larger share of the viewing time of most Americans than do the news programs. And I thought I would call this book something like The Hidden Political Images of the Entertainment Media, and then as I thought about it, I said, “Well, what’s so hidden about it?” It’s rather blatant. And what I looked at are Hollywood films—that’s what I’m studying—Hollywood films and TV dramas, TV mini-series, teleplays and the like. What I find is a real abundance of images and ideologies, ones that are essentially supportive of imperialism, anti-communism, capitalism, racism, sexism, militarism, authoritarian violence, vigilantism, and anti-working-class attitudes. More specifically, I found these kinds of themes:

(1) Individual heroics predominate over collective action. There’s almost no collective action. There’s almost no story or drama where people organize together and do something for themselves. There are one or two exceptions. When they do and there is collective action, they are usually led by some hero who has to spur them on and really do the whole thing himself.

(2) Free enterprise is the best economic system in the world. That’s a message which is not necessarily telegraphed so much as it is presumed. Certainly there’s nothing positive ever uttered about alternative systems in the entertainment media.

(3) Private monetary gain is a central and worthy objective of life, although those who are too wickedly greedy—the Dynasty guys and Dallas fellows—they can meet with disapproval. Sometimes business characters are insensitive to other people’s needs because they’re so busy with their business activities, but when properly apprised of the problems and such, they are suddenly capable of legendary acts of generosity which I’ve never seen in real life, but I see in television dramas. “The kid needs the house? Give it to him.” “Give the factory to Joe. He’s a good guy.” And that sort of thing.

(4) Workers are beer guzzling regular Joe’s. I mean they’re good-natured and all that, but really not very bright, incapable… they’re almost always incapable of leadership and of acting as agents of their own lives. One wonders really where labor unions came from class bigotry is a very common form of bigotry, and it remains totally unchallenged, unlike gender bigotry or race bigotry which at least is challenged today. The practices and forms of class bigotry go on in abundance in the media and remain unchallenged.

(5) Affluent professionals in almost all programs are considered much more interesting than blue-collar or ordinary service workers. There are many more of them as principal characters.

(6) Women and ethnic minorities are really not as capable, effective or interesting as white males.

(7) In cop shows, the police and everyone else should be given a free a hand in combating the large criminal element in America using generous applications of force and violence without too much attention to constitutional rights.

(8) The ills of society are caused by individual malefactors, and not by anything in the socio-economic system.

(9) US military force is directed only toward laudable goals, or more often the goals are not even stated… I mean why are people doing all this fighting and killing? It’s a question that remains largely unstated.

(10) Western industrial and military might, especially the US’s, has been a civilizing force for the benefit of backward peoples throughout the third world.

(11) The United States and the entire Western world have long been threatened from abroad by foreign aggressors such as the Russians, communists, terrorists, Arab terrorists, and generally the swarthy hordes of less developed peoples.

(12) … the paradigm of the wagon train versus the swarthy hordes [was] first enunciated very well in a marvelous article by Tom Engelhardt in The Bulletin of Atomic Scientists. It could be happening in the American Wild West. It could be in the Amazon jungle, the North African desert, the Sudan, the Transvaal, the South Pacific jungles or Indochina. The scene is generally the same. There’s a fort, or an encampment, or a wagon train, and inside that encampment are the human beings. They are white. They’re human. They’re warm. They’re attractive. They talk and they’re nice. Outside come the swarthy hordes, the savages. They can be Indians. They could be Bushmen. They can be Arabs on camels and horses, or whatever else, and they are these sub-humans. And they are attacking the human beings and the wagons form their circle, and the human beings know what to do. They level their guns and they begin to knock off, shoot and kill these screaming savages who attack them.

Why do the swarthy hordes attack the white people? You don’t know, and they never tell you. Is it to protect their lands? Is it to protect their herds? Is it to protect their villages, and their towns, and their families, and their children? No, it’s just because they like to do that. That’s their thing. They like to attack, and so they have to be killed. And by the way, it’s not even bravery that they manifest as they charge in great numbers and get cut down in horrible numbers.

This is not even bravery, although similar acts by whites would be portrayed as heroic. This itself is portrayed as a manifestation of the swarthy hordes, their fanatic, crazed way of wanting to bloodlust.

Now the trouble with this paradigm is that it turns the history of the last 400 years on its head. It reverses the roles of usurper and usurped. It reverses the roles of victim and victimizer. It reverses the roles of those who were massacred and those who are doing the massacring. It was the European and North American civilizers (so-called) who went in there and destroyed the villages, and destroyed their industries, and destroyed their townships.

Read Engels on North Africa—what happened to the Arabs and Berbers. He goes in and describes the beautiful towns with their fine hard stone and plaster buildings, and their woolen industries, and their mining industries, and their arts and crafts and all that, and then read the description of the French troops coming in and systematically destroying it and killing every man, woman and child. Read about how the Germans went into South Africa and killed the Herero tribe. 80,000 people they killed—60,000 of them, and the other 20,000 they used as slave labor in their mines.

Read Mark Twain’s angry raging comments about King Leopold of Belgium, calling him a Mad Dog for what he did to the innocent, unoffending people of the Congo, taking them and enslaving them—a million of them a year dying in the mines in the Congo. That’s what the history is about. That’s what John Wayne is about. And what these films do is they reverse that history, standing it on its head. They do what Joseph Goebbels said: they give you a big lie, and they embellish it, and they make you root for the guys in the wagon train.

Now once you kill, and once you plunder like that, once you go in to take another people’s land, and steal their labor, and enslave their labor and take their resources, and pre-empt and take over their markets, once you do that kind of act—and it wasn’t the ordinary people of Europe and North America that did it—it was the ruling interest that did it, and they used our taxes, our money, and our sons to go fight. But once you do that, you have to do two other things, ideologically and psychologically. One thing is you have to deny the humanity of your victims. They are sub-humans and they are moral inferiors. As John Wayne said in one of his horse operas in 1953, “There’s humans and then there’s Comanches.” A very clear message. He couldn’t have said it better. “There’s humans and then there’s Comanches.” You’re not killing human beings. You’re killing these wild animals. By the way, you get the same quotes from Winston Churchill about the Afghanis. You can get the same quotes from George Washington about American Indians, and you can get them from any number of imperialists.

The second thing you do is you must ascribe all your crimes to them. You deny your own inhumanity, and you accuse your victims of doing to you what you have been doing to them all along.

(end of excerpt, see the full lecture on YouTube)

I chose to frame this short review with Michael Parenti’s thirty-year-old lecture because sadly little has changed in popular entertainment, even that of the hip, progressive and intelligent directors whom we might assume are too sophisticated to deal in the old tropes and stereotypes of Hollywood in the John Wayne era. The Coen Brothers are certainly among the most talented and knowledgeable directors ever to come out of Hollywood. I can’t deny that I have enjoyed their films. However, because of their great gifts for storytelling, comedy and blending of genres, critics have heaped on the praise but seldom examined the propaganda messages inherent in their stories. If we consider them briefly, though, what do we see?

In the first lines of their first film, Blood Simple (1984), voice over narration of a character speaking from beyond the grave says:

The world is full of complainers. But the fact is, nothing comes with a guarantee. Now, I don't care if you’re the pope of Rome, president of the United States or Man of the Year. Something can always go wrong. And go ahead, you know—complain. Tell your problems to your neighbor. Ask for help. And watch him fly. Now, in Russia, they got it mapped out so that everyone pulls for everyone else. That's the theory, anyway. But what I know about is Texas. And down here, you're on your own.

It is odd that the Coen Brothers’ catalog begins with this reference to communism then portrays an utterly cynical view of life within American capitalism. One could keep this brief monologue in mind while viewing every film that followed in their career. Primarily, they are all set in the United States and they all depict alienated, desperate and damaged people struggling to make it in a society where “you’re on your own.” The excessive violence in many of the films is too well known to require further discussion.

The Big Lebowski (1997) was set in the end of the Cold War and the approaching victory in the Gulf War—the end of an era in which “the bums lost,” as the wealthy Lebowski tells his “loser” doppelganger. The film is a recognized classic, a comic masterpiece, and the Dude (Jeff Bridges) has become a revered icon of 20th century American culture. He is celebrated, yet few have reflected on what a depressing message the film conveys. It tells us that those who resisted American militarism gave up the fight and drifted into drugs and fetish hobbies like bowling, and succumbed to greedy schemes such as we see in the film—fighting to retrieve a stolen possession or scamming to get a reward for recovering ransom money. The protagonist is a former high-ranking peace activist, one of the drafters of the Port Huron statement, but now he is just a bum, and a rather mentally challenged one. He’s stoned and drunk all the time, and his clumsiness is the butt of most of the jokes. Faced with the loss of a mere carpet, he tosses his pacifism aside and decides to “go to war” to get it back, urged on by his war veteran pal and the tough talk of President Bush the First emanating from every television. The president’s words just flow thoughtlessly out of the Dude’s mouth as he demands justice for his ruined carpet: “This aggression will not stand, man.” This is the message of the film: Even those who cared most deeply about building a better society were just a bunch of hippies and dope heads. All was lost, and resistance was futile as America “won” the Cold War and geared up for the invasion of Iraq. It is a reiteration of the Archie Bunker stereotype, that “workers are beer guzzling [or dope smoking] regular Joe’s, good-natured and all that, but really not very bright, incapable,” as Parenti put it.
The same class bigotry appeared almost twenty years later in Hail, Caesar (2016), with a group of communist writers portrayed as greedy kidnappers and other assorted Hollywood stars shown as too stupid to act “as agents of their own lives.” The movie studio would not function without the leadership of its one serious man, the head of “physical production,” who spends his days and nights fixing and covering up the assorted scandals that his hapless charges create.

Perhaps the most egregious example of the Coen Brothers’ drift into ruling class propagandizing comes from their most recent work, the collection of short stories entitled The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, now playing on Netflix. The story within called The Gal Who Got Rattled features a wagon train on its way to Oregon. The build-up in the first forty-two minutes of the story shows a sweet, innocent courtship between a couple who meet during the journey and decide to homestead together once they reach their destination. This set-up serves to show us who the human beings are, and it is very well done. Then they are contrasted with the group of nineteen “savages” who appear at the crest of a hill and attack the human beings during the last seven minutes of the story. When the savages appear, the young fiancée has wandered away from the wagon train during a rest stop. The manager of the wagon train senses danger and rides off to look for her. Her betrothed, a loyal employee of the manager, remains behind, unaware of the situation. The manager finds the young maiden, but it is too late. The savages have appeared in the distance. It is impossible to flee on horseback because their horses will trip in the patch of prairie-dog holes they are in, so they must “stand their ground,” as they say in American parlance. It is notable that the writers take a somewhat politically correct course by not mentioning any particular Native American tribe. They enemy is referred to as “savages” and “Indians” only—no specific mention of Comanches in the modern version.

The manager warns the young lady about the horrible situation they have to face:

They don’t know how to fight. If they was to come front and back, I couldn’t handle them, but they rush in a bunch like damn fools. Take this, miss. It got two bullets in it. It ain’t for shooting Indians. If I see we’re licked, I’m going to shoot you then shoot myself, so that’s OK. But if you see that I’m done for, well, you’re going to have to do it for yourself. You put it right there [points to her forehead] so you can’t miss. If they catch you, it won’t be so good. After they take off every stitch of your clothes and have their way with you, they’ll stretch you out with a rawhide and drive a stake through the middle of your body into the ground, and then they’ll do some other things. And we can’t have that.

Battle scene from The Gal Who Got Rattled,
The Ballad of Buster Scruggs

Here we have all that Parenti described, freshly re-issued in the year 2018. It’s a wonder that the Coen Brothers could dare to ask Native American actors to participate in this travesty. What sort of awkward discussions did they have with them while filming this scene? It may be true that brutal raids like this occurred in the late 19th century, but the story tells us nothing about how the Native Indians’ cultures had been destroyed to such an extent that the surviving men roamed the prairie committing such desperate acts of retribution, like modern day suicide bombers in the Middle East. As with all the post-911 stories about terrorism, there is no discussion of root causes and the preceding decades of political destabilization. They just attack with wild abandon. They are “fools” and “they don’t know how to fight.” That’s just what they do.

With all of their superb talents, why couldn’t the Coen Brothers write a story about the complex history of the West, one that would humanize Native Americans, tell the story from their point of view, and teach something realistic about American history? It’s not like it’s never been done before. Ten years ago, HBO’s Deadwood portrayed how treaties with the Sioux were broken by the US government as soon as gold was discovered in the Black Hills. In 1970, Arthur Penn turned the imperialist Western genre on its head with Little Big Man. Instead, the Coen Brothers find it more worthwhile to apply their considerable talents to a nostalgic indulgence in the tropes of Hollywood history, recycling tales of the West in ways that were done seventy years ago. And they might even being doing this with a sense of self-conscious irony, perhaps with some cynical awareness that contemporary audiences are ripe to fall for this retrospective on the classic Western. If so, such cynicism was astute. The critics are lapping it up. The National Board of Review named The Ballad of Buster Scruggs as one of their top ten best films of 2018, and it’s a rumored favorite for Oscar season. Such popularity speaks volumes about the political mood of these times in which the so-called left chastises the disdained occupant of the White House for being too hesitant to continue the recent history of destroying Middle Eastern countries. I wrote above that it is outrageous, but the revival of the besieged-wagon-train motif shouldn’t be a surprise.

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