About mid-way through She Wore A Yellow Ribbon, the second movie in what’s often called John Ford’s Cavalry Trilogy, there’s a funeral scene for an elderly private killed in a skirmish with Indians. “We commend to your keeping, sir, ” John Wayne intones, “the soul of Brougham Clay, late Brigadier General of the Confederate States Army, known to his comrades as Trooper John Smith, a gallant soldier and a Christian gentleman.” Then, while the bugler blows Taps, a few soldiers step forward and drape the coffin with a miniature Confederate battle flag sewn together from remnants of a lady’s petticoats. First time I saw that scene it had little or no significance for me–recently arrived from England, I hadn’t a clue about the American Civil War.
England had had its own Civil War (about which I was only slightly less murky) a couple of centuries earlier than their Yankee cousins. But somehow that conflict is not nearly as enshrined in the nation’s history as is our domestic version–perhaps because the English rebels under Oliver Cromwell were rather more successful (although not in the long run), even managing to cut off the King’s head. Hard to make a case for a romantic “lost cause” when you win the bloody war.
The South, of course, lost their war–and for some reason that lost cause became a familiar plot thread in westerns, with ex-Confederates often cast as sympathetic and heroic characters. Today, with statues of Confederate generals–many of them “gallant soldiers and Christian gentlemen” in real life–being draped in black or hauled to unknown destinations in the dark of night, it might be hard to sell such an image. In fact, more modern movies (see: Tarantino, Quentin) portray a much grimmer image of the Confederacy than the nostalgic view of Hollywood’s “Golden Age” westerns. That’s in part because those movies were careful to ignore the 800 lb gorilla in the room; ex-Confederates were usually ranchers, lawmen or Indian fighters before the Civil War, not genteel plantation owners–and, by extension, slave owners. The lone exception I remember was Gary Cooper in Vera Cruz, and even he was in Mexico trying to raise money to help out the folks back at the plantation who “depended on him”. Uh-Huh.
Perhaps the strongest–and most honest–ex-Confederate in those westerns is Ethan Edwards, John Wayne’s indelible character in The Searchers. Ethan is an unrepentant Confederate, riding into the film’s opening shot (literally an opening doorway) wearing a Confederate Army greatcoat and lugging a saber three long years after the war’s end. The mystery of those missing three years–and the 180 “Yankee double eagles, fresh-minted, ain’t a mark on ’em” in Ethan’s saddle bags–is never answered, just left hanging in air. As for the saber, Ethan tells Ward Bond, a former comrade in arms, “I don’t believe in surrenders. I still got my saber, Reverend. Didn’t turn it into no plowshare, neither.” A few minutes later the Reverend watches Ethan’s sister-in-law carefully folding that Confederate Army greatcoat. The camera then cuts to Bond’s weathered visage, his eyes focused on the far distance, while the Confederate ballad “Lorena” plays on the soundtrack. To me, it’s obvious the guy is remembering his lost war, but some people like to think he’s worrying about a romance between Ethan and his sister-in-law. These are some of the same people who think Sound Of Music is about the Second World War.
In Bend Of The River, James Stewart plays Glen McKlinnic, an ex-border raider, a sort of irregular ex-Confederate. It’s a tricky proposition, making a hero out of a border raider, since guerrilla bands on both sides were often guilty of atrocities. Glen is trying to go straight, guiding a wagon train of really nice folks up to Oregon (to settle on land the local Indians no longer had any use for), when he rescues Emerson Cole (Arthur Kennedy) who is about to be lynched by some fur trappers. Cole is also an ex-guerilla, although on the opposite side. The two become edge-y friends, like two sides of a coin, warily circling each other as the movie progresses. Cole is the more charming of the two (he even charms away Stewart’s love interest for a while), but he is unable to resist the temptation of stealing the settlers’ supply wagons and selling them to a gold camp on the next mountain. After dispatching Cole (in the title’s river bend) and retrieving the settlers’ groceries, Glen’s faith in human nature is restored when the boss settler (Jay C. Flippen as avuncular as always) forgives all and admits a bad guy really can turn into a good guy.
Rooster Cogburn, John Wayne’s only Oscar performance in True Grit, is yet another not-so-reformed ex-guerrilla. Cogburn readily admits to having ridden with Quantrill’s Raiders, but denies (accurately, I have read) they killed women and children while raiding Lawrence, Kansas. Cogburn also admits to having robbed a “high-interest bank” in New Mexico and, years after the war, is part-owner of a marmalade cat named General Sterling Price, the only Confederate cat in movies. Frank and Jesse James also rode with Quantrill, so Rooster likely felt he was in good company.
But the most dyed-in-the-linsey-woolsey of all ex-Confederate, ex-guerrillas has to be The Outlaw Josey Wales . Clint Eastwood’s peaceful farmer (no plantation, no slaves you notice) is transformed when his family is slaughtered by Union Jayhawkers. He spends the rest of the war riding with “Bloody Bill” Anderson, one of Quantrill’s lieutenants who operated alongside troops commanded by General Sterling Price (see marmalade cat above). When his comrades are Gatling-gunned while trying to surrender, Josey takes off for Texas, and ultimately Mexico. (Sterling Price, in real life, tried something similar–taking some of his troops south rather than surrender. He offered his services to Maximilian, Napoleon III’s puppet emperor, but was turned down. In Vera Cruz this same Maximilian hires Gary Cooper, Burt Lancaster and their little band of thugs. Guess their price tag was lower.)
In the end Josey finally decides peace is the best course, but only after blowing away the Redleg that killed his family and comrades. Peace is always easier when your enemies are dead, and when you’re encouraged to smoke the peace pipe by a seven-foot-tall Comanche like Will Sampson.