In Cowboys & Aliens, spacecraft attack a frontier town. Amid explosions and mayhem, they swoop low and lasso the sheriff, the bartender’s wife, the cattle baron‘s son, this father, that mother and carry them away into the sky. Afterwards, the survivors survey the devastation. And then they saddle up. Complete with preacher, woman, boy, and dog, a motley posse rides into the desert to rescue their kinsfolk.
The aliens are too strong for the little group, even if the bartender learns how to shoot and the boy proves he can be a man. Luckily, the aliens have been indiscriminate in their terror. They have attacked Indians and bandits as well. After these gangs finish blaming each other, they band together against the common foe. In the process, the worst bigot learns about The Other, and grows past his prejudices. Cowboy embraces Indian.
That was the point where my willing suspension of disbelief crashed. I could buy the cowboys and the aliens and even the cowboys fighting the aliens. It was the neat little morality play about diversity and acceptance inside the big story that just didn’t ring true.
What was refreshingly authentic was the aliens’ motivation for attacking the frontier: gold. They are doing to the whites what the whites did to the Indians–murdering and enslaving them for profit. At one point the woman says of the aliens, “They see you as ants.” It is not a reference to size, but significance. How the cowboys once viewed the Indians is now how they are viewed along with the Indians. It is an insight from a human who turns out to be herself an alien who has seen it all before, on another planet. In many respects, she has the wisdom of a wandering Jew.
All the through the movie I was reminded of the documentary film about the Jewish influence on movies, Hollywood: An Empire of Their Own. The film opens with a scene from a Western. The setting is a ranch in the middle of nowhere. A father hears a shot ring out. He sees his wife fall, and begins to run. He is gunned down as well, in front of his terrified son.
The narrator says, “These images conceal memories.” Not cowboy memories of the high plains, but Jewish memories of persecution and sudden death in alien lands. The thesis here is that American Westerns were at least partly shaped by and inscribed with the memories, the fears and anxieties and even the fantasies of Jews who escaped death and destruction, came to America and became Hollywood studio execs, producers, directors, actors, and writers. You can check the documentary out here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Q2YZws9xYEQ .
This interpretation has always made sense to me. Westerns, as a genre, conceal a Jewish fear born of wandering and settlement in strange and hostile lands, where violence, death, and the destruction of the family loom around every corner. Extending the emotional metaphor, saddling up and riding out to rescue the kinsfolk can be viewed as a healing fantasy. What Jew in the last century didn’t wish they could rescue their kinsfolk? In this way, Westerns quietly rewrite the horrific history of Jewish diaspora and perhaps even find their geopolitical expression in the country of Israel. Some Israeli movies, such as the “Western” Hamsin, seem to grapple with this two-pronged emotional heritage, at once celebrating the conquest of the hostile environment (on horseback) and critically ripping the macho got-to-protect-my-woman mentality that inevitably ends with the death of the Other.
On the other hand, it is through this metaphor of cowboys as Jews that the unlikely coalition of cowboys and Indians and even bandits becomes plausible. It seems to me, that, in the hazardous landscapes of ever-shifting power dynamics, Jews, much more than cowboys, have been able to learn, adjust, reassess, bond with other groups, and strategize for survival and even success.
In the movie, cowboy Daniel Craig looks really good in tight leather chaps and the aliens are grotesque, horrific beasts from somewhere else with strength, intelligence, but none of the redeeming qualities we would call ‘human.’ Hence, I guess, the term, alien. (Still some work to do there, I think.)