February 21, 2007

The Man from Laramie: Power and its maintenance


The Horatian Ode upon Cromwell's Return from Ireland is justifiably one of the most famous and explored poems in English history. I want to pick though on one particular theme within it because I think using that theme allows us an insight into another major work of art- The Man from Laramie. The Horatian Ode is about the construction of a political entity through the personal triumph of a particular man Oliver Cromwell- amongst the syllogisms that Marvell proposes within his poem is his last couplet, wherein he argues that

The same arts that did gain
A power must it maintain.

The Man from Laramie offers an interesting commentary on those two lines of verse because it focuses on a particular political issue. The real issue at the heart of the film lies in the inheritance of a farm to which there are two claimants- one is the son of the old farmer- an indulged psychopath and the other is a farmhand who has the merit but not the lineage to receive the farmstead. We know from the beggining of the film that what we are dealing with is a place carved out by force and owned by a purchase from a conquering tribe- we are dealing with a political situation where the farm owner has to play off competing forces and obligations- to the other white men living around them and to the threat of the Apache (Indians in this film are almost solely a threatening presence). One may gain a temporary advantage by giving in to the Apache within white society but that will be at the potential cost of the destruction of the other whites living around you.

Within this world therefore we perceive this minature political community functioning. The two 'sons' jostle for power over an ailing and blinded (both physically and mentally) patriarch. A stranger who seeks vengeance upon those that aided the Apache to slay his brother (yet again the Indians aren't even given the responsibility to have culpability) is brought into the situation and is the character through whose eyes we see this landscape of politics illumined. The central conflicts lie though in the issues over inheritance and part of that conflict is the business of what should happen to secure the estate. The old man at one point turns to his real son and tells the boy that the boy will never be able to hew out the estate like his father because he isn't up to it, rather he tells him to go and look at the accounts. We are left in no doubt that Alec- the old man- has committed violent acts in his past but in this film violence on behalf of the owners is always shown as something that causes them trouble. This political community needs the protection of peace and law. The loner has no importance in the succession battle and directly turns it down- his only medium for acquiring that succession would be marriage and yet it is precisely that marriage which is only an option if the girl leaves her family and comes to join him. He will not stay- succession will only in this film come through stability.

Its long been a debate in political philosophy- from Machiavelli and earlier onwards- about whether what Marvell said was true- whether the same arts that gain a state are the arts that do maintain a state. What this film seems to point out is that they aren't- doing violent and arbitrary things are sufficient to gain an estate, they aren't sufficient to keep it. Furthermore they can actively alienate and cause its destruction- even the able 'son' is eventually destroyed because he wishes to protect the violent acts of the legitimate but unable 'son'. Violence in the film breeds the incentive for loners to come visiting. A key part of the film is that Alec, the patriarch, dreams his son and hence his farm will be destroyed by a tall loner- he interprets it at the end as telling him that the farm hand was his loner- actually he is wrong, its the principle that loners embrace, that of violent standing up for rights and not legal redress that destroys the prospects of his farm surviving. The film argues that Marvell was wrong- the same arts don't maintain that did gain a power.

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