It seems that every day brings news of an additional collapse of our inherited institutions and culture—our politics give off the stench of gross amorality, our schools and universities have become the playground for evil indoctrination, our so-called entertainment drowns us in filth of the worst kind. Angry divorce, widespread abortion, “gender fluidity,” and every perversion imaginable wrack our society and infect our souls and the souls of our children. Our supposed guardians are rather become as minions of what can only be described as the rising globalist Antichrist which seeks to reverse two-thousand years of Christianity and the culture that it produced.
Yet, we recall the promises of Our Lord and the eternal Hope that He inspires within us. And that Hope which buttresses and supports our Faith will never leave us, if we cling to it manfully.
Thus, despite the woes around us, in our expectation of the Feast of the Nativity of Our Lord, our hearts and minds are filled with anticipation and scarcely concealed joy as we await the memorialization and recreation of that ineffable Event—unimaginable in human terms—that forever changed human history.
The sin of Adam—Original Sin—affected all mankind and left descendants marked, indelibly stained by that original fault. Adam’s sin was a form of disobedience, but a disobedience so grave and monumental against God’s Creation, that only the Coming of the Messiah, the Second Person of the Trinity of the Godhead, could repair it. And the Son of God would be Incarnate in a woman who would be pure and herself immaculate, untouched by the inheritance of sinfulness (by the merits of her Son). Only such a pure womb would be fitting for the Incarnate God. And only the Incarnation into one of His creatures would serve the purpose of demonstrating that Our Blessed Saviour would come to us, not only as God, but also in the form of Man—this was fitting because it was to Mankind that He was sent.
For hundreds of years the People of Israel had awaited the coming of a Messiah to lead them, to liberate them and, if you will, to repair Adam’s Fall. But this vision—whether expressed in the revolts of the Maccabees or in later violent episodes like the revolt of Simon bar Kokhba against the Romans (132 A.D.)—implied not just satisfaction for sinful ways, but increasingly the establishment of an earthly and insular kingdom for and of the Hebrews.
And although Our Lord and Saviour indeed came first to the Jews, and offered them His reparative Grace and Salvation, it was by no means to be limited to them. Indeed, His message was universal (as it had been to Abraham). And those Hebrews who accepted the Messiah—and those gentiles who also joined them—became the Church, the “New” Israel, receptor of God’s Grace and holder of His Promises and carrier of His Light unto all the world.
While a majority of old Israel rejected Our Lord, demanding His Crucifixion before Pilate, those who followed Him and believed in Him entered the New Covenant, a New Testament. It is in this sense that the Christian church inherited the promises of Israel and the Old Testament, and fulfilled those prophesies. And that fulfillment continues.
St. Paul in his Epistle to Titus [2:11-15] summarizes both the dazzling and miraculous wonder of Our Saviour’s Grace amongst us and its inexhaustible power to transform us, as we await His final Coming in Glory: “The grace of God our Saviour hath appeared to all men, instructing us, that, denying ungodliness and worldly desires, we should live soberly and justly and godly in this world, looking for the blessed hope and coming of the glory of the great God and our Saviour Jesus Christ: Who gave Himself for us, that He might redeem us from all iniquity, and might cleanse to Himself a people acceptable, a pursuer of good works. These things speak and exhort: in Christ Jesus our Lord.”
We—the Christian church, those chosen out of Grace who accept God’s gifts—are in a journey to that final day when Our Lord will return. We have been given for that journey the armament of Our Lord’s graces in the Sacraments, and through His love, our Faith and a Hope that whenever we are tempted to despair, pulls us back and redirects our vision.
Years ago when I was doing my doctoral work in Pamplona (Navarra), Spain, I had several dear friends. One of them, by name Teofilo Andueza, although he and wife lived in the city, kept his family’s ancestral home and farm up in the Pyrenees Mountains. On numerous Saturdays we would travel out there; the women would busy themselves in the kitchen to prepare roasted lamb chops, pork shoulder, “patatas fritas,” various “ensaladas mixtas,” all sorts of desserts (flan and pastries), and, of course, there would be plenty of Rioja wine and cognac. After eating—which usually continued off and on for most of the day—we men would sit and smoke some “puros” (Cuban cigars—well, I didn’t worry about THAT aspect of Cuban Communism back then!).
I remember on one occasion Teofilo took me up to the crest of a nearby mountain; below we could see the city of Pamplona, as he related how in 1875 the city was occupied by “liberals” who supported the central and centralizing government in Madrid, but that elsewhere in all of Navarra, in every rural village and small hamlet, the people had risen up as one under the military banner of “God – Country – States’ Rights – and the Rightful King” (against the liberal king then installed in Madrid, the nation’s capital). In July 1936 Teofilo, his father, and his elderly grandfather (who as a young teen had joined the earlier Traditionalist rising sixty years earlier) all volunteered to fight under that same banner, the standard of the Traditionalist Carlist Communion against the secularist and socialist Spanish Republic (which is so loved by the establishment far Left and Neoconservatives these days).
Like his grandfather in 1875, Teofilo was barely 16 when he enlisted in 1936. And while his grandfather was too old to see active, front line combat in the Spanish Civil War of 1936-1939 (serving in medical rear-guard duty), Teofilo saw combat in some of the fiercest battles against the Red Republic and marched in the Victory parade in Madrid in 1939.
But like my other Carlist Traditionalist friends—who were termed “Intransigentes” by more moderate (and compromising) partisans on the Right—Teofilo believed that Francisco Franco had not carried through with the actual re-establishment of a Christian kingdom as promised—too many foreign influences, too many compromises, and, lastly, opening the door in 1953 to all the worst aspects of American commercialism and cultural decay. The national reawakening promised in 1939 had not taken place, its fruits dispersed, and in exchange, Spanish society had increasingly accepted the worst features of American mass culture and secularist thinking.
At the top of that mountain crest, as we looked down at Pamplona, Teofilo became emotional. “My grandfather fought against that liberal contagion 100 years ago,” he exclaimed. “And in 1936 three generations of my family dropped everything and went to war against the communists and socialists, to a crusade for Christ the King—that He might reign in society.” And then, he turned to me, took me firmly by the shoulder, and said: “And now, if it were just you and me—and we were on God’s side—once again we would be victorious, for even if we are only two, nothing is impossible to men if they fight on God’s side!”
I have remembered that incident constantly over the years, especially when things appear dark or despairing. For not only did Grace and Salvation and the Healing for sin come into the world in a humble Cradle in Bethlehem a little over 2,000 years ago, but Hope came also. And it buoys us up, gives us balance and equilibrium, and acts as “Faith’s Sentry” to protect our Faith from harm and the threat of despair and apostasy.
In the year 312 A.D., facing an immense military challenge, the Roman Emperor Constantine prayed to the Christian God, asking what he should do. As related in Eusebius’ Ecclesiastical History, he had grave doubts about the traditional Roman gods. He prayed earnestly that the Christian God would “reveal to him who he is, and stretch forth his right hand to help him.” His prayer changed the course of human history. The answer came in a vision of a Cross emblazoned across the noonday sky, and upon it the inscription read: “In hoc signo vinces”—By this sign you shall be victorious. The emperor then ordered that his soldiers have the Christian cross inscribed on their shields.
Victorious at the Battle of the Milvian Bridge, Constantine then issued orders that the Christian church was to be fully free in its mission and the exercise of its functions. Although he did not make Christianity the official religion of the empire, Constantine bestowed favors on it, built places of worship for Christians, and presided over the first general church council. He became the first emperor to embrace Christianity and was baptized on his death bed. In less than 300 years the faith of Christ born in humble surroundings in remote Judaea and persecuted mercilessly and ruthlessly, nourished by the blood or martyrs, now emerged from the catacombs, triumphant, a light unto the pagans, to continue its salvific mission.
Is this not the power of Faith supported by Hope? That even if we be in the catacombs, even if we see our civilization and culture coming apart at the seams, even if we see the Church subverted and false prophets in positions of immense authority preaching false doctrines—even in these circumstances, if we hold “fortes in Fide,” firm and militant in the faith, bolstered by the Virtue of Hope, Faith’s Sentry, Christ the King will be victorious.
So, then, as we approach the Holy Day of indescribable joy, we know with assurance that the ineffable Gift from God of salvation and forgiveness is ours, and that no one can take our Faith from us, buoyed, as it is, by the unbreakable assurance of Hope—which came to us that Christmas so long ago.
“Even if it were just you and me—and we were on God’s side—once again we would be victorious, for even if we are only two, nothing is impossible to men if they fight on God’s side!”
Saving Grace entered the world two millennia ago, and with it the Hope we possess. And there are broad smiles on our faces and joy in our hearts.
Merry and Blessed Christmas!
This post was published on My Corner on December 23, 2021.
Although Hollywood is now considered a monolithic bastion of leftist and “woke” political and cultural sentiment with almost no dissent tolerated, it was not always that way, at least not to the degree that exists today. Go back sixty years ago, and that progressivist uniformity was not as apparent.
Certainly, “Tinseltown” was never a haven for conservative and traditionalist cinema, actors, and screen writers, but back then to be on the Right and practicing a career in movies was not a rare oddity like it is in 2021. In particular, the sub-genre of Westerns, during its heyday on the big screen from the 1920s until the mid-1960s, was dominated by actors identifiably conservative.
Indeed, most of Hollywood’s leading Western and cowboy actors have been politically conservative, and quite a few have been Southerners. It is well known that John Wayne was a conservative, strongly supporting United States forces in Vietnam (recall his film, “The Green Berets”), and often supporting Republican candidates. But many other prominent Western actors were also on the right.
A short list would include: Joel McCrea (a Goldwater and Reagan supporter), Randolph Scott (a staunch conservative and Reagan supporter originally from Charlotte, N.C., who attended the 1964 Republican Convention as a Goldwater delegate), Audie Murphy (a Texan, life member of the NRA), Roy Rogers and Gene Autry (both conservative Christians), John Payne (a native Virginian and staunch Goldwater conservative), Alan Ladd (a Republican and native of Arkansas), Charlton Heston (a former president of the NRA), Ronald Reagan, Glenn Ford, Ward Bond, Jimmy Stewart (a regular contributor to the political campaigns of Senator Jesse Helms), Ben Johnson (who refused to act in Peter Bogdanovich’s “The Last Picture Show,” until nudity and bad language were removed), Gary Cooper (a convert to the Catholic Church, who supported Nixon in 1960), George “Gabby” Hayes (a John Bircher, the quintessential cowboy sidekick, whose famous full beard and tattered hat identified him for several generations of Western-watchers), Walter Brennan (thrice-winning Academy Award winner whose staunch conservatism led him to co-chair the California state campaign for George Wallace in 1968), and Chill Wills (the noted Western character actor who was the other California Wallace co-chair in 1968).
And there were others that we might recall from those days of yesteryear.
In more recent times, such noted actors as Clint Eastwood, Robert Duvall, Tom Selleck (another past president of the NRA), and Kevin Sorbo, have continued the rightward tendency among actors who act in oaters.
Various reasons have been adduced for the prevalence of conservatives in Westerns, in an industry that otherwise leans strongly to the left. The fact that many of them came from the traditional South or from rural areas may have had some influence. Few came from urban areas like New York, and if they came from California, it was an older California, one that was still capable of electing Ronald Reagan governor and right wingers like “Bomber Bob” Dornan or John Schmitz to Congress.
Most major studios from the 1930s to the 1950s maintained separate facilities—“ranches”—set away from major production centers, where Westerns were shot and produced. Western actors and, to some degree, their directors and producers, tended to be separated from other film-making. It was no accident that the great director John Ford (an early supporter of Roosevelt’s “New Deal,” who became a fervent Nixon and Goldwater supporter), when asked once what he did, responded, “I make Westerns.” Of course, Ford made movies in other genres, but he is most widely known for his superb Westerns. He had his own “stock company” of veterans and regulars who showed up in picture after picture that he directed. His genius was in securing the very best in ensemble acting carried to perfection over and over again. Those actors who appeared in Westerns generally made it a habit.
Some of the smaller studios, especially Republic and Monogram (later Allied Artists) concentrated on the genre, and turned out what are commonly termed “B Westerns”; they featured a recurring star (perhaps with a sidekick), were about an hour long, and normally appeared as the second half of a double bill. Too often film critics dismiss these B Westerns as “kiddie flicks,” but the truth is that many of these films were truly stylish, high level products. Thus, Allan “Rocky” Lane, Gene Autry, Wild Bill Elliott, and Roy Rogers made Republic a real player at the box-office.
Johnny Mack Brown, Whip Wilson, Hoot Gibson, Bob Steele, and Guy Madison did the same for Monogram/Allied Artists. Other studios, like Columbia and RKO, produced numerous B Western series until the early 1950s, showcasing actors like Charles Starrett (“The Durango Kid”) and Tim Holt. The end of the series Bs did not end the popularity of the genre. Both Columbia and Universal-International continued releasing higher quality, longer films, usually in color, in the 1950s, often spotlighting bigger-name stars such as Audie Murphy, Randolph Scott, or Joel McCrea. These studios used the Western as their bread-and-butter producer when major features failed to make money. In most cases, there was a virtual segregation between Westerns and other fare, a separation which may have affected the ambience in which they were made.
The very nature of the Western sub-genre has had a significant influence in attracting certain types of actors to it. Westerns traditionally expressed the purest form of “good vs. evil.” Even in the more conflicted, morally blurred years of the later 1960s and 1970s, the few Westerns that were made seemed to never lose sight of that essential conflict. Indeed, the paucity of films in the genre during the last thirty years is the clearest indication that the Western as a clear-sighted vehicle for representing society’s conception of itself and its frontier past has fallen on hard times. Too many heroes in white hats and too strong an identification with a triumphant—and white—country, subduing all before it, doesn’t offer the best medium for representing the morally conflicted and self-loathing America of the 21st century.
The late Southern historian, biographer, and political thinker, Mel Bradford, once explained, during a conference of former Richard Weaver fellows, that the 1948 Howard Hawks classic, “Red River,” starring John Wayne and Montgomery Clift, encapsulated the history of the West and of America as it expanded to the Pacific, its struggle to overcome both natural and human obstacles, its resilience, its quest to establish law and order in the wilderness, and its abiding faith in Providence.
And that men, in whatever station in life they find themselves, are obliged to assume and fulfill the duty which falls to them.
That put me in mind of a film I had seen many years ago with my father: Sam Peckinpah’s classic, “Ride the High Country.” It co-starred two legendary veteran cowpokes, Randolph Scott and Joel McCrea. It was the last film that Randy Scott would make. At the time, he refused additional roles, declaring that “the movies have become too filthy”—and that was in 1962! McCrea still had one major outing (“Mustang Country,” 1976) and a couple of cameos before laying down his spurs, but essentially, like Scott, this was his last major role.
In a real sense “Ride the High Country” symbolized what was happening to America, foreshadowing in a way, and warning of the cultural revolution of the late 1960s and the ravages on the horizon which would follow.
Two old-timers, retired lawmen played by Scott and McCrea, undertake one last, one final task: to travel up in the Sierras and bring down a shipment of freshly-mined gold. Various, sometimes amusing sub-plots ensue involving a young Mariette Hartley, James Drury (later of “The Virginian”), Edgar Buchanan, R. G. Armstrong, and Warren Oates. All along Scott’s character, Gil Westrum, is planning to take the gold for himself, and on the return journey down the mountains he tries to convince his partner, Steve Judd (McCrea), to join him. For Judd, this assignment, this duty, has helped restore his self-respect. When Westrum asks him if he doesn’t desire more, he responds: “All I want to do is enter my house justified.” Let me do my duty before God and man, let me be faithful to my charge this one last time.
And in the end when Steve Judd is jumped by robbers, Westrum, who had gone on the lam, returns to assist his mortally wounded partner. When Gil pledges to take care of everything just like he would have, Judd says, "Hell, I know that. I always did. You just forgot it for a while, that's all." Judd casts a final look back towards the magnificent high country of the Sierras, as if to look back at a better America, and then dies.
It was 1962, and one month before “Ride he High Country’s” release in theaters General Douglas McArthur had delivered his famous “Duty, Honor, Country” speech to the cadets at West Point: “…those three hallowed words reverently dictate what you ought to be, what you can be, what you will be. They are your rallying point to build courage when courage seems to fail, to regain faith when there seems to be little cause for faith, to create hope when hope becomes forlorn....”
Now, fifty-nine years later, duty has been replaced by the never-ending clamor and incessant demand for “rights”; honor has become an outmoded concept; and the country we once loved has been riven and violently split apart by fanatics who dominate our politics, our schools and colleges, and our entertainment.
The Western as a vehicle of our explaining to ourselves who we were—and “remembering who we are,” to use Bradford’s expression—no longer occupies the didactic role it once did. Boys no longer wish to grow up modeled on a straight-arrow Gene Autry or Hopalong Cassidy; they don’t even know who Autry and Hopalong were. A hero-inspired “code of behavior”? Not in the age of “The Bachelorette” or the barely R-rated movies and TV programs that too many parents allow their children to view these days.
In 1974 the country/Western vocal group, the Statler Brothers, released their single, “Whatever happened to Randolph Scott?” Through its lyrics and music, they expressed the feelings of many Americans:
“Everybody knows when you go to the show
You can't take the kids along
You've gotta read the paper and know the code
Of G, PG and R and X
You gotta know what the movie's about
Before you even go
Tex Ritter's gone and Disney's dead
The screen is filled with sex.
“Whatever happened to Randolph Scott
Ridin' the range alone
Whatever happened to Gene and Tex
And Roy and Rex, the Durango Kid
Whatever happened to Randolph Scott
His horse, plain as can be
Whatever happened to Randolph Scott
Has happened to the best of me.
“Whatever happened to all of these
Has happened to the best of me.”
More recently director Quentin Tarantino, not known for engaging in cinematic nostalgia, examines the virtual disappearance of the classic Western as a theme for his 2019 film, “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood,” which becomes a vehicle to illustrate what was going on in American filmmaking (and in America at large) in the chaotic 1960s. Set in 1969 Hollywood it follows the fading career of once-popular Western star Rick Dalton and his best friend, Cliff Booth, his stunt-double, both of whom are forced to look for lesser roles in an industry that seemed now to shun the kind of good vs. evil oaters that a Randolph Scott or Joel McCrea made between 1930 and 1962. In a real sense the Dalton and Booth characters must navigate a transition period which saw the country itself change radically. Throughout Tarantino employs bits of period nostalgia, from music to iconography, memories of what was being lost.
Yet, the Western has never completely disappeared from the big screen. “Silverado,” “Wyatt Earp,” “Tombstone,” and “Open Range” have illustrated that point. The success of TV’s “Lonesome Dove” proved that there is still life yet in the genre, and the Encore Westerns channel continues to be one of the more popular cable and satellite channels.
Perhaps it is the desire for clear-cut moral choices, the desire to recover some of the certainty that has departed from our culture, which attracts new generations of viewers. Perhaps it is the need to rediscover an American past that, after all, may be partly mythic, but mythic in the very best and most honorable sense of that word. Indeed, did not John Ford in “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance” have his newspaper editor tell Jimmy Stewart: “This is the West, Sir; when legend becomes fact, print the legend”?
Perhaps it is the Western’s celebration of American tradition, with its mixture of both truth and myth, which may beckon to a future generation of converts. Despite “cancel culture” and its terrifying destructiveness, those who dare to take a look back at some of the great cinematic works of our past will see a rich artistic patrimony worthy of emulation, with actors who largely believed in the principles their films convey.
And then, like Steve Judd, may it be said of us by those in a saner age: “Hell…You just forgot it for a while, that's all."
[A shorter and slightly edited version of this essay appears in the December 2021 issue of Chronicles magazine, along with other essays on conservatism in the movies.]
Boyd D. Cathey holds a doctorate in European history from the Catholic University of Navarra, Pamplona, Spain, where he was a Richard Weaver Fellow, and an MA in intellectual history from the University of Virginia (as a Jefferson Fellow). He was assistant to conservative author and philosopher the late Russell Kirk. In more recent years he served as State Registrar of the North Carolina Division of Archives and History. He has published in French, Spanish, and English, on historical subjects as well as classical music and opera. He is active in the Sons of Confederate Veterans and various historical, archival, and genealogical organizations.