The Second Death of Gary Cooper

Miguel Angel Bestenier

The United States has committed a kind of mythological suicide in its war against Iraq. The confrontation will end with thousands of dead Arabs, and, despite the recent horrors, only a minority of them will be civilians. The Anglo-Saxons will have won with a limited number of casualties, something which says a lot about how much they care for their soldiers. But amongst the dead of the coalition will figure an idea about themselves that the Americans had lovingly entertained during the entire twentieth century, and which history’s greatest propaganda invention – the movies – has made universal.

The American Macho

This idea, or the person who embodies it, is called “the reluctant sheriff”, the anonymous hero who doesn’t get involved in what doesn’t concern him. Anchored in the historical isolationism of the United States, it is an inhibition that the governments of Washington only overcome when the occasion obliges them to act, and has much to do with the Founding Fathers’ rejection of hypocritical Europe, from which the Puritan colonists fled.

And it was probably Gary Cooper, with his reserved but naturally cordial stance, his awkward figure like a tower blown by the winds at its pinnacle – the wide-brimmed hat – who best personified this figure.

The reluctant and modest hero (Canadian Mounties, Cecile B. de Mille)*; the Confederate who lost a war and gained a past (Veracruz, Robert Aldrich); the ex-gunslinger, now a stranger to arms, who only reveals the force of his fire under the most extreme circumstances (Man of the West, Anthony Mann); the family father who abandons his ivory tower only when it has become impossible to ignore the danger (Friendly Persuasion; William Wyler). This personification is stylized to abstraction by Alan Ladd in Shane, the killer for hire who assumes a very different mission for love of a woman (Jean Arthur), out of respect for a man (Van Heflin) and for the admiration of a child (Brandon de Wilde), only to disappear, finally, hunched over his horse, crossing a cemetery on the horizon.

This striking, epic vision of the American macho did express, however, a more than apparent historical accuracy for the country. A society that did not look to Europe prevented Woodrow Wilson from participating in the Great War until late in 1917,and then only after a long political battle. The United States, a country of immigrants, found it hard to take the side of one or the other, especially as these quarrels were seen as the great vice of Old Europe….

Since Pearl Harbor

In the period between wars, the isolationist spirit revived with such force that Franklin D. Roosevelt needed the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941 to convert semi-belligerence into full-scale industrial war. Of course the bottom-line reasons, such as the road to world stardom or the preservation of European markets, are much more prosaic than those which animated Gary Cooper, but the national myth always draws the picture it wants to see of itself. This war conforms least of all to the Gary Cooper model; in this war the provocation by an exhausted country had to be invented piece by piece, including its relation to the terrorism of al Qaeda, refuted by western intelligence services to no avail.

This “preventive war”, in which the enemy is condemned for what, perhaps, it intends some day to do, can hardly be that of the reluctant sheriff, who only points his gun when guns are already pointed at him and his. This war is for a New Order, but infested with disorder, and this is the war in which Gary Cooper will have died.

Miguel Angel Bastenier is the assistant editor of the renowned Madrid newspaper, “El País”.                             

» Translator’s note: Movie titles are often completely different in Spanish from the originals. Therefore, with the exception of “Shane” (“Raíces Profundas”), I am not sure of the exact titles in English. In any event, the author neglects to mention “High Noon” – in which Gary Cooper is the epitome of the reluctant sheriff – and “Meet John Doe”, in which he is the lovably naïve macho Americano par excellence.