What my friend and fellow film writer Conrad Foreman, LSA junior, wrote about “Son of God” applies to “American Sniper”: “Jesus is back. And he’s white. Again.” But John Wayne is also back. And he’s killing savages. Again. In short, Chris Kyle, the all-American hero of “Sniper,” gives god-fearing Christian Americans the orgasm they’ve been waiting for: Jesus, mixed with John Wayne, carrying a gun, killing A-rabs.
All this controversy over whether “American Sniper” is U.S. propaganda will be resolved when we recognize the film for what it is — just another Hollywood Western.
The classic Westerns, as anyone who’s seen them knows, weren’t too friendly to the Native Americans. See, when the European Americans had finally settled the American West (that is, settled on top of the Native Americans’ already-existing settlement), the European Americans, who had thus far been nothing but settlers, didn’t know what to do or who to be anymore. So when the caravans reached the Pacific Ocean, and it seemed that there was no further west for the Manifest Destiny to take them, the ex-settlers decided to make movies so they could remember what they used to do and who they used to be.
But when these early filmmakers remembered what settling was like (that is, when they looked at the historical record), they realized that, at best, the true story wouldn’t sell movie tickets and, at worst, would get them accused of treason. So instead they produced movies that made the genocide the European Americans committed against the Native Americans appear justified.
By the time Clint Eastwood put on his poncho and cowboy boots, it was no longer “cool,” as the kids say, to portray Native Americans as demonic savages. It was still all right to portray the cowboy as a fair-haired, fair-skinned pseudo-Christ on a crusade against something … just not against the so-called savages. So Eastwood went to Italy and filmed some new Westerns and people called them spaghetti (that is, “spaghetti Westerns”).
Now, with the coming of Chris Kyle and “American Sniper,” Eastwood has invented a new kind of Western — the hummus Western. (One of Kyle’s comrades literally says that Fallujah, Iraq, the site of Kyle’s first tour of duty, is “the Wild West of the Middle East.”) All the taboo, classic Western stuff Eastwood couldn’t do in his spaghetti Westerns, he’s finally done in the hummus Western. In “American Sniper,” the Iraqis have replaced the Indians. Unlike the all-American cowboy Chris Kyle and his comrades, the Iraqis have no backstories. We can watch Kyle slay dozens of them because the film renders them as non-persons. Spoiler alert: But when it comes to Kyle, who the film portrays to us as a fleshed-out human being with a wife, family kids, etc., seeing his death would be just too brutal, so it’s censored.
Eastwood’s overall project appears to be the same as the project of the classic Western filmmakers: rewrite history so that the white people look justified killing brown people. But there’s an important difference: America is no longer interested in settling like they were in the American West. The ideological usefulness of the concept of “Manifest Destiny” has expired: She no longer aspires to gain new territory. The result is far more cruel and vicious. The savages today aren’t savages because they impede upon the United States’ divine right to Manifest Destiny: they are savages simply for existing. Andrea Smith got it right in her essay, “Indigeneity, Settler Colonialism, White Supremacy:” America has marked Arabs as inferior and deemed them to be constant threats to the well-being of the American empire. So unlike the classic Western, the hummus Western attempts to justify killing of savages and occupation of their land on the grounds that the mere fact of their existence constitutes a threat.
Nonetheless, some people might ask, “Was Chris Kyle, the one who lived and breathed, a real American cowboy?” That’s like asking, “Is a Disneyland castle a real castle?” A Disneyland castle is physical, material manifestation of a fantasy castle. No castle ever really — materially speaking — existed that looked like Cinderella’s. Likewise, Chris Kyle, the one who lived and breathed, was a physical, material manifestation of a fantasy person — the American Cowboy. No cowboy ever really existed materially that looked like the Ringo Kid. So what does that make the movie-version Chris Kyle? The imitation of a person who was the imitation of a fictional character. This cycle of representation entirely excludes any reality principle.
But still, was Chris Kyle a real American hero? The question is nonsensical. Hollywood invented the concept of an “American hero” (which I interpret as more or less synonymous with “American cowboy”) to help sell movie tickets. That is to say, an “American hero” exists only in the world of cinematic fiction. There can be no “real” American heroes because an American hero, by definition, can only be fictional. But there are certainly character archetypes, like the American cowboy, who inspire people who live and breath. To borrow Jean Baudrillard’s phrasing, when “the map engenders the territory,” it creates something hyper-real — something materially existing but based on a fiction (e.g., a Disneyland castle or the living, breathing Chris Kyle). Thus, ironically, the fictional Chris Kyle played by Bradley Cooper is far more an American hero than was the living, breathing Chris Kyle.
So, with all this in mind, I ask sincerely: Who would want to be an American hero anyway?
Zak Witus can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.