Thursday, August 12, 2010

Nevada Smith: The American Dante

Ok, I’ll admit there are some minor differences between Dante’s Divine Comedy and the 1966 movie classic, Nevada Smith. But basically Nevada Smith is a cowboy Dante for Americans.

At about age 20 (“midway upon the journey of my life” –given the short life expectancy of an adventurer in the Wild West), Max Sand loses his parents. They are tortured, mutilated, and then murdered by 3 villains. Sand thereupon becomes “lost in the dark wood” of the myth of redemptive violence. That myth is the basic plot line of gratifying revenge. Think of The Outlaw Josey Wales, Collateral Damage, or most any action movie or TV show you have ever seen. Mythologist Joseph Campbell coined the term and Biblical Scholar Walter Wink says it is the actual religion of our culture. Drawn from ancient Sumer, it is still our dominant belief system even though it runs 180 degrees opposite to Judaism and Christianity. Max sets out to kill the malefactors but the story is about his own spiritual transformation as he becomes Nevada Smith. (Compare Man On Fire in the previous blog.)

Just as Dante began his quest trusting in his own inadequate resources, so did Max. Just as Dante was immediately waylaid by three obstacles – a lion, a leopard, a wolf, representing envy, pride, and greed; Max falls in with 3 ne’er-do-wells who prove to be envious, proud, and greedy. They steal his gun and his horse. Thus Max, stranded in the desert, wanders forth imitating the ascetic spiritual seekers of the Near East and Russia where they are called “poustniks” or desert people.

There in the sagebrush wilderness, Max meets his first guide – Jonas Cord, a gun merchant played by Brian Dennehy (who by the way appeared in the mini-series A Season In Purgatory.)Dante’s first guide was Virgil, a virtuous pagan who was able to help Dante along the way – but only so far. Just so, the gun merchant is not a Christian and is to some extent caught in the violence myth himself. But he has a good heart and just as important, good sense. He trains Max in the use of guns, but also in the life skills needed to do combat with viscous killers. Cord imparts what the Hebrew Scriptures call “hachma,” practical wisdom, knowing how to do the job. That is the foundation for the larger Greek version of Wisdom, “Sophia” -- regardless of what one is doing, even if it is drinking, gambling, and shooting, you need to know how to do it well. That is where Max properly begins his formation.

Max succeeds in killing the first murderer but is injured in the process. He is taken in by the Kiowa. Max is himself half Kiowa. How this interlude fits the story is not clear to me. But I think it may be that the bad guys will consistently characterize Max’s determined quest for vengeance as typical of his Indian blood. So this part of the movie shows the Kiowa urging Max to abandon his quest to stay with them. It may be there to prevent the racist reading of the plot.

Since the 2nd murderer is doing time in a Louisiana prison camp, located in a swamp, Max deliberately gets himself convicted of bank robbery so he can go there too. The brutal camp oddly allows conjugal visits by Cajun women who work in the nearby rice paddies. Granted, this is a stretch of credibility, but it advances the plot. Here Max meets his second guide, Pilar, a Cajun woman played by Suzanne Pleshette (deep sigh from the blogger). She helps Max and the murderer (who Max has befriended) escape in a canoe. In the swamp, Max guns down the unarmed man despite Pilar’s urgent pleas not to do this thing. It is then we know the significance of the crucifix she wears around her neck. She means it. During the escape, Pilar was bitten by a water moccasin. After the killing of murderer, she lies on the shore dying. Max wants to save her, but she will not go with him. She says he has used her to commit murder. She does not want “to die in sin looking at (his) face.” While Max is preparing the canoe to leave, Pilar dies. Her death is a judgment on Max who has lied to and manipulated her for his own violent ends. Then the righteous avenger says “I am sorry.” It is a moral moment. Remember Dante. His second guide was the Christian Beatrice whose death was the turning point in Dante’s life as the Cajun woman’s death ultimately proved to be for Max.

That death in the swamp was a moral moment but not a definitive conversion. Dante views life as the soul’s journey toward God and Harold Robbins who wrote the novel which was the basis for this film apparently agrees. Max is touched but not yet transformed. He continues his pursuit of the last villain, Joe Fitch (Karl Malden). In the vicinity of Susanville I would guess, he falls into the hands of Fitch’s gang who drag him with their horses through a river. Darned if that baptismal imagery doesn’t keep happening at just the right spot in the story (see Man on Fire post). As he comes out of the water, and is about to be dragged to death, out of nowhere, a Franciscan priest, Fr. Zaccardi intervenes, stops the violence, and take the physically and spiritually injured Max to his home, which from the cell where Max stays appears to be a monastery though we see no other monks. Max has met his 3rd spiritual guide.

“But wait,” you say, “Dante only had Virgil and Beatrice.” Not so. Even Beatrice could not take Dante the last leg of his journey to God. The Blessed Virgin was his final guide. Just as Mary represents Mother Church, so Mother Church was well represented by Fr. Zaccardi. He takes Max into the church building. Max has never been in a church before. He is most struck by the crucifix. Fr. Zaccardi asks if Max has ever seen that man (Jesus) before. Max says he has. He saw him on a silver chain. (Pilar’s). Fr. Zaccardi gives Max a Bible, explains the faith, and tells his own story of the murder of his own parents. Max listens but is stubbornly unpersuaded and continues in his hunt for the wicked Joe Fitch.

By the time he meets Fitch, Max’s name is on wanted posters everywhere and Fitch knows Max Sand is after him. So Max takes the new name of Nevada Smith. The first name expresses his memory of the home he seemed to have lost. The second name shows his change from the raw material of sand (perhaps a reference to earth and humanity (“adamah” Hebrew word for humanity formed from the earth) to Smith suggesting a craftsman who forms the raw material into something of value. Eventually, he chases Fitch down and shoots him in the leg and hand, disabling him from doing further harm – but decides in that moment not to kill him. Fitch is furious and taunts Max to finish him off, calls him a weak coward. But Max will not yield to the temptation of redemptive violence. He turns away.

We know what happened to Dante. He received the beatific vision and was “lost in wonder, love, and praise.” What will happen to Nevada Smith? Will he go back to partner with Cord, to live with the Kiowa, or to join the Franciscans? Dante took us all the way on his story of redemption, but Nevada Smith has taken us along the journey only far enough to see the decisive step of turning. Conversion is not a sudden about face. To “shuve” (turn around in Hebrew) or experience “metanoia” (same thing in Greek) is a slowing, then an arching, curving half circle that sets us off in the new direction – headed toward life instead of death.