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The west goes wild as Obama and the Democrats ride again

With one cool shot, the US president brought down both Osama bin Laden and Republican claims to the mantle of western hero

Westerns have never been seen as Democrat movies. But this is based on a misunderstanding. The western genre of American film is generally thought of as morally crude, politically reactionary and so on, but in reality it was always more complex. From Fort Apache with its depiction of military folly to The Searchers, a dark tale of racism and otherness, the master of the western film, John Ford, always explored ambiguous themes and invested his films with deep intelligence.

Many other classic westerns portray characters who abhor violence – although they always use it in the end: Destry Rides Again and Shane both have heroes who are reluctant to take up arms. In these and other westerns it is only the bad guys who shoot for the sake of it and relish the wild side of the law. Yet somehow, in myth and political symbolism the bad guys are remembered as the good guys, the films of the wild west associated with the law of the gun. And it is Republican America, most successfully in the persona of Ronald Reagan and most dangerously in the would-be heroism of George W Bush, that has claimed the heritage of the mythic west.

This is why cool-talking, straight-shooting President Barack Obama has just changed history. He has overturned more than three decades in which the Democrats looked through the lens of the western like wimps from back east, and Republicans posed as tough sheriffs. Now there is a new sheriff in town and a new message: if you want years of bumbling, messy, murderous war, a Republican is best, but if you actually want a president who gets his man like a real US marshal of legend ... vote Democrat in 2012.

For a long time, Republicans have cast themselves as brave gunfighters. But President Obama actually measures up much more closely to those heroes of movie history. Shane and Destry were as measured and calm as he is, upholders of law who had no time for martial bluster. Being a true gunslinger hero in American myth does not mean making a lot of noise and it does not mean being a tinpot patriot. It means talking soft and when you go after the real bad guy, getting him right between the eyes.

Short of actually pulling the trigger himself, the president could scarcely have got more personal credit from the killing of this outlaw. It may seem trite to reduce it all to a western. But in the political imagination, where elections are won and lost, this is a game-changer. The bad guys have been chased out of town in more ways than one. A clear mind and eye outshot the blusterers. The myth of superior Republican patriotism is headed for Boot Hill – and Destry Rides Again. © Guardian News & Media Limited 2011 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

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