I’ve just finished watching this somewhat obscure Western from the 1990s, whose reception, even at the time of its release, was lukewarm, and whose only redeeming quality, at first glance, is Tom Selleck in his full post-Magnum P.I. man-bloom: Quigley Down Under.
So, first, an introduction to the film: The era is the late 1800s. Our hero, Matthew Quigley, is the quintessential sharp-shooting, do-gooding American cowboy of a Clint Eastwood and John Wayne ilk. He arrives in Australia, which is, at this particular moment in time, especially lawless.
The first thing we understand about Quigley is that he is morally intact. His sense of justice and correctness is completely inflexible and, you might argue, somewhat arrogant. But you can - and do - forgive him his arrogance, because even though he sets foot on a foreign continent, into a culture that is not his own and to which he has never been exposed, and immediately starts interfering with other peoples’ business, you always agree with his motivations. A man is pushing in front of an old lady to get off of the ship — not in front of Matthew Quigley! Two ne’er-do-wells are trying to bully a woman into their wagon — don’t think so, partners!
What happens next is that Quigley realizes that the man who has hired him - a man who, to the best of our knowledge, has everyone under his thumb - is methodically eradicating the aborigines. This guy is like the ultimate bully. Obviously, Quigley can not stand for that. So even though he is out-numbered and out-equipped; friendless and, at one point, left for dead in the outback, he risks his life to end the genocide, because of his irrepressible old school American impulse to set wrongs right at any cost. He takes on old west Hitler and all of his goons, and eventually succeeds in putting an end to the genocide, single-handedly standing up for thousands of helpless aborigines who were unable to stand up for themselves, because he is an American. And he is fighting the good fight.
Is this arrogant? You betcha. But do we love Quigley? You fuckin betcha.
This, I began thinking, is where our fantastic sense of American arrogance must have had its beginnings: in the hero of the old west. Only now, within the primary demographic that retains its trappings, it’s been eroded down to a sense of superiority without any of the moral upstandingness — the way hippies of today have retained their tassles and center hair parts even though the backlash against the repressive housewivery of the 50s and the fallout of the Vietnam War are things that hold absolutely no emotional resonance for them, or the way punks of today have retained their refusal to shower and consequent body odor, even though The Man has long since stopped caring about them and they are not protesting any real cultural marginalization. It seems to me that the primary subcultural off-shoot of that noble, old west lineage is the gun toting, huge truck driving, misogynistic, wilfully ignorant, redneck, who takes an active interest, it seems, in not fighting the good fight. Global warming? Doesn’t exist. Homosexuals? Are offensive. Animal rights? For pansies. Feminists? Lesbians. Lesbians? Are offensive. Foreigners? Terrorists. Immigrants? Criminals. Europeans? Socialists. Liberals? State enemies.
Whether or not these lines of thought offend me is (somewhat) beside the point. What especially offends me about this particular subculture, is that they have aligned this set of values with those of the true American. And they have appropriated the American flag as their own. It now flies in the place of - or in many cases, alongside of - the Confederate flag, affixed to the back of lifted pickup trucks, or, for example, next to a sign above my former neighbor’s garage that read: WE DON’T CALL 911, which only makes sense if you understand that they have punctuated the sign with fake semi-automatic guns.
Now, let’s see if we can’t excuse them a little: Quigley’s mission was pretty straight-forward. He found himself bearing witness to a genocide and had the sharp-shooting skills necessary to single-handedly bring it to an end. We face different, infinitely more complex problems today; problems that a 13.5 pound, single-shot, 1874 Sharps Rifle simply cannot address. No amount of sharp-shooting is going to bring about the end of global climate change; shooting’m up isn’t even an adequate foreign policy - though I have heard it argued that it is. Maybe that’s why these country boys have turned into such hooligans: they realize that the moment of their usefulness has passed. Confronted with the real world problems of today, they find themselves ill equipped and unaccustomed to playing the hero, and so have forgotten how to do it. Or, maybe like other later iterations of previous movements, they have simply lost the guts of it along the way.
This appropriation of the American flag, and of Americana generally, offends me because I am the patriot, here. I am fighting the good fight every day by being respectful of my neighbors (even those neighbors) by caring about the environment and the ethical treatment of animals; by understanding that there is more to foreign relations than military power, by believing that every American citizen (let alone, every citizen of the world) should have access to wholesome food, an education, and health care, and figuring out who and what can make that happen. I have, in my opinion, inherited the true ethos of the old west that demands that people are treated fairly and that can’t help itself but interfere when they are not. This is, in my opinion, what the American flag truly stands for, doesn’t it? And I call for every compassionate, thinking, liberal to reclaim it. Because it has nothing to with Stetsons and cowboy boots — not that I have anything against those. Let Tom Selleck be an example of how sexy that get-up can be on the right man.
Speaking of which: Quigley Down Under is totally worth a watch.
Read more about M.R Branwen here