Friday, August 19, 2005

The Gaucho (Jones, 1927)

Wake up and hide the women, children and livestock … the Gaucho is coming to town! The title character of the 1927 F. Richard Jones film is another in a long line of dashing, debonair antiheroes played by that early icon of masculinity and virility, Douglas Fairbanks. The Gaucho is only the second of Mr. Fairbanks’ feature films that I have seen; yet, a glance down his filmography is rather instructive. I see that he has played Don Juan, Petruchio, The Black Pirate, Robin Hood, Zorro and, of course, The Thief of Bagdad. We tend to think of the antihero as a relatively modern trend in cinematic history, beginning perhaps with Bonnie and Clyde in the late 60’s. But what else can explain the appeal of Douglas Fairbanks? It’s true that The Gaucho lacks the cynicism and moral ambiguity of what we have come to know as an antihero. Still, there is a clear attempt to exploit what can be one of the great joys of going to the movies: watching somebody else be bad.

There is a defining moment midway through the film for Mr. Fairbanks (or the Gaucho depending on if you can tell the difference) where he has scaled a roof and leapt through a window high off of the ground. Soon, he will have to contend with armed soldiers and devise a clever way to get himself out of what seems like an impossible mess. But rather than stress or fret or plow ahead, he does something that neither you nor I nor anyone we know would do in such a situation. He stops to smoke a cigarette. But it’s not just the fact that he stops to smoke a cigarette. It’s the way he smokes the cigarette – lighting it with a grand flourish and puffing on it with the glee of someone that knows that he is invincible, untouchable and dead sexy. It’s an unusual moment because there is no one else in the vicinity to appreciate the Gaucho’s impeccable style at that particular moment … no villain to intimidate, no young woman to seduce … but he lights the cigarette in an excessively stylized manner anyway. Why? For who? The answer is simple, but also revealing, I think: for us.

One of the joys of seeing films from the silent era is seeing conventions that we simply take for granted emerging and coming to life. In The Gaucho, Fairbanks exudes the sheer joy of being a Movie Star. He can pummel ruffians without mussing his hair! He can have his choice of beautiful women! He can smoke by putting his arm all the way around the back of his neck and drawing the cigarette to his lips from the opposite side of his head! Why would someone do that? Who cares! He’s a frickin’ Movie Star! This attitude is crystallized in the Gaucho’s motto: “There is no tomorrow until it’s today.” When the Gaucho rides into town with his devil-may-care attitude and brazenly autographs his own ‘wanted’ poster, the distinctions between Fairbanks and his character are, for all intents and purposes, inconsequential. And that is what makes the events of the second half of the film so compelling.

In a sudden, unexpected moment, the Gaucho is made to understand the reality and inevitability of Death. Though still alive, he becomes intensely aware that time on this planet is not endless. Even in the world of the movies, nothing lasts forever. Even if we put it out of our mind, there IS a tomorrow that is defined and shaped by the actions we take today. In The Gaucho, the hero is not only heroic in the sense that he can take chances and achieve great feats – he must also discover why he should be heroic so that his deeds may count for something more than the glory of his celebrity status. Being untouchably cool has got to feel good for a while, but whether you are a Movie Star or a notorious Gaucho, it must ultimately feel empty without an overall purpose … a reason to be. Remembering that Fairbanks himself wrote the story, I suspect (without knowing a lot about the man) that the Gaucho’s journey and concerns are at least somewhat autobiographical. It seems that Fairbanks was immersed in the struggle that any decent artist faces at some point … knowing you can entertain is one thing, knowing you can truly move people is something else altogether and has its own special set of rewards that go beyond masterful cigarette flicking.

Fairbanks died at a relatively young age of a heart attack. But the thing that I will take away from my viewing of The Gaucho is that he was a man who has successfully delighted millions over the better part of a century by seeming to live continuously in the moment, but also realizing that an overriding sense of purpose and moral direction can make it easier to live in the moment when tomorrow becomes today.



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