Where Did the Land Go?
Robert Duvall and the American sense of place

Robert Duvall in Lonesome Dove


Michael Auslin

Facing bleak prospects — decades of crushing national debt and an increasingly intrusive government — many commentators lament the loss of our individualism. They see in the election of 2012 one last chance to make a stand for slowing down the encroachment of the state on aspects of life once considered the preserve of the individual. Intimately connected with this is that our particularly American sense of “place” is also threatened: Modern and urban, we have become separated from the land, which once nurtured us in our striving for perfection and for redemption as individuals. It is part of what we once viewed with pride as our exceptionalism.

Our collective ideal of the bond between land and the individual stretches from the Pilgrim Fathers to Aaron Copland. One modern interpreter of that vision stands out as he continues to weave a powerful body of work, placing himself at the center of the battle between tradition and modernity. Perhaps alone among contemporary American actors, Robert Duvall taps into this vein of our contemporary crisis. He labored a decade in television and theater during the 1960s before really breaking through, in the movie True Grit (1969) — which is fitting, given that Duvall’s greatest contributions have been in Westerns or films with a Western sensibility, including the epic Lonesome Dove, the incomparable Tender Mercies, and the unforgettable Great Santini, among other classics (M*A*S*H, Apocalypse Now, The Apostle, The Godfather).

In these roles Duvall embodies the rugged individualist who both protects and is sustained by a sense of place. Place, in Duvall’s universe, is more than merely community; it is a spot of being, an extended moment of living a life full and whole in the knowledge of who one is — and therefore a life, ultimately, of truth and contentment. It is no accident that a sense of the religious and of the transcendent suffuses most of his major films.

All Duvall’s characters are wanderers searching for redemption, but they manifest in two different types. The first is the wanderer who is already or recently settled, such as Mac Sledge in Tender Mercies or Johnny Crawford in Seven Days in Utopia. He is wounded, recovering from past mistakes, but as the narrative slowly unrolls we see that he has finally achieved a sense of peace along with place. And he is rededicated to love of his fellow man, helping others in search of the same redemption.

The second Duvall archetype is the active wanderer, searching for that elusive sense of place in order to gain redemption. Bull Meechum in The Great Santini, Sonny Dewey in The Apostle, and even Lieutenant Colonel Kilgore (kill, gore) in Apocalypse Now are pilgrims whom we follow in the midst of their journey. Even before reaching their state of grace, they are like the ancient Israelites, who on their 40-year sojourn in the desert made camp and, by erecting their moveable Tabernacle, created a place wherever they were. Thus does Bull Meechum make every duty station a place of striving for perfection for his rambunctious family, or the misguided Lieutenant Colonel Kilgore utterly destroy the Vietnamese hamlets around him in order to build his surfing utopia.

Indeed, many of Duvall’s characters flourish in wastelands — unending vistas of desolation, often beautiful in their emptiness. Yet each character also draws strength from that land, which is a trait not limited to Americans though perhaps nowhere so developed as in our mythic West (except maybe for the Russian steppe). It reflects what Adlai Stevenson once described as the source of our love of country: “an inner air, an inner light in which freedom lives and in which a man can draw the breath of self-respect.”