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.”
Duvall’s grace comes ultimately from accepting fate and becoming a part of the land itself, even in times of failure, as in the last moments of Bull Meechum’s life. It is more than merely settling down; it is a recognition of God’s plan for repairing incomplete souls and settling a new land, where we can make the transition from our past to our future and, in the process, become fully individual. Duvall makes flowers bloom in the desert, as what makes a place is not just a homestead or a plot of soil but rather the unbreakable bond that his characters have with their surroundings.
His characters, of course, all spring from different authors or screenwriters. What unites them is Duvall’s understanding of that American sense of place. While I can’t speak for him, the force that for decades has unified his characters, even the misguided ones, is this powerful steadfastness, an uprightness and desire for truth that gives a reality to each of the movies. And when Duvall is the centerpiece (moral or otherwise) of the film, it becomes more than a movie. It becomes a place itself, a reality that most viewers can at least intuit if not actually believe.
If as a nation we are at risk for losing that sense of place, is Duvall singing the siren song of American individualism and faith in perfection? Perhaps few of us today are tightly tethered to the land and our neighbor in some sort of shared spiritual connection. Land is to own or use, but rarely today do we think of it as nourishment for the soul. We depend less on our own abilities to live off the land. We expect the state to provide for us, or others to protect us from the dangers of daily life, both large and small. We uproot ourselves with little thought, or are suffered to watch abandoned homes and For Sale signs blight our communities. We are peripatetic, sometimes by choice, sometimes by circumstance, and have lost the knowledge of being on a spiritual or communal journey in which each of us plays a part while belonging to a greater whole.
Our lives have been too hectic for too long to allow for such introspection, except maybe among the faithful for one morning a week. The striving that is a hallmark of American life today seems far less about place than about things: The conspicuous consumption of the past generation (as of many before it) has finally overwhelmed our economic system and paralyzed our political system and led to what will be a lost decade, if not more than that.
That’s where Robert Duvall and his characters envelop us with their quiet strength, with their bittersweet knowledge of having truly learned from their past grievous mistakes, and with their sense of contentment that comes only from accepting a higher power and the understanding of place that it gives us. Recognizing that the land is a gift, Duvall’s characters embrace redemption and service to self, to community, and (even when misguided) to God. To get back to that sense, if it is even possible, it is crucial to understand that perfection of the self, not society, is the prerequisite. It is not in the hands of the government or of any collective. Rather, the land is there to help us redeem ourselves and so reach our individual fullness. When we accept that, then we can become a natural community bound by tradition, responsibility, and the desire to strive for further perfection with a sense of limitation and humility.
— Michael Auslin is a scholar at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington. Follow him on Twitter @michaelauslin.