Monday, February 27, 2012

The Alter Ego


The final major character of the 1951 movie “Westward the Women” is introduced when Buck meets up in St. Louis with the fifteen cowboys hired to escort the wagon train of brides-to-be to California. Noticed sitting among the cowboys is a young and quite short Japanese-American cowboy. This is after Buck has given a short speech to the men telling them to stay away from the women.

We and Buck know, by the tenor of the tough men, that this will be no easy feat. Least of all to fail to notice this is the short cowboy, Ito. (Henry Nakamura.) Buck kids him for his lack of stature. Laughs all around. We begin to cringe, thinking, here we go, a stereotype. Ito stops the laughter by offering to fight any of the other hired men. He turns to Buck. “I fight you too, Big Boss. I lose, but I fight.” We realize this is a guy who for obvious reasons has been fighting his entire life, and will do so again. For me it was another of those great surprising moments.

More important to the course of the film is that Ito knows Buck, and knows the situation he’s in, and with his few words has let Buck know that he knows. As an outsider used to taking on fights bigger than himself, he knows Buck has taken on a big fight. He knows Buck’s challenge and knows his isolation—one against fifteen. It’s already clear that this is what the journey may boil down to, if Buck can’t assert his will. Ito also knows that Buck is no mammoth John Wayne figure whose mere presence will cow a herd of men. Ito in effect says, “I’m one against fifteen—but as the ‘Big Boss,’ so are you!”

Buck quickly enough bonds with the young cowboy, because he’s the only one of them he can rely on and trust.

Ito plays a variety of roles in the story. One is as a kind of Shakespearean fool, offering commentary on or to the hero, being wiser than the other characters. For sheer survival in this tough world, Ito has had to become observant and wise. Another is to be Buck’s inner voice and sounding board. This is shown on a number of occasions. One is when he tells Buck he’s wrong in the way he’s treating Fifi Danon, who, as Ito points out, is doing double the work of the other women in her effort to prove herself. Or during another critical moment in the story, when Buck says he doesn’t know what to do, Ito tells him, “You know what to do.” Buck then does it. Since Ito sees Buck from the outside, he knows him better than he knows himself. (As does the other outsider, the irrepressible Ms. Danon.)

As the obstacles of the journey mount, so does Ito’s importance. I like the scene when they’re ready to sleep at the end of another tough day, not knowing what faces them the next. Ito begins talking in Japanese. Buck asks him, as he does continually, what he just said. Ito tells him he’s saying his evening prayers. Buck grimaces and endures it. The unsaid message is, “I’m doing what you should be doing right now, Big Boss. I’m doing it for you.”

The jumping off from outside St. Louis, by the way, is a great moment. We feel the sense of adventure that the pioneers must’ve felt, heading out into the dangerous unknown for they knew not what. Leaving safety behind to start over—and there are a few of them who very badly need to start over. The challenge, the journey, the obstacle, is what life is about.

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