The Anachronistic Hero in Sophocles' Ajax and Howard Hawks' Red River

Life Blumberg

University of Iowa

The film Red River is a counterpart to the Ajax in American mythmaking. It is not original to say that the western, as genre, is at the heart of American identity. As Martin Winkler has shown, the problematic hero of the western film negotiates the same mythical hinterland of social conflict as his counterpart in Greek tragedy. In the case of the Ajax, one of the main themes is that of the anachronistic hero: Ajax sees strength and skill at arms as the essence of heroic value and thus he cannot comprehend or accept the judgment of the Greek host to give Achilles' arms to the guileful Odysseus. Ajax is the foremost representative of "competitive virtues" in a society that is gradually coming to value "co-operative virtues," which virtues are modeled in the Ajax by Odysseus. Tom Dunson is a character under siege in the same way as Ajax. He has carved a kingdom for himself out of the barren stretches of Texas, and he has done it by his strength and the skill of his gun. Like Ajax, Dunson is described as "hard as a rock" and like Ajax his concern is for himself and his own honor. When he can no longer sell his cattle in Texas, Dunson begins an impossible cattle drive up the Chisholm trail in an attempt to preserve the societal framework that he has built. As he does so, however, he becomes more despotic and tyrannical the further he moves both spatially and mentally from the spot where his value system holds sway. His loss of moral understanding culminates when Dunson attempts to whip his men for trying to escape his stubborn adherence to a route that will lead them all to death.

Much of the Ajax is also concerned with the replacement of the anachronistic hero by his co-operative rival. Odysseus is Ajax's rival not only because he is, as Agamemnon puts it, "a thinking man" (1252), but because he expresses a compassion that was in contemporary Athens becoming an important component heroic values. Matthew Garth fills this role in Red River with his constant efforts to think of the men before himself. Garth is also the proponent of new ideas and progress. It is Garth who tries to make Dunson change his maniacal path, and when he will not, Garth saves the men from being whipped and steals the cattle away across the path of the railroad into civilization. Even though Matthew intends to give all the money back to him once he has sold the cattle, in the original version, Dunson cannot bear the loss of his honor: He seeks revenge and is finally shot and taken back across the border into Texas for burial. Like Ajax, Dunson becomes a danger to his community because of his inability to change and to accept a new moral order.

No play among existing Greek tragedy seems to exemplify Jean Pierre Vernant's concept of the tragic moment more than the Ajax. Vernant says that the tragic moment occurs when "a gap develops at the heart of the social experience." Red River reflects a similar gap in the social experience as the Ajax. As the interest the Ajax shows in competitive vs. co-operative virtues reflects changing masculine values, so does Red River reflect changing ideals of masculinity in the Cold war period.


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