Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Rough Riders’ Round-up

Rough Riders Round-up coverRough Riders’ Round-up (1939) is one of the earlier films featuring the suave singing cowboy Roy Rogers and, like so many Westerns set on the Mexico-U.S. border, centers around a retrieval mission for an American outlaw gone south.

The film opens announcing that the Rough Riders have returned from Cuba, which was an actual American military force led by Theodore Roosevelt in the Spanish-American War. The men are sent to assist the border patrol in Arizona, where the gangster Arizona Jack has been raiding ranches and then hiding out in Mexico. The dilemma is that even though the border patrol chief wants to pursue Arizona Jack, a Mexican mayor reminds him that due to the present state of political tension he is unlikely to be given permission to enter Mexico with an army. When the Rough Riders visit a cantina, the chief orders the central characters Roy Rogers, Rusty Coburn, and Tommy Ward to detain a young woman traveling to Mexico and thereafter escort a carriage arriving from Mexico with $60,000 in gold. Unfortunately, a man working for Arizona Jack overhears this conversation and his gang brawls with the Rough Riders to make them miss the carriage. In the confusion, the girl escapes by hopping unknowingly into the carriage, Arizona Jack and his men chase the carriage down, rob its contents and kidnap the girl, and Tommy is fatally shot.

The chief holds Roy responsible for the casualties, the loss of the gold, and Arizona Jack’s escape and so suspends him from the border patrol. This is exactly the outcome Roy wanted, for his suspension means that he is no longer bound by border patrol regulations, and is thus free to bring Arizona Jack to justice. The villain, and his henchmen disguised as Mexicans, are hiding out in a small Mexican town. As soon as Roy and Rusty enter they are ambushed and locked in a room alongside the young woman, whose name is Dorothy Blair. She is fleeing from her father who disapproved of her marrying George Lanning, an employee at his Mexico-based mine. Unbeknown to the trio, Lanning is a crook who has been facilitating Arizona Jack’s robberies for a cut of the gold. Lanning tells Arizona Jack to let Dorothy go, but make it look like an escape so that he cannot be implicated. However, Roy sees through the deception. When Roy and Rusty escape, Roy sends Rusty to bring the other Rough Riders to Mexico, and goes to tell the Blairs that they have been swindled.

Arizona Jack and his men lay siege to the Blair homestead while Roy leads the father and daughter out the back door. Just in the nick of time, Rusty arrives with the Rough Riders and they round up the swiftly surrendering Arizona Jack gang. The final scene shows a fireside meeting with Roy and Rusty, the border patrol chief and the Mexican mayor, and the Blairs. The chief and the mayor, both accountable to the bureaucratic demands of their institutions, establish that they will be vague on the geographic details when reporting on these events so as to not cause strife between their countries. They also tell Roy and Rusty that they are willing to overlook their procedural “irregularities” and the hero receives a modest, yet grateful, handshake from the Blairs. It is fitting that in the film, produced during the presidency of Franklin D. Roosevelt, all is finally resolved in a "fireside chat."

For such a simple plot, Rough Riders’ Round-up has an incredibly well-developed geopolitical context. The themes of hegemony, interventionism and national security crop up throughout, themes that were just as important to Americans when the film was set (1900, post Spanish-American War) as when it was made (1939, beginning of World War II). The Spanish-American War was motivated by an American foreign policy that was expansionist and also sought to expel foreign influence from the hemisphere. In Rough Riders’ Round-up, the U.S. secured the Caribbean by replacing Spain as the regional hegemon, and then had to exercise diplomacy with Mexico while at the same time securing its southern border. The result is that the previously open border is sealed off with bureaucratic red tape. For example, Dorothy is surprised to learn that she needs a passport to enter Mexico due to border patrol being tougher these days, and when Roy hears her plan to evade the border patrol he sternly detains her. The military as well as civilians must respect closed border policy; while the countries are in a diplomatically tense period, the border patrol chief cannot take his troops south as he once did. Fortunately for him Roy Rogers exists, a hero who represents an exemption from non-interventionist rules in a time of crisis, and ultimately saves the day.

Rough Riders’ Round-up depicts Mexico as benign, but it does so in an unusual way: by playing with the typical negative cinematic portrayal of Mexicans, it makes a conscious attempt to confront the its viewers' prejudices. Western movie audiences, especially of that era, were accustomed to the villains being Mexican banditos. This iconography is present in Rough Riders’ Round-up, but in the form of the Arizona Jack gang disguising themselves as Mexican banditos. Viewers must adjust their expectations when realizing that the threat comes from Americans, not Mexicans. In contrast, the main Mexican character, the mayor with whom the border patrol chief is perpetually consorting, is represented as having a refined character and being committed to cooperation between the U.S. and Mexico. He rationally dissuades the chief from crossing the border, and then diplomatically handles the fact that Roy crosses it anyway. When Roy and Rusty are locked-up next to a melodramatically behaving Dorothy, Roy says to her, “Trouble with you is you’ve been reading the wrong kind of novels” and Rusty adds, “and this happens to be a true story.” In this scene, the film makes a self-referential jab at the exaggeration typical of the Western genre, positing itself as the truthful projection of the Old West and its southern neighbour.

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