Monday, September 26, 2005

South of the Border

South of the Border posterIt would be hard to overstate how odd South of the Border is, or how convoluted a plot it fits into its paltry 71 minutes.

Briefly, Gene Autry and his rather hapless sidekick Frog Millhouse (played by Smiley Burnette) are federal agents on a mission in Mexico.

Their task is to help a landowner on the island of Palermo move out his cattle in the midst of a nascent revolution. The rebels are supported and financed by unspecified "foreign powers" who want to make use of the island's natural harbour and oil fields to construct a submarine refuelling base. Were they to succeed, they would compromise the "Pan-American neutrality" of the early years of World War II. As an added complication, the landowner (Don Diego) is uncle both to the rebel leader and to the girl, Dolores, for whom Autry had fallen in the film's brief prologue.

Oh, and there's Lois Martin, the beautiful American double (then triple) agent. And an orphan who attaches herself to Autry as surrogate father. There is a missing $200,000. And code-breaking. And telegraphy. And fortune-telling. And singing, much singing, some of which even aids the plot, as when Don Diego's vaqueros are persuaded to stick around thanks to their enchantment with Autry's dulcet tones.

(For a final twist, and turn away now if you don't want the ending spoiled, Autry returns to his sweetheart Dolores only to find that she has become a nun out of shame for her brother's rebellion.)

In this movie made (and released) between September and December 1939, Autry spells out US foreign policy in the face of the outbreak of war in Europe.

Moreover, the film is effectively the Monroe Doctrine committed to celluloid: foreign powers should stay out of the Americas, and in return the United States would maintain its neutrality towards disputes overseas. Latin America was therefore ceded to the US as its exclusive sphere of influence, and Washington felt free to send its forces south of the border as and when necessary to secure its national interests. As subaltern rebellion was almost inevitably destined to disturb this continental Pax Americana, keeping the region free from external influence was inextricably linked with counter-insurgency and support for native elites.

All these elements of US geopolitical strategy are quite evident from South of the Border, and little attempt is made to provide ideological gloss: Autry and his gang act out policy, accepting it implicitly and unquestioningly, rather than seeking to justify it or have it justified for them.

Within the terms of the movie, it is Millhouse who is the simple one: Autry is preternaturally skilled at any task to which he puts his hand, from singing to horsemanship to courtship to code-breaking. All these abilities come to him without effort. But this is another form of simplicity. And it is this pre- or non-ideological effortlessness that the film inculcates.

The Country Music Hall of Fame describes Autry's persona as that of "a guileless young man who triumphed over all odds by virtue of his innate goodness". And it is this guilelessness that performs the work of depoliticizing politics. The mission Gene and Frog undertake in this film is eminently political; but they carry it out as political naïfs, as though it were simply a matter of carrying out orders, flirting with the ladies, and singing in the saddle.

Autry has his cowboy code, which includes the mantra that he "must be a good worker," must "keep himself clean in thought, speech, action, and personal habits," and that "the Cowboy is a patriot." But Autry's special virtue is that he doesn't need a code: he simply, simplistically, thoughtlessly, and innately incarnates diligent obedience to US Realpolitik.

Purchase your Gene Autry tribute revolver here. Only $2,195.

See Also: Mexicali Rose, Down Mexico Way.

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