Down by the River


Da Vinci is an allegory and I don’t much like allegories – I agree with Mrs Malaprop that allegories should stay on the banks of the Nile.- Adventures in the Skin Trade; William Goldman.

You just can’t keep ’em down by the river. They’re everywhere. You smile (an offer to pick fleas with your teeth) and you shake hands (a promise not to fight) and you sway with a stranger to music on a dance floor (an intimate simulation). To every step you take there is a form, a formula, a frame, a focus.

The film industry must keep the politicians happy. So they host the HUAC Blacklist charade and they adopt a censorship code and they always step up to help them sell their wars.

Here is Little Clovis, inside a theatre in his prosaic little representative village, watching a war movie.

First, some background. All his days in movie houses were spent absorbing the Yin-Yang, violent-passive, male-female eternal Manichean debate about good and evil and how you must struggle for one to defeat the other at all hazard.

Here is a lovely chile looking just like Grace Kelly, sitting on the outbound train alone because her newly husband has strapped on them mean irons one more time. Or maybe it’s Randolph Scott trying to make do sweeping out a store, same as did Glenn Ford in The Fastest Gun Alive, same as did Dylan as Alias in Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid. It never lasts, this hum-drum passage. Eventually there’s shooting. Sweeping makes for a very dull movie.

In this war movie, circa the fifties, a Red Cross nurse is wailing against firing artillery at a stream of refugees. Down on the dirt road, far below, carts and peasants with loads are trudging out of a village. What the nurse says is very sensible. But the commander moves her a little bit off, says, "This happens to more and more of our men every day, Joan."

The grisly image is a death pit, a string of corpses with arms tied behind their backs. Actual footage, probably. Joan gasps. A shot at the civilian convoy again, and closer, closer still, we see under the straw of a hay cart a grinning black pajama-clad villain, armed with a rifle. The shells start walking then, right up the road after the peasants.

This is allegory. It tells us a story for our enlightenment. At perhaps the same moment Clovis is watching this thrilling movie, an event known as No Gun Ri is happening far away.

Here is Clovis again, older now. Hi, Clovis! He is sitting in a tent, at Camp Eagle, the orderly room of a site support unit for summer training. His First Sergeant, a grizzled and funny old guy who has been in the force for thirty years, is telling war stories, laughing about a strategy employed in Vietnam. "Thank you," he is saying, with a smile. "We know where they are now." He mimes a friendly wave, like you would a driver who had allowed you right-of-way.

He is acting out a fictional address to civilian Vietnamese, who have been herded out into the open to draw fire so that the enemy artillery may be located. The First Sergeant is a funny guy, and he tells a story very well, and Clovis is very lucky to be there and not plenty of other places he may have landed by sheer bad luck. Such as out in the open somewhere enemy artillery is reaching.

In another allegory, far away, at the blowing up of a bridge, Anselmo is saying, I don’t like the killing. I want to live afterwards in such a way that it makes no difference. Had he been able, I wonder if he would have retained in his mind the critical need to blow up that bridge. Anselmo was lost, the war was lost, all lost, and in this game there is not even a do-over.

Oh, there’s nothing to be hoped for from her! she’s as headstrong as an allegory on the banks of Nile. – The Rivals; Richard Sheridan

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