Sanborn in the active role this time, and James in the unusual supporting position. This lifts Sanborn to level footing since up to then, it had always been James’ show. Now they can bond.
Owen in a bitter-sweet moment of triumph following his “first kill” under the cool tutelage of James.
A “bitchin’” moment: James extending brotherly hand to Sanborn, but then he calls Sanborn a “bitch.”
Will gazing at Sanborn and ...
... Sanborn gazing at Will in their “pick-up” (Humvee). Sanborn has just told Will that he wants a baby. It’s the last we see of them together.
Will faced with choices that make no difference: which cereal to buy.
In a crate, James keeps all the detonating devices of bombs he has defused that could have killed him. He also keeps a few other things. But “[w]hat’s this,” asks Owen as he pulls out a ring on a chain. “Wedding ring,” says James — “like I said, stuff that almost killed me.”
Last shot of the film. James with his jaunty-step in his Buzz Lightyear gear. He’s not going out there to save us from evil, but rather to get a kind of personal fix.
Sanborn, however, will come to stand by his man James, and it is how he moves from wanting to kill Will to becoming part of the “salt ’n pepper” love story that moves the story forward. It is the mounting tension between Sanborn and James that lets us know that something’s got to give. Given that we do know well on some level of our psyche the “salt ‘n pepper” narrative, we sense that things will give way to that moment of reversal—and that moment of bonding. And indeed this is what happens when they are out on routine patrol, have an encounter with soldiers who seem to be “unfriendly” but then turn out to be “friendlies”— British contractors of the Blackwater type—and then all of them come under fire from Iraqi snipers. A difficult moment. Several of the “friendly” contractors are killed; they seem trapped; Eldridge is nearly incapacitated with fear. And so it is that Sanborn steps up into the line of fire in spite of Will’s warning not to, to stay low, which Sanborn ignores, and which can only then mean that Will has to join him. So they team up, Will as the spotter in a support position for Sanborn, who weapon in hand is the sharp-shooter. And they get the job done. Meanwhile Eldridge, who should be holding the rear, seems only to implode; yet he will be resurrected—slowly, reassuringly coached by the cool voice of pragmatic Will. And a becalmed Eldridge will even get his “first kill,” as it were, under the tutelage of that very patient James. And James likewise will stay by Sanborn’s side to the end, nurturing him too through the long grueling wait to make sure they have gotten all the hidden enemy. And thus they bond.
What happens is that as Will extends the hand of fraternal equality to Sanborn, he murmurs something like “get up,” and then “bitch”—get up bitch. And as if perversely stimulated by his own language, James suddenly jumps on Sanborn and rides him back down to the floor, Sanborn belly-up, James straddling him, right on top of him, sliding his crotch right up near Sanborn’s mouth. And then Will begins to ride him, calling him his “bitch,” riding that “bitch,” doing the cowboy on that Black boy, riding him down — “yee ha” James yells, ride ‘em cowboy, crotch right there in Sanborn’s face. And what’s with Sanborn? Does Sanborn like this? Think it’s funny? No he does not. He yells at James to stop, but James does not stop; he keeps riding. So Sanborn flips out a knife and brings it right up on James’ throat. High tension. But does James get scared, angry? Does he flinch? No way. He likes it; he likes his bitch to be tough. And he will smile and take hold of that little phallic knife, fold it into his hand, render it useless, impotent, lean down almost as if to kiss Sanborn, and then he pats his bitch, now whipped into a pussy Black boy, and says, “you’re all right.” “You’re all right, Sanborn.”
But is all that—all that happened, right with Sanborn? Well, in what should be a surprise— yes it is! In the very next scene what we see are the three brothers, bonded by now, arms draped around each other, making their way to their different rooms. Sanborn in particular seems to need help; it is not clear why he does, but it is clear thematically. Owen will be the first to peel off and head for his own hut, leaving James to hold Sanborn up. James is a kindly daddy to his bitch Sanborn: “Come on big boy,” James says to Sanborn, “come on man…, and then solicitously murmurs: “steps,” and then coos to his Sanborn, “come on,” almost baby talk, and they go into Sanborn’s trailer. James gets him over to his bed, the White man and his burden, and lays it/him down, and turns to leave. But as William James leaves, the pussy-whipped Aunt Jemima boy will hesitatingly ask the Man about the meaning of what he has just been put through. He will quietly ask James, the White guy, in that sweet honey chile voice of his: “Hey James, do you think I got what it takes… to put on the suit?” James pauses at the door and then quietly laughs and says, “Nah.”
One assumes that what “Nah” means is really “yes.” Or does it? Of course James has to answer in that way. Were he to be serious and therefore say “yes,” the moment would have been so overly laden with white authority, white supremacy, white power, that the very actor playing the part of Sanborn would have had to have reacted, protested, saying sorry, not these lines will this Black man say today in cinema! Not that the “nah” of William James does say the opposite however. After all, we will see only one person, Will, put on the suit in the film (aside from one other guy who at the beginning of the film does so and promptly gets blown up). It is clear that Will is the one with the cojones, and it is clear that Sanborn, with that question, and with its pause (“do you think I got what it takes…to put on the suit?”), which allows us to entertain the sense that Sanborn is asking Will to validate him on a much deeper, existential level, ensures that Sanborn will be beneath Will. This is where Will had put him in the previous ride-'em-cowboy scene, and which finally our Sanborn accepts. It is as if Sanborn has been put in his place by the White guy, and likes it.
And does the spectator accept Sanborn’s acceptance? This is the twist Bigelow and Boal give to the “salt ‘n pepper” love-buddy narrative. The White man is on top; Sanborn (and yes, one can play with this name too in what is also, however, a stretch too far, but curious too: son bearing, born a son, etc.), will be effeminized. Just like that Aunt Jemima “nigger” Jim, who frets about Huck coming back home safe to the raft, Sanborn will fret about Will getting back safe to the Humvee. And this is why, when we hear Sanborn tell Will that he, Sanborn, wants a child—and it sounds as if he is saying that to Will — it also sounds like the twist has gone too far. And it has. It is not by chance that that is the last scene we see of them together, and the last scene we see or hear anything of Sanborn. That the White man and his dark-skinned male Other would have children is clearly not in the classical “salt ‘n pepper” narrative. In fact, part of the beauty of that coupling is not being able to have children, which then allows them to be children, forever romping in the fields of the Lord. And so it is that the film, as if realizing it has given the “salt ‘n pepper” theme a turn of the screw that has gone too far, gets Sanborn out of the picture and presumably back to his girl whom earlier he had complained about wanting to have children, and gets Will home to his wife and child.
Of course we know that Will’s situation, hearth and home, is untenable. We see a scene of him in a supermarket faced with the necessity of buying a box of breakfast cereal. He stands confused, dazed, standing against what seems to be hundreds of different brands. We know that we are supposed to feel what he is supposed to feel: that this is a moment which asks us to make a meaningless choice, in comparison with the choices that Will was making in Iraq between that wire or this wire. There, the choices had real consequences. As Fiedler noted, it is the hearth and home, the child, the placid wife, choosing Cheerios rather than Wheaties, that dulls the soul in this kind of script. The man has to leave, which he does, to return to Iraq, where we then see him in the final scene of the film.
It is a scene which plays off the famous ending of The Searchers¸but it does not have us looking from the inside, from the domestic interiors, at a John Wayne who steps towards that space, pauses briefly just there, on the threshold, and even holds himself as if trying to imagine what the embrace of domesticity might hold for him, but then turns away, turns his back on that world, and saunters in that peculiarly effeminate John Wayne way into the vast exterior spaces where our White American hero will wander alone. No; what we do have is our James in a kind of jaunty Buzz Lightyear “bring-on-the-bomb” bounce, striding away from the Humvee-raft to which the others cling as that questionable sphere of domestic, interior safety. But he’s stepping no longer into the familiar shoes of that mythic dimension of the Cowboy riding into the sunset but rather sprightly trotting along, looking not to save a town or perhaps a country from the bad guys but rather looking for his own private existential fix that proves he’s got the cojones or something like that. And one could live with this jaunty but narrow, too narrow but still larger-than-life William James, squeezed into his own private storm. What is not easy to live with, however, is a William James in the ride-‘em-cowboy position which is where Bigelow’s version of the “salt ‘n pepper” theme puts him, ridin’ the Black man, with the Black man being ridden down to the level of a White boy’s bitch—and the Black accepting this. One might say, oh but that was real; and in real life that surely might happen, but this is film where everything is scripted.
It is useful to consider that the subtitle to Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan could also be, saving Ryan’s privates. The question was how to get the White man back in the saddle again, how to get the phallic power back into the hands, as it were, of the White male. And this should not be dismissed as neo-Freudian nonsense. It is enough to examine the thinking of the Neo-Cons and their Iraqi war, which was thoroughly based on phallologocentric thinking. To see the White man back in the saddle again, however, while riding his Black “bitch,” as it were, is a twist which subverts one of the most sturdy of White American male myths. What would a filmmaker and scriptwriter be thinking if they would have Mel Gibson doing such a thing to Danny Glover? Or the Lone Ranger ridin’ cowboy on his bitch, Tonto?
That Bigelow and Boal are mesmerized by their White man Wild man is a discomfiting thought. And it is not that they avoid showing a clearly negative side to James. At a certain point in the film, as if unstrung by Iraqi insurgents making a body bomb of the dead Iraqi boy he had befriended, James begins making a series of mis-readings and life-threatening judgment calls. Nonetheless, he seems to remain untouched by what should clearly discredit him, including one truly remarkable scene of him being driven from an Iraqi home that he had sneaked into thinking to track down the boy’s “killers”—most likely the Americans themselves in a bomb blast—by an enraged, elderly Iraqi woman slamming him in the head with a tray. He learns nothing from this, however, and will repeat virtually the same thing, which will get Owen captured by the Iraqis, injured, but then freed by James and Sanborn. It is here that we see James, out of control, working out his own private pathologies but putting others in clear danger. Yet the only voice of opposition will come from the cowardly hence discredited voice of Owen, while Sanborn will stay by his side.
Or rather, and this is the kink, the twisted tweak to one of the great classical themes in American culture of the “salt ‘n pepper” male love story, Sanborn will stay just right by his side, yet beneath his man. In the last scene in which we see James and Sanborn, we also see James in the driver’s seat, for the first time, with Sanborn, who had always been in that place before, now in the passenger seat. But this White man Wild man ridin’ his Black bitch and his Black male bitch being ok with that just seem to have gone unnoticed. Perhaps consciously or unconsciously, this is a woman’s take on that theme, as if the story of the male-male equal bonding left no space for the female. Which would mean, however, that to insert the female is to insert asymmetrical power relationships. In which case, however, she could have put the Black man on top, doing the ride-‘em cowboy on his White bitch. In either case, however, Bigelow and Boal have given a not-insignificant tweak to one of America’s great cultural narratives. Perhaps even more significantly, however, is that such a tweak seems to have gone unnoticed and even applauded. What we have tried to do here is simply say, as has been re-said by those who count, that this kind of aggression, this kind of phallo-talk, “will not stand.”