copyright 2010, Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media
Jump Cut
, No. 52, summer 2010

“Come Back to the Humvee Ag’in Will Honey,” or a few comments about the sexual politics of Kathryn Bigelow’s The Hurt Locker

by Sam Whitsitt
While Kathryn Bigelow may have been the first woman to win the coveted Oscar as best director, in order to do so, she clearly paid homage to the Man. The film that won her that Oscar, The Hurt Locker (2009), is a piece of work drenched in testosterone, steeped in macho.

The film focuses primarily on a White, Tennessee “trailer-trash” loner who loves the razor’s edge, is a cocksure loose cannon, but when it comes to defusing bombs, he’s the man. He’s got the hands of a surgeon, and his head in the bomb as well as in the heads of his bombers.

His name is William James—a name stretched too far in wanting to cover this country boy in the pragmatic mantle of the eponymous U.S. philosopher—but he is masterfully played nonetheless by Jeremy Renner. While the character of Will or James—he will be called both—is loosely based on the life of a real U.S. soldier (or soldiers) whom screen-writer Mark Boal got to know as an embedded journalist with the bomb squads in Iraq, that person’s (or persons’) life has been re-woven into the tapestries of at least two major narratives that have long defined for us the White, American, Anglo-Saxon Protestant male (yes, the WASP male is still quite alive without needing to refer to its parody in the Tea Party).

These two narratives are themselves closely intertwined and give us unique forms of American WASP macho. One storyline has a White man who may have once-had-a-woman but ends up alone—as immortalized by John Wayne, last scene of The Searchers (1956), framed by the doorway of domesticity outside of which he pauses, as if tempted but then turns his back on. The other has a White male who never-had-a-woman romping through the world with his dark-skinned male, bosom buddy, as most famously cast in our history by James Fenimore Cooper who gave us Natty Bumppo and his beloved Indian male companion, Chingachgook.

What Bigelow’s The Hurt Locker gives us are the true avatars of both these narratives. We will have our White man Will, who has both woman and child but more than willingly gives them up to be as alone as John Wayne in The Searchers, but lovin’ it in a near-psychopathological way. And, we will also have Will the White guy bonding with the handsome, Aunt Jemima-raised, kept-off-the-street, straight-laced, play-by-the-books Black guy, J.T. Sanborn, finely executed by Anthony Mackie. The film ends with William James alone but jauntily striding forward to undo things—which is to say, to undo not only wires on bombs but likewise ties that would bind him to wife and child back home, for in undoing one he justifies undoing the other—and looking in his space-age anti-bomb suit very much like a snappy but peculiarly asexual Buzz Lightyear. However, what drives the story forward is the narrative line of the bond between the White man and a dark-skinned male Other. It is this “salt ‘n pepper” combo that, according to Leslie Fiedler, is the truest and oldest love story concerning White American male cultural identity—a relationship he brilliantly described in his 1948 article, “Come Back to the Raft Ag’in Huck Honey,” a title which paraphrases what the protective “Nigger Jim” would murmur to his Huck honey every time it seemed Huck was slipping away from the safe place of the raft into danger.

This relationship is not simply a narrative about how a Black man (or dark-skinned male Other) and a White guy go from hating each other to becoming butt-slapping buddies, but rather, as Fiedler explains, this was and still arguably is America’s true love story. Beginning as noted above with James Fenimore Cooper, that formidable American myth-maker who in 1826 in The Last of the Mohicans gave us the White man of the forest, Natty Bumppo, bonding with his beloved male Indian companion, Chingachgook, we have continued to produce those memorable, loving, “salt ‘n pepper” pairs. These include, to name a few, Melville’s Ishmael in Queequeg’s dark arms,  “Nigger” Jim and Huck, the Long Ranger and Tonto, the “salt ‘n pepper” tv series (Miami Vice (1984)), movies (Lethal Weapon, beginning 1987), etc.. This goes on right up to The Hurt Locker with, yes, a scene in which we will have a Black man, sitting in the passenger’s seat of their beat-up pick-up (aka Humvee), tellin’ his / her White man at the wheel, with a voice that’s all honey chile sugah, saying: “I wanna a son… I wanna a little boy, Will,” sounding as if that “he” was truly an everlovin’ “she.”

Yes, I am exaggerating, but just somewhat. And if the gentle reader will let me step back a moment, I will give you a frame to that scene which if you enter even just partially, will make it impossible for you ever to watch that scene again and listen to that honey chile sugah voice without thinking that, well, yes—they do in fact make one loving pair!

That was Fiedler’s point. The true U.S. love story is not that between a man and a woman; it is not same-sex gay. It is that promise of eternal youth, freedom, love without issue, friendship without entanglements, life undisturbed by the female who would tie the male down with children, the hearth, home—all intolerable for the true American hero. (One can pretty much count on one hand the stories and films that have a “cowboy” hero standing by a live woman at the end of the film—of course this is changing as those students of the American western, like Kevin Costner (Open Range, 2003) and Ed Harris (Appaloosa, 2008) , consciously play off this tradition). Or rather, this was the true love story as imagined by the white, Anglo-Saxon Protestant male; and director Bigelow and writer Mark Boal deliver it full-throttle. But in some ways they have given their script too much gas, for there is a certain tension between these two narrative possibilities of the lone White male, and the White male and his true friend, the Dark-skinned Other. Boal and Bigelow seem to want both, but then one more than the other. Both Bigelow and Boal are peculiarly mesmerized by their own creation of William James, the White solitary “wild man,” as he will be called by an admiring superior officer. And their own fascination seems to demand a change in the other narrative which results in the Dark-skinned Other, J.T. Sanborn, who should be on the same footing with James, finding himself beneath, and it is here that we have a perverse and disturbing twist to this classic American love story.

But let us now turn to how these tensions get played out in the film. The way the bomb squad works is that there are three men in a unit: Will, J.T., and another White male, Owen Eldridge, played by Brian Gerarghty, whose character has some pressing psychological issues with fear, killing and dying. When they respond to a call, they arrive in their Humvee. Then two stay behind, Eldridge and Sanborn, while Will, team leader and a few grades above the others in a somewhat tenuous hierarchy of command, is the one that goes out into the action zone. That he always does suit up to go out and get his hands on the bomb rather than their using robots and other devices to detonate bombs is partially necessary for the film’s action and a display of Will’s character.

This puts Eldridge and Sanborn holding down the safe place, the Humvee, and watching James’ back, which requires that they all stay in contact. But James seems to be oblivious to this point. In one particular scene tension is rapidly mounting back at the Humvee and everywhere around the bomb site, and an increasingly nervous Sanborn demands that James “come in” to let him know how things stand on his end. James simply gives Sanborn the finger, rips off the headset thereby cutting all verbal communication, and concentrates on the task at hand. He succeeds, of course, but this is the stuff of high tension and will lead Sanborn to subsequently punch James once back at the Humvee. Will simply takes it in stride—as if he recognizes and acknowledges Sanborn’s weakness when it comes to fear, for Will seems to be engaged with fear in a quite different zone of intimacy.

And in the end, as we have noted, the film is about this singular individual who has in a sense gone over to the “other” side. Not at all that he has taken up with the enemy, but it’s as if he needs them more than he needs his own side. All his side does is hamper him in getting his hands on those bombs, which his true buddies, the enemy, keep making for him to defuse. Without them, where would the thrill be? A certain recognition of this perverse logic—how Good must ensure that Evil survives since how could Good be Good without it—is played out right at the beginning of the film in a new take on the cowboy showdown on a dusty deserted main street in Kansas. This time it takes place right in the new “West-gone-East” Baghdad with a Lee Van Cleef-type Iraqi careening through road blocks, refusing to stop (and quite unbelievably not being blown away by wads of trigger-happy U.S. GIs), and then coming face to face with our man William James in his Buzz Lightyear bomb squad suit, aiming a cocked .45 right at the head of Mr. Van Cleef. He stops. It’s a showdown. But it’s clear that Buzz Lightyear—uhh Will—does not want to kill this, his potential enemy. Will will force him to back down; turn around, give himself up, as it were, since he just seems frightened—because in the game that William James plays, he needs his enemy. At the beginning of the film there is a quote from Chris Hedges, one of the embedded journalists in Iraq, that

“the rush of battle is often a potent and lethal addiction, for war is a drug.”

This can certainly be the case, but it is not quite the case with James. That is, it is not “the rush of battle,” it is not so much killing the Other that gives him a thrill, but rather that need to triumph over what will be, in his survival, the savvy attempts of the Other to kill him. A triumph over Death—a perverse logic not of the kicks of killing but the kick of escaping a death the Other has planned for him. At one point in the film, James shows Owen and J.T. all the detonating devices of the bombs he has defused. He holds one up and says,

“Dead man switch; boom; this guy was good; I like him.”

Of course it is also this kind of personal need Will has to get face-to-face with the bomb that leads Sanborn to seriously contemplate killing James, and with some good reason since Will’s actions can indeed endanger the lives of everyone else. This is what will, in fact, sour the relationship between Owen and Will when Owen gets wounded due to one of Will’s reckless, misguided, and misjudged adventures.
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.
And we know that they do because it is in the following scene that we see these boys in the evening of that same day being boys. It is what Fiedler called the homoerotic dimension—not homosexual, and this said not to hurriedly eschew homosexual panic but to insist that there is a state of perhaps panic that remains that, poised between the hetero and the homo. In such an homoerotic dimension, what would be the sexual of the homosexual gets played out in a series of inverted metaphors. Rather than penetrating each other with their penises, each guy, taking turns, will spread wide his arms, open up his very vulnerable belly to the other, and invite the other to give me all you got big boy, whereupon the other guy  hits him in the stomach as hard as he can with a hard-on fist. Indeed this is exciting, but it should remain, as it were, on the level of a kind of butt-slapping mutual camaraderie; an egalitarian fraternity—buddies. And it does seem that that will be the level on which things remain until there is a twist. It happens when Sanborn claims that it is his turn to tummy-punch Will one more time, who then will get to respond. And so J.T. Sanborn does it to Will, and then Will does it to J.T.. And Will’s punch takes J.T. to the floor; it seems he’s hurt, but he’s all right; just needs a second to recover. And then in the name of equal buddies and pals, and in an expression of fraternity, Will extends his hand to the prostrate J.T. to help him back on his feet, to equal ground—equal footing. But this is not what happens.

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. But then Wayne 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.”

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